Chapter 39: Walking in Emmett’s footsteps, part 1

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May 18, 2014, 10:45 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

It wasn’t hard to find the parking lot behind the old City Hall building in downtown Pensacola. Even if my van’s GPS decided to conk out, one wouldn’t get lost. The darn thing is a hulking example of beige Spanish architecture. It’s pretty, unique. You can’t miss it.

The Old City Hall, now the T.T. Wentworth Museum. Source: historicpensacola.org

Speaking of unique, I’m meeting the head archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society for a walkabout of Emmett’s old haunts this morning: His old offices; the park he probably walked through; the site of the old theatre where he watched vaudeville or maybe a picture show; the place where he filled prescriptions or bought shoelaces when his broke; the place where he probably ate, or argued with friends, or laughed, or cried in private, perhaps.

I really can’t wait — this woman is truly one of a kind. She and I have been emailing each other for months about my research. She’s been patient, helpful, and wonderfully interested in what I’m doing, though I admit having a hard time accepting the last part — I mean, Emmett as a research topic is odd and obscure.

But Jacki Wilson loves the obscure and unique. She’s someone who gets what it is like to track down disparate mysterious pieces of what seems to be disconnected information. She is also someone who understands these pieces are often connected and lead to greater understanding of who we are today, and where we’re going.

Historic Pensacola Village

The first thing Jacki and I did, after we met, was to visit the Pensacola National Register Historic District — a group of 27 properties in all — and to tour several that were specific to 1890-1920, several, Jacki said, were certainly homes that Emmett likely would have visited, because they belonged to prominent Pensacolians. And at a minimum, she said, I’d get an understanding of the decor, the home environment, the economic scale of which Emmett was accustomed. He was, after all, moving in high society circles up to the point that he was a U.S. Congressman, so that made perfect sense.

She’d reminded me in an earlier email that even though Emmett was their congressman, there was absolutely nothing of significance in their holdings about him. So, Jacki’s interested in Emmett too. She reminded me that Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, was hugely important in Pensacola — it seems strange to her that given the connection the archive has nothing on Emmett.

A sitting room. Photo by the author.

A quiet corner inside another Victorian sitting room. Photo by the author

One example of a Victorian bedroom. Photo by the author.

Another bedroom in one of the Pensacola houses. Photo by the author.

Calling cards on a vestibule table in one of the houses. EW would have left his card, too. And no, his wasn’t in this pile. Photo by the author.

Another house — this one Jacki said was rumored to be haunted, by not by Emmett. Photo by the author.

We walked over to the original 1832 Christ Church on 405 South Adams Street, which is still in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Jacki tells me that this would be church that Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, would have attended when they lived in Pensacola. The ‘newer’ Christ Church — the one Emmett attended — and was buried from — was built in 1903 and is located at 18 West Wright Street.

Side view of Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside old Christ Church. Somehow we set off the alarm when we were walking around in here — but we didn’t get in trouble because Jacki Wilson is a historian superhero and knows everyone who has anything to do with historic facilities in Pensacola.  Photo by the author.

Next, we walked towards the business district. Jacki points out two sites of significance: the Blount Building where Emmett’s uncle Evelyn Maxwell worked. Jacki and I had had an email conversation about Emmett’s uncle and grandfather; both were and still are much revered in Pensacola history. She wasn’t surprised that Emmett’s family had paved the way for him more than a few times; that seemed natural then as now for established family to help those on the way up.

Uncle Evelyn gave Emmett his first job when when he moved to Pensacola in 1906 after he’d was either fired or ‘invited’ to quit from his ‘dream job’ in Sterling, Illinois,” I tell Jacki, as we look at the building from across the street. I can — and do — point out Evelyn Maxwell’s old office window on the corner, four floors up.

The Blount Building, about 1909. Source: Floridamemory.com

Blount building today. Source: Wikipedia.

“An interesting thing about Emmett — he had a lot of opportunities given to him, literally, that he didn’t seem to have to work too hard for — and it seems like he just never was able to launch successfully,” I say to Jacki.

Maybe that was the problem, Jacki says. Maybe something about him was never developed; maybe that held him back all his life.

“And maybe that was really what was at the heart of who he was, something broken that he never got over.”

Maybe there was a broken heart involved, she says, as we walk along the sidewalk towards a giant pink building that was the tallest structure in West Florida during Emmett’s time.

