Chapter 9 (continued): What I learn about uremia

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Before I move on to Emmett’s funeral record, I thought I’d share what exactly I learned about the listed cause of Emmett’s death. I don’t want to leave the impression I just ‘Googled’ uremia and took the first hit and ran with it — no.

I didn’t become an expert on the illness, but I spent a least a week digging into the topic, particularly how it was treated in the early 1900s, interviewed kidney specialists, visited the library at the National Institutes of Health (which is only a bike ride away from my office — and ANYONE can go there to do research, by the way!) to check sources, and so forth — if Emmett died of this disease, what did that mean, exactly? What was it like in 1918?

Uremia (chronic kidney failure). At the time Emmett died, it was five years before there was any dialysis done on human beings — and the first actual example of dialysis on humans took place in Germany, by the way, in the mid-1920s. Interestingly, doctors were monitoring blood pressure in patients, but not was linking kidney failure to the more common underlying causes that we know today (diabetes or hypertension), either of which Emmett could have had at the time.

And again, Emmett could have had an accident that caused physical damage to a kidney — he played sports, and you know there was very little protective equipment provided back then (such as we have today). So, there’s that.

I went back to Donna the Nephrologist to ask about what might have been happening with Emmett if there was chronic kidney failure.

Donna said the symptoms would have crept up on Emmett gradually.  “So, what likely happened was he started feeling generally unwell. Uremia manifests itself quietly, much like colon cancer, where the individual goes for years without any symptoms. The first major symptom is massive headache that lasts for days and/or weeks, unrelentingly.”

The other symptoms of uremia are vomiting, loss of appetite/energy, sleeplessness/restless leg syndrome (“his legs might have twitched, while he was awake or asleep,”) a terrible itching, and a metallic taste in the mouth, then paranoia and psychosis, all of which can coalesce fairly rapidly, she said.

“The thing is, when these symptoms happen at this level, the disease is in the fourth stage (the fifth stage is considered terminal).”

I showed Donna this article, (which I shared in yesterday’s post):

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

The article from 1914 showing he had uremic poisoning and it was so critical his family had to come up from Pensacola for him.

“Right after this, I know that Emmett left Washington for about 10-12 weeks, and was given a general excuse from his duties in Congress. Honestly, I don’t think he was ever the same after that,” I told Donna.

She agreed. “The prognosis for uremia was not good. Kidneys had a way of ‘adjusting’ to the damage done, but ultimately, uremia can kill.”

“So, he died of the same disease in 1918. We can see that the same symptoms probably came back and when they did, doctors advised him that that generally indicated the end was near, right?” I asked.

“Right,” Donna said.

The answer, then, lies in what caused the uremia in the first place, I said. “Let’s say the original cause was an injury, which led to the initial kidney failure….”

“…he could have had another accident, which again impacted the kidney,” Donna replied. “So, you’ll need to find out what that initial cause was, if perhaps it was something he could have avoided, you see.”

===

Another mystery to track down! Emmett’s story is definitely intriguing.

More to come.

 

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Chapter 9: Emmett’s Death Certificate

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By the end of July, 2013, Emmett’s research was in its third month, and I was reaping the rewards of having mass contacted Wilson family descendants, as well as Emmett’s neighbors, friends, political allies and foes. I reached out to descendants of his congressional office staff, to hospitals where he was admitted, to his colleges, to his church.  I reached out to descendants of the women he DATED. I reached out to his office secretary’s descendants.  

By the end of July, I’d contacted and heard from a grand total: 227 people. I know the figure because I started an acknowledgements page the day I began Emmett’s research — if I made a contact and that person got back to me, I added the name. I figure thanking the folks individually and publicly in this book is the minimum for the great kindness of the people who were glad to help me, and who I no longer consider strangers. (More names have been added as the research continues.)  Astoundingly, almost everyone I contacted responded, and quickly to my original query.  Most of them were apologetic, saying they knew nothing about Emmett, but those who did generously shared what they knew. Or, if they didn’t know, they would refer me to another source (which often paid off).

At this point, I had four new pieces of Emmett’s story in my hands — each a bit of a puzzle in themselves. To keep these posts at a reasonable length, I’m going to focus on one at a time. The first official document I received in this project was Emmett’s official death certificate.

Cause of death: Uremia. The certificate is signed by Emmett’s father.

