By J. L. Starkey
I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe.
If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
When we think of the word “nurture,” we usually think of synonyms like “care” or “support.” This week’s 52 Ancestors prompt was supposed to be about that kind of nurturing, right?
Nah…not for me, anyway.
I just can’t leave well enough alone with these prompts, because my imagination always goes to that bright shiny “what if” sitting in the corner. Do you see it? This time, it’s asking, “What if the wrong things were nurtured? What happens to an ancestor when that happens?”
For example, what if a certain hotheaded, domineering, smarmy fourth-great-uncle was none of those bad things at all? What if he was simply a product of the wrong kind of nurturing? What would happen to his family, his children, his life?
Readers, please withhold judgment while I introduce you to William L. Muehleisen, an older brother of my third-great-grandfather, J.C. Muehleisen.
My Smarmy Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle
Oh, William…who were you, really? I want to believe you were good underneath it all, but you made it so difficult to believe that!
William Muehleisen was in the news quite often, and maybe that is why I formed an opinion of him so quickly. Big-time printing hotshot, occasional gold prospector, ladies’ man…he was that guy. You know the one. I envisioned the town busybodies gossiping about him. They would whisper that it was just awful how both of that man’s wives had been unfaithful to him. They would say, “Poor thing…he’s been through TWO divorces, bless his heart, and you know he had that successful printing job, and he lost that too? Oh my, and he’s a single dad…the poor dear.”
No, William wasn’t good at that whole “marriage” thing. In fact, he was pretty bad at it, based on the records I found. But something didn’t add up. It was only after I found William’s obituary that I began to understand who he really was, and I knew that his narrative had to change.
Yes, it was time for William Muehleisen to reveal his shadow self .
From Immigrant to Soldier
The son of Friedrich “Fred” and Regina (Reyer) Muehleisen , Wilhelm Ludwig “William” Muehleisen was twelve years old when he arrived in the United States in 1856 . He was undoubtedly mourning the loss of his mother as he wondered what the future held for him in America. According to some accounts, Fred Muehleisen emigrated from the family’s native Württemberg because he did not want his sons being forced to serve in the military. In an ironic twist of fate, several years after his arrival in the USA, William found himself in the military anyway. The Civil War had begun in earnest, and the Muehleisen sons answered the call to serve the Union .
After the war ended, William settled in St. Joseph, Missouri. He seemed to acclimate well to post-military life, and worked for a successful steam printing business in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Around 1868, he married Wisconsin native Ella Agnes English, and the couple established a home with their three children. But happiness would be elusive for the soldier-turned-businessman .
By the mid-1870’s, the accusations started. William suspected Ella had been unfaithful to him, and he wanted out of the marriage. By 1877, the court battles began. The accusations and demands would drag on for three years with no resolution . Finally, in 1880, perhaps tired of the gossip and drama, William requested and was granted a change of venue, and the case was moved to nearby Andrew County .
When the Muehleisen divorce was finalized in 1881, Ella would be vindicated…almost. William’s accusations of infidelity were deemed unfounded, and he was ordered to pay both alimony and court costs for his ex-wife.
A victory? Ella could hardly call it that, for the divorce decree also granted William full custody of the couple’s three children. Ella was granted “visits at all proper times” only .
Ella remarried a few months after the divorce was finalized , but the events affected her more than anyone expected, and her life began a downward spiral. Her second husband, James Littler, was apparently an opium addict; authorities assumed that this addiction contributed to the gruesome train accident that took his life in 1885. At the same time, Ella’s ex-husband William had appealed parts of their divorce settlement, and Ella was awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court.
Enraged and distraught, Ella seemed to snap on a June day in 1885. She decided to confront those she held responsible for her woes, and chose to conduct those confrontations at gunpoint. It is not surprising that newspapers reported the incident with a heavily editorialized account of the events. Ella became known as the “woman with a gun.” She was the “dangerous woman” who wanted to “kill every lawyer and witness who took part in the suit.”
The repercussions for her actions and statements would be swift and devastating. Ella would be institutionalized for her erratic behavior ; she would be in and out of asylums for the rest of her life, and would die in 1921 at State Hospital #2 for the Insane in Kansas City .
And what of Ella’s ex-husband, William? After all, he was the injured party here, wasn’t he? Maybe he was, in his opinion, and he seemed to have the support of the press as well. That was not surprising, considering that his boss at the St. Joseph Steam Printing Company, F. M. Posegate, was also a partner at the St. Joseph Herald .
Certainly, William was a man of some importance in St. Joseph, and perhaps that is why successful dressmaker Julia Cunningham developed an affection for the single dad. Julia married William in the midst of his post-divorce appeals, and the press responded favorably.
