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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.


Categories: Addiction Congressman Family Florida History

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