“In Florida, a death certificate is considered public information once an individual has been dead for 100 years. In other words, you can get it free of charge after that date. Otherwise, there’s a fee,” xxx said, when I called the Florida State Board of Health in May, 2013.

I dutifully filled out the form available on the website, I sent payment, and waited. One week and $20 later, Emmett’s death certificate arrived in the mail.

The main item I honed in on right away when I tore open the envelope and scanned the certificate was cause of death:

Uremia. Kidney failure.

Uremia, or kidney failure. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this, because I’d read that in December, 1914, while Emmett was a Congressman, he was taken to Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., the cause being uraemic poisoning.

Emmett almost died in December, 1914.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, December 21, 1914, page 1, in ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Apparently, this incident was serious enough that his family was called in all the way from Jackson County, Florida — NOT something you’d do unless the individual was in mortal danger. And there’s more to this, too:

Rheumatism? And a nervous breakdown? That’s not the same as uremic poisoning. Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

So, two different angles on the same story — I try not to read too much into this at the moment, because the death certificate is only one record, and it doesn’t take into account other potential medical problems. But as per usual, I dive right into reading all about uremia, how it comes about, and so forth. I figured I might as well know what this was, and why his family was called to D.C. Was it really that bad?

Meanwhile, I consulted with a colleague and friend at my university — Donna the Nephrologist at the University of Maryland Medical School. I told her what I was researching, and showed her the death certificate.

Donna said kidney failure at the turn of the last century was pretty much a death sentence for some: There weren’t transplants; medications used back then that may have been used to treat other ailments (for example, lithium) caused more damage to kidneys in the process, and so forth.

With regard to Emmett’s information in the death certificate,  there wasn’t all that much she could tell me about Emmett’s diagnosis, except this:

“…if Emmett had kidney failure, and indeed died of it, it would NOT be a short illness, as reported in the paper, unless he’d had an accident or trauma directly to the kidney, or something similar. If that didn’t happen and it was kidney failure over time, it was a terrible way to go, and it definitely would have been noticed.”

For example, Donna told me that in end-stage kidney failure one would immediately notice a person’s smell of urine or ammonia, because the body can’t excrete it normally. “So, the body excretes the waste product through the skin. You would see crystals on the scalp. But then, it is also evident in the person’s behavior. Because the body can’t get rid of the ammonia in the system, it poisons the the brain so that the patient has hallucinations, for instance.”

Additionally, she said, if a patient is in kidney failure, there’s almost always other organ failure going on at the same time.

“It seemed an unusual determination if the press was calling Emmett’s death a ‘short illness’ and his friends were supposedly surprised he was ill. I mean, if you could SEE how he wasn’t acting right. Or, worse, smell him coming five minutes before he got somewhere,” I said.

Donna nodded. “There’s no way someone wouldn’t have known he was sick like that. There’s a lot more to this, I think.”

Indeed.

Meanwhile, I reached out to the family of Dr. E.F. Bruce, Emmett’s physician who signed the death certificate, and contacted the Pensacola Historical Society, to find out about the Pou Funeral Home.

Also — Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital — I know the original hospital is now on the National Historic Register; the records had to go somewhere.

I flexed my fingers and began typing new inquiry letters. I was sure there had to be more information about Emmett’s medical condition, considering how serious it appeared.

Chapter 8: Something Awry

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Most of the contemporary articles I found about Emmett were read as they came in, in no particular chronological order.  To keep things straight, I cataloged every detail I found into a timeline.

The first column is the date of the article, the second column summarizes the story, the third column are my notes, and the fourth column includes publication information, as well as a link if one was available. I had to break the timeline into four different date-specific files towards the end of data collection because of the amount of information.

After three weeks of reading and documenting articles about Emmett, I took a few days off to clear my head. When I came back to the timeline, I saw some items about Emmett with new eyes. For example:

Emmett would make sure to let the newspapers know when he was headed off on vacation every year. We do something like this today in social media. Maybe this was Emmett’s version of Facebook. Source: The Pensacola Journal, August 5, 1908

In the 21st century, you don’t see the comings and goings of a U.S. attorney reported on a society page; maybe this was a thing back then, you know, like Facebook?

And I was curious — did Emmett actually give this information about his comings and goings to the society editors on a regular basis? It seemed petty and pompous, the idea he was planting information in the paper himself about himself. If he’s that important, he’d not need to do that, if you see what I mean. He wasn’t ‘news’ yet, but it seemed he sure wanted to be.

