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Chapter 164: A Cowardly Trick

September 29, 2015
5 pm
Pensacola, Florida

What: Emmett Wilson and Byrd Kelly’s engagement announcement.

Where: Walter Kehoe’s annual summer vacation gathering at St. Andrews, Florida; August 1-14, 1911.

Why/how: In June, 1911 Emmett was named (not elected) State’s Attorney for his brother Cephas Wilson’s unfinished term as State Attorney. This was yet another high visibility job for which Emmett had to do nothing but kiss the right behind at the right time. Emmett was a mediocre prosecutor, and a good lawyer, but he had the reputation for getting jobs without having to ‘earn’ them, or run for office.

Frank Mayes has been paying attention to Emmett’s career in 1911. He’d noticed his raw talent, that he was a young man hungry to climb the political ladder any way he could. Now that Florida had been given a new (fourth) congressional seat as of 1911. Mayes wanted to push for the next U.S. congressman to come from Pensacola. On Mayes’ short list in June (and through November), 1911 was Walter Kehoe, Judge Parkhill, and Dannite Mays.

November 9, 1911, from the Miami Herald, via Notice that Emmett’s name is not among the contenders — just yet.

Interestingly, in June, a Pensacola reporter asked Emmett if, when his term of office was up, he would run to succeed himself?

“Yes,” he said.

Then, Emmett realized he would be running for election — less than a year away — for the very first time. His job wasn’t simply going to be handed to him (as was almost every job he’d had up to now), and, he was concerned. Emmett also knew that, politically, he was mostly unknown outside of Pensacola. The key to success was going to be the endorsement of The Pensacola Journal, and Frank Mayes. Emmett didn’t like Mayes (see the background here and here); but, he also wasn’t a fool: If he wanted any kind of prominent political career, he needed to make nice with Mayes.

Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal. Champion grudge holder and manipulator.

So, Emmett put his pride in his pocket, went to Mayes and asked his advice.

And Mayes, ever the manipulator, knew he had Emmett where he wanted him.

Mayes had a honest conversation with Emmett; telling him, “Sure, you have a chance, but you have to do something about the young, unsettled, bachelor image. You are the incumbent for the D.A. job, but your opponents are better known, older, more mature, more experienced.”

Then — Mayes said to Emmett:

“What are you willing to do to have my support?”


The obvious solution was to send a public message that Emmett was settling down. It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to everyone, because for almost two years, Emmett had been shopped around local dances and cotillions by the Kehoes, his friends, and his siblings. Although he had a good paying job, and a somewhat successful career, it was fairly common knowledge that:

— Emmett didn’t have any money saved to support a wife or family; he was barely supporting himself.
— Emmett had a reputation as a man-about-town, which implied a problem with drinking, women, or both (he was know to spend a lot of money and time at the exclusive Osceola Club, and other men’s clubs).
— Emmett didn’t own any property or similar assets.
— Emmett was supported professionally and personally by Walter Kehoe, friend, landlord, and law partner (who had controlling shares of the partnership).


July 11, 1911 issue of the Panama City Pilot via microfilm.

On August 1, 1911, Emmett was at St. Andrews for his annual two-week vacation with the Kehoes.

Kehoe and Emmett had a frank conversation about his political future, his concerns that he had to run for office for the first time. I’m sure Emmett told Kehoe that Mayes said he had to settle down; but, he wasn’t ready. No matter, Kehoe said: It was fine that Emmett still wasn’t ready to get married. No one is saying you HAVE to.

But — we can PRETEND it was happening, get the message across publicly. Because it will all be pretend, it won’t happen. If anyone asks, we can say it fell through for some reason, blame it on the woman changing her mind, and so forth. No harm, no foul.

The woman? She had to meet specific criteria:

–Prominent/respectable family;
–Temperance; and, most importantly,
–Not local.

Kehoe warned Emmett that if she was local, the courtship would have to be played out in Pensacola society, visible to everyone, published in the papers, and there was no way to undo it without damage to anyone’s reputation. Also: Kehoe said that it didn’t matter if how well or how long they knew each other; as long as they could make a reasonable case for the existence of the relationship. They didn’t have to really prove the ‘depth’ of the relationship to anyone else; just that the woman wasn’t imaginary, and that Emmett was finally settling down. And — Surprise! — Kehoe had the perfect young woman in mind! Byrd Kelly!

