Chapter 18: Denies He’s a Foreigner

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I have interesting information — some in the form of primary sources! — about the Wilson family’s tenure in British Honduras.

I’ve annotated the page so you can see where the information on Emmett is located. Source: Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, Sunday June 1, 1913.

I’d like to start with this article, an interview with Emmett during his first term as a U.S. Congressman, because it is presented as his words.

Here’s what he said:

The interview with Emmett, as he explains his birth in British Honduras.

This is the last part of the interview.

Emmett explains some things, but there are still questions unanswered.  For example:

  • Why did his parents go there in the first place? What was the reason, given their roots were in Alabama and Florida, and their large families were very much alive?
  • And if this really was a short-term, temporary stay, why get so damn testy whenever he was asked about it?

There was a lot more to this story than the impression Emmett gave that his parents were on a temporary break. Since I couldn’t ask him directly, I picked the major fact from his interview apart and did some research on it.

Here’s what I discovered:

“For a period of about six years, my father owned a half-interest….” Emmett was born in British Honduras in 1882; his sister Katie was born in British Honduras in August 1878. Working backwards, the two chronological Wilson siblings older than Katie were

1) Eudora Neely Wilson, born in 1876, in Holly Springs, Mississippi and

2) Everard Meade Wilson, born in 1873 in Holly Springs.

In 1884, the Wilsons immigrated back to the U.S., through New Orleans. The youngest son, Walker, was born in Chipley that same year.

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

If we do the math, with Katie born August 1878, then we know the Wilsons were probably in British Honduras at least from 1878 on — and 1878 to 1884 is seven years. It is possible that Dr. Wilson was already in British Honduras with his family starting in 1878, then decided to invest in the sugar plantation while he was there. But Dr. Wilson was methodical — I believe he probably had this plan in mind BEFORE he relocated his large and growing family to a foreign country which, I estimate, was early as 1875.

He’d need resources to do this, because life as a former Confederate during Reconstruction days was difficult, as well as expensive, and I posit that Dr. Wilson’s trips to Central America were rare, given what I know about the Wilson family during their Holly Springs, Mississippi days.

The Central America Wilsons

You can read the entire original posts about the Wilson’s first years of marriage during Reconstruction here and here; but here’s what I found out about the Wilson’s. It tells a completely different, and disappointing, story than what Emmett reported about the family’s situation behind the move to Central America:

[From 1870 to about 1875] Emmett’s parents were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with six young children, renting a house next to Elizabeth’s sister, Lucy Maxwell Meade and her husband, Everard. The Wilsons has been married almost 10 years, with not much to show in terms of money and professional opportunities. Emmett’s father, Dr. Frank Wilson, was a dedicated and well respected country doctor, having a difficult time making ends meet during in Reconstruction-era Mississippi.

Meanwhile, things were not going well for Dr. Wilson’s parents [in Alabama], Cephas and Emily Wilson and Dr. Wilson’s siblings, who were struggling to keep the homestead (property taxes were high; the Cephas Wilsons has lost almost everything at the end of the Civil War). Survival was becoming an exercise in futility, as money was running out, time was running out. The Cephas Wilson family had few options, and did not relish the idea of becoming homeless.

Confederate expats settled in British Honduras with the idea that they would recreate another plantation world. Very few were successful; Emmett’s family tried to get a sugar plantation going, but it failed miserably. Source: Amazon.com

Cephas and his sons had come across a pamphlet, Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868 (copies are still available today, via Amazon.com), which described a group of ex-Confederates from Mississippi and other Southern states who had fled Reconstruction to settle in British Honduras (now Belize), and recreate a plantation life. The British government wanted settlers who knew how to grow sugar and cotton, and were willing to relocate, establish the crops, and make a good living. Several members of the Alabama Wilson family thought this was a good option, took what remained of their savings, and, in 1869, emigrated to Punta Gorda, British Honduras.

Apparently, Dr. Wilson felt the money and opportunity to live among family members, and away from the struggles of Reconstruction far outweighed the struggles the family would face relocating to a jungle with no infrastructure and minimum civilization. Things were that bad for the Wilsons, apparently.

This was not just a situation of being disenchanted over minor things

It was so bad that before the Alabama Wilsons left the U.S., around 1875, there is a codicil in Cephas Wilson Sr.’s will noting that his son, Dr. Wilson asked for and received $1000 against his inheritance to make the move. ($1000 in 1875 is about $19,750 in 2019 dollars.)

