Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth

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Friday, May 24, 2014, about 11 a.m.

As the officer said, the old train depot in downtown Chipley wasn’t hard to find. Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting my car, in front of a seafoam-green building that definitely looked like a train station from the early 19th century.

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source: http://www.trainweb.org

I note that trains still run through Chipley; I had to drive across two sets of raised tracks at an intersection with a barricade that lowers as trains rush by.

The difference between today and Emmett’s day is that passenger trains rarely stop here; trains are primarily freight. Chipley isn’t the train hub it used to be, especially since the advent of automobiles. I get that: Everyone wants to control personal travel. In Emmett’s day, going to and from communities was a novelty; romantic and sweet, special, out-of-the-ordinary. There was something special about planning a trip 100 miles away, or even 25 miles away, for example, where you’d stay with friends or relatives; it didn’t happen every day for regular people.

But in 2014, I know folks who commute 25, even 100 miles round trip a day for their jobs — definitely not a novelty, and certainly not romantic and sweet, particularly in an eight-lane traffic jam on a regular basis.

A side view of the Washington County Historical Society building; a caboose on the grounds. Photo taken by author.

I get out of the car with my computer briefcase and notebook; straighten my skirt and blouse, smooth my hair.

I’m anxious that I’m on time and presentable, and glad that I was able to make it today: The Washington County Historical Society building is only open on Fridays from 10 am to 2 pm. The curator emailed me a week or so ago that she’d open it up for me, even if I arrived on a day it was closed. She has no idea how grateful and humbled I am about that. In all the years I’ve been doing research, no one has ever volunteered to open up an entire museum for me to study artifacts. I want to be sure I’m not any trouble; I know that most curators and the staff in small museums are volunteers.

I notice a number of people going in and out — I didn’t think it was a busy place; I thought it would be me and the curator — but today, the place is hopping!

Taken by the author during a lull in the comings and goings of Chipleyites.

The historical society is definitely a community gathering place — when I opened the door, numerous long-time residents were milling about. I later learned these are folks who stop by weekly when the museum is open. Several are gathered at the long tables with checkerboard tablecloths in the open back room to talk, drink coffee, read scrapbooks. It’s interesting — there are other visitors from out of state here too; one woman in particular from Pennsylvania searching for Florida ancestors. I realize that the local residents here are valuable assets to the historical society: They are keen genealogists and history buffs who can offer useful tips to the visitors on navigating official Florida record holdings, contact names and numbers, as well as excellent seafood restaurants while in the area.

The rooms are full of interesting artifacts on the walls, in old glass display cases from general stores. It’s busy, bustling, cheerful.

The curator, Dorothy Odom, recognizes me right away and greets me as if I was someone well-known to her; indeed, we’ve been exchanging emails for several weeks and I feel right at home. She introduces me to her adult daughter, Chelie, holding a gray kitten, who also greets me warmly.

Wonderful friends in the Washington County Historical Society library, Dorothy Odom and Whit Gainey. Photo by the author.

Dorothy loves that I refer to her collection as artifacts. I don’t think she realizes how important her collection is to me (or really anyone else putting someone’s story together). Dorothy has basically the things that Emmett saw on a daily basis in a house or an office, stuff he took for granted, but the same stuff that made him who he was, in a subtle way.

Take Ivory Soap, for example: It was an everyday thing in Emmett Wilson’s world in the 1890s. Maybe Emmett used it; liked the smell of it, like I like the smell of it. Ivory Soap reminds me of my childhood, or maybe what I wished my childhood was like: Safe, reliable, predictable.

Here’s a photo of an original Ivory Soap package taken on May 20, 2014 in Pensacola while touring 1880-period houses in Old Pensacola. The display features products typically found in a home between 1890-1910. Photo by the author.

A collection of artifacts at the Washington County Historical Society. The red arrow points to a bottle of mucilage. Photo by the author.

Maybe it is that I see these artifacts with new eyes, thinking, Emmett saw this item, or that product in his parent’s kitchen pantry.

Maybe Emmett, on a dare from an older brother, took a swig out of that bottle of mucilage convinced it was an exotic highball, his lips encircling the small neck of the bottle. He tips the bottle back, his eyes grow wide as he tastes the stuff ….

I quickly stop to look up the word on my phone —

— OMG. Well, I hope Emmett didn’t do that. I know absolutely that his brothers were pranksters. It’s possible it happened…

Dorothy touches my elbow to introduce me to retired Judge Perry Wells, a regular at the historical society; a senior gentleman with a kind, intelligent face.

I tell Judge Wells that Emmett’s his older brother Cephas clerked for Judge W.O. Butler before he began a law career, and that I’m staying that night with the descendants of the Butler family while I’m visiting Chipley. Judge Wells nods approvingly, recommends I note the beautiful restorations of the Butler home and the photo gallery there featuring early 1900 views of the home and family friends.

Coincidentally this day, Judge Wells had with him a small flyer for Jerry Williams Carter, essentially an old campaign flyer for Mr. Carter. I recognize Mr. Carter immediately — “Judge Wells, this is wonderful! Jerry Carter was Emmett’s campaign manager both times he ran for Congress!”

“Mr. Democratic Party,” Jerry Williams Carter wedding photo, 1910. Source: FloridaMemory.com

I wanted to hug the judge for showing me the unexpected flyer; primary sources of information about Emmett have been few and far between to say the least. Dorothy says she’s happy to  print a copy for me. While I waited, Judge Wells suggested I take a walk through the downtown area, and points me over to a rack that hold booklets featuring a walking tour of Chipley.

