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Chapter 172: The Gambler

June 2, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Here’s the thing that has puzzled me ever since I started research on Emmett Wilson’s life story:

What was the main reason Frank Mayes (and The Pensacola Journal) endorsed Emmett for U.S. Congress?

Frank was no dummy; he was a prescient newsman who kept close watch on national politics and policies, how these policies would eventually trickle down to the state level, and impact the Florida panhandle. He was well-read, well-connected, powerful. He wasn’t wealthy per se, and he was all right with that. Likewise, he shunned political office, because Mayes understood that true power and wealth lay in information gatekeeping. Mayes controlled the largest newspaper, with the widest readership, in the Florida panhandle.

Here’s the official statement from the editorial page of the Sunday, February 25, 1912 edition of The Pensacola Journal (written by Mayes himself):

When I first read the editorial, I admit that it was pleasing; Emmett sounded good, like a breath of necessary fresh air in stale, old politics, and that Florida needed what Emmett had to offer. But — if you take a CLOSE look at what it is Emmett has to offer as a new Congressman — there’s little substance to it. It makes me wonder if Frank Mayes was counting on people not noticing that this editorial has a lot to say about Emmett’s good looks, and little to say about his actual political experience. As I read the editorial outlining Emmett’s ‘qualifications,’ other than he was a tall, handsome guy, I found myself asking the long-dead Mayes, “For example?”


Let’s break down the official statement:

From the start, Mayes says the news is good ‘from all over the third congressional district’ for Emmett’s campaign. Of course he’s going to say that, whether it is truthful or not: Mayes’s pick for office is Emmett Wilson. And, he’s just getting started on his campaign — this week, actually! — so listen up! Be there! And here’s the reasons why we (“I”, Frank Mayes) believe Emmett is the guy to choose.

First, what IS progressive democracy in 1912? According to Herbert Croly, progressive democracy is essentially:

“…to advocate the recall of public officials, the initiative and referendum, the direct election of senators, an easier method of constitutional amendment, the direct primary, and the eventual withering away of political parties.”

Emmett’s platform definitely reflects these ideas. Emmett, as did other ‘progressive democrats’ believed that the people, ‘the masses,’ should control their own political destinies, shape the direction of the country. In 1912, for example, Senators were not elected; they were chosen by governors, which smacked of wealthy, elite individuals directing the leadership of the United States. But make no mistake: Although Mayes was promoting Emmett as a hard-working, progressive, ‘new’ man for the people, Emmett was very much a part of that elite inner circle. Mayes’ description of Emmett as a “…splendid example of clean-cut, vigorous young Americanism” equates to heterosexual, tee-totaling (at least on the surface), WASP male. But he was ‘young;’ so, Emmett was unique, but not so unique as to be a hard-sell on the ticket.

Mayes says that Emmett does believe in the concepts of progressive democracy; he’s not just saying that he does because Mayes says so. But, I wonder, and likely the voters wondered about that too, because of Emmett’s well-connected, politically active family. Cephas Love Jr., Emmett’s brother, Mayor of Marianna, was part of the ‘reactionary’ (also known as conservative Democrats). So were Emmett’s older brothers Maxwell and Meade Wilson. So was Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson.

Mayes mentions the death of Cannonism. See here for another definition of Cannonism; none of the Wilsons were Republicans, but, in 1912, the progressive Democratic platform was not extremely different from the Republican platform. What’s ironic also is Mayes mentions the death of the political boss, when he, himself, is actually the political boss in Florida. But Mayes wasn’t a Republican like Joseph Gurney Cannon. Big difference? No difference? Guess it was all in the eyes of the beholder, or Master Message Manipulator Mayes.

Mayes says that Emmett belongs to the group of modern statesmen “who is accomplishing these things.” Yeah, Mayes; but can you give us an example? NO?

OK. So, to-date, Emmett’s had only TWO political jobs (Assistant District Attorney, and U.S. Attorney), and BOTH were by appointment-only, which harkens of the old ways of doing things and not the ‘new, progressive way’. The whole last paragraph is not true, actually. I wonder if Mayes understood that, maybe, most people didn’t realize the District Attorney was not an elected position. See? Master Message Manipulator.

Emmett’s family story is only partially accurate. Yes, he was born in Belize, British Honduras, but temporary residency? Eh, well, Dr. and Mrs. F.C. Wilson actually MOVED, with their entire family, including Maxwell siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, to a foreign country hospitable to ex-Confederates, who settled there to reinstate their former plantation-way of life. (Of course, it didn’t work: The British empire outlawed slavery, and impoverished former Confederates often could not pay wages to locals in order to set up plantations; when they couldn’t pay, the local workers simply walked off the jobs. In my mind, Dr. Wilson’s ownership of a sugar plantation hardly constitutes ‘temporary residency;’ maybe it turned out that way, but the Wilson family relocating to British Honduras where the family (and immediate relatives) were building new homes and starting new lives was hardly impermanent.