Emmett’s parents must have believed that the economic and political situation in the South was not going to improve, and their best bet was to start over somewhere else, even if that was in a jungle. At least other family members would be there with them.

Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth moved to Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras in 1875.

 

The Wilsons lived in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras (now Belize). They emigrated from the Port of New Orleans to Belize City; then traveled by ox cart down to Punta Gorda. There were few roads; this was not an easy move for this family. Source: http://www.scf.usc.edu

Oh — and by the way — while Emmett’s parents were setting up house in British Honduras, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and several other expats (who were relatives of both the Maxwells and the Wilsons that relocated) helped establish an Episcopal parish in that community — a parish that still exists today.

I ask you: If you knew that you are visiting a country for a temporary stay, would you establish a parish?

OK, we can argue that some people might do it (for example, my mother-in-law is an Episcopal priest, so she might think about it) — but to me, to do it just as a visitor strikes me as arrogant and assuming. Yes, build a house for yourself, or a clinic, for your community. But a parish? That strikes me as long-term.

I believe the real reason WHY Dr. Wilson moved his family to British Honduras is that Emmett’s family was trying to recreate the life they had during the confederacy.

THIS was more likely why his parents and other relatives emigrated to British Honduras.

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As I write this, it is important to remember that I’m not judging them; just stating the facts that the Wilsons were a product of Confederate society, that was the way they lived, that was what they knew (for better or worse) at the core of their beliefs and traditions, that was the life they wanted. The Wilsons were not ‘bad’; they believed in different things than what I believe.

These were the values modeled for Emmett and his siblings, and shaped who they were; who Emmett was — and — although this is Emmett’s story, we need to know something about his parents, too.

===

Back to the original point of this post: Was Emmett, then, a foreigner?

Answer: Maybe.

I’m not trying to tease you, but because this chapter is so long,  I’ll answer this one in the next post. Thanks for hanging with me on this long story.

 

 

 

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Chapter 17: Clues in the Obituary

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A reporter once wrote that if you really wanted to piss off Emmett Wilson, ask him about his nativity.

That is, if he was a REAL American citizen given he was born in British Honduras during his parent’s ‘temporary sojourn’ there.

“…woe betide the man….” Makes me wonder if anyone else thought Emmett’s short fuse about a fact he couldn’t change was him fearful of a damaging truth? Source: Chronicling America.gov

Emmett’s obituary in the May 29, 1918 issue of The Pensacola Journal, has subtle clues. I admit that when I first saw the obituary five years ago, the obvious British Honduras birth jumped out at me. We’ll get to that in depth; but first, we need to dissect a few things about this obituary.

 

Here’s a close-up of the page itself; you’ll remember this from a post a few days ago:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one.

(I took apart the obituary last summer and wrote about it here; some of the information bears repeating in this post, because it sets the stage for our next chapter.)

Here’s the original information, plus new information I discovered since this article was posted:

Emmett’s death notice was unexpected and essentially thrown together at the last possible minute as The Pensacola Journal‘s first (and only edition) of morning newspaper was going to press. It appears that the editors, in remaking the front page at deadline, might have cut down or removed another article that was less locally newsworthy.