Dorothy hands me the copy of the flyer, then introduces me to Whit Gainey, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman with an expansive interest in Washington County history. Whit asks me if I am going to visit the Wilson house on Sixth Street.

“I’m expected at the house after lunch, but in the meantime, I was going to head out to the cemetery to visit Emmett’s parents’ gravesites.”

“Do you know where the Wilsons are buried? If you don’t, I have a map and I’m happy to show you,” Whit said, “Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost.”

===

A half hour later, I’m riding in Whit’s red pickup truck. A country music station is playing quietly as Whit drives around the main street of Chipley; he’s pointing out a few landmarks. The old First National Bank, which is in sad condition (there have been some efforts to save it, but nothing successful to date); a row of old storefronts that are in good condition. We turn onto more residential streets, and Whit points out a few Victorian homes that are well cared for, places where Emmett and his family would have seen, probably had dinner with friends and the like. Otherwise, we ride mostly in silence to Greenwood Cemetery; he’s not much of a small talk person with a stranger, and that’s fine. I’m not good with small talk either.

We drive through a small neighborhood to get to the cemetery. “The Wilson graves are in the older part of the cemetery,” he said, maneuvering the truck off the pavement onto a grassy drive. He pulls to a stop near a tree; pulls out the cemetery map with the plots outlined, and nods toward a collection of tall, white monuments. “That’s them up ahead,” he said.

We get out of the truck, and as we walk along the grassy drive, Whit tells me that he’s spent a lot of time over here, photographing headstones and uploading the images to Find-A-Grave.com, the cemetery database.

Whit pauses, and turns away politely to look around at a few other stones while I walk towards Dr. Francis Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson’s graves.

I stand in front of them; I don’t know what to do. Finally, I’m here, I think. I’ve been reading about the Wilsons, studying their lives for over a year — but this feels awkward; uncomfortable. I think I should feel something else, because we’re family.

Maybe it is that this has been, pretty much, a one-way relationship for over a year.  An introduction might help.

“Hello,” I say out loud, quietly, to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’m Judy. I’m glad to meet you, and I wish I’d known you in person. This feels weird but it’s true.”

I start to feel better.

But damn, I think to myself, as I look about. I should have brought flowers. I move towards Elizabeth’s stone, and touch the top of it: Lichens. It hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. I look down at both plots: The graves were dry and dusty.

I realize they hadn’t been visited in decades. “I’m sorry about that,” I say to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’ll be sure to visit whenever I’m in Florida.”

Whit is walking towards me; he pauses in front of the Wilsons.

“These are your cousins?”

“Yes,” I say, and I begin to take photos.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson. Note the lichens at the top of the stone; the dry, sandy soil around the graves. Photo by the author.

Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson. See the second line of text with the missing “PFC”, which has been pried off. Photo by the author.

Both graves have interesting additions at the bottom:

For Dr. Wilson, there’s a Confederate Army plaque — and someone has pried off the rank. I ask Whit about the damage to the plaque. He doesn’t think it was vandalism per se; he’s curious if there was an error on the plaque why a new one wasn’t ordered.

For Elizabeth, this is at the base of her tombstone:

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth’s tombstone. Photo by the author.

“Her death was the turning point in this family,” I tell Whit. “There were 10 children, the youngest was eight years old when she died. And Dr. Wilson,” I said, nodding at the other stone, “coped by burying himself in his work. He was a county doctor, one of three, so he was essentially not around for the two years up until his second marriage to Kate Langley Jordan.”

Whit gazes around the immediate area surrounding the Wilson graves. “The second wife isn’t buried anywhere around here,” he said.

“That may be telling,” I say.

As we walk back to Whit’s truck, he says, “People handle grief differently. Sometimes they don’t handle it at all.”

“I think kids pick up on that,” I say, as I climb into his truck. As he starts the engine, I thank him for taking me to visit my cousins, and we ride back to the historical society building in silence.

Next: Katie’s Story About Elizabeth

 

 

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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 10: Emmett’s Funeral Record

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Emmett’s funeral was, apparently, a big deal for Pensacola, particularly since folks were ‘surprised’ and ‘shocked’ that he was in failing health. But I wonder about that — I mean, his family and friends were able to put together a large funeral at a big church within 36 hours of Emmett’s death.

Or maybe it wasn’t as big as the local newspapers reported. “A large number of friends” doesn’t equate to hundreds of attendees. Maybe the reporter was being kind. I mean, I have perhaps a dozen people in my life I consider true friends, and to me, that’s a large number. You know what I mean?

The Pensacola Journal, May 31, 1918.

Emmett was a member of Christ (Episcopal) Church in Pensacola — a gorgeous building, well preserved, with a professional, helpful staff. The church has a good database of parishoner’s records — membership, contributions, reception of sacraments — but no “attendance” records. It is hard to tell how devout an attendee Emmett was, but there are records showing he signed the occasional petition, wrote the occasional check; therefore, he was considered a member of the parish.

I contacted Kelly Heindl, the Christ Church parish secretary, and inquired about Emmett’s burial record. A few days, this arrived:

 

Wonderful — the actual two page burial record for Emmett with new information.

Page two includes cause of death….

And I did a double-take when I saw what was listed:

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

But the death certificate said the cause of death was uremia.

At one point, I remember reading about where end-stage uremia patients often had similar behavior and symptoms of those in end-stage alcoholism — but they are two different illnesses.

And how did the Reverend Melville Johnson get the information that Emmett supposedly died of the D.T.s, when the death certificate said otherwise?

I would have to find an actual medical record that may not exist almost 100 years later.

It wouldn’t be easy, but the effort would pay off.

 

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.

 

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

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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

 

Chapter 3: 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: Strategy