 

 

Chapter 36: News to me

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December 22, 1900
Dr. Francis C. Wilson’s Office, Downtown Chipley

Continued from here.

===

I climbed the stairs and paused at the top; my heart was pounding.  I closed my eyes, and counted to ten; rubbed the center of my chest. Touched the liquor flask hidden in my coat pocket. After a few moments, I was calm. 

As I walked down the hall, I noticed three other offices in the second-floor hallway; an insurance broker, two lawyers. Father’s office was in the front of the building overlooking the street.

I heard male voices in spirited conversation inside; one was Father’s. I hesitated; my hand on the door knob. Get a grip, I told myself. 

I took a breath, then opened the door.

It was a two-room office, simple but well appointed. The room had a small settee and a desk with a lamp, and a file cabinet behind the desk. There was a small plant on top of the file cabinet next to the window. A nurse was seated at desk; she glanced up from the papers in front of her.  She recognized me.

“Good afternoon, Emmett. How are you?”

“Fine, Miss Tharpe.”

She stood up. “Would you like to see your father? I’ll let him know you are here.”

“Is he in with a patient?”

“No. Just a moment.” She knocked gently on the door, then opened it, excusing herself.

“Dr. Wilson, one of your sons is here to see you.”

“Thank you, Tharpe. Send him in.” 

The nurse stood aside as I passed through, then closed the door behind me.

“Well, Emmett. Here you are. How was your trip from Tallahassee?” Father stood up and shook hands with me.

“Fine, thank you.”

A photo of Dr. Wilson on call in front of the W.O. Butler House. Chipley, Florida, 1911

Father is tall, stately, dignified. He has a calm, noble bearing; always unflappable, impassive, regardless of what’s happening, regardless of emergency, when all Hell is breaking out around him. If I had one word to describe him, it would be consistent. I think that’s why he has such a large, loyal patient base. He knows how to put people at ease. He’s always been that way with everyone. But me.

I’ve always thought Father resembled his old commander, Robert E. Lee:  Father is bald on top with a fringe of white hair circling his head from ear-to-ear, with white mustaches and a beard. Father served loyally under Lee at Appomattox. Indeed, Father venerated Lee as a personal hero, unconsciously modeling himself after the old general, who had had a reputation of being unflappable in the face of danger and distress.

A friendly, jovial, Irish voice blurted out behind me: “Well, Emmett, it is good to see you!”

Father nodded cordially at his friend, who stood beaming at me, his hand outstretched to take mine.

A young J. Walter Kehoe, 1899, as photographed from the Bench and Bar of the State of Florida. Source: Florida Memory

“Hello Walter,” I said, clasping his hand. 

Walter Kehoe is my brother Cephas’ law partner in Marianna and a long-time family friend, although it has been several months since I’ve seen him. 

Walter is one of the most important lawyers and politicians in West Florida; he is also Cephas’ closest, most trusted friend. Walter often refers to me as his younger brother though we are not related at all. Regardless of the fact he is always busy, and involved in serious and important issues, Walter has always taken time to talk to me about everyday things. I’ve never asked him for advice or help with anything, but I know that if I ever needed it, he would be there for me, no questions asked. 

Walter’s bio from the biographical information provided by U.S. Congressional Archive. Note the fact a special act of the Florida State Legislature was necessary to allow him to practice law because of his youth.

Walter is truly brilliant. Even Cephas is in awe of Walter’s intelligence, which is saying something, because Cephas is often too busy thinking about himself. Don’t get me wrong: Cephas is very smart, too. But with Walter, the brilliance is innate; his practice of the law feels completely natural, comfortable, and effortless. The other thing about Walter is that he wants to become a U.S. Congressman. And it will probably happen. “He may not be very quick about it, and he can be irritatingly deliberate,” Ceph once told me, “but if he wants something, he doesn’t let anything stand in the way.”

Father gestures at me. “Have a seat, Emmett. Care for something to drink?”  Father and Walter both had half glasses of Irish whiskey on the desk.

“No, thank you,” I said.

Father nodded; gives me a brief smile of approval. I involuntarily exhale — I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I quickly glance over at Walter; he pretends to study his glass of whiskey instead of observing the dynamic between Father and me, but I know he was watching. Walter doesn’t miss much.

