Chapter 9: Emmett’s Death Certificate

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By the end of July, 2013, Emmett’s research was in its third month, and I was reaping the rewards of having mass contacted Wilson family descendants, as well as Emmett’s neighbors, friends, political allies and foes. I reached out to descendants of his congressional office staff, to hospitals where he was admitted, to his colleges, to his church.  I reached out to descendants of the women he DATED. I reached out to his office secretary’s descendants.  

By the end of July, I’d contacted and heard from a grand total: 227 people. I know the figure because I started an acknowledgements page the day I began Emmett’s research — if I made a contact and that person got back to me, I added the name. I figure thanking the folks individually and publicly in this book is the minimum for the great kindness of the people who were glad to help me, and who I no longer consider strangers. (More names have been added as the research continues.)  Astoundingly, almost everyone I contacted responded, and quickly to my original query.  Most of them were apologetic, saying they knew nothing about Emmett, but those who did generously shared what they knew. Or, if they didn’t know, they would refer me to another source (which often paid off).

At this point, I had four new pieces of Emmett’s story in my hands — each a bit of a puzzle in themselves. To keep these posts at a reasonable length, I’m going to focus on one at a time. The first official document I received in this project was Emmett’s official death certificate.

Cause of death: Uremia. The certificate is signed by Emmett’s father.

“In Florida, a death certificate is considered public information once an individual has been dead for 100 years. In other words, you can get it free of charge after that date. Otherwise, there’s a fee,” xxx said, when I called the Florida State Board of Health in May, 2013.

I dutifully filled out the form available on the website, I sent payment, and waited. One week and $20 later, Emmett’s death certificate arrived in the mail.

The main item I honed in on right away when I tore open the envelope and scanned the certificate was cause of death:

Uremia. Kidney failure.

Uremia, or kidney failure. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this, because I’d read that in December, 1914, while Emmett was a Congressman, he was taken to Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., the cause being uraemic poisoning.

Emmett almost died in December, 1914.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, December 21, 1914, page 1, in ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Apparently, this incident was serious enough that his family was called in all the way from Jackson County, Florida — NOT something you’d do unless the individual was in mortal danger. And there’s more to this, too:

Rheumatism? And a nervous breakdown? That’s not the same as uremic poisoning. Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

So, two different angles on the same story — I try not to read too much into this at the moment, because the death certificate is only one record, and it doesn’t take into account other potential medical problems. But as per usual, I dive right into reading all about uremia, how it comes about, and so forth. I figured I might as well know what this was, and why his family was called to D.C. Was it really that bad?

Meanwhile, I consulted with a colleague and friend at my university — Donna the Nephrologist at the University of Maryland Medical School. I told her what I was researching, and showed her the death certificate.

Donna said kidney failure at the turn of the last century was pretty much a death sentence for some: There weren’t transplants; medications used back then that may have been used to treat other ailments (for example, lithium) caused more damage to kidneys in the process, and so forth.

With regard to Emmett’s information in the death certificate,  there wasn’t all that much she could tell me about Emmett’s diagnosis, except this:

“…if Emmett had kidney failure, and indeed died of it, it would NOT be a short illness, as reported in the paper, unless he’d had an accident or trauma directly to the kidney, or something similar. If that didn’t happen and it was kidney failure over time, it was a terrible way to go, and it definitely would have been noticed.”

For example, Donna told me that in end-stage kidney failure one would immediately notice a person’s smell of urine or ammonia, because the body can’t excrete it normally. “So, the body excretes the waste product through the skin. You would see crystals on the scalp. But then, it is also evident in the person’s behavior. Because the body can’t get rid of the ammonia in the system, it poisons the the brain so that the patient has hallucinations, for instance.”

Additionally, she said, if a patient is in kidney failure, there’s almost always other organ failure going on at the same time.

“It seemed an unusual determination if the press was calling Emmett’s death a ‘short illness’ and his friends were supposedly surprised he was ill. I mean, if you could SEE how he wasn’t acting right. Or, worse, smell him coming five minutes before he got somewhere,” I said.

Donna nodded. “There’s no way someone wouldn’t have known he was sick like that. There’s a lot more to this, I think.”

Indeed.

Meanwhile, I reached out to the family of Dr. E.F. Bruce, Emmett’s physician who signed the death certificate, and contacted the Pensacola Historical Society, to find out about the Pou Funeral Home.

Also — Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital — I know the original hospital is now on the National Historic Register; the records had to go somewhere.

I flexed my fingers and began typing new inquiry letters. I was sure there had to be more information about Emmett’s medical condition, considering how serious it appeared.

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