Here’s another example:

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. Source: Pensacola Evening News, September 7, 1907.

This would prove to be one of many examples in the articles I found that Emmett, a die-hard Democrat without a lot of experience but good family and political connections, landed this job during a Republican administration out of nowhere — he’s even quoted in the article as being surprised he got the appointment, because he hadn’t even applied for it. Other candidates with more experience were not pleased, and his lack of experience despite being promoted to prominent, lofty positions was turning out to be regular thing across his career.

I know it happens all the time, but that still doesn’t make it right. And yeah, I still didn’t have all the details about this story yet. I admit that I had to tamp down my irritation at Emmett — I had to quit thinking, “Who the hell did this guy think he was, asking me to tell his story?”, and “Was he some kind of pompous ass pretending to be more important than he really was?”

Or was there something else?

And then, something else jumped out at me from the timeline:

If he was such a social climber, ambitious, and popular, as per the information I had on him at present (spanning about 10 years), it was odd that he died alone, without anyone knowing he was sick….

….that he was so public yet in the end, so few people knew what was going on with him.

“Numerous friends…were visibly shocked….” See what I mean? The Pensacola Journal, May 30, 1918.

That didn’t seem right. Something was awry.

There was much more to come.

Chapter 7: Library of Congress

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It was chilly that June afternoon in the Library of Congress as I waited in line to speak to an archivist, and tried to surreptitiously unpeel the t-shirt off my clammy back. (One of the beauties of living in the D.C. metro area is having world-class research libraries literally a bike ride away along the National Mall. I make the ride often; on that June day, it was seven miles — 45 minutes on a bike.  If I drove my car, it would have taken two hours with traffic.) Otherwise, I would have looked more professional if I drove in, when I presented my researcher’s card to the receptionist. But I hate driving in D.C. traffic. I’m not the only one — ask anyone who lives here.

The main reading room in the Library of Congress. My haunt is usually on the second floor, newspapers and microfilm. Source: Library of Congress

The woman at the reception desk peered at me questioningly over her glasses, checking my physical presentation against the professorial photo on my university researcher’s card — I know I was a mess  as I quickly wiped my forehead on my t-shirt sleeve and simultaneously snuck a whiff of my armpits — at least I didn’t smell bad. She frowned at me, then continued to check my credentials.

I shuffled the papers and my laptop awkwardly as I waited. No one is allowed to carry anything larger than a steno pad or a fanny pack to work in the Library of Congress reading rooms; all other items must be checked in the LOC coatroom — although personal computers are allowed. One must surrender everything else, even pens and pencils.

Anyone can get a reader’s card to do research in the Library of Congress. It is renewable every year.

Never fear — the LOC provides everything you need to work but the staff makes sure what you read there stays there — they do check your belongings thoroughly when you exit.

“Hot day today,” she said to me, handing my card back. I nodded. The receptionist pointed to a husky man at a standing desk with a computer in the hall behind her. “Fred* will help you,” she said.  “And if you need the ladies’ room, to wipe off before you handle anything, it’s down the hall,” she said.

==

The archivists in the LOC are the ultimate history detectives for researchers — they streamline search requests so one isn’t flailing about in futility, chasing down things that can sidetrack your progress.

I told Fred about my research project; he nodded. “Sure. A biographical and historical story of an obscure congressman from Florida,” he said, as he turned to his computer.

“This makes sense to you, then,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

I told Fred that, truthfully, this was the first time I stated the purpose of my research, and what I hoped to find to another individual out loud.

“I came across this guy totally by accident; I didn’t go looking for him, and it has piqued my interest.”

“You like mysteries, huh?” He said, with a smile.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” he said, scrolling through a list of databases. “There’s obvious sources that you’ve probably seen already, such as contemporary newspapers that reported on his comings and goings, but the congressman sounds obscure. There’s plenty of other places to look.”

Fred typed in Emmett’s name, and did a broad search across the databases in the LOC. “We’ll find something on him, for sure, but  just so you know, the Library of Congress, contrary to public belief, does not have everything under the sun. We may not have everything you need.”

I peered over Fred’s shoulder as he scrolled through the search information about Emmett — a list of about 20 items — two speeches in congress, committee participation, a few other items about the bills he voted on.

