Chapter 1: Dissection Homework From the WFGS

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Before I contacted the Pensacola Historical Society to find out more about Emmett Wilson, I made copious pots of coffee and immediately dissected the three articles sent to me from Peg Vignolo of the West Florida Genealogical Society.

Newspaper articles are rich with information — it’s not only the details IN the piece itself, but it’s the context to pay attention to when you read the articles: that is, what is said (subtly), what is not said (subtly), how the article is positioned in the paper, the language used about deceased, and so forth.

First, the obituary:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one. Courtesy of the West Florida Genealogical Society.

Note the cause of death. Nothing in the obituary text gave a clue to his death — the writing didn’t focus on the cause of death, but seemed (to me) to deflect. A ‘very short’ illness could be anything: Appendicitis, for example. On the surface, ‘very short illness’ sounded innocent enough, so why not give the reader that detail? 

[Aside: I wouldn’t realize until several months later, after I’d collected more information on Emmett and talked to Wilson family descendants that the photo in the obituary was almost 10 years old — it was the one he’d scraped money together to have taken professionally when he first ran for office in 1912.  The newspaper morgue at The Pensacola Journal would certainly have had one of the professional shots taken by Harris & Ewing when Emmett was U.S. Congressman.]

Note the time of death. Emmett died right after midnight, meaning the editor and the layout team likely had to stop the press, strip the first page of the newspaper and create a new layout at the last minute to make the first edition.

Note these nitpicky details. The article announcing Emmett’s death was placed just slightly over the fold, indicating this was a prominent person, even though Emmett’s congressional career was not distinguished. Anyone of less importance would have had a death announcement on another page, or the editor may have held the news for the next day.  Also: Whoever wrote the bare bones obituary had only the basic details about Emmett’s death at Pensacola Hospital. He or she wasn’t able to confirm anything else about Emmett or funeral plans in the middle of the night, and the details about Emmett’s life came directly from his congressional biography — obviously, the writer didn’t contact or interview local family members or friends to round out this last minute addition to the paper.

Finally, note the typos, which indicate that this death notice was very last minute. The other articles around Emmett’s death notice appear well edited. This is what reinforces my belief the editor stopped the presses for the May 29, 1918 paper for this last minute addition.

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Second, the funeral notice:

From the May 30, 1918 issue of The Pensacola Journal, page two. I think it is interesting to see the placement of Emmett’s funeral story the following day; I also wonder why (if he was so important to have three articles about his death in the paper) this item is moved off the front page.

Here is a close-up:

 

There was a lot of good background information to unpack (which I did in earlier posts, here and here).

As I reflected on this article, what stood out to me was mention of the surprise and shock of Emmett’s sudden death, and that few knew he was ill. But, at the same time, why no mention of the illness that brought about the surprise demise?

Since Emmett’s death was a surprise, that WAS news — so why not tell the reader the reason BEHIND Emmett’s death –unless the reason was embarrassing to the family and friends who knew him best?

Also, wasn’t it ironic that he was ‘popular’ and yet no one knew he was sick? I have several articles from The Pensacola Journal  during this time period of ‘popular’ friends of Emmett who were reported home sick or in the hospital. (I checked the West Florida newspapers for several weeks leading up to the day of Emmett’s death, and there is no mention of him being ill or hospitalized.) Previously, when Emmett was ill, it was mentioned in the paper, by the way. One example is provided below.  (He’d supposedly had rheumatism at one point — which was often the euphemism for something else.)

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

Another interesting item: Emmett was buried from the home of what appeared to be (at the time) a political frenemy — J. Walter Kehoe, and not from Emmett’s own home, or his brother Frank’s home in Pensacola.

As I was collecting any and all information about Emmett and his pals in those early days into Emmett’s research, I’d discovered that Kehoe had long coveted the office of U.S. Congressman. In fact, it was reported from Kehoe’s speeches and other news coverage that he considered the office his dream job. (The Florida Democratic party leadership didn’t agree; they liked him fine, but they always considered Kehoe as the runner-up to someone else whenever it came time to select the candidate for the office.) Emmett and Kehoe had an unusual relationship, and this was going to definitely be an interesting part of Emmett’s story to unwind.

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Third, the post-funeral article:

The Pensacola Journal, May 31, 1918.

This was the post I wrote about this item a while back; also, this post included details pertaining to Emmett’s funeral, including the info featuring Emmett’s mortician (who sported a creepy mustache to boot).

