By J. L. Starkey
“Things aren’t the way they were before.
You wouldn’t even recognize me anymore.
Not that you knew me back then,
but it all comes back to me in the end.”– Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington
“So…your first name is Johann?”
“Well, yes…but I go by Gottlieb…Lee, for short. It’s sort of like a middle name.”
“We need first names on these documents, so we’ll use the name John G. Muehleisen. That’s correct, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not…but…close enough.”
My fourth-great-uncle, Johann Gottlieb “Lee” Muehleisen, probably encountered a few conversations like this one. If you have German ancestors, you can probably relate to his situation. Because of cultural traditions, Lee was originally given the first name of Johann. It was a common family name. So common, in fact, that he shared it with five of his brothers… and his father..and his grandfather.
Oh, and for a few years, he shared that name with his son. That particular part of Lee’s story was buried in a rabbit hole that was hidden in plain sight.
It was just obscured in a sea of Johanns.
Will the real Johann please stand up?
The German tradition of giving almost every son the first name of Johann (or Johannes) dates back to the Middle Ages. The first name was essentially meaningless; it was the second name – or rufname – that was actually used in vital records. This is why it was not unusual to see German families with several sons named Johann .
The Muehleisen family was no exception to this tradition. Lee’s parents, Johann Friedriech (“Fred”) and Regina, had at least eight children, and six of the males were given the first name of Johann, including my third-great-grandfather, Conrad Muehleisen.
Born in March 1855, Lee was baptized Johann Gottlieb . Though he later legally changed his name to Lee, records can be found under listings for John, John G., John L., or Levy. Add to that the fact that Lee had a brother named George (the real John G. Muehleisen), and it is easy to see why German naming traditions wreak havoc with research!
Based on earlier research, it appeared that Lee married twice (the first marriage ended in divorce in 1898) , and died leaving a widow named Ora . A dedicated career man, he established a reputation as “one of the most artistic and best workmen in the United States” in the printing business .
It was not until I researched the first divorce of his brother William that I began to question the timeline – and the events – of Lee’s life story.
Lee and Maria – or John and Mary?
William L. Muehleisen’s divorce was messy, costly, and dramatic, and I spent a great deal of time searching Buchanan County, Missouri, court records for details. But one record did not fit with the rest. That record detailed the final decree for the 1877 divorce of John and Mary Muehleisen, not William and Ella .
I rechecked documents for the Muehleisen brothers to identify John and Mary. Imagine my surprise when all clues pointed to Lee as the mystery spouse.
I then searched death records and news articles using just Lee’s surname and found the next clue to the identities of John and Mary.
Surprise! The “childless” Lee Muehleisen had a son.
Finding Johann Henry Muehleisen
According to a 27 March 1941 news article, “John G. Muehleisen” (known locally as Lee) left a bequest of $50 to his son, John Henry, whose whereabouts were unknown . Another article provided more details, noting that Lee had written his will in 1921 and had named his wife as executrix . A follow-up article was apparently never printed, which made me wonder if Lee’s son was ever located.
To find answers, I needed to go back to St. Joe.
I knew that other Muehleisen family members were listed in the records of St. Joseph’s Immaculate Conception Parish. I started my search there, and discovered an 1874 baptism record for one Johann Henry Muehleisen, the son of Gottlieb Muehleisen and Maria Burvenich .
Was it another clue? But how? Lee was never married to a woman named Maria, and he wasn’t married at all in 1874!
Or was he?
Who was Maria Burvenich?
According to records, there was one woman named Maria Burvenich in St. Joseph around the time that Johann Henry Muehleisen was born . That woman married a man named William Mollett in 1880 . Maria Mollett did have a son, but that child was named John H. Mollett, whose father was Mary’s husband William .
How odd that John H. Mollett and Johann Henry Muehleisen shared the same mother and date of birth, but not the same father. Additionally, the 1880 census entry for Maria Burvenich’s father, Andrew, listed a grandson named John “Mulesen” living in the household .
Was John H. Mollett actually Lee’s son, Johann Henry? Where were the missing pieces to this puzzle?
Apparently, Lee stole a page from his brother William’s playbook, because the answers were found in two places: court and church records.
Though Maria was listed under her maiden name when she married William Mollett, that name was actually incorrect. Maria had been married before, to Johann Henry’s father, John G. Muehleisen (also known as Gottlieb, Levy, or just plain Lee). That marriage took place on 2 June 1874, less than four months before Henry’s birth, and just six weeks after Maria’s fifteenth birthday .
The marriage was not recorded in court records until 9 March 1876 …just in time for Maria to file for divorce.
