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Reflections on Emmett’s Funeral

May 31, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Every year, on the anniversary of Emmett Wilson’s death, I like to go back to the old notes, check in on research sources and database updates, in case there’s fresh information I didn’t have at the start of Emmett’s story.

And every year, I’m always taken aback at the speed at which Emmett’s funeral was put together, given who he was (a former U.S. Congressman; a local ‘celebrity’, though estranged at the time of his death from most of his friends and almost all family members). Perhaps it’s not such a big deal; certain faiths and cultures practice interment of loved ones within 24 hours of death or before sundown of that day. But Emmett’s family and religious faith (Episcopalian) did not necessarily observe speedy funerals. I’m sure his immediate family had their reasons for what appears (to me) to be a fast funeral; unfortunately, there are no family records or journal entries, or letters in existence on Emmett’s service.

But, there are other sources that provided a general look at what happened on May 30, 1918, with Emmett’s family and friends.

First, I discovered that after his death, Emmett’s family sent him to the Fisher-Pou Funeral Home in Pensacola, Florida. Luckily, the funeral home records were donated to the University of West Florida archives several years ago, and they are excellent sources of information. Even though Emmett’s funeral records are not in this database (the Fisher-Pou records only cover 1926-1979), the background on the funeral home some relevance to Emmett’s story.

For example, wasn’t always the Fisher-Pou Funeral Home — the name change took place after the death of Francis (Frank) Robinson Pou (pronounced ‘pow’), who had a long history as one of the leading funeral directors for the city of Pensacola.

Pou had an interesting career. He wasn’t just an undertaker, but he had a successful livery, served as City Councilman (during which he was charged [but later acquitted] with election fraud in 1914), and served as acting Mayor of Pensacola in 1914; then Mayor of Pensacola in 1918 during the influenza pandemic.

pou_undertaker_citydir1916
From the 1916 Pensacola City Directory, via Ancestry.com.

Frank Pou died in 1923 after an illness, according to an obituary from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It is unclear what happened to Pou’s funeral business records after his death; it is possible the records were lost after Pou’s heirs established the Fisher-Pou Funeral Home partnership.

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frpou
Francis Robinson Pou. Livery stable owner, one-time Mayor of Pensacola, and undertaker. Seems to have the requisite gloomy undertaker face. Source: Pensapedia.com

According to Emmett’s death certificate, his body was released to Pou on the morning on May 29, 1918. Pou’s records — if I could find them — would likely have had important details about the day — as in, who arranged the funeral, what was Emmett wearing, who selected the headstone and the text and so forth.

However, through old-fashioned sleuthing, I have been able to reconstruct a chunk of the event:

Emmett died (or, was declared or found dead — it appears that he was alone when he died) at 12:25 am on Wednesday, May 29, 1918, in the drunk tank, also known as the basement of Pensacola Hospital, which (at the time) was considered a state-of-the-art suite outfitted with specific therapies to treat alcoholics. Alas, by the time he was admitted, he was already experiencing multiple organ failure as an end-stage alcoholic; at that point, in 1918, there was nothing anyone could do, medically, to save Emmett.

Hospital records reveal that Emmett’s brother Cephas was listed as responsible for the bill and/or patient, so he would have been the first contacted upon Emmett’s death, in the middle of the night. Cephas owned a telephone; the hospital calls Cephas around 1 am with the news of Emmett’s death. The call goes through several operators before the hospital administrator or matron speaks directly to Cephas; so, the news is making the rounds in the panhandle.

Cephas was in Marianna; a few hours’ train ride away. Likely, Cephas next called Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson in Chipley (who also had a phone at that point). It seems to me that because Emmett’s residence was with the Kehoe family, that either Cephas called Jennie and Walter himself, or, told the hospital administrator to contact them right away, so that they could help out; for example, selecting Emmett’s clothing for his funeral. She perhaps also notified Christ Church, so that the pastor could then contact either of Emmett’s family in Pensacola — brother Frank Jr. or his brother Meade’s widow, Caroline Bond Wilson — to see about internment in a family plot. Meade and Carrie owned a large plot, with room for about six additional internments (already buried there were husband Meade, died of tuberculosis in 1914, and their daughter, Clara, who died in 1900 of scarlet fever). Carrie gave the go-ahead to the sexton at St. John’s Cemetery to open a plot for her brother-in-law; after all, it was the decent thing to do.

Meanwhile, I can imagine Jennie looking through the spare amount of clothing hanging in the small closet in Emmett’s room; selecting his nicest suit, maybe brushing it a little with her hand as she set it aside. Then, opening his bureau and selecting his best shirt; his favorite tie and maybe, the little wishbone tie pin he favored. It was the one he wore in his first official portrait taken as U.S. Congressman back in 1913. Perhaps the housekeeper sponged and pressed Emmett’s suit before Jennie delivered Emmett’s clothing to the parlor. Did Jennie pack also his hairbrush? Perhaps his razor so that the undertaker would shave him?

