No one to blame


In one of the Wilson family genealogies, there’s a curious statement recorded by Emmett’s nephew. It says:

“…my mother always said that Emmett fell in with some rich Northern lumberman who started him drinking, and he drank himself to death.”

Hm. A rich Northern lumberman.

Who could that be?

Over a year ago, I started going through the wealthy residents of Pensacola — Emmett’s home from 1907 to his death in 1918 — figuring out who his friends were, and who he ‘ran’ with as a lawyer in prominent social circles. Here are the five men who would have been most likely the ‘rich Northern lumberman’ in Pensacola from the genealogy:

William Swift Keyser — b. 1856 in Massachusetts. Became head of his family firm when still at Yale. He was a member of the Episcopal church, the wealthiest man in Pensacola. He and his family were considered the leaders of Pensacola society. Owner, the WS Keyser Company. Quoted as being ‘a cultured gentleman of fine literary attainments;’ also, a Democrat with political interests (but he never sought office himself). Emmett would definitely want to emulate someone like Keyser.

F.F. Bingham. Source:

F.F. Bingham. Source:

Fraser Franklin Bingham — Born 1872 in Michigan. Southern States Lumber Co. VP. A yachter and accomplished writer. Had seven children; married money with his first wife. Started out as a stenographer (like Emmett did) and worked his way up the ladder. Republican; Well respected and liked. Wonderful bio on the St. John’s Cemetery website.

Rix M. Robertson — Born 1851 in Michigan. Robinson Point Lumber Co. Republican. Also appointed as Postmaster in 1898. Yachter; had an incredible home. No children, but quite a few articles about him and his private parties, private club memberships, and the like.

H(erman) H Boyer — Born 1858 in Ohio. German American Lumber Co. Not much biographical information, but had large family and was considered a prominent community member. 

William Henry G. DeSilva (HG DeSilva) — Born 1860 in New York. HG DeSilva &Co. Manufacturer of building materials in Florida. The Pensacola Journal reported some lawsuits filed against him (employees hurt on the job); Emmett was not involved on either side of the DeSilva cases. 

I have a lot more information on these guys, but I have to tell you that after kicking this thing around for almost three years, I don’t believe the man I’m looking for is in this list. Here’s why:

These men probably knew Emmett, but I doubt they traveled in the same social circles. We are talking about men who kept regular company mostly with each other in their tight and exclusive country club circle, who kept yachts in Pensacola Bay, who had summer homes (mansions, actually) back in their native northern states, and large, sweeping estates in Escambia County. Emmett could not afford to keep up with them except closer to the year he ran for Congress (1912).

These men are much older than Emmett — not exactly peers. I’m sure they knew of him and vice versa, but they weren’t close at all. Professionally, these men wouldn’t have had that much contact with Emmett as they had their own attorneys (not Emmett).

And Emmett was neither prominent nor considered socially important until around 1910-12 — when his name began showing up on the front page of The Pensacola Journal and other West Florida newspapers related to his work as District Attorney, then States’ Attorney.

While Emmett aspired to social prominence (and he worked for it), he was long considered on the social periphery of Pensacola’s high society, until he was elected to U.S. Congress. Emmett would have been lucky  — and grateful — to have been invited to the same party as these older, much more established and experienced fellows. So, none of these guys were the cursed ‘rich, Northern lumberman’ mentioned in the genealogy.

But now, I believe I know who it was.

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

After much deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the rich, Northern lumberman mentioned in the Wilson family genealogy was probably none other than Nicholas Van Sant, the man who brought Emmett to Sterling, Illinois.

Van Sant’s family was already wealthy; their fortune was in shipping. Nick started out in shipping, then sold his share to his brothers; then made his own personal fortune in timber. He certainly ‘fell in’ with Emmett: Emmett was Van Sant’s protege, and, I believe, Van Sant considered Emmett the son he never had.