“How long will you be in Chipley?” I ask Walter.

“I’m heading back this evening. Ceph has been busy doling out political favors this week, and not getting much done in the way of law,” he answered with a chuckle; Dr. Wilson gave his rare, tense smile in his white beard, nodding with satisfaction. Ceph had just been nominated for a second term as Florida state senator, and had been traveling the circuit this week.

Cephas Love Wilson in top hat; Lula Wilson below his right shoulder, 1906. Source: http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/143975

In Father’s eyes, Cephas could do no wrong. With all of his political experience and connections, I think my brother would also be a good U.S. Congressman, but Cephas doesn’t want to leave Florida. Besides, Cephas has a reputation as a philanderer. I think that my sister-in-law, Lula, who has been publicly embarrassed by his antics more than once has put her foot down about Cephas going to Washington. 

“How is Minnie’s stenography business? I understand she’s quite successful and busy these days,”  Father asked. 

“Fine. She’s busier than ever, and is even thinking about a turn at the bar herself, one of these days.” Now it was Walter’s turn to be proud. His sister Minnie had written a bill – a unique piece of legislation – to secure regular compensation for court stenographers, and to enable counsel to have the services of a stenographer in serious cases other than capital ones (which had been a problem in Florida courts).  This was remarkable for a woman who was not a lawyer. 

Minnie was a trailblazer for professional women. She knew she had to keep her cool even in the face of cads, whereas I would have just told them where to go.

Minnie was smart, driven, progressive, and was keen on making her own way in the world, without being dependent on a husband, or father. Minnie was carving out a career slowly, surely, and against all odds. Everyone was in awe of her; encouraging her, but not really coming right out and supporting her. The idea of a woman lawyer was still too odd, foreign; it had the taste of Yankee corruption, although that was the furthest thing you could think of to describe Minnie. She was a lady; she was aggressive, but not obnoxious about it. We were all watching to see if she would make it or not. I secretly hoped she would; if Minnie could make it, against those odds, I knew I could too.

“And what about you, Emmett?” Walter said, kindly, changing the subject. “How is school?”

“Fine.”

“Staying busy with lessons, or are there too many female distractions?”

I blushed and looked away from both of them and fidgeted with the button on my jacket sleeve. “No, no distractions,” I said, a little uncomfortably. Both Father and Walter chuckled.

“Too busy with schoolwork, are you?”

“Yes. Busier than I expected. But I like it very much.”

Father nodded. “We expect big things from Emmett once he graduates from school. He has a lot of intelligence; he’s a quick learner and thoughtful. I think he’d do well running a pharmacy for me, once he’s out of school,” he added.

I look up quickly, surprised: First at the unaccustomed praise coming from Father, publicly like that – and then, I felt my stomach plummet when I realized what he said.

“Oh, you are pursuing a business degree?” Walter asked, interested.

“F.C.” stood for “Freshman Class — Classical Studies” and “S.C.” stood for “Sophomore Class — Classical Studies.” The end result after four years with this curriculum at WFS was the Bachelor of Arts degree. Source: FSU Digital Repository

“Well…” I started, glancing first at Father, then Walter, still a bit in shock at Father’s comment.

There was a quick knock at the door, followed by Nurse Tharpe opening it. 

“Excuse me, gentlemen. A patient is here to see you, Dr. Wilson, and it seems serious. Can you see him?”

Father stood up, reached over to the coat rack to put his suit jacket on to receive the patient. “Yes, Tharpe. Give us just a minute here, please.”

“Yes, doctor,” Tharpe said, closing the door behind her.

“I’m sorry Walter,” Father said.

“No need to apologize, Frank,” Walter said, as he shook Father’s hand. “We’ll be on our way.”

“Please give my regards to Jennie; we’ll see you on Christmas Day for dinner and festivities,” Father said, as he buttoned his jacket.

“Indeed you will,” Walter said, warmly. “Come, Emmett,” he said, as we moved to the door. “We can walk and talk as I head over to the station to wait for the next train out.”

“Goodbye, Father,” I said, before I walked out with Walter.

Father nodded, and turned back to his desk to prepare for the incoming patient.

 

Walter and I exited the building, and we walked together, without speaking, toward the depot. He paused for a moment on the corner.