It strikes me that Jennie (and Walter, if he were present at this point, because Walter was out of town campaigning for re-election) was entrusted to select Emmett’s casket. It’s an intimate, deeply personal responsibility, if you think about it, and not a task assigned lightly. Jennie made these last personal decisions for Emmett, and it almost makes me think this was more than a friendship among Jennie, Walter, and Emmett. I think back to an interview I had with Jennie’s great grandson, who knew the Emmett Wilson/Walter and Jennie Kehoe story well: “They thought the world of Emmett,” he’d said, and considered Emmett a beloved brother. So, while Jennie was methodically going through a list (real or imaginary) about what needed to be done for Emmett for the last time, I can imagine how sad this must have been. She and Walter had had great hopes for Emmett for years; hopes for a successful future, hopes that he would beat his addictions somehow, and now, neither would come to pass.

Knowing what the Kehoes felt about Emmett, especially at the end of his life, puts the work Jennie did for Emmett’s funeral, in perspective. And it makes sense, given the fact Emmett lived with the Kehoes and not with his brother or other family members in 1918. As noted earlier, at the time of his death, Emmett was estranged from family and most of his friends, primarily because of his chronic alcoholism. Everyone was tired of putting up with him; I can only imagine that the Kehoes were exhausted by Emmett, too. The difference was that they didn’t abandon Emmett when he was down and out at the end of his life. I don’t know how much Jennie and Walter Kehoe knew about alcoholism as a disease, but it strikes me as I look back on their relationship with Emmett that they understood and knew the real Emmett deep down; the Emmett who was helpless in the throes of the disease that controlled and ultimately destroyed him.

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Additionally, Cephas released Emmett to Frank Pou’s funeral parlor on Romana Street on the morning of May 29, or, he gave the hospital permission to contact the funeral home to take care of Emmett. So, Pou, and/or his staff, came to the hospital and picked up Emmett. Perhaps there wasn’t a body bag per se; likely Emmett was shrouded in hospital linens, completely covered, like a mummy.

Pou’s staff washed, shaved and dressed Emmett at the parlor. Because the funeral took place within 36 hours after Emmett’s death, it is unlikely he was embalmed.

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Visitation was not at the Fisher-Pou Funeral Home, but at Walter and Jennie Kehoe’s home at 904 N. Baylen.

904nbaylen
904 North Baylen. Emmett lived here on and off in the last months of his life.  Source: Google maps

According to the article on Emmett’s funeral on May 30, 1918 in The Pensacola Journal, Emmett’s friends and acquaintances called at the Kehoe residence all afternoon on the 29th to view Emmett’s remains, and that most of the visitors were reported to be in shock and totally surprised that Emmett had even been sick, and that he’d ‘died so suddenly.’ Really?

Perhaps his close friends (i.e., the Kehoes) knew about Emmett’s consistently declining health in the last three months of his life, because he lived with them, but no one else knew? As in, not one of his ‘good friends’ and/or acquaintances paid him a visit, or called him in weeks? The reality is that Emmett kept to himself in the last months of his life. No one, other than the Kehoes, saw him on any regular basis, because if the friends and acquaintances had seen him, they wouldn’t have been shocked: Because when Emmett died, the report revealed he had cirrhosis, in addition to kidney failure, and mostly likely wet-brain/alcohol-related dementia. A end-stage alcoholic in the last weeks of his life, folks, is neither a pretty sight, nor a vision you’d easily forget.

Emmett was laid out in the Kehoe’s living room at least from mid-afternoon of May 29 until 9:30 am the next day, Thursday, May 30, when the cortege left for Christ Episcopal Church, on W. Wright Street, for the funeral service. I wonder if Jennie or Walter kept watch over him that last night in their home; perhaps they said private good-byes to him before they closed the casket in their parlor. Good-bye, Emmett, a gloved hand gently touching Emmett’s properly-folded, cold hands. “Finally, he’s at peace,” I can imagine Walter telling Jennie.

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Emmett’s funeral was held at 10 a.m on Thursday, May 30 at Christ Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, I could not find a eulogy or a program from Emmett’s funeral in either the church’s archives, or in the Episcopal Diocese’s archives. However, the church today looks very much like it did in Emmett’s time, which includes the most beautiful starry dome in the center of the church, which is where Emmett’s coffin was brought for the service.

The front door of the church, where Emmett’s coffin was brought for his funeral. Photo by the author.
Stars. Hundreds of them. Painted onto the dome of the ceiling.
The starry dome in the center of Christ Episcopal Church, Pensacola, right before the altar. Here is where Emmett’s casket was placed for his funeral. Photo by the author.

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After the funeral, Emmett was buried in in St. John’s Cemetery, per the obituary that ran in the Friday, May 31, 1918 edition of The Pensacola Journal.

funeral-commute
The funeral route from the Kehoe’s home on Baylen to Christ Episcopal Church on West Wright Street. It seems most likely the procession went down Palafox instead of Baylen to get to the church. Source: Google Maps.

As I study the details, I think the speed at which Emmett’s funeral was put together is interesting. Everyone moved rather quickly to pull it together. This stands out because of a statement in the funeral writeup that Emmett’s family had to come to Pensacola from various distances across West Florida.

I’m curious if Emmett’s older brother Francis Jr., who also lived in Pensacola, volunteered to host the visitation. Nowhere is he mentioned in the articles about the funeral; it would not have surprised me that Francis Jr. and Emmett were estranged by 1918, as Frank had had problems with alcohol too. I feel certain he attended Emmett’s funeral; I also believe that Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, stayed with Francis Jr. during the funeral.

Categories: Book Congressman Family Florida History

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jsmith532

Professor
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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