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Chapter 160: An Average Man

September 29, 2015
1:25 pm
Pensacola, Florida

After spending several productive hours with the awesome Santa Rosa Court archivists, Nancy and I went to Denny’s for brunch to review where we were so far with Emmett’s discovery. There’s nothing like a plate load pancakes and pots of coffee to refuel and relax.

We sat at a booth near the back of the restaurant and after we pushed the syrupy plates out of the way to the side of the table, we spread out our notes in order as best we could.

“A long time ago I was an engineering major, and I had to buy this stuff for my classes. I got to where I like the feel of it and writing across the grid paper. Plus, my handwriting is generally bad and this helps me stay somewhat legible.”

Some of the folders I had with me at the brunch with Nancy, complete with notes to self, on the text, on Post-Its, and note cards. Quad pad looseleaf paper is inserted among the pages as well. I transcribe all my notes because my handwriting is awful.

“Then you put the written notes in the computer,” she said, nodding approval, as I opened my laptop.

“Yep.” I turned it to face her as I opened up my spreadsheet program. “Ever since I started this project, I entered every single thing I found about Emmett onto this spreadsheet. I had to break it down eventually into five different ones, according to year groups so it would be easier to manage. Doing this, we get kind-of a birds-eye view of his life.”

“Nice,” she said, scrolling down. “And here’s 1910 to 1911 — notice how he has more coverage in the paper.”

An image of one of the spreadsheets where I’ve broken down every individual source on Emmett’s life. I’ve included family members and friends in the spreadsheets for context.

“Notice also how often his name is misspelled, especially with The Pensacola Journal,” I said, pointing to the notes that went with each summary. “It’s not as if he’s unknown to Frank Mayes and his staff at this point. It’s almost as if they don’t care if they get his name right or not, and here he is, a rising star in the community? Maybe this isn’t such a big deal, you know, but I did compare it to the years when he was running for congressman, and then got elected, and sure enough, they spell his name correctly.”

Nancy was scrolling through the spreadsheet, nodding as I was talking. “You’ve got his close relatives and family member activities in here too.”

“Yeah,” I said. “For context. I wasn’t sure if I should do that, but there’s so very little of his primary source information in existence, and his friends and family DO have some primary information out there relative to the time frames.”

Nancy sat back and started to look through her notes. “OK. Let’s sum up what we have about Emmett so far and organize it into categories, like personal and professional. I know that sounds cold, but let’s throw down all that we know about him so far, and sketch this out.”

I pulled out a fresh quadrille page, put the headings at the top, and wrote as we brainstormed for about 20 minutes.

“Well,” Nancy said, scanning the paper. “What do you think?”

“The first thing that pops into my mind is that we are summing up a man’s life like it was a thesis statement. He was a complex human being, just like anyone.”

“So let’s think about this in terms of what HR does when someone is being considered for hire,” Nancy said. “You know what happens? This happens,” she said, waving her hand at our notes. “HR sums up the candidate’s qualifications. Let’s do it like that.”

I agreed. “OK. So, it’s 1911, and we know that there’s a congressional election coming up in 1912, and you and I are on the candidate selection committee, just as it was back then. There’s three or four people in the running for this position, and someone’s raising Emmett’s name to push out there as the party candidate. Based on what we’ve seen of him, based on his professional experience,” I emphasized, “what would you do?”

Without hesitation, Nancy said, “I wouldn’t pick Emmett.”

“Why not — again — based only on his professional experience, not his connections and other stuff?” I asked.

“He lacks consistent, regular experience with serious law cases — the Penton case was just one case. No lawyer wins all of their cases, but overall,” Nancy said, gesturing at the list of all of the cases and outcomes that we had, “his experience lacks — I don’t know — gravitas? Would that be the right word?”

“If we are seriously vetting his practice, what are his cases like, overall?”

She pointed to our list, which was heavy on civil cases, such as divorces, garnishments, personal bankruptcies, disputes between vendors and customers, but light on those that had prominence or weighty testimony/evidence. “Though, here’s one case where an elderly man was accused of rape against a 12-year-old girl, and Emmett defended the elderly man,” Nancy said, pulling the article out to review. “Emmett got him committed to Chattahoochie, with an insanity defense. It wasn’t placed prominently in the paper back then; it would definitely not be treated that way today.” She shook her head. “That’s serious, of course, but my point is he doesn’t have much in weighty cases. Was that on purpose? And then, there’s this whole nepotism thing with him.”

“The fact is, most of his jobs were handed to him.” I said. “For example, working with Cephas right out of school. You know Ceph didn’t formally interview his own brother. And the Sterling, Illinois experience — that job was created for Emmett — because Nick Van Sant was his friend.”

“And don’t forget what his uncle Evelyn Maxwell did, bringing him into his firm right as he moved to Pensacola.”

I said I didn’t blame Emmett using connections to get into a job market or to jump-start a career. “A lot of people get jobs through people they know. That’s not a negative per se. It’s not unusual, either.”

“But he did it all the time. Not once did he apply for something out of the blue or independently — and that thing in 1907 about him becoming Assistant D.A? He was quoted in the Pensacola Evening News interview — ‘I didn’t even apply for it?’ Did he ever actually compete with someone else for the jobs he got?” said Nancy, clearly irritated.