“Emmett, would you like to stop off at the hotel dining room for coffee or something to eat before you head home? I’ll bet you didn’t eat lunch on the train, and if you did, it wasn’t much of a meal.”

“No thank you. I’m fine,” I said.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

“No,” I said.

“Your father’s mentioning that you are going to work for him, in his pharmacy. That was news to you, wasn’t it?”

I turned slightly away. “I don’t know, “I said, careful not to look Walter in the face.

“I’m sorry, Emmett. I don’t mean to pry.”

I didn’t say anything; instead, I stood on the corner, fidgeting with the clasp on my satchel to camouflage the embarrassment and irritation that I could not hide in my expressions. I can’t hide anything from Walter. I look up at him, exasperated.

“I don’t want to work for my father.”

“All right. Well, do you know what you want to do?”

“I want to get out of Chipley,” I said.

Walter nods. “And do what?”

At that moment, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to tell Walter everything on my mind at that; I didn’t want to expose myself as vulnerable. I looked away for a moment.

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it right now, Walter. I’m just beat after the trip from Tallahassee. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll head on home.”

“All right, Emmett,” Walter says, kindly. “I’ll see you in a few days.”

He pats me on the arm, then crosses the street towards the Central Hotel, to get something to eat, then to wait for the evening train to Marianna.

At that moment, I just wanted to get away, to be by myself.

I walked as quickly as I could up 6th Street, almost running the five blocks towards home.

Chapter 31: Doorway to the past

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Friday, May 24, 2014, 1:30 pm, 6th Street, Chipley

Barbara Russell is buckling her seat belt in my van, as I start the engine, and turn up the air conditioning as high as it will go. The heat is rising off the hood of my car in shimmering waves. Even though I parked in the shade, it must be about 140 degrees in this car.

Barbara and I are heading off, after a delicious lunch with her Mother and several local friends, to their home. Once Dr. Wilson’s home. Not really Emmett’s home per se, I tell Barbara: Dr. Wilson’s original house was on land outside of Chipley proper; this house was built right after he remarried.

The fact that she volunteered to ride in my car, me, a total stranger to her until this day, says a lot about her. She’s giving me a chance; she believes in my research to uncover the story of Emmett Wilson, and more to the point, the true purpose of telling his story, which still is elusive to me at this point.

During lunch, I’d told Barbara and the group of ladies who met me at Bailey’s Surf & Turf about my weird ‘message’ from Emmett to tell his story, and the family connections that arose that I’d had no idea were there. No one at the table seemed to think that was strange at all — at least, Barbara wasn’t acting like it.  She seems to understand that ‘something,’ a force beyond my comprehension compels me to work on Emmett’s story. I think several of the local women at the table understood that too.

“Genealogy research can be addictive,” one of the ladies said, in between bites of fried chicken during lunch. “Not everyone would get that.”

And Barbara seems to understand I’m not some kind of crackpot maniac from the vapors of the Internet world, and for that, I tell her how much I greatly appreciate her time and sharing the story of the Wilson-Myers house with me.

This isn’t just a one-way relationship, though. Barbara tells me that for years, they’ve been trying to get the Wilson-Myers house on the National Historic Register. Emmett’s connection, and the prominence of his family in early Florida history will be of tremendous help.

Now known as the Myers-Wilson House in Chipley, Florida. Built in 1895. Photo by the author.

“But the thing is, once the house is approved and listed on the National Historic Register, then we have to allow for tours at specific times in the year. And,” she said, with a grimace, “if the Wilsons had wallpaper with purple and orange stripes back in the day, we have to replicate that as well.”

“Good grief,” I said, grimacing back at her. “How will you be able to sleep in the house, with such loud wallpaper?”

Barbara laughs, then directs me out of the parking lot of the restaurant.

===

Here’s how Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house became the Wilson-Myers House, according to Barbara, and related historic documents:

The Wilson house was built around 1895, after Dr. F.C. Wilson married the widow Kate Langley Jordan. They were married in 1893; it took about two years for the house to be built.

Kate Jordan and Dr. Wilson’s marriage announcement in the Columbus (Ga.) Daily Enquirer. Source: Genealogybank.com

The new Mrs. Wilson had resources; she was a wealthy widow whereas Dr. Wilson, while financially comfortable, did not have spare funds enough for a second home. It is most likely that Mrs. Wilson paid for the construction of the new house.