  • “Following a very short illness….” Those who were closest to Emmett knew what actually killed him had been killing him for years (Emmett’s “poor health” had been reported in West Florida papers at least since 1913 when he took office. A joke was once made about Emmett in the July 14, 1913 issue of The Miami News about how he, once again, “had taken to his bed”. Subtle, but Emmett’s problem was visible.) In fact, Emmett’s ‘poor health’ was one of the reasons reported in earlier versions of The Pensacola Journal and other Florida papers why “he decided” not to run for a third term.
  • “…died at 12:25 o’clock this morning…” Emmett’s death took place right after midnight as the morning paper was going to press. Laying out a newspaper page in 1918 was by hand, and stressful on a deadline. The position of the death notice in the paper is interesting: Right above the fold, but not with a prominent headline. The story was important, as Emmett was a recent U.S. Congressman, and his sudden death definitely newsworthy.
  • …aged 36 years.” Emmett was actually 35; a few months short of his birthday.
  • “Of course no funeral arrangements had been perfected….”  It is likely only a select few knew Emmett was in the hospital. Although Emmett’s health had been deteriorating for years, he’d experienced several blackouts and unconscious scenarios (for lack of a better description), no one probably figured this was Emmett’s last blackout.  There is an article in The Pensacola Journal from 1914 when Emmett was hospitalized in Washington, D.C. in which his brother Francis told the press that it wasn’t a serious problem, and that Emmett’s illness was not of major concern. (I’m paraphrasing.) The family probably had a long history of covering for Emmett because he did, indeed, get over it often.
  • “It is probable remains will be held pending….” The late night copy editor was scrambling to fill available text space. It is curious where the information about Emmett’s death came from; i.e., did the desk editor do a last minute call to the police station and hospitals for late breaking news, or did someone from the hospital call the newspaper to let them know Emmett had died? I lean towards the former, just from experience — funeral homes, hospitals, police stations have their own work to do, not pass on hot news tips — and long ago when I was a cub reporter, my job was to call these places at the last minute before press for just such information.
  • “Deceased from (sic) born….” The typo is another clue the copy editor was scrambling. But the bigger clues that this caught everyone off guard is that the second paragraph was taken from Emmett’s official U.S. Congressional Directory biography in 1913, and not more recent sources, because the death notice doesn’t include any information about his second term, or anything notable he did in office.
  • Emmett’s photo is from his 1912 congressional primary campaign. There had been several high-quality photos of Emmett taken while in Congress and certainly provided to the media free of charge. It’s curious why a more recent photograph was not used — unless it was just what was on hand, so as to put the May 29, 1918 edition to bed.

Having broken down the obituary, our next chapter will look at the British Honduras fact — how the heck did his parents get to Central America in the 1880s? Why wasn’t Emmett born in the United States? Who were Emmett’s parents, anyway? And why would Emmett get so pissed off at people asking about his personal history?

Stay tuned.

Chapter 15: Irony and Uselessness

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You want to hear something funny? Or more honestly, ironic?

As I sat with my newfound information about Emmett Wilson, I was angry. Pissed, actually.

First, this guy. Emmett Wilson, who (from what I had read so far) was from a privileged family; a family who held respectable jobs in the community, a family who lost everything more than once, reinvented themselves, survived abject poverty, educated themselves, saved every penny — and gave those pennies willingly to Emmett so he could go to college not once but twice…

Second, a family with connections who went out of their way to bail him out of more than one or two bad career choices and help him obtain jobs of prominence, which Emmett did an honestly average job about…

Third, Emmett, a man with family and connections that gave him places to live, opportunities no average Joe or Josephine could have dreamed of back then, resulting in national prominence….

….only to throw it all away before his 36th birthday.

What an asshole.

He had everything and threw it away.

And who was this guy anyway? OK, yeah, so hooray, he’s my cousin. A distant cousin whom I’d not gone looking for; someone who just showed up in the middle of another project, who thumped me on the head in the middle of the night asking me to do him a favor.

Man, does this Emmett guy have some nerve, reaching out from beyond the grave for yet ANOTHER favor. I mean, what the hell? You have to be kidding, I remembered muttering to myself. And to him, if he was actually listening.

“Does this photo make me look like I have all the answers? Maybe I’m just uncomfortable in a stiff collar?”

I looked at his photo — the official one of Emmett posed with kind-of a frown/stern expression.

I said to him: “You have all the answers already. What more do you want? What do you want from me at this point?”

For two days, I was too pissed to work.

Instead, I went to see my sponsor, Courtney (who is also a genealogical researcher, by the way. Ironic?).

I recounted to her exactly what I found about Emmett, how I felt, what I was thinking, how used I felt by this Emmett Wilson, who seemed to use everyone and everything in his life, too, to get what he wanted, and then to just fucking die in the end, a useless, wasted life….

She listened quietly, patiently, as I ranted for probably about 20 minutes. Then she asked:

“Why are you so angry about Emmett? What’s he done to you, exactly?”

“Well, look,” I said, displaying the folders of information I’d collected. “This is just infuriating. This guy is a loser. He threw his life away; he didn’t care. How can you be given all sorts of opportunities to do well and just throw it away? It’s insane,” I shook my head at her.

“You sure are worked up over a guy who has been dead almost 100 years. I ask you again: What’s he done to YOU that makes you so angry?”

“I don’t get it,” I muttered defensively.