If William’s life was a reality show, I could envision the next episode teaser quite easily: Has William finally found true love? Will he have his happily-ever-after?
The accusations of infidelity, an eerie reminder of William’s first marriage, would begin soon after William and Julia’s wedding. This time, however, William’s erratic behavior escalated, and would become worse when he was drinking. In 1889, William left his “unfaithful” wife and told his boss that he was moving to Chicago. He was still the injured party, wasn’t he?
Not so fast.
Because this time, the press turned on William. Their stories of the Muehleisen marriage were detailed and salacious, and they presented Julia’s side of a terrifying situation.
Julia was not Ella. She was older, she was financially independent, and she certainly did not have to accept this pattern of abuse from a spouse.
And one day, she said “enough,” and she filed for divorce.
Julia Muehleisen was clear in her accusations against her husband. He had treated her in “a cruel and barbarous manner” and had “threatened to shoot her” for her suspected infidelity. William was a man who was apparently quick to anger, and Julia was often the target of that anger.
William denied the allegations, but the damage had been done. He had lost his job, and in 1890, he had also lost his marriage.
Indeed, some folks just aren’t the marrying kind.
Smarmy Character, or Something Else?
William relocated to the Kansas City area and lived near his children until his death in 1933. He never remarried, and he managed to stay out of the news for the rest of his life.
Maybe he was just born with a short fuse, I reasoned. Maybe he had a bad temper and had a hard time trusting others. Was that all there was to it?
I was tempted to close the file on William Muehleisen. After all, I had documented sources for his vital records and had also added several news articles and court cases to his life story. While his file lacked an obituary, I wondered how much I would learn from it anyway. Still, I had to see it. There was something missing from William’s story.
I found William’s obituary on page 6 of a January 1933 Kansas City newspaper. Name, dates, surviving relatives…I skimmed through the main details quickly.
Then I stopped, and began to read more carefully. I opened a new tab on my computer and typed in a search string.
Suddenly I realized that I had found the missing puzzle piece, and in doing so, had uncovered William Muehleisen’s hell on earth. It had a name, you see.
For William Ludwig Muehleisen, hell was named Libby.
- Discussion of Jung’s theory of the shadow self can be found at
- Württemberg, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. (Original data: Lutherische Kirchenbücher, 1500-1985. Various sources.)
- New York, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1856, New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 164; Line: 49; List Number: 650. (Original data: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls. NAI: 6256867. Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36. National Archives at Washington, D.C.)
- “William L. Muehleisen Dead,” Kansas City Times, Kansas City, Missouri, 19 Jan 1933, p. 6, col. 5. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4XC-3QS: 12 April 2016), Wm Michless, Missouri, United States; citing p. 46, family 386, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 552,261.
- For an overview of the Muehleisen divorce records in Buchanan County, Missouri, see surname index in Buchanan County, Missouri, Circuit Court Record Index, Vol. 1, digital p. 150, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSL2-QCGD?i=149&cat=11804.
- Buchanan County, Missouri, Circuit Court Records, vol. 23, 1879-1880, p. 595. Retrieved from https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C39T-J3V2?i=315&cat=11804.
- Andrew County, Missouri, Circuit Court Records, Vol. J, Aug. 1877-Aug. 1880, p. 161. Retrieved from
- Kansas County Marriages, 1855-1911, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q293-V4K6 : 18 October 2017), James Robinson Littler and Ella E Muhlchisen, 25 Sep 1881; citing Marriage, Brown, Kansas, United States, district clerk, court clerk, county clerk and register offices from various counties; FHL microfilm 1,870,481.
- “He was from St. Joseph,” St. Joseph Gazette-Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 5. May 1885, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “A Woman with a Gun,” St. Joseph Weekly Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 11 Jun 1885, p. 2, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Jackson County, Missouri, Probate Case Files for Ella A. McLean, Probate Case Files No 3301-3343, 1894-1899, pp. 753-807. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Death Certificate, Mrs. Ella A. Spahn,
Missouri Death Certificates. Missouri Secretary of State. http://www.sos.mo.gov/records/archives/archivesdb/deathcertificates/.
- The History of Buchanan County Missouri,
St. Joseph: Union Historical Company, 1881, pp. 861-862. Retrieved from archive.org.
- “Married,” St. Joseph Gazette-Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 19 Feb 1884, p. 5, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “They Had No Quarrel,” The St. Joseph Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 24 Mar 1889, p. 5, col. 4.
- “Another Divorce Wanted,” The St. Joseph Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 8 Mar 1890, p. 3, col. 3.