“How long did Emmett serve in congress?” Fred asked.

“Two terms — 1913 to 1917.”

“Hm,” Fred said, opening up the different pages in the list. “Well, he wasn’t popular.”

“What do you mean?”

“He didn’t author many bills, he didn’t get very much passed on behalf of his constituents; and — ” — he said, pulling up his voting record, and pointing to the screen ” — he had a less than 50 percent voting record. Not much about him in the national media, either,” Fred said, thoughtfully, as he looked through the pages.

“Hmm,” I said. “That’s interesting. I mean, he was portrayed as the golden boy of Florida politics when he ran in 1912; he was popular according to the Pensacola media….”

“But then he disappeared,” Fred said, as I nodded. “Well, it might have been as simple as he got tired of Washington, didn’t like being in Congress, then he quit. Which happens,” he said.

“Or maybe not,” I added. “That’s what I want to find out. I need to find out what he did in Washington, and what happened that second term.”

Because Emmett was a Member of Congress, Fred suggested I check holdings in both the National Archives and the House of Representatives archives. “Your best bet is to go in person. But know that both have their own accession protocol, so you’ll need their researcher’s cards. We don’t share archives privileges. They do their own thing,” Fred added, as he handed me a pencil and watched as I scribbled his suggestions furiously onto a piece of paper.  “See what you can find here first, though. And if you see a reference for an article in a newspaper we don’t have, we can order copies from different libraries via interlibrary loan.”

===

I hopped over to the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room and started with digital newspapers. Score! I found some articles about Emmett that I hadn’t seen before. Finding new items fueled my excitement — other new-to-me information probably was out there, somewhere, but it looked like much of what I was going to find was on unindexed microfilm. I’d probably  have to look at each image on a reel to find anything — thousands of images, probably.

I realized finding anything about Emmett was going to be like looking for a needle in the haystack. If I was really going to do this, it meant I would have to do a lot of reaching out to complete strangers who may or may not want to talk to me; family members or ancestors who might not want this story told, who might not have wanted his story told.

I’d have to check out pretty much every source, every random item, even do side searches into family members or friends, who might not have wanted Emmett unearthed once he was dead and buried.

I remember pushing back from the desk in the reading room and closed my eyes. I asked myself:

Is this futile? What if no one wants to help me?

And:

Once I ‘rescue’ Emmett from his obscurity, what is it that I want people to know about him? What is the point of his story anyway?

The only way I was going to find the answers was to commit myself to reading miles to film, to reach out to total strangers with perhaps uncomfortable questions.  I couldn’t do a half-ass job on it, either; else the unsolved mystery would haunt me for the rest of my life.

What would I do?

And I swear to you, for the second time, I heard the words, “Tell my story.”

I remember opening my eyes and looking around the reading room — I was the only one in there now, and it was almost 5 pm — time to leave.

As I walked out of the reading room, Fred nodded to me. “See you soon,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be back.”

===

*Fred is a pseudonym. The gentleman, a long-time employee of the Library of Congress, asked that I not use his real name.

Chapter 6: Suffrage Jerk

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For 17 years, my husband and I owned and lived in a 98-year old row house in Washington, D.C. about 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol. We loved our neighborhood — the Victorian (and older) row houses had history and character despite the fact the neighborhood was sketchy, the front yards were handkerchief-sized, the closets tiny, and parking impossible. What was great was living in and around history, so to speak  — those who helped build the city and our nation lived in our neighborhood once upon a time, and you could see the U.S. Capitol dome from my house (true, you had to stand on the roof to see it, but still, there it was).

Sewall-Belmont House. Source: Smithsonian.gov

One of my favorite places in the neighborhood was the oldest house on the Hill, the Sewall-Belmont House (now a museum of women’s suffrage and equal rights). I walked by the house every day when I worked at an association on Capitol Hill.

As I passed the Belmont House in the mornings, I would sometimes think about the story my mother told me about my great grandmother Rosa LeBarte Countryman — how her support of women’s voting rights embarrassed my great grandfather, Richard Sr.

I wondered what it was that made Richard Sr. uncomfortable — several relatives used to say how Richard Sr. was a strong-minded guy; stubborn on occasion, but someone who did what he wanted when he wanted. Surely he appreciated a strong-minded spouse, as Rosa seemed to be. Maybe it was that Richard Sr. preferred to have only one strong-minded person in the family at a time.

