Chapter 5: Family Connection

Standard

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

 

Advertisements

Chapter 4: Strategy

Standard

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

Standard

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.

===

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.

===

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.

===

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

 

Chapter 2: Repository

Standard

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.

===

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: Dissection Homework

Sinister underpinning

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.