Now, think about this — the excerpt doesn’t say that the Northern lumberman was a drinker. Van Sant didn’t have to be — but, I believe that Emmett (who was already drinking when he moved to Sterling in 1906) was under a tremendous amount of stress working with Van Sant. Emmett had something to prove to the folks back home, and to himself.

Emmett was lonely, without friends, and it was freezing cold in Illinois that year — not only was it a depressing situation for Emmett, but the snow and ice storms broke records that year, as the ice on the river burst through the bridge and caused extensive damage and flooding in Sterling. Power went out for several days. There were shortages of fuel and food; Sterling was no Winter Wonderland in February, 1906.

Details on the Ice Gorge of 1906. Source: Historical Centennial Program, Rock Falls, Illinois

Details on the Ice Gorge of 1906. More details on this dramatic event at the link. Source: Historical Centennial Program, Rock Falls, Illinois

And by then, Emmett was probably missing Florida. It was also Carnival time back home. And here he was, freezing cold, without friends, and treated as an outsider, even though he was the exalted Van Sant’s protege. I can definitely see how his drinking probably accelerated to alcoholic levels while he was in Sterling.

I want to say to the Wilson family genealogist that the rich Northern lumberman didn’t ‘make’ Emmett drink. Van Sant is not the bad guy here. Emmett was an alcoholic before he ‘fell in’ with Van Sant.

It is also important to remember that Van Sant was strict temperance. Van Sant was the man who helped BUILD the Sterling YMCA, from the ground up. Van Sant believed in the principles of this organization, including and especially sobriety. If Emmett was going down the rabbit hole of alcoholism, Van Sant would not have ‘made’ Emmett drink; if anything, I believe Van Sant would have tried to save him, and would have done something to help Emmett, because he looked upon Emmett as the son he never had.

No one makes an alcoholic drink.

There are no bad guys here; there’s no one to blame but Emmett himself, and there was nothing anyone could do for him.


Out of Desperation


One of the reasons why Emmett left Florida and moved to Illinois in January of 1906 (in the middle of a blizzard) is because he was desperate. He wanted to get away from his family, because his loved ones were in his face about his life — and especially his drinking. Emmett was only 24, and already acting out of control. He was getting a lot of pressure from family members to (at least) cut back on the booze, to settle down already, and Emmett wasn’t having any of it. He was smart, but also stubborn: He didn’t like anyone telling him what to do.

If you think about it, Emmett was surrounded by alcohol, and likely ‘drinking’ even when he wasn’t drinking: It was in the toothpaste. It was in over-the-counter sleep aids and stomach medications. Alcohol was everywhere.

And if you think about it, that’s still true. There’s 12-15% alcohol in NyQuil. There’s alcohol in mouthwash. If you are desperate for a drink, you can find it somewhere else besides a liquor store.

Sozodont had 37% alcohol. Source: NMAH Archives Center 0060 Warshaw Collection of Business Americana Series: Dentistry Box 2 Folder 16 Advertisement for Sozodont

Sozodont had 37% alcohol. Source: NMAH Archives Center; Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Series: Dentistry. Box 2, Folder 16, Advertisement for Sozodont. As presented by


It wasn’t that everyone around him was into prohibition; the Wilson family drank socially; so did many of Emmett’s colleagues. But he was demonstrating alcoholic behavior already, just when his career was getting off the ground. Emmett had so much potential — I can see his brother Cephas and other family members were worried about him.

And not to sound mercenary about it, but several Wilson family members made a significant investment in Emmett so that he could go to law school, especially Cephas. Everyone in the Wilson family who could chipped in, made sacrifices so that Emmett didn’t have to work during the school year.

Emmett’s family loved him. They wanted the best for him. But they were practical people, too. So, of course, Emmett’s family probably felt they had the right to speak up about his drinking.

And how did Emmett respond? He set out to prove everyone wrong.

What better way to get those loved ones off your back than to make a dramatic move 1,000 miles away, to work with a colleague well respected, well connected, and a Temperance leader in his community?