What’s interesting — and cowardly — about all of this?

Byrd didn’t have a clue this was happening behind her back. She wasn’t even at St. Andrews at any time during 1911. But that didn’t matter to Kehoe and Emmett. They manufactured the story:

What’s interesting is that this party happened, but in August, 1910. The clip above, originating in the Panama City Pilot, was published as a reprint in both the Pensacola Evening News and The Pensacola Journal on September 6, 1911 (see the bottom tag line). Notice also — NO DATE in or on the clip itself about the event when it ran in 1911. Source: Bay County (FL) online archives.

Notice that while Byrd Kelly was reportedly present, the Kehoes trotted out almost all of Emmett’s family members and friends while she was in St. Andrews in 1910. That part isn’t in doubt — the Kehoes generally had an open-door to family and friends while they were in their summer vacation house for months at a time — and different members of the Wilson family stayed there on and off with the Kehoes every summer.

While Byrd Kelly was at St. Andrews in 1910, the weekly Panama City Pilot mentioned her presence in town during her entire visit, and even after she left. That wasn’t a coincidence; she came from a prominent family, with important business connections. For example, it’s likely she could have come to visit (or, leave) via her father’s steamship, the M.W. Kelly ,at least once.

Photo of the M.W. Kelly steamboat on the Apalachicola, River, Florida. Byrd could have made the trip to St. Andrews this way, on her father’s steamboat. Source is Florida


Nancy looked over the clips, the photos, and my summary, and said,

“Well, you know, if there were sparks, and if Emmett were serious about her, she, or family members, would have been in St. Andrews that year. Also, you’d have seen more of her mentioned in the news, certainly in the Pensacola papers, linked with Emmett or the Kehoes. Minimally, her father would have been in the area, or her brothers, visiting Pensacola, or with Emmett’s family in Marianna or Chipley.”

“Byrd probably thought he was smart, a nice fellow, but she was super serious — as in, straight-laced — and she probably thought there was something a little off about him. And while she had fun with the Kehoes during the 1910 visit, Byrd knew the reality of dating in her family. Dee Rainey told me in great detail that Byrd’s father would never countenance a courtship long distance; certainly, not a man unknown to the Kelly family. Plus, Emmett’s drinking. He might be able to ‘control’ it for a short time, but in 1910, he was already an alcoholic. That would never be acceptable to her family,” I said.

Emmett came back to Pensacola on August 15, 1911. Between August 15 and September 1, either Emmett, or Walter Kehoe, or, Cephas, or all three arranged the publication of Emmett’s engagement news with both The Pensacola Journal and the Pensacola Evening News.

This is a chart of articles printed about Emmett Wilson and the engagement publicity, along with other news affecting Emmett (the Santa Rosa murder cases he’d prosecute). Notice that Emmett is conveniently away fishing with his brother on the day the engagement announcement is published. Chart by the author.

“Do you think Emmett ever read Dr. Faustus?” Nancy mused, as she closed the Kelly folder.

I didn’t know. I thought it was likely; it was classic literature, and the Wilsons seemed to be a literary family, though I didn’t know if they’d owned anything by Christopher Marlowe.

“Think about it — it’s easy to see Emmett, an alcoholic, getting swept up into what seems like a good idea and a quick solution to problem that’s in his way of his success. I wonder if Walter, Emmett, even Cephas, sat around a table with a bottle of Scotch and hammered this deal out, just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “And then, once the article runs in the paper, and Emmett’s had some time to clear his head, be distracted by work, he realized maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But it might have been presented to him as a necessary evil, you know. He came from a political family. Surely he knew about the games people played, the things people did or felt they had to do, to make their way up the ladder.”

“Yeah,” Nancy said, “but think about it. This is the point where he, basically, sold his soul to ambition. I bet he realized that, once it came out in the paper. He’d have to go around pretending he was engaged, living a lie for awhile, weeks, maybe months. And what if she showed up on his doorstep, and demanded he make good the engagement?”

I chuckled at that. “I bet. I hope he was bothered by it, because this was a mean and cowardly trick to play on another person.”


Next: Emmett’s Comeuppance

Categories: Addiction Book Family Florida History

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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