September 29, 2015
Nancy opened a thick folder tabbed “The Kelly Family” on the table. It was full of copies of newspaper clippings, death certificates, funeral service information, and the like. “How the heck did Emmett Wilson and Byrd Kelly got together in the first place.”
I pulled out the spread sheet for Emmett Wilson’s life for the year 1910. “It started a year before the engagement was announced. If you look at the articles that were published specifically about Emmett, there’s much less social news; significantly more attention to professional activities. It’s as if there’s some image management in the works. It’s all rather routine news, but that’s the idea.”
At the start of 1910, the kingmaker, Frank Mayes, is working closely with state Democratic party execs to find a candidate who would best represent the interests of the Panhandle. There hasn’t been any real national representation from the western part of the state since Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, served in Congress, and that was before the Civil War. The current U.S. Congressman, Dannite Mays, is adequate, but not a true progressive — and– he isn’t from the western part of the state.
If anything, Frank Mayes is incredibly perceptive — he sees change coming in terms of a progressive political movement, not just in Florida, but across the country. He believes the next U.S. president will be a progressive — he believes it will be Woodrow Wilson — though at this point, Wilson is not high on the candidate radar. Especially in Florida.
And, Frank Mayes wants more power, though he’s always subtle about it. He wants to influence Florida political gains at the national level — what better way to do it than to name the next U.S. Congressman and run that person’s campaign himself (again — quietly, subtly)?
“What we know about Mayes during this time was that to reach his influencer goals, he needed someone he could control once he got into office. And the list of potential candidates — Kehoe, Ceph Wilson, Judge Parkhill, and so forth — were not people Mayes could manipulate.”
Experienced political players, Nancy said. “And they saw what Mayes was doing.”
“So, right now, Mayes looks outside the group of usual suspects, and Emmett’s name comes up. But in 1910, Emmett’s friends and family members were concerned about him. Emmett had a reputation of a kind-of slacker even among all the social elite families of Pensacola; all the jobs he’s ever had were basically handed to him, he didn’t own any property yet (though he made good money and had the connections to do so), he wasn’t settled down yet,” I said.
“And then there’s the drinking problem,” Nancy added. “A bachelor with a drinking problem. A loose cannon who didn’t appear serious, though he had the pedigree. The local girls definitely had a clue about Emmett — he was a lot of fun at parties and dances, but would they want to settle down with him? Doubtful.”
“Yeah. See, Emmett was ambitious. He was smart — not brilliant, but with his abilities and connections, there was definitely potential for a good future in politics. He just needed to settle down. Take a look at the other important political figure in Florida: Albert Gilchrist.”
Nancy nodded. “That was probably more than enough for Floridians re bachelors in prominent places. It’s incredibly judgmental, but the social norms back then were that most folks were settled down; i.e., married, by the time they were 20. If not, people started asking questions — was this person is settled down enough, or serious enough, to be a politician or judge or more? Or, if there was ‘something wrong’ with the person who isn’t married yet. It was a real issue for women back then. Unfortunately, it still is in some places.”
“Well, yeah,” I said, pulling out the short piece on Emmett being called a ‘benedict.’ “In 1910, Emmett was 28 years old. The U.S. Census report for that year shows the average age at which men married was 25.2 — though — tooking at this through the lens of the 21st century, the whole ‘benedict’ thing with Emmett is a lot of fuss over nothing.”
“But not if some of political players had their eye on Emmett for awhile, like Frank Mayes did,” Nancy said.
“Right. So, if we compare this year’s spreadsheet of articles and other reports about Emmett to this year’s spreadsheet, it’s easy to see the reputation repair in progress.”
Nancy added that setting up Emmett with a ‘suitable girl’ to divert any impression he was not serious, or not willing to settle down was a team effort, led by Mayes.
“Yes,” I said. “I can see Mayes talking with Walter Kehoe, enlightening Kehoe about the political rumblings going on nationally. Mayes was truly gifted that way.”
Nancy said, “I read a while back that the truly successful political operatives do their planning years in advance — making contacts, planting the seeds just the way Mayes was doing with Emmett. Kehoe was wise to it; he also stood to gain from helping Mayes, if not soon, then down the road. So. Show me the paperwork on the Kehoe’s matchmaking.”
One thing I thought for sure was that if Emmett was going to get married to anyone, it was to someone he’d known for a long time. Why? “Emmett was a creature of habit. He liked knowing where things were, who people were, everything in its place. With relationships, he kept to the same people — he never had a large group of ‘friends’ per se — he only a few people throughout his life. But they were with the kind who stuck with him through thick and thin pretty much from early childhood until he died,” I explained to Nancy.
Most of the women he knew were familiar to him via introductions from friends, family, and the like, and that is how he met Byrd Farmer Kelly — through an introduction by Walter and Jennie Kehoe during a vacation trip at St. Andrew’s, Florida.
According to the Panama City Pilot for June, 23, 1910, Byrd came to St. Andrews with her aunt and her brother for a getaway. This was Byrd’s second trip to St. Andrews this summer; apparently she needed a getaway from her family in Columbus, Georgia.