The shorter third article ran on the third page, although in a good layout position (right hand page, under the number). The details are a bit general — which makes it hard to tell if the writer was actually present at the funeral. The subject is that a lot of people attended Emmett’s funeral.

The last sentence of the article made me believe the writer may have been there (noting several people weeping at the service), but with the feeling of ‘thank God this poor guy’s life is over and I can go on to my next assignment.’

I mean, look at the ‘article,’ folks. It is only three sentences long. 

I’m curious about the Rev. Johnson, who gave a ‘touching tribute’ memorializing Emmett — I wonder who actually briefed Johnson about Emmett’s life, because although he was an Episcopalian, Emmett was not a regular churchgoer, and probably had few conversations with Johnson.

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All this information was great, but it left me with many more questions than answers — and critically — I still didn’t know how Emmett died.

I knew I’d have to work backwards with this information in order to tell Emmett’s story — but I would need more details about himself, and his family. I reasoned that if this guy was important enough to garner three articles just about his death, there was more to this story.

The hard work was just getting started — I knew I’d have a long slog ahead to uncover Emmett’s story.  But I didn’t care. I was on a mission. I was possessed by Emmettism!

Next: The Incredible Jacki Wilson

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Chapter 1: Repository

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WFGS official seal. Source: WFGS

On April 27, 2013, I called the West Florida Genealogical Society in Pensacola, and spoke with researcher Peg Vignolo. I introduced myself, and explained what I was looking for.

“Nope,” she told me after checking several resources. “We don’t have anything on Emmett Wilson other than what I’d already found about him myself on the Internet,” which isn’t a whole lot, she added. I agreed.

Peg said it was curious that there was such little information, given that he was the youngest U.S. Congressman at the time, and the first from Pensacola after the new congressional district was formed in 1908.

From ChroniclingAmerica.gov.

I mentioned the date of his death, and asked for a copy of his obituary, if they had copies of The Pensacola Journal from 1918, since the 1918 edition of the paper didn’t seem to be on microfilm yet, or available via ChroniclingAmerica.gov, the online newspaper repository at the Library of Congress.  Peg said that they had the bound issues of The Pensacola Journal for May 1918, and would be happy to make copies and email the obituary to me.

“May 1918, huh…,” she added thoughtfully. “Maybe it was the flu. The pandemic hit West Florida pretty hard in 1918. It devastated many families here in Pensacola.” I told her I wasn’t sure, but what little information I had at that moment suggested he’d died at home, so it was a possibility.

Peg recommended that I next contact the Pensacola Historic Society (now known as the UWF Historic Trust).  “They have a large archive on prominent locals; if there’s anything on Emmett, it would likely be there.”

Meanwhile, she’d hunt for the obituary, and refused payment. In gratitude, I emailed some of the articles I’d found already so that she could start a surname folder for Emmett.

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A few hours later, Peg emailed three articles to my faculty email account, one each on Emmett’s death, obituary, and funeral. She mentioned it was curious that he garnered not one but three articles in the local newspaper, something unusual about a person of suggested prominence but lacking a file in their historical archives.

Definitely unusual — and mysterious.

Next: Pensacola Historic Society

Chapter 1: Emmettism

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I couldn’t get this handsome man’s face out of my head. It was strange. It was almost like I had embraced a whole new ‘-ism’, this time, Emmettism. Something new to replace the mania for alcohol, a feeling that comes and goes even with a few years of continuous sobriety.

The photo that got my attention.

My sponsor tells me (often) to watch out for these things, because they can take over, take you out of the living in the current moment, which is something normal to this alcoholic. “Stop for a minute. Think. What do you think is missing in your life that you think you have to throw yourself into this new project?” she asked.

At that time, I didn’t know. “I just feel this need to find out more about this guy. I don’t know what it is.”

I told her about hearing the words “tell my story” in the middle of the night while I was looking at that photo.

I told her that I think there’s something to this, and I didn’t know what it was, except to follow it for awhile and see where it lead me. ‘It’s harmless,” I said. I told her not to worry, that at least I’m not drinking, or using drugs, or doing anything unhealthful or hurtful to someone else, right?

“Yeah,” she said, a little uncertain. “Just keep me in the loop, OK?” We agreed to get together again at our weekly meeting, and I agreed to check in with her in a few days.

McKeldin LIbrary, in the heart of the University of Maryland campus, College Park.

I spent the next five days in my office, in my bedroom, in the University of Maryland carrels (where I have faculty privileges), at the American University library (where I had alumni privileges), anywhere I could link up to as many databases as possible, reading everything I could find about Emmett online. I wasn’t teaching a class at the time and I didn’t have any client work going on; so, I could throw myself into the deep end of research.

