By J. L. Starkey
All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.
– Pa Bailey, “It’s a Wonderful Life
“I just looked at the Deadwood site,” my sister messaged as we searched online for our third-great-grandfather‘s grave. “There are two graves there.”
“I saw that too, but I don’t know who the other person was,” I replied as I looked at the information in frustration.
The index for John C. Muehleisen (or J. C.) listed two burials in Plot 88, Section 3, of Mount Moriah Cemetery. The other name listed, Daisy Wardner, was not a name I recognized. Who was this person?
As I uncovered the rest of the story, I realized that while J. C. had plenty of assets, he was cash-poor when he died in February 1885. His landlord’s family, on the other hand, did not have that problem. This was especially true of his landlord’s brother, Jim Wardner. Though Jim and his wife Mary had been down on their luck a time or two (or ten), they always bounced back from those financial setbacks.
They didn’t seem to have much in common with J. C.’s widow, but Jim and Mary understood Carrie’s grief all too well.
They, too, knew what it was like to be alone during life’s darkest hours.
He was finally coming home, but not in the way she expected. When Carrie Muehleisen said goodbye to J. C. on that winter day in 1885, she hoped against hope that the doctors in Hot Springs would cure his bizarre neurological illness.
But J. C. would not get his miracle, and Carrie would be left to grieve alone.
“How did this happen?” she may have wondered. “I’m just 25 years old! I should be planning for Carl’s future, keeping house, going to church socials! Wasn’t that the plan?”
That plan was gone, and Carrie was alone with just $100 to her name . There were bills to pay, there was a child to feed, and there was a funeral to plan. Perhaps Carrie knew that in 1885 Deadwood, funeral expenses could total at least $75.00 .
Her charmed life was gone, and she couldn’t even afford to bury her husband.
But Carrie needn’t have worried about that. While he may have been cash-poor, J. C. had a wealth of friends willing to help during this, his greatest time of need.
Jim Wardner: Deadwood Tycoon
Deadwood resident Jim Wardner never met a get-rich-quick scheme that he didn’t like. From the time he cornered the Milwaukee rabbit market at age eight until he struck it rich in the Idaho town that would later bear his name, Jim knew that life had great things in store for him .
Not that everyone enjoyed his risky and eccentric ways. Sure, Jim was rich…until he wasn’t. A change of plans and a few promises would follow, a new scheme would take shape, and off he would go in search of wealth again.
The cycle would test the patience of his wife, and by the 1870s, she’d had just about enough of her husband’s schemes. The children needed stability, and so did she. When would Jim finally listen to her?
On a magical day in the late 1870s, he would. When the position in Yankton, Dakota Territory, was offered, Jim accepted it immediately. It was time to settle down and provide a stable life for his family.
“No more experiences for Jim Wardner,” he told Mary, who must have breathed a sigh of relief.
But Jim didn’t settle down for long. He soon met a Black Hills prospector who proudly showed off a bottle of placer gold. According to Jim:
“One glimpse of the precious metal was enough to eradicate…all resolutions…about settling down to a life of plodding business.”– James F. Wardner
Stability would have to wait. There was gold in them thar’ hills, and Jim Wardner was going to strike it rich.
J. C. Muehleisen was going to get rich, too. He headed to Deadwood just about the time Jim was leaving that reliable job in Yankton. The men’s paths would soon cross, and they would be forever linked, but not by the promise of riches that first brought them to Deadwood.
“He was always the same, worth a million or broke.”
Jim Wardner wasted no time when he arrived in Deadwood, and with an eye toward making money quickly, he purchased a lot on Lee Street. Within days, he built a structure to sell retail goods, installed a bar, “bought a barrel of whiskey and few bottles and glasses,” and opened his first saloon.
Success came easily during those early days, and Jim was soon making money from his saloon and other ventures. By 1881, he had sold the saloon to his brother Ed and moved on to the next opportunity.
The Lee Street property turned out to be a wise investment for Ed Wardner. Under his ownership, Ed’s Place showed a nice profit. To supplement his income, Ed rented out parts of the property to businessmen…including a young barber named J. C. Muehleisen .
Their paths had officially crossed, but J. C. probably didn’t see much of Jim Wardner. Mary and the children certainly didn’t see too much of Jim, either, especially after Ed took over the saloon. By that time, Jim was involved in a freighting business that involved extensive travel. Once again, he was away more than he was home.