“Judy, don’t you see? None of this is about Emmett. This is all about you.”

I just shook my head, incredulous.

“Don’t dismiss the idea. Think about it,” she said. “You came from nothing; you had a family and friends who would and did give everything to help you, willingly. Or unwillingly,” she said with a chuckle. “But still, you had the resources. And what did YOU do with your resources during your early career? And when did you say you did most of your drinking?”

I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t actually because I felt my face burning.

“Did you appreciate them, your advantages?”

“I do now.” I said, sheepishly.

After a few quiet moments, she said: “They called you useless too. How did that make you feel, or do you remember?”

I did remember. I shifted uncomfortably; I started to assemble Emmett’s papers back into their folders.

“You’re angry because you are reliving your helplessness when you were literally, mentally drowning when you are reading all about Emmett and what he threw away in his life,” she said nodding at the papers in my hands.

My sponsor had my full attention.

“No. Just like Emmett, you didn’t appreciate what you had in those days because you couldn’t. You were out of your mind, insane if you will, putting the need for a drink first. Just like your cousin. And, this story you are writing. Think about this: Is Emmett’s drunkalogue the entire life story?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “His life was more than just being a drunk.”

Courtney smiled at me, kindly, and nodded.

“There is more to Emmett’s story than just ‘he drank, he died.’ I think you know this, too. How did he get there? What did he do about it? What lessons can we learn from his life that can help you today?

“And,” she continued, “would you still consider Emmett useless for having reached out to you, asking you to tell his story, if his story actually informed your own?”

Before I left, Courtney reminded me about being self-righteous in all of this: “We are lucky and blessed to have found AA, and that it works for us. But remember, there are plenty of people who can’t or won’t accept this program or any other program out there, for whatever reason. We’re powerless over other people, places, things…they have to do it for themselves.

“There’s another gift in the program that I think you need to work on,” she added, looking at me over the rim of her glasses.

“What?” I said, with surprise. “I appreciate all of the gifts of the program, truly…” I started. She shook her head.

“Really? What about humility?”

“What about it?” I asked.

“You’re also mad at Emmett because he couldn’t ‘get it’ and you did. A lot of people don’t, can’t or won’t get it. It’s a daily struggle, you know. And just because you could do it — and I know you work hard to stay there — not everyone can. Your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your own program,” she said, sitting back and looking at me pointedly.

I didn’t say anything because now I was mad at Courtney for calling me out — and correctly. We sat quietly for a few minutes; I couldn’t stay mad at her for very long because I always knew that she’d tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not, and Courtney is precious to me. Eventually, I looked at her in the eye and nodded.

“I have a lot of work to do, and not just with this story. And I am sorry for being so rude.”

Courtney nodded.

“It’s fine. But don’t be angry because Emmett couldn’t or wouldn’t get it while he was alive — his death and story serves a purpose for you, now, today. His story, and how you found it or he found you or whatever, is a wonderful gift and opportunity to learn and grow.

“So, I wouldn’t call him or his life useless. But your reaction is pretty ironic,” she said with a chuckle, as our session together ended, and she walked me to her apartment door.

“Keep coming back,” she said, as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek.

Next: Emmett’s story, from the very beginning.

Chapter 14: What is he to me?

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That was the question I kept asking as I dug deeper into this stranger’s — Emmett’s — story. I couldn’t keep calling him a stranger, though.

For such an obscure guy who didn’t leave much of a mark while he lived, I was turning up dozens of tiny blurbs about his life almost daily from newspaper microfilm. I spent hours (courtesy of faculty privileges and InterLibrary Loan) at both the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library and The American University’s Bender Library, scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed pages from the past, newspapers searching for anything Emmett Wilson. The small pieces would have to come together to illustrate the coherent whole as best as possible, because I lacked true primary sources at this point. This was literally the needle-in-the-haystack approach, but it was the only approach available.

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

 

Over time, the small, often one-line items about Emmett’s life grew together into an extensive 4.8 megabyte chart. Essentially, I’d created Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner in reverse, a calendar overview of his life which included an incredibly detailed map of what the man did on a regular basis, folks he hung out with, where he went for entertainment, venues he visited regularly. Ad infinitum, or as close as I could get to it.

A sample shot of Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner. Information based on newspaper reports, journal entries, family documents, and the like. Location of the original information is in the far right column.