On 3 March 1877, Maria and Lee’s divorce was finalized . The settlement awarded court costs, along with “the care, custody, and control of the infant child” to Marie, who was just eighteen years old at the time.
Yes, I found Lee’s long-lost son, but the person Lee knew as Johann Henry disappeared, in a way, after his parents’ divorce. When Maria remarried, her son was “reborn” as John H. Mollett.
Perhaps disappointed by the court decision, Lee left St. Joseph for good a few years after he and Maria divorced. He moved to New Mexico and then to Texas, remarried, and became a successful and respected businessman.
Maybe Lee wanted to repair his relationship with his son when he wrote his will in 1921. The bequest may have been a last-ditch effort to show Henry he was loved by his birth father, should that reconciliation fail to happen.
Did Henry learn about this bequest? Did he accept the money, but grieve the fact that he would never know his birth father?
Tragically, the answer is no.
Johann Henry Muehleisen, namesake and only son of Lee, would never know of the bequest. He died three years before the will was written, and 23 years before it was made public.
Lee Muehleisen never had a chance to repair the relationship, and sadly, he probably never knew it.
Missed Opportunity, Tragic Death
John H. Mollett, formerly Johann Henry Muehleisen, died at age 43 on 5 May 1918 . His tragic death in State Hospital #2 (also known as the Missouri State Hospital for the Insane) brought to mind many “what-if” questions.
What if Lee had contacted Henry prior to 1918? Would the men have reconciled and had a more typical father-son relationship? What if Henry had attempted to reconcile with Lee in his younger years? Would his life have been happier? Would he have avoided divorce, illness, and tragedy? Maybe he would have, but maybe not.
Genealogy is full of “what-if” situations, and for Johann Gottlieb Muehleisen and his namesake, Johann Henry, those unanswered questions are the saddest things of all.
- Beidler, James M., “Understanding German Language and Surnames,” 11 August 2014, Family Tree Magazine. Retrieved from familytreemagazine.com.
- Württemberg, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500-1985, p. 126, retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Las Vegas Daily Optic, Las Vegas, New Mexico, 29 January 1898, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Lee Muehleisen, 85, Dies in E.P. Residence,” El Paso Times, El Paso, Texas, 19 March 1941, p. 3, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Texas Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K3D4-HJG : 13 March 2018), Lee Muehleisen, 18 Mar 1941; citing certificate number 12415, State Registrar Office, Austin; FHL microfilm 2,138,478.)
- “Lee Muehleisen, Past Grand and District Deputy of Paradise No. 2,” Santa Fe New Mexican [Volume], Semi-Centennial Odd Fellow Edition, 24 July 1901, p. 7, col. 6-7. Retrieved from http://www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov.
- Buchanan County, Missouri, Circuit Court Records, No. 20, pp. 87-88. Retrieved from FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C39T-J33S?i=77&cat=11804.
- “$50 is Willed to Missing Son of El Paso Man,” El Paso Times, El Paso, Texas, 27 March 1941, p. 3, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Widow is Executrix of Muehleisen Will,” El Paso Times, El Paso, Texas, 28 March 1941, p. 8, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Immaculate Conception B. M. V. Parish, St. Joseph, Missouri, image 97 of 816, retrieved from FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSQQ-6S7L-H?i=96&cat=211105.
- “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4XH-ZRH : 12 April 2016), Mary Berewich in household of Andrew Burenich, Missouri, United States; citing p. 24, family 184, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 552,261.
- Marriage record, William Mollett and Mary Burvenich, Missouri, County Marriage, Naturalization, and Court Records, 1800-1991, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9CT-GB4Y?cc=2060668&wc=ZMTZ-3TL%3A352337001%2C1583570302 : 26 April 2019), Buchanan > Marriage records 1874-1886 vol D-C > image 222 of 599; Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
- Missouri Death Certificates. Missouri Secretary of State. http://www.sos.mo.gov/records/archives/archivesdb/deathcertificates/. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- United States Census, 1880, Saint Joseph, Buchanan, Missouri; Roll: 675; Page: 177B; Enumeration District: 056. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Marriage record for John G. Muehleisen and Maria Burvenich, Immaculate Conception Parish Marriage Records No. 1, image 373 of 816. Retrieved from https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSQQ-6S7Z-B?i=372&cat=211105.
- “Missouri, County Marriage, Naturalization, and Court Records, 1800-1991,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9CT-GBG8?cc=2060668&wc=ZMTZ-3TL%3A352337001%2C1583570302 : 26 April 2019), Buchanan > Marriage records 1874-1886 vol D-C > image 53 of 599; Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.