My great grandfather, Richard H. Countryman Sr. Family photo.

Maybe Richard Sr. may have realized that if Rosa somehow gained voting rights, she’d feel empowered to enforce those rights around the house, to balance the scales of family justice.

To make Richard Sr. iron his own damn shirts.

Or to make Richard Sr. quit seeing Protestant women he met at prayer meetings on the side.

====

In a nutshell, Richard Sr. couldn’t shut Rosa up, so he did the next best thing, Mom said. She didn’t tell me outright; I had to do some creative fishing to discover what it was, and when I did, I got pissed off.

I later reckoned it was a waste of energy to be pissed off about this family story all the time, so I decided to get busy.  So, for much of my adult life, I’ve tried to uncover Rosa’s story from anyone and anywhere.

I would spend months at a time digging around in family files, reading old newspaper clips in both bound and microfilm versions — and even questioning my reluctant, stonewalling aunt for what seemed the millionth time — to find out if there was anything to confirm Mom’s story.

The old St. Francis Xavier Academy convent, where Rosa attended school, and where Richard Sr. installed electrical wiring. Now also serves as the Southern Cultural Heritage Center. Source: Mercy.net

After exhausting all known family records, I visited the Southern Cultural Heritage Center several times (which used to be my old elementary school — and Rosa’s school — St. Francis Xavier Academy) and found some information about Rosa when she was a student and soldalist, but not much more than that. The staff at the Center were helpful and friendly; but they didn’t have a large budget, so hardly any records were scanned when I visited. I was very careful, but tense as I handled the fragile old attendance books, careful not to damage any of the tan, brittle pages.

In 2013, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t find anything concrete tying her to the Mississippi suffrage movement.

Family anecdotes could not stand up as proof, and, based on other contemporary information about Rosa (from census data, city directories, school records), it was unlikely she was prominent in the movement: In 1914, Rosa was a 32-year-old mother of four children (ages 12, 10, 5 and 1); Richard Sr. was a foreman at the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company, as well as a part-time itinerant Baptist preacher building a congregation on weekends. Richard Sr. was likely gone more often than he was home, and I seriously doubt Rosa would have left a baby and young children to lobby for suffrage, even though she may have supported it strongly.

Of course, just because I couldn’t find information that Rosa was a corset-burner doesn’t mean she didn’t work behind the scenes in some way to support the cause — after all, she was intelligent, well-read, a good writer, and active in the community.

Despite the personal disappointment, I’d collected a fair amount of information about Mississippi women in the suffrage movement. I decided to put together an outline and draft an article anyway.

===

I often do my best work in the middle of the night, when everyone else is asleep.

One evening, I was at home going through the Library of Congress database and found an archive of photographs online and other resources on the March 3, 1913 women’s march. In addition to the contemporary accounts of the parade, I wanted to look at paraded itself; to see what the women were wearing, to see the crowds, and so forth, to best describe them in my article.

It was an intriguing series of photos:  Throngs of women — many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to walk down crowded, muddy, slush-encrusted Pennsylvania Avenue on a cold, brisk March morning, one day ahead of Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade — their banners, their expressions, their energy clearly captured in crisp black-and-white.

The 1913 march higher up Pennsylvania Avenue. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

 

Crowds blocking the women’s suffrage parade; this is on Pennsylvania Avenue close to the U.S. Treasury Building. Source: The Ohio State University & the Library of Congress

The series of photos captured the energy of the event, as the marchers fought the cold reception from the men as well as the biting, brisk cold air that whipped the women along on the parade route. Those women were uncomfortable, all, but they would persist.

I scrolled past one photo after another —

And then — there was this:

The photo that got my attention.

This handsome man’s photo inserted in the queue. It struck me, not only because it seemed out of place. Perhaps he was an early champion of suffrage, I thought —  I checked the name: “Honorable Emmett Wilson.” I made a note, and continued to go through the photos.

==

Two days later, I was reading through transcripts of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings of February and March 1914  in Washington, to hear their issues debated in the Senate and House of Representatives. Even though Rosa wasn’t there, I know she — and other Mississippi suffrage sympathizers — must have read the newspaper accounts of the upcoming meeting with Wilson’s staff with hopeful expectations!

