March 27, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Byrd Farmer Kelly, questionable fiancé of Emmett Wilson and oldest daughter of Matthew Whitfield Kelly and Mary Jane (Also known as Maidie Jane) Farmer Kelly, was born July 18, 1887 in Columbus, Georgia. She lived in the family home at Talbotton Avenue, in the Rose Hill neighborhood until she was married at age 28 in November, 1915.
Byrd had several siblings. The oldest was brother Zeke (born 1881); next was brother John Alex (born 1886); then Byrd; next was brother Jeff (born 1890); next was sister Maidie, (born 1893, died 1900 of appendicitis); next was sister Elizabeth or Liza (born 1898), and the youngest sister, Sarah (born 1905, who died in tragic accident 1925, a newlywed).
Although contemporary media paints a stereotypical portrait of Byrd (well-bred southern woman from upper middle class family), information from two direct family sources (Byrd’s 98-year-old son-in-law, Eric Dougherty, and great niece, Dee Rainey), provides a more interesting (and realistic) view of Byrd and her parents.
Although Byrd was raised in a large, well-appointed home that included live-in hired help and lived a lifestyle that could be described as affluent, her father (known as ‘Whit’ to friends and family) was considered pushy, rough, almost a tyrant. Described in contemporary articles as “strong and robust,” Whit worked his way up from nothing, starting out with a small mercantile business in Columbia, Alabama, to become a large wholesale grocer, and owner of a profitable steamship business. In addition, he helped organize the Fourth National Bank, and owned several plantations in Russell and Henry Counties, Alabama.
Whit was considered a civic power broker. He was made a steward at St. Luke’s Methodist Church, and he was president of the Columbus Anti-Saloon League. Image was important to Whit; a decent, church-going, sober persona was part of his business and personal image. And while the man may have been a tough cookie, he wasn’t a bad sort.
The fact that he was no-nonsense, wanted only the best for his loved ones, and that did not suffer fools may give the impression that Whit was a hard-ass, but I can’t fault a man who always remembered where he came from, and the the only way forward was, often, through hard work, persistence, and not taking anything personally. Whit also wanted to keep the family business closely held among family member; he encouraged his sons to stick around, to work for him. This is what worked for him; how he became successful with the odds stacked against him, so it makes sense this is the model he gave his children to emulate in adulthood.
Eric Daugherty said that Byrd’s parents rules the roost with an iron hand, though. This was a household where rules were followed; children were seen and not heard, and woe be it to anyone who stepped out of line. His wife Maidie was said to be of similar temperament. “The Kelly children were raised strictly, and Byrd’s parents monitored who the girls associated with very closely,” Eric said. “If you didn’t meet their high standards, you didn’t come near the girls.”
I asked what he meant by that; he said that when he was dating his wife Mary Florence (Byrd’s daughter), Byrd and her daughter was living back at home with Maidie (Byrd’s husband, John Harris Lewis, died in 1932). When he met Maidie, she said, “Please don’t tell me you’re a Roman Catholic.” (He wasn’t.) He said the story about that went back to when the youngest daughter, Sarah Kelly Rainey, fell in love with a longtime schoolmate, William D. Rainey, who was also a Roman Catholic. Her family was against it the relationship; regardless, the two eloped.
Byrd, who also went by “Byrdie” was named for her uncle, Byrd Grace Farmer. She attended Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She didn’t graduate with a degree per se; was classified as a ‘special student’ of music. She participated in concerts and musicales as a girl/teenager, and went on to study music at Wesleyan for about two years (1905-1907).
Byrd wasn’t a member of a sorority or any of the other interesting (and quite outgoing!) clubs for college women featured in the Wesleyan College yearbook, Zig Zag, but she was a member of the Wesleyan Musical Club.
Although Byrd was lauded in several newspaper articles for her piano skills, she wasn’t chosen to play in prominent recitals or other musical events while at Wesleyan. Perhaps they developed later, over time, after her collegiate studies. Daugherty said she was a good musician. “She had talent; she played a lot and enjoyed it,” he said. “She didn’t win any awards for it, but she was good.”