Mary wouldn’t mind too much, would she? Jim may have assumed all was well, and he would later write of Mary:
“She is a great waiter. Just keep her anticipating and she is perfectly happy.”– James F. Wardner
Jim Wardner was wrong in that assumption, and on a late spring day in 1883, he would learn a bitterly sad lesson about waiting.
In spring of 1883 Jim Wardner was still traveling, and Mary Wardner was still single parenting in his absence. There were six children to provide for now, ranging from six months to twelve years of age.
Mary had her hands full, and she probably hoped that Jim would cut down on his travel. But there were no declarations of commitment or change this time. Jim was becoming wealthier by the day. He couldn’t give it all up now, could he?
No, he couldn’t. And so Mary would be alone on that horrible day when their lives would be forever changed.
Jim returned home on 28 May 1883 with news of a new mine he was developing . He left Deadwood three days later on the eastward-bound coach, leaving Mary and the children alone again .
Eight days later, Jim’s daughter Daisy Ella became ill. Although Mary called for a physician, nothing could be done to help the little girl who was just four months shy of her fourth birthday.
On 12 June 1883, Daisy Ella Wardner died of scarlet fever .
Telegrams were sent to several locations, but Jim could not be found, and Mary was left to plan their daughter’s funeral alone. On 13 June 1883, Daisy was laid to rest in Plot 88, Section 3, of Mount Moriah Cemetery .
It would be six more days before Jim Wardner would finally return home . He would be traveling again within weeks, leaving Mary to grieve alone.
Forever Connected in Grief
By October 1883, the Wardner family had moved away from Deadwood. Jim had a new plan, and Mary and the kids would spend the next two decades shuttling between homes in Idaho, Canada, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Deadwood was a part of their past, and Daisy’s grave remained the lone reminder of the family’s time there.
In February 1885, the death of J. C. Muehleisen left the Deadwood community in shock. The young barber who had such a promising future had died tragically, leaving a wife and a young son.
Perhaps Ed Wardner thought of Jim, Mary, and Daisy as he waited for J. C.’s remains to arrive in Deadwood. He may have remembered that horrible time less than two years prior when his family had waited for one of their own to return. He may have wondered how he could help the grieving widow who couldn’t afford a funeral and burial for her beloved husband.
Ed knew that Knights of Pythias arranged and paid for J. C.’s funeral. Was it Ed who offered Plot 88 to Carrie? Did he make the offer at the request of Jim and Mary, perhaps as a way to honor Daisy?
“Don’t you worry now,” he may have said. “We’ll make sure he gets a proper burial. His friends will see to that.”
Wealth isn’t always about money. Just ask the Muehleisen and Wardner families. On a bitterly sad winter day in 1885, a rich man helped a poor man during the very worst of times.
Both families were wealthier because of it.
- Muehleisen, John C., Lawrence County, South Dakota, probate case records, Box 5119, Box 7, Files 87-95, 1884-1885, File 93, images 350-399. Retrieved from Ancestry.com, North Dakota and South Dakota, Wills and Probate Records, 1878-1928 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
- Jordan, Jacob F., Lawrence County, South Dakota, probate case records, Box 5119, Box 7, Files 96-101, 1884-1885, File 98, image 190 of 505. Retrieved from Ancestry.com, North Dakota and South Dakota, Wills and Probate Records, 1878-1928 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
- Wardner, James F. Jim Wardner, of Wardner, Idaho. By Himself. Anglo-American Publishing Company, 1900, https://archive.org/details/jimwardnerwardn01wardgoog/page/n10. (See also: Jye Lanphere, “My Name is Jim Wardner,” Spokane Historical, accessed 15 Nov 2019, https://spokanehistorical.org/items/show/486.)
- The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 9 Sept 1881, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Personal Paragraphs,” The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 29 May 1883, p. 4, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- The Black Hills Weekly Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota, 1 Jun 1883, p. 4, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Died,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 13 Jun 1883, p. 3, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Wardner, Daisy, Lot 88, Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Lawrence County. Cemetery Record Search. South Dakota State Historical Society. http://apps.sd.gov/applications/DT58Cemetery/: Accessed 14 Nov 2019.
- “Personal Paragraphs,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 20 Jun 1883, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
What an interesting story and I love how you told it! Great research, too!
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Thank you! I’m trying to plan a trip to Deadwood so I can see all of these places and pay my respects to J. C. (and Daisy too). Fingers crossed for a 2020 road trip!
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