In making this move, Emmett was telling everyone: I don’t have a problem. I’m in control. Get out of my business. I can handle this. And to prove it, I’m moving to a place to work with a prominent man who is even more tightly wound in terms of drinking than anyone in Florida.

And so, Emmett moved to Sterling. Nicholas Van Sant literally set up an office for him. Literally GAVE him a practice to run all by himself in the heart of Sterling.

Ironically, Emmett’s office was surrounded by saloons.

Emmett's office was right across the street from Dietz & Maxfield's saloon, but there were plenty right there on Third Street. Source:

Emmett’s office was right across the street from Dietz & Maxfield’s saloon, but there were plenty right there on Third Street. I like the thought of a saloon right in the rear of a bank. Source:




The rest of the listing for Sterling's saloons in 1906. Source:

The rest of the listing for Sterling’s saloons in 1906. Source:


There’s a third part to this story — which I’ll continue tomorrow.

102 East Third Street


Emmett’s law office in Sterling, Illinois, in January 1906, was located at 102 East Third Street, on the second floor of the two-story Wolf Building.

Source: Sterling & Rock Falls, Illinois City Directory for 1906;

Nicholas Van Sant & Emmett Wilson’s law office address. Source: Sterling & Rock Falls, Illinois City Directory for 1906;

The law firm was located atop the Killen & Peters shoe store, which also did a brisk business in boots, according to ads in the Sterling Daily Standard.

Source: Sterling Daily Standard, Nov. 22, 1906

Source: Sterling Daily Standard, Nov. 22, 1906

Emmett probably bought his first and only pair of snow boots at this store, at the recommendation of his host family, the Annings. In fact, Emmett arrived in Sterling in the midst of a major snowstorm on January 1, 1906 — which he said was a new experience — and likely in the wrong shoes. It was reported that there were several inches of snow on unplowed streets when his train arrived.

The green arrow indicates location of 102 East Third Street today. Source: Google maps.

The green arrow indicates location of 102 East Third Street today. Source: Google maps.

Here’s a photo of Third Street, looking East, from about 1900.

The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

The large building to the immediate left is the Sterling National Bank. The red arrow, pointing at the red brick building, is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a better photo of the Wolf Building from 1906. I would love to have a front view of that building, which very likely featured “Van Sant & Wilson Law Offices” painted on the windows facing the street.

Below is a photo of what is there now:

A bank is located on the original site of Emmett's office. Source: Google maps.

A bank is located on the original site of Emmett’s office. Source: Google maps.


Speaking of ‘The New 30’….


Get a load of this.

A man still alive — allegedly born BEFORE Emmett, in 1870.

Mbah Gotho of Indonesia, allegedly the oldest man living. Born 12 years before Emmett. Source:

Mbah Gotho of Indonesia, allegedly the oldest man living. Born 12 years before Emmett. Source:

I often fantasize what it would be like to talk to someone who knew Emmett. I certainly wouldn’t expect to find anyone still around who is 130+ years old who might have known him.

Mr. Gotho wouldn’t have known Emmett.

But it is mindblowing to think what this man has witnessed in his lifetime.

Update: Emmett’s Pharmacy


Earlier today, a reader emailed me about a photo of pharmacy bottles embossed “Hargis Pharmacy”.


These are the Hargis Pharmacy bottles that got the reader’s attention. Would love to help this reader find more of them. Source:

The photo originated from a historic bottle collection website,; unfortunately, the website hasn’t been updated in awhile.

So, I referred the reader to my colleague, the excellent archivist Jacki Wilson, of the Pensacola Historical Society. The PHS has a treasure trove of artifacts; there may be a Hargis Pharmacy bottle in her collection.

But the email message got me interested in checking back into different databases — I’ve learned over the past three years in Emmett’s research that new things can and do show up as databases are updated.

So, I did a brief search — lo and behold — look at what I found:

The Hargis Pharmacy, brand new, located in the brand new American National Bank Building. Note the multiple brass spittoons on the floor. Source: The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Volume 24, published by E.G. Swift, 1910, page 131.