Mayes skips over Emmett’s 1906 Sterling, Illinois experiment, as expected, but Emmett did not practice law in Marianna in 1906. That’s a nit-picking detail, but an important one: Mayes was willing to lie by omission. More significantly, Emmett allowed it, which surprises me: Emmett was exacting in his legal practice. Details meant something to him, and the fact that Mayes manipulates Emmett’s own biography makes me wonder what Emmett thought about it.

The part about Judge Sheppard is important. Sheppard was a Republican; Emmett got some heat from his colleagues about being the lone Democrat in the District Attorney’s office. BUT, Emmett was focused on the job itself, and doing it well. There’s more about this job in the next paragraph:

Reading this section closely, it’s clear that Emmett did a good job as an Assistant District Attorney and as a District Attorney. He was also a partner with his uncle Evelyn Maxwell, then with Walter Kehoe. We have the impression that Emmett’s a good, hard worker who isn’t paying attention to labels or party affiliations, but rather focuses on the task at hand. That’s a good thing. It would have been nice to see a few outstanding examples of Emmett handing a really tough case, and/or tough life situations as it happens for a District Attorney; for example, when he was prosecuting Frank Penton for murder in Santa Rosa County, and someone took a shot at him as he was leaving for Pensacola on the evening train. He was reported to be cool and collected, and didn’t let the attempt on his life sway him from his duty. Emmett was more than just a handsome, clean-cut young man; he could handle the tough situations when they came up. See, that’s an example of show-don’t-tell; the readers needed to be shown that Emmett, a newcomer, had the cajones to handle the tough stuff of Washington, D.C. Who cared what he looked like? As long as he could get the job done.

The second paragraph focuses too much on the family history for my taste. Yeah — his family was well connected politically and professionally — but Emmett was/is no Augustus Maxwell. He’d earn his credibility for public service himself, and this might be the weakest part of Mayes’ editorial. Most of Emmett’s opponents were quick to point out that his family connections didn’t mean squat if Emmett didn’t have the experience himself to represent Florida well on the national level. Perhaps Mayes’ thought was Emmett had exposure to politics, if not actual hands-on practice, and that stood for something too. But gushing too much about the political accomplishments of Emmett’s family (and not Emmett himself) makes me suspicious about his qualifications in the end.

This next paragraph is more of Mayes’ success-by-association marketing strategy for Emmett. I don’t think much of it; but, establishing Emmett’s solid community connection is probably the point.

And the final section of the editorial:

Once again, in the summary, we see an overview of Emmett’s physical assets, and grandiose yet nonspecific information about his potential as candidate and congressman. What does Mayes mean by Emmett being an “active, militant, aggressive democrat”? Before now, Emmett was a political bystander, while his brothers have been much more active in their respective communities for most of their lives. One example: Emmett attended political rallies, sitting in the background, while his brothers organized them. Emmett hadn’t done anything, frankly, to ‘command attention’ at any previous political event.

Mayes’ focus on Emmett’s image instead of political examples is telling. It’s interesting that Mayes references Emmett being ‘straight’ as an arrow, only months after the disastrous fake-engagement announcement in this same paper (which was — turns out — encouraged by Frank Mayes). It’s almost as if Mayes is doing some kind of advance damage control.

Speaking of advance damage control, I keep coming back to the idea that Frank Mayes, who was nobody’s fool, a tee-totaler, and supporter of prohibition, HAD TO HAVE KNOWN about Emmett’s drinking problem, because everyone knew about Emmett’s drinking problem. Hell, The Pensacola Journal itself ran a joke about the amount of time Emmett spent in a private mens’ club (The Osceola Club) where he wasn’t just sitting in a wing chair playing solitaire for HOURS.

My point is, Mayes was not the gambling-type, but he HAD to have known he was taking a risk endorsing a man who never ran for any public office in his life; who was basically handed every job he’d ever had; who was known to have problems ‘fledging the nest’ as well as handing alcohol.

In Chapter 147 of this series, I wrote a fictionalized version of what might have been the underlying reason for Mayes’ selection of an unknown to run for national office.

After much research, it turns out that this fictionalized narrative is much closer to the truth than I realized. Mayes would realize part of dream, but oh, the price he paid with the gambit.

Categories: Book Congressman Florida History Recommended Sources

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
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