Good research, right? Except that I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch with regard to Emmett. I’d have to be asked to leave the microfilm readers at closing. I’d look up at the library clock one moment, 9:25 a.m. and the second time I’d look it was 3:45 p.m.

Pity the librarians and archive workers; pity the research assistants at nearby tables: I’d chat Emmett up with anyone who asked me what I was working on at the university, whether they were interested or not.

And that was when I noticed I’d embraced a whole other -ism.

As an alcoholic in recovery, I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, but the desire to escape whatever it is I need to focus on at the moment, to procrastinate from living in the current world, is always there. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to escape or to feel better about; I was doing research, and damn good progress too, I thought.

But my husband, who never complains or comments on my work unless something seems truly over the top or awry, actually spoke up: “This is taking over your life. What is it about? What is this to you?” he said.

I didn’t know, I said.

“Then what’s the point of doing the research? What do you hope to get out of it? If you figure that out, then your path in pulling all this information together will be clear,” he said, gesturing at the piles of files stacked on my desk, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, transcribed notes.

I literally have hundreds of pages of notes about Emmett. While I transcribe everything to electronic files for safekeeping, I am most comfortable taking notes traditionally with paper and pen, complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

 

 

There was one other thing I hadn’t checked — I’d purposely put it off. It was time to find out for sure. So, I typed his name into my Geni.com account — Geni.com is a genealogical research tool.

Lo and behold:

And there it is: Emmett and I are related. Note the common ancestor, Graves. The Graves ancestor was mentioned in the Jim Milligan genealogy document mentioned in an earlier post. Source: Geni.com

 

Oh man.

Now I knew who Emmett was to me. For sure, I couldn’t say he was a stranger anymore.

But I wasn’t sure if I wanted more than that.

Next: Acceptance is the key.

Chapter 13: Disappointing diagnosis?

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About two weeks after following up with Mike Burke with the proper Wilson ancestor information, and approval from Sacred Heart Hospital’s general counsel, I received this email message:

Well, there it was: An official hospital record indicating Emmett was an alcoholic. But was that enough?

In research, one has to triangulate the data — I had Jim Milligan’s genealogy, which stated Emmett became an alcoholic. That’s two sources. I wanted to dig around some more, to reinforce what I had already.

Lo and behold, thanks to the miracle of the Worldcat database, I  located a second Wilson family genealogy, written by Arabella (Belle) Fannin Wilson, wife of Emmett’s oldest brother Augustus Maxwell Wilson.

Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. The original document is in the archival holdings at the Miami-Dade Library.

 

Belle also mentioned Emmett’s alcoholism, but it doesn’t sound certain:

Excerpt from Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. It’s another mention of alcoholism, but Belle doesn’t seem to be absolutely certain of Emmett as an alcoholic.

 

But I remembered that I also had the funeral report from the Rev. Dr. Melville Johnson, which reported Emmett died of the “D.T.s”

“Cause of death: D.T.” Delirium tremens?

At this point, I wondered how in the world the Episcopal church pastor would write “D.T.s” if:

a) he hadn’t observed Emmett in distress before his death himself, while visiting parishoners in the hospital,

or

b) he wasn’t told of this by the nursing/medical staff for his official record? 

In other words, I doubted Dr. Johnson would have made this up. Still, I reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast for any information on Dr. Johnson (the kind of guy he was), and inquired if there was a copy of Emmett’s eulogy on record.

 

Dr. Johnson didn’t leave a copy of the eulogy at Christ Church, so I was hoping perhaps one was sent to the diocese office, since Emmett was a congressman.

A staff member of the Historiographer Team got back with me about two weeks later, and said that unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on record for Emmett’s eulogy — but with regard to Dr. Johnson’s character, he was known to be a rock-solid, compassionate, reliable shepherd of his flock. It would be very unlikely, in other words, that he would have written anything about his congregation in official records if it were not so.

The family may not have wanted it known on record that Emmett died of alcoholism, i.e., they may have been able to keep that part out of the newspapers, but Dr. Johnson didn’t budge on the facts. Apparently, neither did Dr. Bruce.

Considering the news article announcing Emmett’s death “after a short illness” on the front page of The Pensacola Journal for May 29, 1918 didn’t appear exactly true, I considered that some may want to present a sanitized version of Emmett’s demise. Again, the Episcopal Diocese staff said there would do that; nor would there be any reason to think Dr. Johnson was casting aspersions on Emmett’s character — he was simply reporting what he was told, period, and he’d have no reason to change an official record just to save another person’s reputation. 

