Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Ghost and Mrs. Cox

The 44th in a series on my family tree

Prompt: Ghost Story


Some family stories are just too strange to be believed. This particular tale first came to light earlier this year during an email exchange with my cousin Kelly who is working on the McDonall family tree with me. In the sharing of it there is no judgement, simply a curiosity at the series of events which led to … well, you’ll find out.

No one felt sorry for Margaret. If anyone could handle a bump in the road it was Margaret (Belton) Cox. Still, I can’t help but wonder how her mettle might have been tested in March 1953.

Great aunt, Margaret (Belton) Cox, was the Belton family dynamo. Born 27 March, 1887 in Fremont, Michigan, Margaret was the seventh of eight children and the third daughter born to Henry Belton (1846-1931) and Mary Jane (Crouse) Belton (1850-1932). The self-proclaimed tomboy was known for living life on her own terms. She had a no-holds-barred approach to life coloured by a creative spirit that manifested in her millinery, crafts, upholstery work, dressmaking, and art. She was a strong, capable woman and, as I understand it, simply fun to be around.

In the early1900s, while the Beltons and McDonalls were migrating west with the building of the Great Northern Railroad, Margaret helped her father prove up a homestead for one of her brothers in McHenry Co., North Dakota, while her sister, Mary, began raising a family with her husband Steve who, with other male family members, was working on the railroad. At some point she met a dashing young fella from Ohio named William “Everett” Musselman (1885-1965). They married 28 October, 1909, in Glasgow, Montana, under the authority of the Methodist Episcopalian church, and about 10 days before Mary gave birth to my grandfather, Stanley Lewis McDonall. Together the handsome couple led an enterprising life managing lodgings owned by the Milwaukee Railroad. (see news clipping).

No Love Lost

Over time, it seems, the marriage began to disintegrate. According to family lore Musselman was a philanderer, and after 26 years of putting up Margaret had simply had enough and shut him out. No love was lost for him among the family; Margaret was better off without him. Also around this time the Belton parents died: Henry in 1931, and Mary Jane a year later ~ both of old age and after 70 years of marriage.

In 1933, Margaret somehow became aware that Musselman had died. How, when, and where the event had occurred was, evidently, unknown as no proof of it was ever found. Now a widow Margaret was free to remarry, and four years later at age 50 she wed Orlie Cox (1878-1961), a widower and oilfield worker from Missouri. They tied the knot 18 September, 1937 in Chester, Liberty, Montana.

Orlie was a likeable character with a notable talent for playing the spoons. The family loved him immediately. Margaret and Orlie moved to East Glacier where they spent many years refurbishing and managing lunch counters as well as pursuing their mutual passion for fishing. In 1950, both in their mid 60s and tired of the challenging winters, they retired to Troy, Montana, to live out their days.

A simple enough ending to their happy story, or at least it was supposed to be. For three years later and out of the shadows the ghost of Everett Musselman appeared in the form of a petition for divorce.

The Ghost

How can a dead man sue for divorce?

My cousin and I were determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. With all the players gone no first-party accounts were available. Still, what follows is documented evidence of the sequence of legal, and not so legal, events (peppered with some unanswered questions and baffled commentary) that led to what must have been a horror story for the unsinkable Margaret Cox.

October 28, 1909

Margaret Belton marries William “Everett” Musselman in Glasgow, Montana.

Simple enough. They were young and in love and had their whole lives ahead of them. And weren’t they a cute couple!


A 1975 Libby, Montana newspaper article about Margaret for her 88th birthday mentions her as widowed:

Excerpt from unknown Libby, Montana newspaper (1975) Margaret Cox
Source: Family Archive

Question: What gave Margaret the impression her husband was dead? Did a friend of Musselman’s set her up? My mother recalls that at family gatherings he was always referred to as “dead.”

March 17, 1937

Everett Musselman marries Mrs. Marie Helen Paisley-Brown (1904-1992). An announcement appears in The Helena Independent, March 17, 1937. They marry in Spokane, Washington, even though they reside in Montana.

Question: Was the location of their wedding selected to avoid scrutiny since he was still married to Margaret? Why wouldn’t he have divorced her first? Had he decided it was simply easier to pretend he was dead? There’s no evidence that either Musselman or Mrs. Paisley-Brown divorced their respective spouses before tying the knot.

Note: Mrs. Paisley-Brown is mentioned in the March 1936 Indian Census Roll for the Blackfoot in Montana as married to a Joseph Brown. They had three children. The census shows the name of the youngest child is Curtis (age 12).

September 18, 1937

Believing herself to be widowed, Margaret uses her maiden name when she marries Orlie Cox in Chester, Liberty, Montana

1937 Marriage Certificate for Margaret Belton and Orlie Cox

1940 U.S. Census

In the 1940 U.S. Census, Everett Musselman is shown to be living in Great Falls, Montana, with his second wife simply referred to as “Musselman.”

Question: Again, was this to avoid scrutiny as under Montana law both were still married to their first spouses? Was this to imply Margaret was still his wife? The census mentions Curtis (age12).

Now we jump ahead about 13 years. Margaret has been happily married to Orlie, living her life owning and running lunch counters in East Glacier, expressing her creativity through sculpture, sewing, etc., and preparing for retirement. Then one day …

March 10, 1953

Everett Musselman rises from the dead in Conrad, Pondera, Montana, to sue Margaret for divorce.

Divorce Certificate re: Everett Musselman and Margaret Belton Musselman

This just sort of leaves me lost for words. While recognized as a force to be reckoned with in her own way, Margaret was well loved and respected by her family and friends. My mother, a teenager at the time of this event, remembers the titters of concern whispered at family gatherings about the impact on Margaret and Orlie.

Question: Did Musselman appear out of the ether to put his life in order so he could receive his pension? What other motive might there have been, if any? He would have been 68 years old at the time.

How must Margaret have felt when faced with the very real spectre of her “dead” first husband? Frankly, the Grounds of “extreme cruelty” might be more appropriately applied to the accuser than the accused.

March 16, 1953

If Margaret was never really a widow than she could not, of course, be remarried. Once the divorce was final Margaret and Orlie remarried to affirm their union and make things legal for the purpose of receiving their own pensions.

Note: This time Margaret marries under the name “Musselman.”

Marriage documentation re: marriage the second time around for
Margaret Belton and Orlie Cox

Question: Why marry in Idaho (not far from their home in Troy, Montana)? Was there a legal imperative for doing so?

From this point Margaret and Orlie lived a happy retirement until he died 3 April, 1961 at age 82. Margaret died 19 June, 1978 in Libby, Montana, at age 91.

October 21, 1965

Everett Musselman dies (for real) in Helena, Montana

Death certificate for William Everett Musselman

The Final Word

Some family stories are indeed too strange to be believed. While the documents support the sequence of events they certainly don’t answer the how and why of what transpired from 1933 to 1937 that led to the unpleasant spectre of Everett Musselman making his unpleasant reappearance some 20 years later. No doubt at the time it was a ghost Margaret Cox was well pleased to finally lay to rest. ❦

A happy reunion (left to right) Harry Belton, Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Orlie, Margaret, Frank Belton and wife, Ruth … ca 1955 … Source: Family Archives


©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

2 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Ghost and Mrs. Cox

  1. The fact that she used her maiden name the first time she married Orlie says to me that she knew her husband was alive and she was breaking the law by marrying Orlie. The second time she used her LEGAL name, because it was a legal marriage.

    1. Interesting. 🤔 That would be most out of character for the woman my family knew and loved. But then, sometimes we just don’t know people the way we think we do. We will never know, of course, but Musselman did remarry first so who’s to say what really went down. 🙏

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