As I settled into my chair, with a hot cup of Earl Grey tea, I started reading. Actually, I forgot about the tea as I was caught up in the minutes, and realizing what was going on. It was profound, really — all these white men in a large room debating whether or not women were ‘able’ to cast a vote responsibly, on the basis of their mere gender. It dawned that this took place less than 100 years ago — and that I really take a lot for granted, living as I do in the 21st century.

Then, I came across this item:

These fellows were interruptors?

I remember thinking, “these assholes surely aren’t interrupting their fellow congressmen,” as I looked up the names in the Congressional Database and read about Keating and Wilson’s careers as U.S. Congressmen.

“Aha. Wilson,” I remembered Emmett of the handsome visage right away, and looked through my notes.

It was clear that neither Keating nor Wilson appeared to have been popular or had an illustrious tenure in congress. They left without distinction — “serves ‘em right. “What a Jerk.” I also actually scrawled into my notebook “Thank God I’m not related to him.”

But before I turned off my computer for the night, I looked back at the photos — at Emmett’s specifically. There was something about it — and about him that bothered me. I didn’t know this guy at all, I wasn’t remotely interested in learning more about this guy.

I don’t know what it was, but I swear, as I sat there at 3 a.m., in the complete quiet and stillness of my office, studying his photo, I heard:

“Tell my story.”

Just like that. Simply. Plainly. Out of nowhere.

I remember turning around, thinking it was one of my kids — and I dismissed it. I was probably hearing things because I was tired —

— but I heard it AGAIN. Clearly.

“Tell my story.”

I felt my skin crawl — like something else was in the room. I’m not superstitious,  nor do I believe in ghosts, but I swear, it was as if Emmett was there, asking me.

What could it hurt to find out about this guy while I’m doing the suffrage story? I said to myself. Maybe there’s something to it. So, that night, I decided I’d figure out who this Emmett person was, and  perhaps it will be enough to put a little story together, so I could put this ghost or whatever out of my mind — it couldn’t be too time consuming. 

And here we are, six years later. What a story it has been. And a journey. And a blessing.

There’s so much to tell you, which I will over the next several months as Emmett’s story unfolded, left me awestruck, amazed, saddened, and grateful. Emmett was many things, including a suffrage jerk, when it was to his benefit. But there is so much more to the story of this one obscure man, and I can’t wait to tell it.

====

About Rosa and Richard Sr.:

I’ve since disproven the story Mom used to tell me about Rosa being a suffragette.  I hated having to burst this family bubble — the image of my great-grandmother marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in chill March air, in a white dress and sash proclaiming equal voting rights for all, but Rosa marched to her own drummer anyway — and — whatever she did in to support this cause apparently irritated Richard Sr. enough to take action against his wife

I think the truth was that Rosa was mostly a private person despite her strong opinions, and was more comfortable in a behind-the-scenes role. If she was involved in suffrage, it would have been secretly, quietly, maybe writing articles under a pseudonym, or doing the necessary research to help the movement, and the like. Small gestures towards a larger goal are still important, worthy things.

I also think the truth was that Rosa and Richard Sr.’s marriage was often troubled. If it was, my grandmother would never have said anything about it. She adored her father, but Richard Sr. was no saint, despite his religious calling.

It turns out that my great-grandfather had girlfriends on the side while he was out and about, saving souls and all that — and —  this was one of the catalysts that drove Richard Sr. to have Rosa institutionalized at the Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian. But there was a catch: In Mississippi, one couldn’t just lock up one spouse in the insane asylum to trade in on another; there was a 10-year wait.

This is where Rosa lived for about 25 years. From Meridian, Miss., East Mississippi Insane Hospital. Sysid 92221. Scanned as tiff in 2008/08/18 by MDAH. Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

So, Richard Sr. waited, along with the girlfriend.

And…almost exactly 10 years to the date my great-grandfather divorce came through, and he was all set to marry again, Richard Sr. dropped dead of a heart attack.

Next: Library of Congress

Chapter 5: Family Connection

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Sometimes I catch myself wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with Emmett, who has taken over my research life for the past six years. I did not go looking for Emmett; rather, years ago before Emmett, I’d started out writing about someone else, Rosa LeBarte Countryman, my great-grandmother.

