September 29, 2105
Santa Rosa County Court Archive
One of the reasons Nancy and I decided to add a side-trip to Milton, Florida, was because of a murder case Emmett was prosecuting in 1911; i.e., U.S. vs. Frank Penton. Although Emmett was the Assistant District Attorney, and of course, it wouldn’t be unusual for an ADA to be assigned a case of this magnitude, Emmett’s prosecutorial experience was neither broad nor deep at this point in his career (based on a review of a list of cases and his win/lose history to this point in his career). The good news was that the Santa Rosa archive reported that they had some of the case paperwork on microfilm, which we were welcome to see at any time.
We weren’t sure what, exactly, what we would find, but any documents on Emmett’s casework were valuable. (Handwritten notes and so forth were long gone; and because Emmett tended to be a nitpicker, I’d have loved to see his writing in detail.) I was grateful to have anything having to do that gave me insight on his everyday activities, no matter how small.
When we entered the archive office, we were greeted by two pleasant women, Susan and Margaret, who had me fill out a research request form, and check my identification as a matter of record. When I told them what I was looking for — they knew immediately what I was talking about.
“Sure,” Susan said. “The Pentons. That bunch was in trouble with the law for decades.”
“Oh yeah,” Margaret added. “They used to call Frank Penton ‘Doogie.'”
I could barely contain my giddiness, as Nancy and I grinned at each other. “Do tell,” I said.
And they did. And they pulled up the electronic file of the 113-year-old cases. And there was Emmett’s name all over the documents. No courtroom oratory, alas, but a lot of useful information.
Is it appropriate to hug the archivists? Well, I did. They both laughed, while Margaret retired to the store room, and brought me several county archival books. “We aim to please,” she said, pleasantly.
Penton’s case was a big deal for Emmett — while he wasn’t yet on the Florida Democratic Party’s radar for an upcoming political contest — he was being watched closely by their leadership, and specifically, by Frank Mayes. This particular case would carry a lot weight in shaping how Emmett handled being in the public eye.
(There’s an interesting biography of Frank Penton on the history blog, Judging Shadows, if you want to read more about his life and activities; based on what the Santa Rosa archivists shared with us about the character of Frank Penton, he had an active involvement with law enforcement, both as peace officer and a prisoner.)
Emmett likely knew of Frank Penton already (Penton served the sheriff’s department in Santa Rosa County), but his first encounter as prosecutor came in late 1910 — as reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune — Felix Corbin was assassinated in Milton on December 6, and Frank Penton was involved.
Background on the Corbin case from an article dated June 5, 1910 from The Pensacola Journal (page 1) includes the language from the affidavit. You can read the entire article here, from the Library of Congress. At a preliminary trial on December 9, 1910, Penton was initially acquitted of the murder charge in a preliminary trial held in Santa Rosa county (interestingly, this trial was prosecuted by Emmett’s older brother, Cephas Wilson, also a state attorney). However, Penton was not free for long; another article, from the December 23, 1910 issue of The Pensacola Journal (page 1), reported federal charges for the murder of Corbin. He was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of the federal witness (Corbin).
And then: George Allen, one of the witnesses against Penton in the case, was later killed by a member of the Penton family. It sounds complicated because it is — Penton seemed to enjoy causing trouble — and the Panhandle courts went back and forth on his cases for years. Thankfully, I found an article (below) from The Pensacola Journal that summarizes what was going on with the Pentons while this was connected to Emmett.
Emmett was probably no stranger to threats while he was in the District Attorney’s office, but I hadn’t found anything that indicated trouble — until his interactions with the Pentons.
An attempt made on Emmett’s life on October 7, 1911, as he was leaving Milton for Pensacola after one of the Penton trials. Details are included in article images below. (Apologies for the poor condition of the images; the microfilm images were taken by myself directly from the film, which has not been scanned into a database).
Note that The Pensacola Evening News portrayed Emmett as ‘fearless’, picking up the piece of coal that was thrown at the window where he sat and smiling at it (the window shattered across his arm; he wasn’t hurt) as the train pulled out of Milton. We don’t know if he stuck around in the passenger car; knowing that Emmett was (at this point) fully alcoholic, I would guess he spent the rest of the trip in the bar car (if there was one), or, quietly quaffing from his flask, which he discretely carried in a briefcase.
A few days later, the sheriff of Santa Rosa County wanted the editor of the PEN to say that the coverage was a mistake re the attempt on EW’s life — and the editorial says, essentially, hell no.
Hereafter, Emmett was relegated to a supporting role in the case of U.S. vs. Penton. Although the cases were held over for the next terms, the fate of U.S. vs. Penton would wind through the court system for another year. Also, Emmett’s movement to a supporting role rather than staying on as lead prosecutor for the First Judicial District makes me think that there were other threats involved, and because he was a rising star in panhandle politics, best to keep him out of harm’s way. Still, I have to think he must have been somewhat relieved. Emmett was a good lawyer, but he was still rather inexperienced (mentally and professionally) with cases of this caliber.
What Nancy and I were looking for at the Santa Rosa Archives were notes and documents specifically related to the case. While we found quite a bit of documents related to the case — all official, some with Emmett’s signature — we found nothing in the way of personal notes, or reflections on the case. Not that I really thought we’d find that in the official documents, but one never knows what can turn up in a case file. At least we could say we looked through everything we could. The archivists there were understanding and empathetic. “It would be great to have his case notes, but they were likely disposed of sometime after his death,” Nancy said.
One thing we could note from the point of view of forensic document examination was we had photos of Emmett’s signature from the case correspondence on file. I told Nancy that just having that gave me some clue of how he was functioning; i.e., as his alcoholism progressed and his health deteriorated, it seemed his handwriting reflected that.
While I looked at one of the signatures, I showed it to the archivists. “I have a copy of his voting registration record, which he signed two weeks before he died,” I told them. “It’s nothing like this — in fact — it’s an illegible scrawl, written out of order on the record book. So these examples from the paperwork on file are useful.”
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