Nancy noted I tagged Byrd’s father ‘domineering.’ “How do you know this?”
I pulled out a letter I’d received from a great-great niece of Byrd’s, Dee Rainey, who I’d tracked down through Ancestry.com. Mrs. Rainey wrote a book about her family’s history, and included a chapter on the Kellys. I interviewed Mrs. Rainey via snail mail in 2013 because she didn’t have email at the time. We’d exchanged a few letters — and in them, I asked specific questions about what Whit Kelly and Byrd Kelly were like. Mrs. Rainey gave me several specific examples why Whit Kelly was not the man to take for granted, personally or professionally.
“Ok. Domineering father always keeping the children — especially daughters — under his thumb. That’s terrible. Well, no wonder she stuck around in St. Andrews as long as possible. I’d want a break, too,” Nancy said.
I believe Byrd met the Kehoe family during that first visit, which makes sense. Byrd was probably lonely; the Kehoes are friendly and have their eyes open for somone suitable for Emmett.
“It was a perfect situation. Byrd’s well-to-do — and Jennie sees a potential mate in Byrd for Emmett. “Think about this: Byrd’s from a prominent, wealthy family. She finished a study program at Wesleyan College (she didn’t graduate but earned a certificate in music), so she’s educated — she was considered an excellent pianist and Emmett loved music,” I said.
“And — she’s from a strict, disciplined temperance family,” Nancy added. “I imagine that Jennie and Walter saw Byrd and thought: Here’s our solution. If anyone could straighten out Emmett, it is this woman.”
“So, the Kehoes told Byrd — who was 23 years old at this point and probably ready to settle down — ‘Guess what? We have someone you need to meet. He’ll be here at the end of the month!'”
“They probably said the same thing to Emmett,” Nancy added. “And that’s how they met.”
Emmett shows up as usual for his two-week summer vacation in St. Andrews; he’s staying with the Kehoes at their cottage. Numerous parties are given at the house, on the beach on a boat that the Kehoes kept at St. Andrews — lots of fun, social activities. “Also, notice that Emmett’s friends and family members are invited to come down for a day or two all during Byrd’s well-chaperoned sojourn at St. Andrew’s — Emmett’s friends, the ones who probably wrote the engagement announcement, are all there to vet the potential couple.”
Nancy snorted. “On August 9, look at all the Wilson brothers ‘visiting’ at once at the Kehoe cottage. They were there to vet the potential bride, right? All of those guys there,” she said thoughtfully. “Makes me think they had a part in that bonehead engagement announcement.”
According to the chart, Emmett has to get back to work as of August 18. “Apparently, both Emmett and Byrd had a good visit at St. Andrews,” Nancy added. “But was it a love connection? It’s what happened afterwards that will tell you if it was or it wasn’t.”
I didn’t think so, because although they might have stayed in touch via letters to each other now and then, there really wasn’t any proof that Emmett went to the trouble to go see her. “See, Emmett was the district attorney in Pensacola. Byrd was several hundred miles away in Columbus, Georgia. If he made the trip to go see her, it would have been a really big deal, because of who she was, and because of the effort involved — it was at least a 24-hour trip one-way back then. Time consuming. And I’m sure the folks grooming Emmett’s image would have been promoting the fact Emmett was seriously courting someone in Georgia publicly. Why wouldn’t they, if it was, in fact, happening?
“And remember when Emmett was at Stetson — how he went out of his way to court Pearl Spaulding, who lived at Seabreeze on the Atlantic, how many times — at least three times, right?” Nancy said. And here he is, with money and perhaps better opportunities to go out of his way to visit Byrd, if he was serious about her. But he didn’t,” Nancy said.
“Right. And, there’s nothing in any of the newspapers saying he was visiting her at all — even though the papers report even Emmett’s most picayune comings and goings, public events he’s attending in Florida, his brother coming to visit him, and so forth. Nothing about his visiting Byrd, or vice versa; nothing about her family coming to see him to check him out. The DA going out of state for visits? That would have been reported,” I added.
Plus, knowing what Whit Kelly demanded of any young man courting his daughters pretty much ended any idea that Emmett was actually, seriously, considering Byrd Kelly as a fiancée. “Whit Kelly’s daughters were only allowed to ‘date’ by the gentlemen callers sitting on the front porch, and the window had to be open so he could hear everything that was going on, at least, according to the niece’s letter,” I said. “How would Emmett even be able to do this?”
“They might have liked each other ok, but I don’t see how it got beyond that,” Nancy summarized. “They knew each other only for days; there’s no way Whit Kelly would have allowed his daughter to travel to Pensacola to visit Emmett for the purpose of getting to know him — he would not have considered this proper — and I can’t see how Emmett would have even had the time to properly see her per the Whit Kelly guidelines. There’s no record he did; plus, he wouldn’t have had time with that busy court schedule.”
So, how did this event actually come about in 1911? And, what was the fallout?
Stay tuned for the next chapter.
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