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Chapter 156: Adventures in the Escambia County Archive

September 28, 2015
Pensacola, Florida

Fueled with coffee, maps, and must-have document lists, Nancy and I arrived in her truck at the Escambia County Circuit Court Archives at 120 E. Blount Street promptly at opening time, 8 am. There were few cars in the parking lot. I was jittery — not just from having consumed three cups of excellent coffee from the Hampton Inn complimentary breakfast bar. Nancy was just as excited. The idea that we could see documents — or, at least the images of documents — that had Emmett’s signature, or better, transcripts of his witness interrogations, or of defending his clients — was thrilling, and overwhelming. It was going to be the closest thing I had to hearing Emmett’s voice.

The current (2021) shot of the Escambia County Archives. When I first visited in 2014, it was inaccessible because of a recent hurricane. Source: Escambia County (FL) Public Records Center.

Even though I was excited, there was this nagging, negative pull at me —

“Nancy. What if, when we start reading his case transcripts, we find out Emmett’s an asshole?”

She laughed. “Yeah. Well, there’s always that possibility. Remember that he was a product of a different generation.” We can look back in time, with our 21st century lenses, and with different understandings of people, and so forth, “…and yeah, it’s easy to chalk it up to folks back then acting like assholes. Women, for example. Look at Minnie Kehoe. She was brilliant and a woman ahead of her time, but you know the men didn’t treat her as a professional equal. Even Emmett, if you think about it. He liked and respected her, sure, but did he consider Minnie, who likely was smarter than Emmett, as an equal?”

I understood what Nancy was saying, and I couldn’t go into the archive with that attitude. “I just have to get that out in the open, though. Emmett’s said a few things on the record that were published in the paper that are, in our 21st century perspective, racist and sexist, and certainly not appropriate professionally.”

Nancy told me it was good to acknowledge it, but we have to capture all of the information, no matter what it was or what it looked like, “even if what he said does, under the 21st century analysis, look bad.” But we can’t label it — all we can do is present what we find, in proper context.

She looked at the clock on the dashboard. “Good. 8:15. That gave the archivists time to get at least one cup of coffee underway. Let’s get going. Lots of documents to uncover.”

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A small section of court records available at Escambia County Courthouse Archives. Nancy and I dug through several of the indexes to find Emmet’s cases. Photo by the author.

While Nancy and I were in the archive, we learned that there’s no online ‘index.’ Of course, that doesn’t bother me, as I fully expected to spend days in sunny Florida ensconced in an air-conditioned, dim archive, but I was concerned about my friend. Before we got together on this trip, I was up-front with her about the work ahead, and the expectation of tedious, old-fashioned, hands-on research. As a fellow researcher, though, Nancy had no illusions about our work together.

Still, I did as much pre-research as I could: I had a list of five specific trials featuring Emmett as prosecutor. In each of these five trials, Emmett reportedly gave eloquent, moving speeches to the juries. I wanted to read what he said, ‘hear’ how he spoke to juries, hear his speech patterns, if you will. I had dates, case names, as well as the names of the judge and the defense attorneys.

The nice thing about all of this was that the ladies who manage the archive did their best to make the tedious process easy, although we immediately ran into a problem.

The ‘starred’ list on the far right? That’s where Emmett’s case numbers were supposed to be listed. The documents for the specific cases aren’t available. Where are they? The mystery continues…. Image by the author.

Nancy and I found it odd that the details about Emmett’s cases — the five cases I wanted to see were murders he was prosecuting — were not available. He prosecuted the cases. We have the records of the outcome. But what about the testimony itself? What about the stenographer’s notes?

The archivists suggested to the federal courthouse downtown — which would have to wait for another day. But one other archivist said that one of the murder cases may not have been tried in Escambia, but in another jurisdiction — Santa Rosa County, for example — something that was not made clear in the newspaper report about one of the cases.

Still, all was not lost. I had also brought a list of other cases to look for in case we had time, and sure enough, the archivists found the microfilm of three of them, which included significant dialog from Emmett. Bingo! I took screen shots of every page, as did Nancy, and between the two of us, we at least had Emmett’s documented dialog.

Divorce proceedings between Annie Traylor and Jefferson Traylor. Emmett represented Annie, who filed for divorce. Emmett’s signature is on the cover of the court proceedings. Image by the author.

Emmett questioning witness Mary Lewis in the Traylor vs Traylor divorce case, held in Pensacola, May 28, 1907. Image by the author.

Some of the text of the case seemed dry, but here and there, in the transcript, there were hints of personality coming out in Emmett’s questioning of witnesses, and dialog with the court. Nancy and I were thrilled to find the content. Ultimately, we came out of the archives with oratory from four smaller cases. We also left having made friends with the ladies of the Escambia County Court Archive. They asked us to stay in touch with them, because one never knew — they may come across something of interest.

But before we left, one of the clerks handed us information about one of Emmett’s murder cases he was prosecuting — it was the address of the Santa Rosa County Archive, about 45 minutes away from Pensacola. “You might go over and just check out what they have available,” she said.

When we got into Nancy’s truck, she said, “You know, we don’t have time built in for the federal archive, but I have a feeling about the one in Santa Rosa. We ought to check that out.”

“Tomorrow?” I asked.

We planned the extra road trip for the following day. But now, we were headed over to the Pensacola Historical Society to meet up with another great friend I’ve met thanks to Emmett Wilson’s research: Jacki Wilson.

Categories: Book Congressman Florida History In Emmett's Words Interesting & Odd

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jsmith532

Professor
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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