March 24, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Though I’ve loved working on Emmett Wilson’s story for (almost) ten years, I’ve had trouble writing up some of the sections of his story.
Most of the problem has been a lack of complete information at any one time. The way the pieces of Emmett’s story have have come together has been haphazard: Not in any particular order, and, at various and unpredictable times. At no time have the pieces of Emmett’s life story come to me in chronological order.
This haphazard method of data collection skewed my initial understanding and perception about Emmett’s life for a long time. For example, one of the first things I read about him were his obituaries, which left out any indication that Emmett died of alcoholism. The obituaries made him sound heroic, noble, tragic, even romantic, especially because he died young and unmarried, and just starting out in what seemed to be a successful political career.
Two weeks after reading the obituaries, I found a detailed narrative about his congressional service that portrayed him as a careless, irresponsible drunk who was busy putting family and friends into patronage positions, while disregarding correspondence and important communications from his colleagues in Florida. There were specific examples (supported by data) of most of the wrong doings, and hints that there were other scandalous things going on with Emmett. To top it off, several weeks later, Emmett was found unconscious in his Washington, D.C. hotel room across from Cannon House Office Building; he was in a coma and almost died from alcohol poisoning on December 14, 1914.
I admit, Emmett’s research was often mentally exhausting; while I was excited and anxious to gather as much information about Emmett’s life as I could, I often felt disillusioned and disappointed after reading and assessing everything.
And I admit it: I had become addicted to the research.
I don’t know why that happened; I suppose it happened at a time when I needed to latch onto something to make me feel productive or focused, or even worthwhile. When I think back to what was going on in my career and personal life in 2013, I was bored and unchallenged. The job was fine, but I hadn’t been working on a project of any real interest in a long time. The family was fine, but the kids were doing their own things with friends and school, and they didn’t really need me to do so much anymore. Everything was fine.
But not really — something was missing, because, looking back — I literally threw myself into Emmett Wilson’s research. He appeared to me as this mysterious puzzle of a person; a story pretty much unknown and/or forgotten. And — truth! — it WAS partly that he ‘appeared’ to me, asking me to ‘tell his story.’ I had a hole in my soul that needed to filled with something. Here was a project that would do just that.
Sure enough, the Emmett Wilson story was intriguing enough to become my primary research project at the University of Maryland. I quickly found myself spending a minimum of 12 hours a day with databases, or talking to other university archivists on the phone, or drafting letters for grants, or contacting Wilson family descendants, and or scrolling through reels of The Pensacola Journal (and other newspapers) on microfilm at McKeldin Library. (This was about four years before the newspaper microfilm was scanned and uploaded to the Library of Congress’ online periodical database, Chronicling America.)
Yeah, brothers and sisters, I was deep into this mystery man’s story. Emmett Wilson’s research project was in my almost-every thought morning, noon, and night. My husband tells me I was like a machine collecting far-flung, long-ago-scattered data, and every puzzle piece I found was fitting together just made me that much more determined to collect it ALL, to talk to as many living family members as POSSIBLE, as soon as I could.
As time went on, I still would find myself going back and forth about Emmett — as an alcoholic in recovery, I felt empathy for a man caught up in the throes of the disease without any support system — and then, I’d discover an interview of him making arrogant, insensitive and defensive statements about people he disagreed with, or policies he disregarded (like women’s suffrage for a while), and I would have to walk away from the research for hours, or even days at a time. My perceptions of him were either black or white; good or bad.
I was relating to Emmett a lot in that way: I saw myself in the arrogant and insensitive behavior. That was me before I became sober. (Clarification — I am not a saint, nor do I claim perfection with almost 15 years of continuous sobriety. I try to stay teachable and aware of bad behavior. For what it’s worth.)
My researcher’s mind told me to take some time and distance away Emmett’s story, and to see how the pieces fell into place on their own.
Sure enough, new information about Emmett came in; sometimes a trickle, sometimes more than that, and I limited myself to adding the information into my chronological data tables, and to view it as information, neither positive nor negative. That took practice; I was still ‘in love’ with my research project, but it was becoming calmer, more realistic, more manageable.
It’s only been in the last year that I’ve realized I’ve found pretty much everything I’m going to find out about Emmett. Sure, there may be some cache of old letters written by Emmett and sitting in someone’s attic, or, perhaps, the long-lost scrapbooks that Emmett lovingly and diligently put together, then willed to his namesake, may show up from some long-lost trunk or archive. I wish I could find them, but realistically, I don’t think they exist anymore.
