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Chapter 84: A Visit to Marianna (Part 1)

October 2, 2015
Jackson County Courthouse
Marianna, Florida

Sue Tindel, the Jackson County Court Archivist, is one in a million. She’s also someone I’d been corresponding with regularly over a year, and so, when I met her, I’d felt like we’d been friends for a long time.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but, the current courthouse is on the original site.
Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but, the current courthouse is on the original site.

Sue is a fantastic lady. She’s funny, she’s interesting, and she loves history. I was immediately comfortable with her; Sue is the kind of person who, clearly, loves what she does. The documents in the archive are more than simple information resources to her; they are the history of Marianna, all original documents, and I don’t think people realize that. There are so many interesting stories to be found here.

As she escorts me from the lobby of the Courthouse to the basement, she’s energetic — history does that for her, as it does for me! — the elevator opens onto a room crowded with shelves full of bound court records. These records are Sue’s friends — she lovingly touches the spines of some of the large ledgers on the shelves as she talks about the history between their brown leather covers. A lot of what she’s talking to me about is obscure, everyday stuff that affected people long dead — but people she and I have come to know through Emmett’s story.

Original court case documents from one of Cephas' cases. Most of the records here featured Cephas rather than Emmett, since Emmett was such a junior lawyer when he lived here.
Sue reading through original court case documents from one of Cephas’ cases. Most of the records here featured Cephas rather than Emmett, since Emmett was such a junior lawyer when he lived here.

We sit down together at the archive table right in the middle of the room — she’d brought out a records box with at least six rolled-up court transcripts of law cases of Emmett’s brother, Cephas. In past communication, Sue told me she thinks Cephas is the more interesting of the Wilson brothers. As she gently unrolls the case texts, notes from Cephas’ trials that include his interactions with clients. “You can tell a lot about him here, the way he spoke, his presentation, attitude, tone; a lot about the man from these notes.” The dates of the cases, though, are after Emmett left Marianna and Emmett and Cephas’ partnership was dissolved. Although I think Cephas is worthy of his own bio, the stack of ledgers on the desk relating directly to Emmett are the focus of my attention today.

Sue had gone all through the archives for the court dockets dated 1904-1906 before I got to Marianna — and put together a list of cases that Emmett worked on at Wilson & Wilson. I was hoping to be able to read through the ledgers for information on Emmett’s role in the cases, notes on the trials (if any), to learn more about Emmett.

First page of cases Sue found involving both Emmett and Cephas from Jackson County (FL) Court Records. This is likely not a complete list, as other counties may have cases represented by Wilson & Wilson as well. The cases Emmett and Cephas represented in Jackson County are noted as Wilson & Wilson. Source: Sue Tindel via email.
The second and final page of the court docket that included cases represented by Emmett and Cephas Wilson (as Wilson & Wilson). Source: Sue Tindel via email.

Sue isn’t impressed with the kinds of cased Emmett was assigned, and is surprised he was named Assistant District Attorney in Escambia County only two years later based on little experience with larger, more significant cases. “Either Emmett was a fiery and aggressive attorney or there was a little influence at work for him to be appointed a Federal prosecutor.”  she said. I knew that Emmett had moved to Sterling, Illinois in 1906, but I didn’t know why or what he did there yet — I was still digging around — and we both wondered out loud what he did in Sterling that would have improved his experience.

What I had found at this point was odd — “he’d only practiced law there between February and June, 1906,” I said. “Five months only. It’s strange, isn’t it?”

We spend the rest of the morning reading through ledgers and minutes books — I insert a yellow Post-It note on pages where I find content about Emmett. One of the things I found had nothing to do with law cases, but was personal:

Emmett sworn in mid-June, 1904. But he had already been sworn in the day after he graduated law school back in May, in Jacksonville. What gives? Source: Jackson County (FL) Courthouse
Emmett was in to the bar by Judge Charles Parkhill at the Jackson County Courthouse, June 14, 1904. But he had already been sworn in the day after he graduated law school back in May. What gives? Source: Jackson County (FL) Courthouse

According to the court record for June 14, 1904, Emmett was sworn in by Judge Charles B. Parkhill ‘to practice law in this Circuit and inferior Courts of the State of Florida.’

Judge James W. Locke. An appointee of President U.S. Grant. Source:
Judge James W. Locke.Source: Wikipedia

But wait — I knew Emmett and his fellow law school graduates friends left Stetson University the day after graduation (May 25, 1904), took the train to Jacksonville, and were sworn in to the Florida bar upon presentation of their diplomas to the court by Judge James W. Locke.

And according to the Stetson University Law School Bulletin for 1904, that was all an aspiring lawyer had to do in order to hang up his shingle — and — I knew that Emmett’s swearing-in in Jacksonville with his fellow graduates is on the record in the Duval County Archives, too.

Emmett presented his diploma to Judge Locke in Jacksonville and was duly sworn in. Source: Stetson University archives.
Emmett presented his diploma to Judge Locke in Jacksonville and was duly sworn in. Source: Stetson University archives.

Did a man have to petition every county in which he wanted to practice law? And if so, wouldn’t that be incredibly inefficient?

I asked Sue about this in a follow-up email message just to be sure I wasn’t missing something, or perhaps I’d misunderstood Emmett’s swearing-in requirement. It turns out that all Emmett needed to do was to be sworn in once. What happened in the Jackson County Courtroom that day was something special:

“Actually, the entry read circuit and inferior courts in the State of Florida – not just the Jackson County Bar.  It almost sounds redundant for Emmett to gain admission to the Bar in Duval County and then come to Jackson County and do it again.  Wonder if Cephas had a hand in it and made a big deal about it.

“It would have been a grand kind of thing for him to have his little brother acknowledged by the legal elite – which is what sounds like happened.”

Grand indeed — this would have been something Cephas would have done for Emmett, especially because Cephas was a surrogate father to Emmett for several years. He took Emmett in when he moved out of his father’s home in 1900; he supported Emmett all through college; Cephas mentored Emmett prior to and after law school. For sure, Cephas had a vested interest in his younger brother (he was on a family empire-building mission), and if Emmett was successful, Cephas was successful.

After a few hours in the archive, Sue takes me on a personal walking tour of Marianna as Emmett would have seen and lived it.

The current courthouse was built in the 1970s, a building without a lot of character. Sue doesn’t think much of it from an architectural perspective; however, the courthouse square is ringed with several huge, beautiful oak trees that she says were certainly around when Emmett and Cephas were — some are at least 150 years old.

Ancient oaks around the Jackson County Courthouse. I wish there had been acorns on the ground: I would have saved one and planted it back home. Photo by the author. (Ed. note: Several of the trees, as well as the courthouse, were damaged in Hurricane Michael in 2018.)
Across the street from the Jackson County Courthouse is the original law office building (blue awning) that Cephas built around 1909. Emmett did not work in that building, but he certainly would have visited his brother there. Photo by the author.

Elizabeth Milton Simpson, an attorney in downtown Marianna who is now in Cephas’ old office building, welcomes Sue and me to the historic building, and tells us to make ourselves at home taking photos. Elizabeth’s offices are on the first floor. During Cephas’ time, there was a hardware store on the first floor; his offices were on the second floor. Sue and I walk to the rear of the building and climb narrow, wooden stairs that look to have been the original stairs for Cephas’ office.

The second floor of Cephas’ old law building (now the offices of Elizabeth Milton Simpson) overlooks the Jackson County Courthouse. I wonder which side was Cephas’ office? At the time of the photo, the second floor was being renovated. Photo by the author. (Ed. note: This building was also heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018; however, the building has been repaired since.)

I touch the original bricks on the walls; I look up at the oak beams across the ceiling. Sue and I gaze out the windows, wondering if the Wilson men ever came up here when they were waiting on verdicts from juries; peering out the windows toward the courthouse, quiet and pensive, smoking cigars. Sue tells me that although the Wilson & Wilson practice was not in this building, Emmett would have certainly come here to spend time with his brother. I sense they would sit in the chairs, talking, occasionally look out the windows…. They were definitely up here, I think to myself. I close my eyes briefly and try to channel them in the room.

Sue tells me that the original courthouse — not the thing across the street, she says with a smile — was built by John Kehoe, a brickmaker and mason from Ireland.

Source: Pensacola City Directory, 1885.

“That’s Walter Kehoe’s father — and Walter was also one of Emmett’s mentors,” I tell her, suddenly feeling a warmth from connection, and association… we talk about how Emmett and Walter was great friends, and Walter eventually took Emmett in to live with his family…

“So many connections,” Sue said, nodding.

We turn to walk carefully down the narrow wooden staircase off to the next site on our tour of Marianna as Emmett would have seen it.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “A Visit to Marianna.”

Categories: Book Congressman Family Florida History Interesting & Odd


Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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