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard. The picket fence, tree next to the curb, the cow, and the dirt road are long gone, but most of the house footprint remains the same.

Like the old Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda movie, Yours, Mine, and Ours, this was a merging of large families — maybe not 18 children, but Dr. Wilson had 10, and Kate had two. And notice that this doesn’t look like a large house to shelter 12 children and two adults.

Rest assured, that didn’t happen. In 1895, Dr. Wilson’s oldest children (Max, Cephas, Percy, Frank Jr. and Meade) were mostly on their own. Max was a musician and pharmacist; Cephas and Lula Wiselogel had married in September of 1893, just a few weeks before Kate and Dr. Wilson were wed; Percy was in medical school in Mobile; Frank Jr. and Meade were working for the L&N Railroad.

The daughters Eudora and Katie were almost of marriageable age, but were still in school. According to The Chipley Banner, the Wilson girls were earning teaching certificates for Washington County schools, so were likely in the family home.

The Wilson youngest children, obviously, lived at home: Twins Emmett and Julian, age 12; and Walker, age 8, attending Chipley public schools.

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson had two daughters, Lucille Lavinia Jordan and Catherine Caroline Jordan.

(L to R): Lucille, Kate, and Catherine Caroline (later known as Miss John) Jordan, around 1895.

I guestimate that, in 1895, seven children and two adults lived in the Wilson home. I mention that as I walk up to the Wilson house with Barbara. “There was a sharing of bedrooms, then,” she said. The 21st century iteration of the Wilson-Myers House is not that much different than the original structure. There was a few rooms added to the rear of the house, but not until the mid-20th century. I tell Barbara I have census records from 1900 that tell us who was here five years after Dr. Wilson and Kate Langley Wilson were married.

The 1900 U.S. Census, Chipley, Florida. The notation indicates an enumeration of Chipley town; Emmett’s name has an arrow next to it. There are only five children listed as residents of the Dr. F.C. Wilson home. Source: U.S. Census for 1900, via Ancestry.com

The youngest child enumerated on the 1900 Census was John J. Wilson, listed as a son. The census taker must not have been a local; he or she would have known that the John was actually “Miss John” Jordan. An unusual name for a girl in the late 1800s. Miss John led mostly a quiet life, never married.

The back story of Miss John’s unusual name was that when Catherine Jordan‘s first husband, Dr. John Jordan, died of tuberculosis in Columbus, Georgia, she was so bereft that she had her youngest daughter’s name changed to John, so that her deceased husband’s name was always on her lips. She never got over the loss of her first husband, even after remarriage to Dr. Wilson in 1895.

The Jordan and Wilson families called Miss John  “Johnnie.” Johnnie later attended now defunct Palmer College and obtained a music degree. Miss John supported herself by teaching piano in the Wilson home.

“Miss John was the last Wilson family member to live in the house,” Barbara said, as we walked towards the front door. “She made a few changes to the house, such as added a bathroom in the one of the bedrooms for convenience. She was bedridden towards the end of her life.”

I wonder what it was like for Emmett and his brothers to have two new sisters added to his family after Dr. Wilson’s remarriage. Not to sound cold, but most of the information I have on this remarriage indicated it was one of necessity. Not grand passion.

As such, I don’t believe Emmett and the Jordan girls were particularly close; they weren’t enemies, but they got along because that was what was done. Also, most of the Wilson family documents I have indicate Emmett was closest to his older brother Cephas and sister Katie Wilson Meade. Interestingly, both siblings acted unofficially as mother and father figures to Emmett most of his life.

So, Miss John was probably as much of an enigma to Emmett as he was to everyone else in his life as well.

“I wish this entrance could talk,” I say to Barbara, as I look up at the doorway. Barbara nods. She waits while I take the house in for a moment. Emmett was here, I think to myself. He walked onto that porch, through those doors, how many times in his life, I wondered.

I know many things may have been updated since Emmett stood before this house decades ago, but that doorway is the same; the entrance remains the same. Photo by the author.

I touch the columns on my way in; I imagine Emmett sitting here, leaning against the column, maybe reading a book, writing a letter, or planning his future as a lawyer one day….

