June 4, 2020
Chevy Chase, Maryland
I want to share with you the story of this research and why it is coming together across different dates, places and times:
It took several years to assemble the information I have — I neither have a research assistant, nor the budget for one — so Emmett’s research takes place in between teaching classes, working with clients, having a family life, and so forth.
Since I started Emmett’s story in 2014, the databases I use have improved and more content has been uploaded to different resources (such as ChroniclingAmerica.gov, the University of West Florida and Stetson University archives, and so forth). It means going back to check on databases regularly, talking with archivists, traveling to revisit sources and so forth, which takes time.
Despite what seems (to me) to be a very long time conducting the research, sometimes that’s what it takes for people interested in Emmett’s story to find the website, then feel empowered to reach out to me, providing valuable anecdotes, copies of family Bible pages, and so forth. It’s difficult for most people to make a call or send an email to a complete stranger. Finding confidence to do just that often takes time, and I now appreciate and understand why research can take months or years to complete.
And sadly, some folks who have helped me early and often with Emmett’s research have passed away (Emmett’s niece Jule Wilson Perry in 2019, and my research colleague Nancy Rayburn in 2017).
I also want to talk about two key issues that have become prominent in this story: The alcoholism and the dysfunctional personal relationships that dogged Emmett’s life. I believe that, probably, Emmett inherited the propensity towards alcoholism. Research shows it runs in families, and several genealogies mention alcohol was a problem among the Wilsons.
But I also believe that Emmett never got over the sudden death of his beloved mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, when he was eight years old, and that set the foundation for the poor interpersonal relationships Emmett seemed to have with women who were his peers. It is also interesting that he didn’t have problems with the female mother-figures in his life (Lula Wiselogel Wilson, Jennie Kehoe, Minnie Kehoe).
Think about this: How many of us are willing to admit that we try to escape life on life’s terms now and then? How about admitting to admit that we do that a lot?
If we’re honest, we’d admit that we want to avoid discomfort whenever possible, as long as it doesn’t intentionally hurt someone else. But we still search diligently to satisfy our need to feel comfortable; at ease in our own skins. If we are at ease with ourselves and our lives in general, we make better everyday decisions. Life is better overall.
When I was drinking, I chased psychological comfort at all costs. I believed that if it made me feel good, I was a better person to be around the majority of the time. The problem with using a crutch to build self-esteem is that it is only temporary. For me, the buzz only seemed to last about an hour, then I’d work desperately to get that happy feeling back again, and that’s how my addiction began.
(Even though I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, I can use other things to give myself a psychological buzz: Chocolate, shopping, other people’s dramas, for example, and I have to be mindful of it. The thing also about using the temporary fixes to feel better about myself is that the buzz isn’t reliable. It backfires on me when I least expect it, and I wind up saying stupid things, or hurting those who love me best. Sober living takes practice every single day.)
I think Emmett was also a buzz-chaser. He was a man with psychological discomfort, just like all of us to some extent, and for all that he was a smart, well-connected, good person, he didn’t have much self-esteem.
What other people thought of him was important; he used other people’s psychological yardsticks to measure his own self-worth — case in point is the number of times he planted articles about his comings and goings in The Pensacola Journal when he was an up-and-coming lawyer, trying to build his image.
Sure, part of it was smart self-marketing, but on the other hand, the self-promotional pieces were carefully planted to cultivate a certain look. It was a lot of pressure to keep up appearances for a man who felt he had something to hide about himself — family members indicated to me on more than one occasion that Emmett might have been gay — something that would have destroyed his (and his family’s) political reputation if it were made public.
When I think about Emmett’s desire to escape psychological pain, I think it also meant that he didn’t know how to handle personal relationships — the ‘intoxicating’ part of love — whether he was gay or not. Love can evoke strong feelings and emotions, and Emmett’s childhood role models would have advised burying strong emotions.
For example, I’m sure he remembered how it felt to love someone with his whole heart — his mother — only to lose her suddenly, without warning. What was he to do with all the feelings about his mother? His father and older brothers basically stuffed their feelings, buried themselves into work; it made sense they expected Emmett to do the same.
The other thing about Emmett, based on the charted information about his life, was his inability to handle close personal relationships with women peers. Friends tried to help, introducing him to eligible young women from good families (as we’ll see in upcoming chapters), but to no avail. I have an article written about Emmett in The Pensacola Evening News by one of his friends who jokingly described how Emmett held himself apart from the clutches of women who were ‘throwing themselves at him,’ his heart impenetrable like the fortress surrounding Constantinople. But there was a lot of truth to it: Emmett purposely stayed out of relationships. And yes, I think he purposely built an impenetrable fortress around his heart.
That’s one of the reasons why his relationship with Pearl fizzled out.
And now, to wrap up the story about Emmett and Pearl Spaulding’s relationship.
Like with Emmett, I organized every single thing that I found out about Pearl (articles, photos, and the like) in a timeline and after studying what I had, shared it with my research partner, Nancy Rayburn. We both knew that without actual journals, letters or other contemporary personal information, we didn’t really know the details of how this relationship ended, but given the times and the details of what we knew about both Emmett and Pearl’s families, we determined an outcome. Basically:
— We suspect Emmett made a decision ahead of graduation to end the relationship with Pearl. From a practical point, it made sense, because Emmett would be just starting off his law career working for his brother Cephas, while living with Cephas. While there may not have been much in the way of monetary indebtedness to his big brother, you can bet that Cephas would have had a lot to say about Emmett settling down in his own home (which was not large) right out of law school to support a wife.
— We also suspect that Cephas, a cutthroat lawyer who made it his business to know everything about everyone he and his family interacted with, discovered Pearl’s family background. The issue wasn’t that Pearl was born in Massachusetts (Cephas’ wife Lula was born in Illinois), or that she was unusual, but that Alice Spaulding Spangler’s multiple marriages, plus the family’s ‘showbusiness’ background, made a potential marriage with Pearl unsuitable. It had nothing to do with Pearl personally; it was more about the times and family expectations.
— I also believe Pearl wanted to make something of herself, for herself, so that she wouldn’t have to rely on a husband for her well-being. Pearl was smart, articulate, talented, and earned a college degree by 1906. Pearl had a 15-minute radio program in the 1920s; she wrote articles for a variety of New York City publications. She later married Albert Strange, of Birmingham, Alabama, and continued to write for the rest of her life. Her great-granddaughter told me she was poet with several books of self-published poetry.
One of Pearl’s self-published a few poetry booklets, The Fleeting Scene Mosaic, is in the Stetson University Archive. My colleague, the archivist at Stetson, kindly copied it and sent it to me, no charge.
I shared the poems with Nancy, and she asked me about one of them — did I think it was about Emmett?
Pearl’s great-granddaughter mentioned once that the family always wondered why she married so late in life (Pearl was 30 years old, which was considered ‘advanced’ for a first marriage at the time). After Pearl’s great-granddaughter visited my website and read about Emmett and Pearl at Stetson, she said probably it could have been that Pearl’s heart was broken, and that it ended badly for her — but Pearl was also a strong woman who had definite ideas about what she wanted to do with her life. She was independent, strong.
If she and Emmett had gotten married, and then had to settle in Marianna, Pearl would not have been happy being relegated to ladies’ bridge and tea parties, and staying in the shadows. It was just as well that the relationship didn’t work out.
At the end, they both fled the scene of a dying romance. And I believe Pearl thought of Emmett as she wrote some of her poetry in her later published booklets.
Fled, but not forgotten.
The University of Maryland Global Campus