When I ‘met’ Emmett, I set Rosa’s story aside, because, well, I’ve known about Rosa all my life. She’d always be there, I thought — but Emmett was something else. I felt anxious to catch up with his story, because he’d been gone almost 100 years, and only God knows the location of any of his primary documents. I felt anxious — panicked, actually — to find what I could from any possible source as fast as possible. 

Rosa, in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery. She is not buried next to Richard Sr.; she’s interred with her sister’s family.

Six years later, I haven’t completely forgotten Rosa — I will pick up her story again — but sometimes guilt creeps over me about this, because Rosa was my introduction to Emmett. Also, I’ve learned that Rosa was often ‘set aside,’ taken for granted most of her life by other people, particularly those who claimed to love her best.

I’m not giving up on Rosa’s story; but I feel a compulsion to assemble this Emmett puzzle I’ve discovered. Weirdly, these were two completely separate individuals, people unknown to each other as far as I can tell, but connected in some way. One lead to the other, mysteriously, unexpected.

Rosa connected me to Emmett, which makes her a part of Emmett’s story too. It’s only fair to include her in the Emmett story — and so, perhaps, I’m not setting her aside after all.

===

Primary documents in research are critical — in the case of Emmett and Rosa, primary documents consist of diaries, letters, scrapbooks, date books, personal photographs, and so forth.

I knew going into Emmett’s research that finding any of his primary documents was going to be a challenge anyway, because I haven’t been looking for him, nor did I know anything about him other than what was in contemporary media.

But with Rosa, my great-grandmother, I knew about her already, anecdotally. Rosa’s stories were always around, but mostly avoided, and spoken about in whispers and quiet asides among family members.  Once, I asked my grandmother about her — I was 10 years old, doing a school project on family heritage. My grandmother gently put me off when I asked about Rosa, then firmly when I didn’t get the hint to leave the topic alone. As with the other adults in my family, I grew to know to avoid that topic with her, but I bugged everyone else who may have known her in my childish persistence.

My dad wasn’t reluctant to talk about Rosa; he remembers her presence, but not much else.

“I was a little boy when I met her at the East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian back in the 1940s; about five or six or so. The thing I remember the most about that place was the train ride from Vicksburg to Meridian Mississippi, and that it was a family pass because my Uncle Richard worked for the railroad. That, and the fact that my Mother was always depressed for days afterwards,” he said.

From Meridian, Miss., East Mississippi Insane Hospital. Sysid 92221. Scanned as tiff in 2008/08/18 by MDAH. Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

My 92-year-aunt remembers her, though, and has personal photographs, perhaps Rosa’s correspondence. But she refuses to talk about it, or to let on where the letters are, to this day. Her eyes, once clear and sharp, are loving, but faded and weak — but when I mention my continuing quest to learn the facts about what happened to Rosa (with the intention of doing right by her for once and for all), sadness comes over her face about Rosa, even 80 years later.

I know Rosa’s letters existed while my mother was alive — Mom used to talk about the beautifully written letters Rosa wrote to her sisters, my great aunts; beautiful in both medium and message. Rosa’s graceful penmanship was taught to her by the Sisters of Notre Dame — and — they were in French. Precious relics, indeed. I wish I knew if they still exist.

The old St. Francis Xavier Academy convent, where Rosa attended school, and where Richard Sr. installed electrical wiring. Source: Mercy.net

Alas, no one in my immediate family speaks or reads French. 

Mom said that my grandmother told her Rosa wrote them in French because she didn’t trust her husband, and she likely had her reasons, because it was my great-grandfather who put Rosa in the East Mississippi State Hospital. “Had her committed,” my Mom said.  

I don’t know anything about their marital situation, nor when the discord may have started — but I know that their relationship wasn’t always bitter. Mom mentioned it was somewhat exciting and ‘forbidden’ from the get-go, as my great-grandfather, Richard Sr.,  was not Catholic, but an itinerant Baptist preacher with New York state roots and a freelance electrician who wired the convent at St. Francis Xavier Academy, where Rosa attended school in Vicksburg.

Mom said that’s where Richard Sr. met Rosa; where he convinced her to marry him, likely without express approval of Rosa’s parents.

I remember Mom telling me: “Rosa was smart. She was bilingual, well read, but she was also a woman of her time, meaning there wasn’t much for her except a pink collar profession, like teaching, or nursing, unless a woman married. And at that point, a married woman wasn’t expected to work.” Mom added that Rosa was crazy about my great grandfather, apparently for the first part of their marriage. A woman doesn’t just marry someone outside of a tight-knit family’s disapproval easily.