I smile at Barbara as she indicates I should go on in. “Feel free to look at anything you want; take pictures of anything you need. I have the historic building application here if you want to look at the paperwork,” she adds, as she organizes papers on a nearby table.

Next: More on the house.

Chapter 29: Searching for Dr. Wilson’s Downtown Office

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Friday, May 24, 2014, Noon

After Whit dropped me off at the Washington County Historical Society, I notice that I have about a half hour before I was to meet the current owners of the Dr. F.C. Wilson home.

I took Judge Wells’ advice to do a self-walking tour around Chipley, to see buildings that Emmett would have seen, the businesses he would have patronized. I especially want to see the old First National Bank building. Perhaps Emmett used to cash checks there; more likely, I sense he visited the second floor of that bank, where fellow lawyers and friends had their offices.

A view of the Dunn Building, 1916, downtown Chipley. The historic bank building at the far right is in desperate need of repair.

Here’s a shot of First National Bank, about 1905, as it was under construction. Note the ladder on the edge of the roof. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/1532

The First National Bank, today. Emmett would have seen this building, conducted business here. His friends, notably W.O. Butler, had a law office on the second floor.

But the other place I hope to find is the location of Dr. Wilson’s office.

Once upon a time, Dr. Wilson’s practice was out of his home. But as it grew (along with his family, and his needs for full-time nursing assistance for patients), necessity dictated a surgery in a separate office downtown.

Chipley, 1913. Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Source: UFDC

I knew Dr. Wilson had two offices downtown once upon a time. No, Dr. Wilson wasn’t a ‘chain,’ but the May 14, 1898 Chipley fire destroyed his first office, which was located next to S.A. Cook’s store. A second fire wiped out his store in August, 1901. A clue in The Chipley Banner, dated September 7, 1901, tells me that the second fire was too much to overcome, at least as a retailer — because he sold what remained of his stock.

If you zoom into the Sanborn map, you can see two possible locations where Dr. Wilson may have had his office. According to The Chipley Banner, he had a drugstore and an office, with the office above the store. The Banner said that he sold his stock completely after the fire. I’m not sure if S.A. Cook’s store was on N. Railroad or around the corner on the bank side.

By 1913, Dr. Wilson had officially retired from regular practice. Papers from his Confederate pension indicate that he was no longer able to work, due to a heart condition. There were no other specifics other than a note that he had a “heart condition.”

This row of stores is called The Watts Building (and Dunn Building), and has a date of 1916 over the archway. They are next to the old bank building — the bank was there in 1913, but these stores were not. Photo taken by the author.

This is across the street from The Watts building. Photo taken by the author.

This is the Sanford Fire Insurance map of the block across the street from the current Watts Building. Notice that there is a drugstore on this corner. This might have been the original location of Dr. Wilson’s store and office as well, if the S.A. Cook store was, in fact, right next door. But, it isn’t clear that the building on the site today is the same as it was in 1913 or earlier.

I wish I knew the location of Dr. Wilson’s office, even if the building itself is gone today. According to the maps, any one of those drug stores may have been next to S.A. Cook’s store, but I’m not sure about Cook’s store location either.

I want to at least stand where Dr. Wilson did; and maybe where Emmett stood as well.

I’m sure Emmett visited his father at his office. I’m also sure that Dr. Wilson advised Emmett, not only as his doctor but as his father, that his drinking would eventually kill him, and he had to stop.

I wonder where they had that conversation.

I wonder what Emmett said to his father in return —

“I know what I’m doing, leave me alone,” or perhaps,

“I know it will too, but I can’t stop.”

As I reflect on those facts, and walk along the street, I realize that perhaps Dr. Wilson’s heart condition may have come about because his heart was actually broken. It’s possible, you know. People can die of broken hearts.

After all, Dr. Wilson’s beloved cause that he had almost given his life for was lost; his beloved wife died practically in his arms; his beloved practice seemed cursed by circumstance with the loss by fires.

And Emmett, one of his beloved sons, was destroying himself before his very eyes, and Dr. Wilson was powerless to do anything about it….

===

I glance at my cell phone — it was almost time to meet the current owners of the Wilson-Myers house for lunch.

Next: In Emmett’s words

 

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 would have been: 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. He may have picked something like that up, used it.

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 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 20th century photos 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 points 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 come by 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: A closer look at Dr. Wilson

 

 

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.