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

Sinister underpinning

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This is a passage from the Big Book that makes me think about what it was that fueled Emmett’s alcoholism (italics mine):

“I looked around me at people who seemed happy and tried to analyze their happiness and it seemed to me that without exception these people had something or somebody they loved very much. I didn’t have the courage to love; I was not even sure I had the capacity. Fear of rejection and its ensuing pain were not to be risked, and I turned away from myself once more for the answer, this time to the drinks I had always refused before, and in alcohol I found a false courage.”

Alcoholics Anonymous (3rd Edition), “Freedom From Bondage,” pages 546-547.

Emmett drank because he was an alcoholic, certainly. But he was drinking to hide from the world, and from himself.

But underneath the “-ism” of his disease was a demon of sorts; something sinister that ate away at him inside. It was fear, certainly, of having that demon forced out into the daylight, and that fear is what fueled his life; i.e., his single-minded ambition, his well-known isolation from others, even in a room full of people, his Constantinople-like resistance to any significant relationship other than to a trusted few family members.

 

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!

E. Meade the Second

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Here’s a new-to-me article about E. Meade Wilson II, nephew of Emmett, on his wedding day.

Meade’s grave, at St. John’s, Pensacola. Source: findagrave.com

(I was going back to check on articles about Emmett and siblings that may have been uploaded since my last database check, and came across a wedding announcement — which made me do a double-take. Emmett’s brother Meade died of TB in 1914 — and this announcement has him, listed as the son of Dr. F.C. Wilson, getting married in 1920.)

Of course, this is an error — this is actually the son of Emmett’s brother, Meade. Regardless, I love finding anything new about my family.

Here’s the wedding announcement:

Source: The Pensacola Journal, August 29, 1920.

There’s good information in the obituary. And, our Emmett is mentioned in the last paragraph, and correctly, as E. Meade the Second’s uncle.

His Death Came “As a Great Shock”

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Here’s another new-to-me clipping discovered through routine checking of updated databases:

Pensacola_Journal_1920-08-05_9

Obituary of Emmett’s father in The Pensacola Journal, August 9, 1920

Emmett’s father’s obituary contains interesting information.

For example, even though Dr. Wilson had been ill for several days, his death may have been unexpected, as it was a ‘great shock.’ Dr. Wilson’s death information (from a second source) mentioned he had blood poisoning, but it didn’t indicate the source of the infection. My colleague, Donna the Nephrologist, told me that blood poisoning (also called sepsis), can turn deadly rather quickly if not treated immediately, and perhaps those treating Dr. Wilson didn’t realize what it was he had at the time.

FYI — Dr. Wilson wasn’t “officially” practicing medicine anymore in 1920; he’d retired several years earlier (before Emmett’s death in 1918) because of poor health related to a heart condition.

There’s an error in the obit:

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 5.19.11 AM

He was related to the Maxwells by marriage.

This part is rather confusing — actually, Dr. Wilson was married to Elizabeth Virginia Maxwell, the daughter of Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell (Emmett was named for his grandfather). Elizabeth died in 1891, when Emmett was eight years old. (I’m not sure where the obituary writer got the idea that Dr. Wilson was a son of Maxwell’s half-sister, but it just goes to show that one has to read the old clips carefully, and check the facts.)

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson

The surviving wife (as mentioned in earlier posts) was Kate Langley Jordan Wilson, whom Dr. Wilson married about 18 months after Elizabeth’s death.

By this point, Dr. Wilson had lost three of his sons: Meade Wilson, Dr. Percy Wilson, and Emmett. Percy and Emmett died in 1918.

The last item about the sugar plantation in British Honduras has been also mentioned in earlier post, and it does cause some confusion, because at the time the Wilsons were living in Central America, the British government did not allow foreigners to own their property — and so, Dr. Wilson would have had to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown (thus revoking his American citizenship, which meant Emmett [born after the family moved to British Honduras] was a British subject, and therefore should have been disqualified from serving in Congress).

But I have seen family records stating Dr. Wilson never gave up his American citizenship, and Emmett once stated in an interview that his father only owned ‘a share’ in the plantation — not full ownership.

Still, the issue has always made me wonder. In fact, one reporter once shared in an interview that if you really wanted to piss off Emmett, ask him about whether or not he thought he was truly an American citizen or not, given his birth in British Honduras. Emmett would routinely fly off the handle and give a reporter hell about the question.

Emmett doth protest too much?

 

Circle of Friends: J. Walter Kehoe

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We all have that one friend who we know we can turn to, no matter what, no matter the time of day. The friend who knows us better than our spouses (sometimes). The friend who loves us for who we are, who accepts us, unconditionally.

There aren’t many people in our lives who fit that bill. If we are lucky, we’ve had this kind of friendship at least once.

This was Emmett’s closest friend. J. Walter Kehoe.  Although Emmett’s childhood friend, Paul Carter, remained close to Emmett, they drifted apart after Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, and his law/political career took off.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, also succeeded him in Congress. Source: Wikipedia.com

Paul and Emmett were always friends, whereas Walter started out as a mentor to Emmett, and remained close to Emmett until Emmett’s death (although the relationship with Walter became estranged at the end).

But this was more than a mentoring relationship. Emmett lived with the Kehoe family between 1906-1918, except for a two-year period, when Emmett was ‘baching it’ in a boarding house with friends (1909-1910). It was more like Emmett was a member of the Kehoe family. Indeed, Kehoe’s great-grandson Mike once told me in a telephone interview that his grandparents, Walter and Jennie Jenkins Kehoe, “thought the world of Emmett. That’s why they named their youngest son and my favorite uncle, for him.”

Walter and Emmett’s older brother, Cephas, were law partners in Marianna for several years before Walter was named States’ Attorney around 1902, and moved to Pensacola. (As luck would have it with Emmett, Cephas’ law practice now had an opening — and in two years, when Emmett graduated from Stetson University, he became Cephas’ junior law partner.) Walter, therefore, knew Emmett since boyhood; knew his character, his intelligence, his potential — Walter knew and saw the REAL Emmett Wilson — the Emmett Wilson pre-alcoholic disaster.

Emmett’s ‘home address’ is actually the Kehoe’s address. Also, that’s the Kehoe’s phone number. Emmett didn’t have his own, separate line. Source: Ancestry.com

As with any ‘family’ relationship, it was loving, frustrating,  agonizing, painful — but it was honest — and the relationship between Emmett and Walter was one of the few consistencies in Emmett’s life.

Even though I know Walter and Jennie Kehoe were good to Emmett — Emmett was always treated as if he was a member of the Kehoe family — Walter had political aspirations too, and knew that a partnership with the Wilsons (Cephas primarily, but if not with Cephas, then Emmett) would likely propel him into the United States Congress, which was Walter’s ultimate goal. Walter’s continued partnership with Cephas was preferred for obvious reasons: Emmett was a neophyte in 1906, when he moved to Pensacola, an alcoholic, and immature on several levels. But the idea then (as now, sometimes) was that with a consistent home, and maybe a good woman to make it happen, Emmett would straighten up, stop drinking (or at least curtail it), settle down, and everyone’s political/power dreams would be realized.

Walter and Jennie did their best to help Emmett settle down — they even went so far as to introduce Emmett to ‘suitable’ women, and at one point, pushed, er, encouraged him strongly, to ask one young woman from Columbus, Georgia they deemed suitable to marry him. This was no grand passion or true love story between Emmett and Miss Georgia. Perhaps if it was, Emmett may have capitulated. But Emmett was inconsistent. And Miss Georgia was canny enough to realize that Emmett was too much of a project, and not her type. Besides, her Anti-Saloon League President father would certainly not welcome Emmett into the family.

But Walter and Jennie went too far — almost sabotaging their project in the works. It gets interesting — so stay tuned for the second installment on Emmett’s closest friend, J. Walter Kehoe.