I felt confident that I could consider the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s report to be that of an objective third party.

I also figured that if Emmett’s physician in Pensacola, Dr. E.F. Bruce (who’d also signed his death certificate) wrote an alcoholism diagnosis, the disease is not something that suddenly appears, nor is it ‘short term’ in any capacity. Emmett’s obituary had said he died after a ‘short illness.’ Emmett’s alcoholism — which, according to Dr. Bruce, was the reason he was in the hospital — led to his death.

Uremia. Kidney failure. From Emmett Wilson’s death certificate.

But the death certificate had reported “Uremia” as the cause of Emmett’s death –so I contacted Donna the Nephrologist and showed her what I’d found.

Donna said that a physician is always required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder, and even if it was the primary cause of Emmett’s demise, it can’t be listed as a cause of death, even nowadays. (Original source of quote here.)

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “…For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off)…”

But you can be sure, she said, that if he was in the throes of the D.T.s at the end, cirrhosis was present.

I asked her what it was probably like for Emmett at the very end. Back in the day, there wasn’t much more a medical staff could do besides restrain patients, help them through the end. It wasn’t that being strapped down was mistreatment; it was for their own safety. She said that if Emmett was in end-stage kidney failure AND was presenting with cirrhosis, it was the end, and the staff knew it.

“According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she added.

“Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system (which is what happened at Pensacola Hospital), the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since an alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, and so the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.

“Emmett’s body could not handle it; so he likely went into a coma.

“And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

Reposted from an earlier writeup on this blog.

OK. Well, I can say with certainty Emmett was an alcoholic. That was what got him in the end.

Was I ‘disappointed’ with the diagnosis, though?

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question — I didn’t really know Emmett all that well yet, and I still wasn’t sure why the hell he asked me to write his story. I kept coming back to this question: What was the purpose of this project? It was too intriguing for me to set aside.

Mike Burke’s comment in the email made me realize that even today, in our enlightened, scientifically advanced society, alcoholism is stigmatized — maybe less so than it was in Emmett’s day — but you can be sure folks still look upon those of us in recovery as “less than” in some ways. (Personally, THAT doesn’t bother me so much; what other people think of me is none of my business.)

It is still hard, even in the enlightened, scientifically advanced society today to get help with one’s addiction. Recovery is never successful unless the addicted person is absolutely ready to do the work; no one else can do it for them. Emmett had very few resources available to him in the 1910s; even if he wished to take advantage of them, he and his family/friends would have had to keep it absolutely quiet, which might have been near impossible as he was a public figure from 1910 on. So, there was a personal AND public struggle going on. Sobriety statistics are rather low for alcoholics in recovery.

Regardless, new pieces of information were starting to trickle in, and Emmett’s story was just beginning.

Next: Surprise, surprise.

Chapter 12: Clues in the genealogy

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I dug into the Milligan family genealogy right away. With note-taking, it took two days. It’s basically written as a conversation from the author, John Evans Wilson, to his children and descendants.

The introduction to the genealogy, by John Evans Wilson.

 

This is further down in the introduction; John Evans Wilson gives the reader perspective on family anecdotes and sources of information.

 

Emmett’s family story is on the second to last page. Here’s what John Evans Wilson said about him:

 

 

There’s the notation about Emmett’s drinking, and a clue about what might have brought on the uremia. But what’s interesting is the part about the ‘rich northern lumber man.’

I wondered  if that could have something to do with Jim mentioning Emmett might have been gay? I wasn’t interested in pursuing that angle of the research, because honestly, his sexuality didn’t matter to me. Besides, I doubt I’d be able to prove that. Emmett might not have been gay; however, something about that relationship and Emmett’s drinking seemed to be connected — another mystery to study in this ever-growing biography.

There was something else about the genealogy that struck me — namely the earlier Wilson ancestor’s family names  — namely Graves — which I’d seen before, but was trying to place where. It bothered me enough that I made a note on a yellow Post-it, and stuck it on the frame of my computer monitor to check later.

I couldn’t go any further on the Emmett health diagnosis without a medical record of some sort. Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital on May 29, 1918.

The original Pensacola Hospital.