I started with the basics — his name, where he was from and the year he died, and making copious, stream-of-conscious notes in black ink in an old computation notebook with quadrille paper — the graphic organization of the blue boxes on the thick yellow tinted paper was calming and made me feel in control of this project that just seemed — for days — a lot of isolated, independent facts rooted in nothing.

At the end of the week, I’d read hundreds of articles. I wasn’t exhausted — rather, I was energized. I felt like I was onto something, but I needed more. I knew that not everything was ever online — I’d have to look locally.

There had to be a repository about Emmett in West Florida, a minimal biography or an old brown folder somewhere with information about Emmett; he was their U.S. Congressman once upon a time, I reasoned.

Next step: Repository Search.

 

 

 

Introduction: Who’s Emmett?

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When I first started gathering research on Emmett, I remember thinking: I wanted to get as much information as I could get my hands on, as quickly as possible, so that I could jump right in and write this complex man’s comprehensive story….

And looking back in my research journals, I saw how excited, enthusiastic — in love, basically — I was with Emmett. Not the research. Emmett.

A dead man.

No matter how far along we are in the program, it is always one day at a time.

It was odd. Like finding Emmett, latching onto him, filled something that was missing in my life, something that filled a hole in my soul. Something to replace the alcohol I’d given up reluctantly and resentfully on April 27, 2007. The compulsion to drink was lifted — miraculously and instantaneously, thank God — the moment I identified as an alcoholic at at beginner’s meeting that afternoon. I love living a sober life. But the -ism is always there — the need to escape living in the present moment, to procrastinate in favor of sloth or laziness, to avoid doing the next right thing because I’m afraid of failing at whatever it is I’m doing….

So for about three weeks, I pored over every single database I could think of that would have something about Archibald Emmett Wilson, born September 17, 1882, died May 29, 1918, in Pensacola, Florida. I used my credentials at my university to access every known database, free and for fee. I read every single thing that I could find on my own that had something to do with or about Emmett.

It seemed innocent and positive, though; if I was going to be addicted to something, it was definitely better than anesthetizing myself with drugs (I never was into them anyway), or shopping, or chocolate, or any other compulsive distraction to take the place of booze. The problem was that for about the first six months of Emmett’s project, I didn’t want to tell someone what I’m doing, because it might look stalkerish or sick, even if the person I’m researching has been dead for almost a century. But in AA, we’re often told that we are as sick as our secrets — and when we talk about what’s going on in our lives, we often find the solution.

It was when I started talking about my research — and reaching out to librarians, archivists, and historians in Florida that the research started taking off.

The things I discovered within the first six months of Emmett’s research were interesting — and oddly familiar. It turns out that Emmett and I are related, in more ways than just blood.

He and I share a chemical addiction. To alcohol.

His addiction killed him. My addiction almost killed me. Parallel lives, 100 years apart?

It turns out that researching and writing Emmett’s story was much like telling my own story, taking a close look at my drinking history and its consequences in my life. This was not something I wanted to do, even with several years of sobriety. But the unexamined life is one that we are destined to relive in some ways, and I desperately did not wish to experience life as an active drinker, a drunk, again.

After five years of doing research and gathering information on Emmett’s life, I stopped for several months. I knew what I was doing: Resisting the inevitable telling of his story, which is also my story. The more I put it off, the more I became anxious, uncomfortable and fearful; ergo, the more my drinking triggers became front and center in my life.

Instead of picking up a drink, or doing something else that replaced my alcoholism, I finally decided to sit down with Emmett, and just tell his story.

Which also happens to be our story, his and mine.

And so, no more procrastination. I tell his story, what I’ve found, which is also my story, here and now, in this blog.

There’s a lot more to come. Hang in there with me. One day at a time.

Next: Emmettism

Platonically Yours

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Here’s something new that turned up in Emmett Wilson research:

Florida State Debate Team’s historic webpage. Emmett’s best friend, Paul Carter, was an all-star. And we’ve seen the photo on the right in an earlier Emmett Wilson post, here. Source: floridastatedebate.com

A page honoring The Platonic Debating Society, which was the founding body of today’s Florida State University Debate Team.

Emmett (L) and Paul. Roommates, friends, sometimes debate rivals. Source: FSU archive.