My point in saying all of this is, I’ve discovered that reading everything I have about Emmett Wilson’s life, then stepping away from it, has been healthy and revealing. Finally, I can say (after almost 10 years into the research) that I have a healthy appreciation and affection for Emmett and his story. Rushing the telling of the story would have been premature; i.e., my initial understanding of what was going on with Emmett when he made arrogant, insensitive, and defensive statements.
Having had the chance to step back, analyze the information, and structure the story, I’ve come to the understanding that Emmett was a complicated man with a lot of challenges that were over his head for most of his career. Emmett was a guy with a good sense of humor, who loved his family, who was a good friend to those he let get close to him, who, in the end wanted to do the right thing, period, not because it was politically expedient, but because it was the right thing to do.
And that’s what did him in, in the end.
Emmett was an alcoholic. Emmett was my cousin.
And while I don’t feel addicted to the research anymore, I’ve discovered that I love Emmett. I’ve learned a lot from him, and I appreciate him. If I hadn’t found him (or, as I sometimes believe, if he hadn’t found me), my life would not be as rich with new family members, new friends, and a better understanding of this disease that links us together.
Speaking of love.
Back in 2014, for some reason, I felt like if I didn’t find out all I could about Emmett Wilson and this nutty false engagement thing, the opportunity would slip away.
In a few cases, I had really good reason to be so driven; for example, Emmett’s niece, Jule Wilson Perry, was already in her late 90s when I met her in 2014. (Jule died a little over three years ago, on January 6, 2019, age 101.) I remember when I met her, along with her daughter, it was remarkable how sharp she was, and that she had such recall about her father Julian Anderson Wilson, Emmett’s twin brother. Although she was doing fine then, Jule was frail, and with both Jule and her daughter’s permission, I was allowed to check in with them, to send articles, photos, or other items of interest, and to do follow-up interviews.
On one phone call with Jule, I remember telling her what I’d found out about her uncle Emmett’s ‘engagement’ and the details behind it. What was most remarkable about that conversation was the idea that Emmett would have been engaged at all — it wasn’t anything specific that she’d recalled from family stories — just the idea that Emmett being married or even engaged seemed, well, ‘unusual,’ is what she said. No other details — just the general feeling about it — she’d said. (Jule said her father, Julian, never talked about his twin brother Emmett — at all — which, she added, is a bit odd given that they were twins. “There was just this sense of sadness” whenever Emmett’s name was brought up, when she asked about her uncle, and so she chose not to press on the subject.)
After the interviews with Jule Wilson Perry, I would talk to my research partner, Nancy Rayburn, about what was said, and how other Wilson descendant family anecdotes fit in with the facts we had about the phony engagement. “No one in current generations knew this about Emmett; definitely it wasn’t something talked about or memorialized in family lore,” I said to Nancy.
“Yeah, but the nature of the event — it was deceptive,” she said. “Not the same thing as a broken heart story; i.e., he fell in love, he thought it was love, she fell out of love, yada, yada,” Nancy said. “People can relate to a broken heart story. This wasn’t that kind of story, you know. Because this was deceptive, and I’m sure some of the family figured that out after the announcement was made and there was never a wedding, I doubt this was something to be memorialized in the family genealogy.”.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling out my own timelines and data charts for the years 1910 and 1911. “Emmett and Byrd literally knew each other for DAYS. Not months or years. There was no building-up of a relationship. If Emmett was working on a relationship with this woman, you’d have seen him visiting Columbus, Georgia regularly. Or, her family in Florida; they were important enough that their presence would have been reported. Minimally, it would have been good publicity for Byrd’s father’s shipping company. But I don’t like her,” I said.
I remember Nancy giving me this weird look. “But why?”
“Because she had a chance to get to know him. Personally. Maybe to make a connection with him. Maybe to help him; after all, they were ‘set up’ by the Kehoes because she was a temperance gal. Maybe there was a little romance going on, though it didn’t work out. Yeah, the ‘engagement’ was phony, but still. And OK. SHE got close to him that way. She had a chance to help him. And I never would.”
Nancy reached over and patted my hand. “You know what? Emmett probably had a lot of girlfriends; some close, some not. Maybe some intimate, maybe not. I’ll bet if you were there, you would have tried everything to get him to ‘save’ himself from himself about drinking.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Look,” Nancy said. “No one was able to help him. Not friends, not family. And Byrd was a stranger to him. And you, yourself, know that no one can make someone stop drinking and stop self-sabotaging themselves if they don’t want to do it themselves. Even if you were there, you wouldn’t be able to do it.”
I suppose I wanted to be able to pin Emmett’s failure to get sober on someone other than himself, and this Byrd Kelly person was a convenient target — so I admit that Byrd was an innocent in all of this, and I wasn’t being objective about her story and how she got mixed up with Emmett.
Up Next: The story of Byrd Kelly
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