The original hospital, located at 1010 N 12th Avenue in Pensacola had long ago closed (although it is now a historic building with other businesses in it) and the medical facility moved to Sacred Heart Hospital; I crossed my fingers hoping historic records had not been lost over the decades.

Thanks to a recommendation from the excellent Jacki Wilson (no relation to Emmett’s family), archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society, I reached out to the public information offices at Sacred Heart.

After several days, a very nice gentleman named Mike Burke got back to me by phone.

“The good news is that we do have a record on Emmett Wilson’s admission and stay in Pensacola Hospital in our archives.”

Omg, omg, omg — I don’t know if Mike could tell I was freaking out in a good way 800 miles away through a telephone connection —

“I had to check with our general counsel on whether or not we can release this information to you, even thought it is almost 100 years old. Regardless, we’ll need an OK from a family member to see the record.”

I told him the closest relative I’ve contacted was a great-nephew, since Emmett died unmarried, and had not descendants that I knew of — plus everyone closer related was deceased by now — he agreed that an OK from Jim Milligan plus contact info would suffice.

As soon as I was off the phone with Mike, I got in touch with Jim, who said it was fine that I could see the record. I emailed Jim’s information with the verbal approval back to Mike, crossed my fingers that the Sacred Heart Hospital general counsel would approve my seeing Emmett’s hospital record, and waited.

Next: Emmett’s Hospital Record

Chapter 11: First Contact

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I remember Saturday, June 8, 2013, as one of those glorious late Spring days in Maryland — the sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight, the temperature around 72, the trees were (finally!) all full with fresh green leaves. The plants I’d set out a few weeks earlier after a long hiatus inside were full and lush on the patio. My kids were on a scouting trip in St. Mary’s County with my husband — so I was in my home office, grading final exams so as to meet the 72 hour grade posting deadline at the University of Maryland.

My cell phone rang — an unrecognizable number on caller i.d. — I was deep into work and loathe to interrupt progress, but something told me to answer it anyway.

“Is this Judy Smith? I’m Jim Milligan in Florida. You wrote to me on Ancestry about my uncle, Emmett Wilson.”

Uncle. Emmett Wilson.

I remember my adrenaline shot up — Omg. Omg. Omg.

I shoved the gradebook out of the way, pulled the research notebook in front of me and started scribbling madly, to capture everything Emmett’s blood relative was saying.

First contact with an actual Wilson family member.

This was gold! This was better than gold!!!!

Jim said he was interested in my research, and was glad to help out in any way.

“I have a document to send you by email — a family genealogy. It’s rather large, though. It will take a little while to upload. ”

I told Jim that was fine — to go ahead — and while I was waiting for the file to appear on my end, he filled me in on Wilson family facts:

Emmett’s siblings, Walker Wilson and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

  • Jim is the grandson of Walker Wilson, Emmett’s youngest brother. Jim never knew Emmett personally.
  • Jim was not certain how Walker died exactly; family members would not talk about it, which always led him to believe something curious or unusual about Walker’s death.
  • Drinking was reported to be a real problem in Emmett and Walker’s generation of the Wilson family.

And then, Jim said,

Emmett  “was an alcoholic, you know. He drank himself to death.”

I felt an internal jolt — I stopped writing.

“I didn’t know,” I said. “The death certificate I received says kidney disease was the cause of death, but I’ve also learned that the symptoms of kidney disease looked an awful lot like end-stage alcoholism in those days.”

As Jim talked about the genealogy, something came over me — clarity, actually — as if a piece of this strange puzzle materialized before me.

I told Jim that if Emmett was an alcoholic, that shed a new light on the information from the Christ Church burial record. But still, what we have at present is anecdotal, and Emmett was an alcoholic, we needed a medical record.

Jim was positive the story was that Emmett drank. “And he might have been gay,” he added.

I doubted seriously I’d ever find a confirmation about Emmett and homosexuality — not that it mattered — but Jim’s comment gave me the idea that perhaps if Emmett was, indeed, alcoholic, there was an underlying ‘thing’ he was trying to escape, since drinking to excess is a means of escape….

As he and I continued to talk, Jim’s file appeared in my email. I asked if I could follow up with other questions later after reading the genealogy, and that I would send him clips he might want to add to his own research. He said that was fine, contact him anytime.

I settled down with the document; it took three days to read the entire thing.

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Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues