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Chapter 112: Outside Looking In

October 11, 2016
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Those first few weeks in Sterling were an eye-opener for Emmett Wilson. Probably for Nicholas Van Sant as well.

It isn’t that Emmett didn’t think he wouldn’t have anything to catch up on once he’d moved from Florida; he had a lot on his list from day one (which was January 2, 1906). Specifically:

  • Pass the Illinois state bar exam (his test was scheduled for the end of January, 1906)
  • Build contacts among the legal community
  • Build the practice among the business and local community
The Sterling Evening Gazette, February 1, 1906. Image taken from microfilm by author.

I don’t doubt that Emmett had problems on the bar exam; he was preparing for it before his move to Illinois. I also don’t think he’d have too much trouble building contacts among his legal peers: The association with Nicholas Van Sant pretty much guaranteed he’d have some level of acceptance almost immediately.

But I do think Emmett had trouble fitting into the local community; i.e., getting to know the everyday folk, the business people who were not directly associated with Nicholas Van Sant or his businesses, or who traveled in those esteemed social circles. Although he was Van Sant’s law partner, he didn’t hang out with him socially that often. It seems that when Emmett wasn’t at work, he was either with the Annings, or mostly solo.

Emmett was close in age to the oldest Anning son, Sidney, with whom he attended the play ‘Egypta’. The Annings did their best to help Emmett feel at home. The Sterling Daily Standard, February 1906.

It makes sense, if you think about it. It takes time to settle into a new community when you only really know one person, and that person is on a social pedestal of sorts. The Van Sants were good people, certainly community-minded, but they were in a different social circle than the majority of Sterlingites. They were a kind-of royalty in Sterling, more so than the Wilsons were in Florida.

And then, here’s Emmett, new to both the Sterling upper-class and the everyday folk. I’m sure the Sterling upper-class were cordial and friendly to Emmett when they met him, and although having Van Sant in one’s pocket as social currency was important, it only went so far as to making inroads fitting into the community.

I posit Emmett didn’t fit in either group when he moved to town. That must have been difficult; maybe something he didn’t really take into consideration prior to the move. (This reminds me of Minnie Kehoe’s situation, after she became the first female attorney in West Florida in 1913. Although she earned the credential, she wasn’t exactly considered a peer by the male legal community just yet, and being the first female lawyer in Escambia County, was quite alone. I wonder if Emmett and Minnie talked about this professional isolation experience at any time.)

Here, in January, 1906, for the first time in his life, Emmett was emotionally, physically, probably spiritually, alone, and without any real ‘tools’ within himself to deal with the isolation. Sure, Nick Van Sant was a good friend and mentor, but he was also a busy man who expected Emmett, 21 years old, with good family and academic connections, and supposedly with life experience (at least, that’s how Emmett portrayed himself) to deal with his life on life’s terms.

Still, Emmett probably looked upon the isolation as temporary. After all, this was the dream job Emmett wanted all his life, and surely things would simply fall into his lap, as they always did.

Emmett’s primary criteria for this dream job:

  • To immerse himself in the law;
  • To be left alone to his own devices without well-meaning friends and family members offering suggestions/advice.

And that’s what he got.


But a few months into Emmett’s dream job, he discovers that his situation isn’t what he expected.

As the solo lawyer in the firm (Nick had a full-time job as president of the Sterling State Bank), he certainly got to immerse himself in the law — but Emmett was awful at office administrivia — and I don’t think he was prepared for how much work there was to do with the cases, by himself, even with the help of a secretary.

From The Sterling Evening Gazette. February 22, 1906,
From The Sterling Evening Gazette. February 22, 1906,

This was just the thing that Cephas had warned Emmett about back in Florida before he left: It wasn’t enough that Emmett was a good litigator. Running a law firm by oneself involves a lot of managerial and administrative skills that he just hadn’t mastered yet. Not only that, the expectation was that Emmett brought in new business and new clients. When you’re the solo proprietor, it’s difficult to conduct a business while marketing it at the same time. We have no idea what Emmett said to Van Sant about the ability to get it all done; perhaps Van Sant was impressed by Emmett’s high energy (which is commented on in contemporary media now and then). Was that an act? Was it something else, perhaps?

The Wilson genealogy, by John Evans Wilson, mentions a wealthy Northern lumberman who ‘started’ Emmett drinking:

Knowing what we know about Nicholas Van Sant, that statement is in error: Nick never ‘got’ Emmett drinking. The seeds were already planted for Emmett’s alcohol addiction long ago; all that was needed was a catalyst, and I believe that catalyst was the loneliness and isolation he experienced after moving to Sterling.

It’s a little ironic. Even though seemed Emmett to prefer solitude (for example, he would be perfectly content on a fishing boat for hours, or camping by himself in St. Andrews, Florida during summer vacations) that kind of solitude was his choice, if that makes sense. Emmett was from a prominent social and political family in West Florida, where he’d not had to worry about societal acceptance — everyone who was anyone in West Florida politics and social circles knew him because of his family. Emmett didn’t have to put forth any effort to become ‘known’ back in Florida. His family’s reputation did that for him.

The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:
The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

But in Sterling, Emmett was an oddity, an outsider, an unknown. After having family, friends, loved ones in your face (and in your business) every single day, as it was for Emmett back in Marianna, it probably was a relief for him to be left alone in Sterling for the first few weeks. Social acceptance didn’t simply fall into his lap this time. I think he didn’t know how to handle that, either.

The locals in Sterling were certainly polite to him, but it was hard for him to break into professional and social circles when you are (just about) the only Southern Democrat in solidly Republican northwestern Illinois.

I estimate that by the end of March, 1906, he realized that the move to Sterling was a mistake, and that’s when Emmett’s alcoholism turned into a full-blown problem that couldn’t be ignored.

Categories: Addiction Book

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