Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading the 1918 edition of The Chipley Banner. This publication is significant in Emmett’s research because Chipley, Florida was Emmett’s boyhood home. His father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, was a well respected townsman and the postmaster (a patronage gift from Emmett while a congressman).
While Emmett was a hotshot lawyer in Pensacola, and then a newly elected Congressman, you could find a mention of him often in The Chipley Banner — he was visiting his father, he was stopping through to say hello to friends, he was running for reelection — you get the picture. He was mentioned almost as often as he was mentioned in his own hometown paper, The Pensacola Journal. You’d also occasionally find little articles in the Banner mentioning Dr. Wilson’s parental pride at having such an accomplished son, so young, so smart, such a credit to both the family and to Chipley. I’m sure Emmett’s father — and the local citizens — were proud of him.
I even found one little article — an interview that was conducted with the owner of a general store in Chipley right after Emmett was elected to Congress in 1912 — that said the owner remembered Emmett when he was in knee pants, and that he was a credit to his family back in the day. “I knew Emmett was a good boy even back then,” he’d said.
I’m sure Emmett was, indeed, a good boy. All of the research I’ve uncovered to date bears that out.
Unfortunately, my research has also uncovered the fact that he had a serious addiction to alcohol that would not only unravel his career, but also his health, and no one could help him. Not even Emmett could help himself, I’m certain.
The other thing I’ve uncovered in the months spent researching Emmett and his life is that alcohol was a big part of who he was, and I can’t ignore that. While I truly believe there is more to him than the fact that he was an alcoholic, much of his story is going to be told through the lens of his addiction.
Thing is, the general impression people have about alcoholics and their addiction has not changed much in 100 years. True, today, we have Alcoholics Anonymous, and a variety of medications and therapies to help people stop drinking, to help family members who are also caught up in the hell of dealing with a problem drinker in their midst. But the research will bear out the fact that alcoholics are still viewed disparagingly. Families still feel the shame, frustration, anger, and helplessness in dealing with someone who just can’t seem to get their act together, to get help for themselves.
Emmett’s family and friends did try to help him. I’m sure they thought — and said — Emmett is a smart man. He comes from a good family. Why can’t he help himself? How could he have done this to himself? How did this happen in the first place? Why can’t someone — anyone — get through to him to stop the madness?
And, I’m sure, many of Emmett’s family and friends had given up on him in the end. Why? Because of what I found in The Chipley Banner for 1918 about Emmett:
There’s occasional mentions of Dr. Wilson visiting his other sons who lived in Marianna, or Sneads, Florida. There’s a mention of the death of Emmett’s older brother Percy a mere eight weeks before Emmett, himself, died at Pensacola Hospital on May 29, 1918. Brother Percy was not a former congressman, nor was Chipley even his boyhood home. So, Percy Wilson gets a short obit mention in The Chipley Banner, and local son Emmett Wilson gets nothing at all?
Another clue that family and friends had given up on Emmett at the end: The fact that Emmett died, alone, in Pensacola Hospital, and family members (even local family members in Pensacola) had to be told where Emmett was, and that he had been sick, then died. No one knew. I don’t want to project an unsubstantiated idea that no one cared, but it sure looks that way to me.
It is as if Emmett’s friends and family were relieved the madness was over for them and for Emmett, and they just wanted to put it all aside and move forward. It is understandable. I’m not passing judgment on them; just stating the facts. People who have not dealt with end-stage alcoholics have no idea the hell Emmett’s family and friends — the ones who were still around, that is — went through with Emmett during the last few months of his life.
I have a friend, a nephrologist (who also has experience dealing with alcoholic-related illnesses of the liver and kidney, and who is helping me with Emmett’s biography) who asked me the other day why I was so surprised that Emmett’s family wrote him off the last few years of his life.
“What would you have expected, given the hell he put them through?” she asked. “Think about the condition he was in at the end. Think about the frustration, the opportunities he had had before him — they thought Emmett had just thrown them away.” Emmett’s family and friends were tired of it, alcoholism, and of him.
By the way, in the spirit of full disclosure, not only are Emmett and I related, but we also belong to the same club. We may be 100 years apart, but I feel like I can relate to some of the reasons why he drank. How he drank. The frustration, anger, and sadness that family members felt towards him.
The difference is, thank God, is that someone was able to get through to me. I only wish Emmett could have found another way out besides death.
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