Following the Money


One of the things I’ve always found curious about Emmett Wilson’s life was why he never lived on his own, never owned a house, never had his own apartment in which he was responsible for everything (food, furniture, utilities and the like).

Emmett was a bachelor with an active and upscale social life and a good job. According to an interview in the Sterling (Illinois) Daily Standard in 1905, Emmett said he was always anxious to be on his own, to prove himself in the legal profession, to be his own man as soon as he could, because he was ready for it.

But according to different editions of the Pensacola City Directory, the U.S. Census for 1900 and 1910, and several articles in Florida contemporary newspapers, Emmett never really was on his own in the true sense of the word.

908 N. Spring Street, Pensacola. Source: Google Maps

In the 1900 U.S. Census, Emmett was enumerated at his father’s home in Chipley, then he moved that same year to his brother Cephas’ house in Marianna. Emmett had roommates both in college dorms and boarding houses while a student at Stetson University; when he moved to Pensacola, he lived with friends at a boarding house, then with the Kehoe family from 1911 onward. Obviously, he paid rent at the boarding houses (In 1908, 124 W. Belmont, today an office building, and in 1909, 908 N. Spring Street, still standing).

Was it money? Couldn’t Emmett afford it?

Sure he could.

Source: Who’s Who in America, Volume 4, 1906, p. 1201

It wasn’t that Emmett didn’t make enough money to live on his own. For example, in 1906, when Emmett was a clerk, then temporary Assistant District Attorney (a part-time position while he also worked in his uncle Evelyn Croom Maxwell’s law office). Emmett eventually became Maxwell’s partner in 1908. But in 1907, Emmett’s salary was $1,500 a year (the average salary for a family of four in the U.S. was about $600 in 1907), in addition to whatever he was making as a private attorney.

Emmett was named to the clerkship, then temporary assistant district attorney in 1906, which terminated in 1907. The image is hard to capture, but you can see the original at this link.

Source: Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States, 1907.

Emmett also lived with the Kehoes from 1911 onward — he may have paid something towards rent or household costs, but it probably wasn’t substantial, and because Jennie and Walter Kehoe considered Emmett a member of their family, I doubt they would have accepted much, if anything from Emmett towards rent. He made good money, and he had plenty of opportunities to save it.

In 1908 Pensacola, the average rent at a good boarding house was $5 a week, which included room, board, electricity and laundry services.

According to the Inflation Calculator, $5 a week in 1908 has the same purchasing power as $124.56 today — about $500 a month in rent. That was a bargain, considering Emmett’s rent included board and laundry services. Try finding that kind of rent package deal today.

I know that Emmett had to spend a lot of his own money on his political campaign in 1912. He complained in a speech after he won the primary in June, 1912, about how expensive it was — campaign spending records for 1912 show that he spent over $2,000 of his own money leading up to the primary — which is the equivalent of $50,074.14 in today’s dollars, according to the Inflation Calculator. Expensive, indeed.

So, although Emmett certainly would have been able to afford a home of his own by 1912, it seems he put his money towards his political ambitions. It was a gamble, but it makes sense.

But it is too bad that Emmett didn’t invest in real estate, or have something to call his own. Real estate ownership was considered a solid, sound investment. Also, owning a home conveyed the appearance of reliability, consistency.

Even sobriety.

And perhaps the last point was the other stickler.

By 1913, we know Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic, and booze was costly: For example, ONE gallon of nine year old Kentucky whiskey cost $9 in 1913. In 2018 dollars, that’s $225. I doubt Emmett limited his drinking to a gallon a week. It was likely SEVERAL gallons.

Emmett was also a member of two prominent men’s clubs in Pensacola: The Osceola Club and the Elks. The Osceola Club was a fancy society club where one could read, meet and socialize with select and prominent Pensacolians, and drink (although that was not publicized). Membership in The Osceola Club was approximately $500 a year, not including your bar tab, if you had one. And Emmett had one, for sure.

Yes, that’s $500 a year.

In 1913 dollars.

Or, $12,518, according to the Inflation Calculator in 2018 dollars.

I don’t have Emmett’s receipts, of course, but it seems obvious to me that spent most of his money on his political campaigns in 1912 and 1914, and booze.

And when Emmett died in 1918, he was in financial trouble. Emmett’s brother and executor of his estate, Cephas Love Wilson, stated in a letter that Emmett didn’t have anything of value in his belongings except a life insurance policy worth about $13,000, and that Emmett had already borrowed $3,000 against it (that he knew of). In the end, there wasn’t much, if anything, left of Emmett’s estate.





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