What was interesting about Byrd Kelly was that, according to Eric Daugherty, she was the college roommate of Soong Mai-ling, who became the wife of Chaing-Kai-Shek. There’s no mention of that in The Wesleyan, but Daugherty said there was correspondence between Byrd and Mai-ling that supported the anecdote. I wonder how Byrd and Mai-ling were assigned roommates; if, perhaps, Byrd’s strict and ultra-conservative background were the reasons she was chosen. The fact that college-student Byrd kept a low profile, remained focus on her music, and had essentially no distractions from her studies is a theme that remained consistent through her life.
I asked about how Byrd was chosen to be Mai-ling’s roommate, because he didn’t think it was possible they knew each other before Wesleyan. He said it likely did have something to do with her persona, and her background. “She was strict, like her parents. Tough. A hard person,” he said. “She was the last to leave the bosom of the family, so to speak,” even though she was not the last daughter from the family to get married.
(The last daughter to marry from the Kelly family was Sarah Kelly Rainey, who eloped with William Burns Rainey in 1924 — William Burns Rainey was a Roman Catholic, and Byrd’s parents were strongly against the marriage. Sadly, Sarah died in a tragic accident, along with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law one year after her marriage. Daugherty suspected the elopement was because of the strict Kelly family standards regarding suitors. Dee Rainey, a relative of Sarah Kelly Rainey, said that the Kelly girls were only allowed to see suitors on the front porch of the Kelly home, where both parents would sit in the parlor while the young men were visiting, basically listening in on the conversations, and so forth.)
Prior to my interview with Daugherty, I mailed him a packet of the clippings related to Byrd Kelly and Emmett Wilson’s alleged engagement. His reaction to that was surprise, and doubt. “Given what the Kelly family required of their girls in the way of courting? And that the young man — Emmett Wilson — was virtually unknown to anyone in Columbus? I doubt this was a true engagement. Whit Kelly would never have allowed it,” because he had a very narrow approval process of young men courting his daughters.
Dee Rainy supported Daugherty’s estimation that the engagement wasn’t real, based on the fact that Emmett wasn’t courting Byrd via Whit Kelly’s protocols. So, even though we don’t have any living witnesses to the ‘engagement’ itself, we have supporting information from two living individuals who knew Byrd which casts doubt on Emmett Wilson’s ‘engagement’ to Byrd Kelly.
“Yes. Didn’t happen,” Daugherty concluded.
Interestingly, at the time the ‘engagement’ was announced in the Pensacola newspapers, Emmett was nowhere to be found (he’d planned to be away the week the news became public); but, his escape was cut short because of a series of murders that happened in Santa Rosa County, and, as District Attorney for First Judicial District, he had his hands full. No time to hide, Emmett!
Alas, the guys’ big getaway plans were dashed almost immediately, as this news broke at the same time the ‘fishing trip’ vacation blurbs were published:
Although the horrific news about the five murders in Santa Rosa County came out in the Florida papers, I purposely looked in Georgia newspapers around this time period to see if Emmett was in Georgia, or if there was other news about Emmett in Georgia given the engagement announcement in Florida — but there was nothing about Emmett or Byrd in the papers. Still, the news was big enough that it garnered a mention in Georgia papers.
Meanwhile, while all of the engagement news was breaking in Florida, Byrd was at a friend’s wedding, playing piano for the her friend’s service.
I wonder how quickly word got back to Byrd — and more importantly, to Whit — about the bogus engagement?
Think about it:
Given the importance of the M.W. Kelly family in Columbus, it is interesting to note that there is absolutely nothing in the local media about Byrd being “engaged” to Emmett. Or, anything about Emmett Wilson in local or social news. At all.
At this point in Emmett’s life, he was a known alcoholic, and unknown to anyone of consequence in Columbus.
I believe it was very likely that Whit Kelly, who was a master of public relations and messaging about his brand, exercised incredible self-control by not mentioning ANYTHING about it, neither confirming nor denying the engagement, as the best possible way to indicate the ‘engagement’ was truly non-existent. He might have punched a few holes in the wall, certainly. He was a physically large, burly guy. I could see it.
He kept his cool.
So, what did Whit do about it?
Stick around for the conclusion of the Byrd Kelly story in the next chapter.
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