The brand new Hargis Pharmacy, located in the also-brand new American National Bank Building. Note the multiple brass spittoons on the floor. Source: The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Volume 24, published by E.G. Swift, 1910, page 131.

I just wish I could find the original photograph of this room. There are so many details I’d love to examine — the tiles. The merchandise cases. The products on the shelves. I really wonder what Emmett bought in this pharmacy — also, did he have a credit line? Did he use the spittoons? (I tend to think he would have had a charge account (he used a lot of pomade); and no, I don’t think he’d use the spittoons (he was more of a cigar guy than a chewing tobacco guy.)

The American National Bank Building, now Seville Tower, today. Source:

The American National Bank Building, now Seville Tower, today. Modeste’s pharmacy would have been on the right side of the building, facing Government Street. Her office was on the mezzanine level. Source:

The photo provides excellent information. The detailed description of this pharmacy tells us that Modeste must have been doing fairly well for herself — after all, the ANBB was the tallest, most prestigious building in Pensacola when it opened in 1910.

I’m sure there were plenty of businessmen competing for the prime space in the building — and here was Modeste with her pharmacy right there.

It makes me feel good knowing that Modeste was doing quite well for herself, at a time when women were not expected to be successful in a male-dominated business world.

The Surrogate


When Emmett lived in Sterling, Illinois from January to June, 1906, he boarded at the home of Mrs. Luella Snow Anning, widow, 802 West Third Street.

From the Sterling-Rock Falls City Directory, 1906. Source:

From the Sterling-Rock Falls City Directory, 1906. Source:

Emmett’s best friend in Sterling was Nicholas Van Sant; a wealthy, prominent 50-something who considered Emmett the son he never had.

Emmett’s closest-age friend was Sidney Earnest Anning was a sales clerk with Lawrence Brothers, a hardware manufacturer with a factory located across the river in Rock Fall, Illinois. Sidney was born in 1884. There was an older son, Henry H., who had moved to Chicago by the time the 1906 Sterling-Rock Falls City Directory was published.


From the Sterling-Rock Falls City Directory, 1906. Source:

Emmett rented a room at the West Third Street residence. I believe that it was Nicholas Van Sant, Emmett’s benefactor, who set up his living arrangement. It makes sense: Emmett knew no one in Sterling other than Van Sant; Van Sant wanted to help Emmett settle in without difficulty.

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

I believe one of the reasons why Emmett was living with the Annings had to do with Van Sant’s wife, Ella: Ella knew that the Annings were a devout Episcopal family, active in their congregation. Emmett was a long way from home, and knew nobody other than that Van Sants — Nick and Ella — who were devout Methodists. The Van Sants  believed this was a good way for Emmett to establish a connection and build his social network.


The crusading Ella Van Sant. Source: The Sterling Gazette, 1907

The crusading Ella Van Sant. The Van Sants were strict prohibitionists. Source: The Sterling Gazette, 1907

Ella Van Sant was keenly observant: She recognized right off the bat that Emmett needed grounding. As a longtime member and one of the officers of Sterlings’ WCTU chapter, Ella probably recognized — discovered — that Emmett drank. Although he was circumspect around Nicholas and Ella, Emmett, like so many of us alcoholics, probably thought he hid it well. I have no doubt that Emmett’s friends were (minimally) noticing the quantity he put away; perhaps also saying things, such as: Why don’t you take it easy?

For all that Emmett had moved to Sterling to get out from under the control of his family, I don’t think he realized that he had traded one controlling family for another: Ella Van Sant was a take-charge woman (as was her husband, Nick), who, like Nick, had big ideas for Emmett.  All he needed was to be with a good family, the right friends, exposure to the right social events, and he’d be just fine.

Nick and Ella didn’t have children — I believe that they considered Emmett the son they never had. The Van Sants became Emmett’s family in Sterling. I wonder if Emmett realized he was simply trading one controlling family for another?

Perhaps Emmett also viewed Sterling as a town where he might be able to get his drinking under control, something he couldn’t do back home while everyone he knew was watching.