What also fired my interest was Mom’s view that Rosa was a complicated person: Basically, a people pleaser to those closest to her, but privately, an intellectual independent, righteous streak about her.  “She was, in my opinion, smarter than her husband, full of sense but society wouldn’t let her speak her mind. Rosa had a way of getting involved in things under the radar; mind she wasn’t an outsider for the sake of stirring things up, you see. She wanted to do the next right thing, and deep down, that was what she believed.”

The most delicious yet sad part of Rosa’s story was what Mom hinted at years ago — a mystery about Rosa, that was based on her willingness to always walk a righteous path, to be cool with her conscious at the end of the day.

A stubbornness that ultimately drove a wedge between my great-grandparents, that made Richard Sr. do something despicable.

No wonder my 92-year-old aunt hasn’t wanted to talk about it. She was a first-hand witness to the drama; she saw what it did to my grandmother Barbara. 

And yet, the story was irresistible — and surprising — given how it eventually connected me to Emmett. 

Next: Suffrage Jerk

 

Chapter 4: Strategy

Standard

I have a fool-proof information gathering strategy that has been tremendously successful in every single research project:

  • Isolate the topic
  • Search all easily/readily available information via basic search engines
  • Read everything (this can take weeks)
  • Journal during the search/reading time
  • Reflect on the information
  • Organize the information
  • Consult with a research librarian/archivist

Note that writing up the research is nowhere to be found at this stage. (It would be almost a year before I felt like I had enough information to write about one small part of Emmett’s life.) My goal in the early days of any project is to get all the information available on the topic. THEN read it, THEN journal/reflect, THEN organize it. For the record: Journaling is something I’ve always done on works-in-progress, to capture impressions, clarifications, feelings, ideas, and so forth during the lifetime of the project.

When I look back over the notes about Emmett in May 2013, I’m amazed at how naive I sounded; how “taken” I was with this man who seemed to have died pathetically, how “noble yet misunderstood” I felt Emmett was at the time of his death.

An entry for May 6, 2013:

“…it it possible to fall in love with a research subject? But one has to accept the subject as he or she is, warts and all. (Emmett) was no saint, no monk. He was a human being who lived his life in his time in the way he knew how to do it, and how it was modeled before him.”

As I look back through my handwritten pages, I wondered if I’d  really fallen in love with Emmett — it wasn’t uncommon — or if it was more that I was trying to see the best of the man I knew nothing about, instead of trying to see information I had as just data at this point.  Regardless, I had to step back from the edge of the admiration abyss as I dug up data about Emmett’s life. I was anxious to find data, good or bad, exciting or disappointing.

The research auto pilot filter kicked on automatically at that point — I knew what I had to do next.

Spreadsheet Prozac

Data has always calmed me; I literally feel my blood pressure drop a few points when I look at research spreadsheets.

I use a basic spreadsheet program to organize all of the data items I’ve found about Emmett over his lifetime. Information is organized by date, summary of item found in the contemporary media, my notes on that media, and the location of the clip, link, article, or resource.

Within the first few days of starting Emmett’s research, I created basic spreadsheets, charting out everything I could find about Emmett Wilson in his lifetime. (I later added entries for family members, close friends and business associates within the same spreadsheets, for context and background. Today, that spreadsheet is hundreds of pages long.)

This was extremely helpful, because many of the clips and articles I found were not in chronological order.

Eventually, Emmett’s spreadsheets became a valuable time-line in which I was able to reconstruct his career, charting the ups and downs — the downs in Emmett’s life became easily predictable.  The spreadsheet definitely made it easy to construct Emmett’s story fact-by-fact — but that astringent approach was distasteful to me:

This was a man’s life — who was I to ‘sum it up’ so neatly in a spreadsheet? The hubris of the idea….

…and then, there was this entry in my notes, also on May 6, 2013:

Yeah, I’m a nerd. I transcribe all of my handwritten notes. It makes them searchable.

“I think I’m afraid I won’t like some of the information I find out about him. That may be true. But it is still his information, not mine, and regardless, I accept him and his life’s story to tell without reservation….I don’t have or need to like it at all. I just need to accept.”

Which I did — with the help of some fine research archivists and librarians.

Next: Family connection