September 28, 2015
It was pouring rain in Old Town Pensacola; coming down in what people describe as sheets — you could see what looked like panels of water blowing sideways across the streets, the wind was gusting hard. But Nancy was steadfast and unflappable as she navigated her Nissan truck through the historic downtown area towards the public parking lot near the old Pensacola City Hall, now the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum.
We were heading towards the office of Jacki Wilson, the archivist of the University of West Florida Historic Trust, and a good friend of mine — another friendship brought about via Emmett Wilson’s story!
Nancy and I walked over to Jacki’s new office, in the beautiful new archive. Jacki gave us a brief tour, then we headed over to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was so much fun hanging out with Nancy and Jacki. We talked to her about the research suggestions (Federal archives, as well as the Santa Rosa Court archives); she told us that if we had the time it wouldn’t hurt to work one of them into the visit.
The thing about the morning visit to the courthouse archive had left me feeling as if I was missing something. I asked her if she was OK heading back over to talk to the archivists some more. I’ve learned in research that sometimes, the issue isn’t that the information isn’t there, but it’s in how the questions are asked to librarians or archivists. “With me, I have to sit with the information for awhile, and then, I go back and re-ask for certain information — and wouldn’t you know — I get different documents, or sources to check out. It makes me feel like I’m lacking in how I go about this,” I said, glancing at Jacki, who nodded understanding.
She told me it wasn’t about the individual per se, but how researchers interpret what they’ve found. And, it takes time to understand what it is you have in front of you — it’s not always as simple as interpreting the words on the page in front of you, she said.
I told her that a colleague of mine who works at the National Archives in D.C. told me something similar when I called him about clarifying information on a document he’d found for me. “He said you have to take the context of the document, that is, what was going on with others, or Emmett’s fellow attorneys, or his clients, or even how Emmett was doing personally that day.” I shook my head in frustration. “Just overwhelming at times. And frustrating as hell because I wasn’t there to see all of this, or understand it.”
But that’s what you’re trying to do, Nancy said. “Quit beating yourself up over this. Even when you are in person with friends, and family, in the moment, we all misinterpret messages. With Emmett, all you can do is gather the information that’s available, and present it as best you can. Emmett would be proud of you,” she said, smiling kindly at me.
“We’ll head back over there just in case,” Nancy added. “If you want to do it, we can absolutely add another day or so onto the visit, unless you have pressing schedules back home.”
I didn’t. Jacki agreed. “I don’t kid myself thinking I could ever get all the information I need in one or two trips,” I told my friends. “I’m so grateful that everyone’s flexible.”
“And we all want to know the scoop on Emmett,” Nancy added.
Jacki agreed. You know it’s a good project, she said. It’s worth the time. And, he did ask you personally to take it on.
So, after lunch, the rain had cleared up, and Nancy and I returned to the Escambia Court Archive. I went back to the microfilm, and Nancy went through the physical records.
We uncovered several more cases, with extensive dialog from Emmett defending either the interests of the government or private clients, and there was a pattern: His cases were along the lines of lesser crimes (garnishments, bankruptcies) and divorces, until around 1911, when he was being groomed for political office.
Nancy didn’t think that was accidental; in fact, she echoed an observation (that would be shared with me only a few days later) by Sue Tindel, the archivist of the Jackson County (FL) Court in Marianna. “Of course, as district attorney, he’s the law in Escambia County,” Nancy said, “but it’s odd his cases seem ‘lightweight’ up until 1911.”
“Maybe it was about experience, or lack of experience with the serious criminal cases?” I asked. “But he’s been practicing law consistently since 1904.”
“Or inconsistently,” Nancy added. “Let’s not forget what happened in 1906 in Illinois. You know there was a break in his practice from at least May until October — he moved here in late September that year. Who hired him first when he moved back home?”
“His uncle, Evelyn Maxwell,” I said. “OK. So, he didn’t have to struggle too much to land back on his feet.”
Nancy said you know that his family and friends had to have known about what was going on with Emmett at that point in his life, and maybe it was a professional intervention. And, you know his uncle, the judge, would not jeopardize his practice or reputation by handing Emmett the prominent cases, at least not at first.
I told Nancy I was disappointed at what I was finding. “I know I can’t interject my feelings into this project, but I have the distinct impression Emmett was coddled most of his professional life, and that’s disappointing. He was being used by Mayes. He must have known that.”
“Probably. Well, we have several articles that mention how hard-working and diligent Emmett was in prosecuting his cases,” Nancy said.
“Yeah, but I’ve come also to understand that Frank Mayes was doing PR work for Emmett. Up until Mayes wasn’t able to control Emmett, which was in late 1914, you never saw anything negative about him in the press. Hell, Emmett’s name was misspelled most of the time when articles ran about him up until Mayes decided to use Emmett.”
So, all the articles saying Emmett was ‘brilliant’ were probably a stretch, Nancy said. “I don’t doubt he was smart; but most likely, he was an adequate lawyer. The brains in that family, in my view, were with Cephas Wilson, but he was too much of a morality risk for consideration on any national political ticket.” That, plus Cephas Wilson and Frank Mayes did not like each other. “I doubt seriously Cephas would have agreed to become Mayes’ pawn, even it if meant achieving a national congressional office.”
About 20 minutes later, Nancy said: “Score!”
I quickly got up from the microfilm reader to where Nancy was standing at a research table, grinning. “Look at this,” she said.
“Oh wow,” I said, as I took a photo of the page. “Recognition by his peers, despite the fact he hadn’t been practicing law, really, since he came back from D.C. in March, 1917.”
“Still, that’s not unusual. He served the Bar, he had friends in high places; his uncle Evelyn was a judge in the circuit, so it makes sense,” Nancy said. “But look. They misspelled his first name,” she said, pointing at the first line of the resolution. “Kinda telling.”
“Yeah,” I said.
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