Emmett didn’t even apply for the position, yet he got it. Surprise? Source: The Montgomery Advertiser, September 14, 1907, from

“Emmett’s running for office in 1912 was, pretty much, his first real job competition. It wasn’t a fait accompli, especially his running against a seasoned office holder like Dannite Mays for the Democratic ticket,” I said. “So, this makes me think he wasn’t able to go out there, do something for himself, especially if and when things got bad.”

We both drank coffee quietly for a few minutes and then I asked, “Do you think that his closest friends and family knew that he was, well, unable to stand on his own two feet if he had to?”

Cephas Love Wilson, Florida State Senator, 1898. Source:

“That makes me think of something else,” Nancy said. “Emmett’s drinking behavior was not a big secret either. There’s no way. I believe his drinking and his inability to fend for himself were linked, and that’s what his closest family and friends saw too.”

“Yep. Compare Emmett’s career rise to Cephas‘. Ceph had to school himself, then built his career mostly on his own, though he did have connections,” I said.

“Whose constant success was probably thrown in Emmett’s face as well.”

“OK. So, why did so many of Emmett’s family and friends, knowing this about Emmett, put themselves out for him so much? House him, give him jobs, pave his way professionally for him. He never owned a home. He never owned an office. In fact, when he died, he owned a desk and a bookcase. That’s pretty much it.”

I pulled up a letter Cephas wrote to Judge Henry Bellinger, who was processing Emmett’s will after he’d died in 1918. It was in the original will file that I’d obtained from the Escambia County Archives in 2013. “Look. Cephas says that Emmett basically had nothing when he died, except a life insurance policy. My father-in-law, who was an insurance agent for decades, told me there was no way it was matured if Emmett had obtained the policy in 1912, and died only six years later.”

The first page of Cephas Love Wilson’s letter to Judge Henry Bellinger, regarding Emmett’s estate. When he died in 1918, Emmett had very little property; the life insurance likely had other debts borrowed against it. Source: Escambia County Court Archives

Nancy sat quietly for a moment. “It was because his family and friends loved him, and hadn’t given up on him yet. They wanted the best for him. Think about it. This was in the days before AA, and before people went to therapists. The Wilsons were prominent people, too. If this information got out, the whole family would be ‘judged’ by it, fair or not. That’s still the case today, you know.”

I nodded agreement. “If I was living during that time, my first reaction: Hide it from the world and pretend everything’s ok,” I said. “You’re right. I had several relatives with significant drinking problems back then, and family member hid it as best they could, until one incident got published in the local papers. A great uncle committed suicide after he’d gotten into trouble with gambling and drinking, and one day hung himself.”

Maybe Emmett’s family and friends thought he’d grow out of it, the drinking and footloose lifestyle; maybe they believed that a healthy environment, one with friends and family who would keep an eye on him, would be the solution. After all, Emmett’s older brother Francis was able to ‘cure’ himself from drinking, with much credit due to his wife and family, supporting his self-maintained sobriety. “But it’s so rare that someone is successful going ‘cold turkey’ as Francis did,” I added.

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Emmett’s older brother who also struggled with alcoholism. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

It’s fair to say, then, that Emmett was indebted to his friends on several levels, but, he was also a good friend in return, Nancy said.

“I belive that,” I said. “He definitely knew what his friends were doing for him; he makes a comment about that in a speech he gave the evening he was elected to Congress in 1912. In it, he talked about how his friendships made him a wealthy man, though he wasn’t wealthy in cash. I believe he did for his friends in turn whatever he could. There’s a speech given at an Elks Club meeting in 1918, remembering members who had died earlier in the year — Emmett was eulogized at that meeting, and the person giving the speech talked about Emmett always being a good friend.”

Nancy asked: “Interesting. What else did it say about him in the eulogy?”

“Not much else, which is a shame. Or, which is rather telling.”

As we began to gather our notes and put our things away, Nancy asked, “So, if we are still using the HR model to evaluate Emmett’s suitability on professional and personal levels, what are our conclusions?”

“Well — Emmett’s intelligent. Probably above average, given some of the work he’s done in the past, as a telegrapher, a law clerk, valedictorian of Stetson’s law school, though the valedictorian selection was a popularity vote, not based on grades. He’s ambitious, but lacks the dedication or initiative to see it all the way through, and relies on others to buoy him professionally. Over time, he might develop that, but in 1912, he’s 30 years old,” I said.

“An average lawyer, then,” Nancy said.

“I don’t want to comment on the friendship kind of thing, because I believe he was a good friend; he had a handful of long-time friends, a circle. Think about this: Even though he left under a huge cloud with Nick Van Sant, they stayed in touch for several years, exchanging letters. That says something,” I added.

As we got into Nancy’s truck in the Denny’s parking lot, and settled in, I said, “OK, I’ve got another section to add to this evaluation. What about Emmett’s love life?”

She raised her eyebrows at me. “What?” She scowled at me slightly. “Wait. What have you found? And why have you held out on me all this time?”

I laughed at her. “I wasn’t holding out on this, but I only just found out something a few weeks ago, and I didn’t want to say anything until I had it confirmed. And oh boy, did I confirm it.”

“Damn it, Judy, so why didn’t you tell me until now?”

Categories: Addiction Family Florida History Research Status

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