The photos come from the first yearbook published by the Florida Seminary West of the Suwannee River (which was FSU when Emmett attended in 1900-1901), The Argo.  In the center back row are Emmett and Paul, roommates and debate team members, looking in opposite directions. (Emmett was not a great debater in college, by the way; he was picked on in the yearbook for his lack of debate skills.)

The FSU page honoring the roots of the debate team has a lot of deep information, including articles from contemporary newspapers featuring Emmett, Paul, and other members of the Platonic Debating Society. There’s nothing new-to-me, which is a bit of a relief, because I hope by now (five-plus years into tracking down information on Emmett), I’ve been thorough.

I’ve got the minutes! Here’s a snippet from the minutes book of the Platonic Debating Society for 1901. Good old Emmett is right at the top!

What IS missing is a copy of the Platonic Debating Society’s minutes — lucky me, though — a copy of the pages featuring Emmett’s tenure in the Debating Society was kindly send to me by the Florida State University archivist a year or so ago. The minutes book is only a small volume; I believe I have everything I need from it relating to Emmett, but I still would like to read the entire book for complete perspective.

Perhaps it will be posted online one of these days!

I Wonder

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When I first started blogging about the Emmett Wilson research project, my goal was to put his name back out into the public discussion forum, in the hopes that distant relatives or descendants (who were also doing genealogical research) would find me/him, and exchange information.

I knew that by itself, the blog wasn’t going to be as effective — if you want research to produce results, you have to be proactive — so I simultaneously launched an outreach project to descendants of both Emmett’s family and friends, as well as to archivists and historians in West Florida. This combined effort has worked well. I’ve met in person and online many wonderful people — and new family members — in this effort. Everyone I’ve met has been generous and helpful sharing information, photographs, clips, and the like.

I enjoy — and prefer — writing as my main means of communication. It isn’t that I don’t like to ‘talk’ to folks (I do!), but when I write, I have a chance to reflect before I hit ‘send’.  Writing the blog gives me a chance to try out new ideas and perspectives about my research.

For example, when I first ‘met’ Emmett, I felt sorry for him, and angry for him! I remember thinking (while reading his obituaries on microfilm for the first time): Poor, misunderstood young man. I even wrote those words in my notes that afternoon at the American University library, as I scrolled through the film. This was, of course, before I learned that he died pretty much by his own hand — drinking himself to death. I didn’t know him at all in those days.

I thought I could get to know Emmett this way, through reading about him, hopefully some of it in his own words, too. But alas, there’s very little of him, in his own words (save for the elusive scrapbook of his that may be floating around out there, somewhere).

And while I feel as if I know something about him, there’s so much I don’t know, and that is intimidating me, 100 years after his death. I know a lot of details about him, but there’s so much I still don’t know. I wonder:

  • why he persisted in a career that he was fundamentally unready to embark upon;
  • why he always seemed alone even in a crowd of admirers, both male and female;
  • why he seemed to always have an ‘escape’ from personal commitment when people got too close;
  • why he ultimately drank himself to death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the answers to these questions. Whether or not I do, the discovery of this long-lost cousin, and the journey to understand him — and myself — has been a worthwhile project.

 

History of Florida, Past & Present

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In 1923, Harry Gardner Cutler published a ginormous compendium of Florida biographies, complete with similarly sized title History of Florida: Past and Present, Historical and Biographical.

Three volumes complete the set, and today, it is available via Google Books at this link.

Nancy. I miss her every day.

It’s an interesting and informative resource; in fact, this massive resource is how I met my dear friend Nancy five years ago. Nancy owned an original set of Cutler’s History of Florida; she’d transcribed a biography of one of Emmett’s friends and posted it to a genealogical database. I found the bio and the email link in that database, wrote to her for permission to use the information, we struck up a correspondence, and the rest is history (no pun intended).

History of Florida, Volume 2, includes the biography of Emmett’s brother, Cephas L. Wilson, beginning on page 348. The bio reads much like the man himself: A bit pompous and overblown. See the snippet from the bio, below:

I wonder if Cephas wrote some of the copy for the bio. Snippet is from page 348, lower right hand column. Source: Google Books

The biography includes a lot of interesting family details. For example:

Snippet is from page 349 of History of Florida. Source: Google Books.

The biography goes on to include information about Cephas’ law practice, political aspirations, Emmett and Cephas’ parents, even a lengthy paragraph about Cephas’ marriage to Lula Wiselogel (spelled Wiseloyel in the biography; Lula’s cousin Nannett told me that spelling was not unusual).

But not a word about Cephas’ brother, the U.S. Congressman, even though Emmett had been dead five years by the publication date.