Chapter 9: Emmett’s Death Certificate

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By the end of July, 2013, Emmett’s research was in its third month, and I was reaping the rewards of having mass contacted Wilson family descendants, as well as Emmett’s neighbors, friends, political allies and foes. I reached out to descendants of his congressional office staff, to hospitals where he was admitted, to his colleges, to his church.  I reached out to descendants of the women he DATED. I reached out to his office secretary’s descendants.  

By the end of July, I’d contacted and heard from a grand total: 227 people. I know the figure because I started an acknowledgements page the day I began Emmett’s research — if I made a contact and that person got back to me, I added the name. I figure thanking the folks individually and publicly in this book is the minimum for the great kindness of the people who were glad to help me, and who I no longer consider strangers. (More names have been added as the research continues.)  Astoundingly, almost everyone I contacted responded, and quickly to my original query.  Most of them were apologetic, saying they knew nothing about Emmett, but those who did generously shared what they knew. Or, if they didn’t know, they would refer me to another source (which often paid off).

At this point, I had four new pieces of Emmett’s story in my hands — each a bit of a puzzle in themselves. To keep these posts at a reasonable length, I’m going to focus on one at a time. The first official document I received in this project was Emmett’s official death certificate.

Cause of death: Uremia. The certificate is signed by Emmett’s father.

“In Florida, a death certificate is considered public information once an individual has been dead for 100 years. In other words, you can get it free of charge after that date. Otherwise, there’s a fee,” xxx said, when I called the Florida State Board of Health in May, 2013.

I dutifully filled out the form available on the website, I sent payment, and waited. One week and $20 later, Emmett’s death certificate arrived in the mail.

The main item I honed in on right away when I tore open the envelope and scanned the certificate was cause of death:

Uremia. Kidney failure.

Uremia, or kidney failure. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this, because I’d read that in December, 1914, while Emmett was a Congressman, he was taken to Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., the cause being uraemic poisoning.

Emmett almost died in December, 1914.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, December 21, 1914, page 1, in ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Apparently, this incident was serious enough that his family was called in all the way from Jackson County, Florida — NOT something you’d do unless the individual was in mortal danger. And there’s more to this, too:

Rheumatism? And a nervous breakdown? That’s not the same as uremic poisoning. Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

So, two different angles on the same story — I try not to read too much into this at the moment, because the death certificate is only one record, and it doesn’t take into account other potential medical problems. But as per usual, I dive right into reading all about uremia, how it comes about, and so forth. I figured I might as well know what this was, and why his family was called to D.C. Was it really that bad?

Meanwhile, I consulted with a colleague and friend at my university — Donna the Nephrologist at the University of Maryland Medical School. I told her what I was researching, and showed her the death certificate.

Donna said kidney failure at the turn of the last century was pretty much a death sentence for some: There weren’t transplants; medications used back then that may have been used to treat other ailments (for example, lithium) caused more damage to kidneys in the process, and so forth.

With regard to Emmett’s information in the death certificate,  there wasn’t all that much she could tell me about Emmett’s diagnosis, except this:

“…if Emmett had kidney failure, and indeed died of it, it would NOT be a short illness, as reported in the paper, unless he’d had an accident or trauma directly to the kidney, or something similar. If that didn’t happen and it was kidney failure over time, it was a terrible way to go, and it definitely would have been noticed.”

For example, Donna told me that in end-stage kidney failure one would immediately notice a person’s smell of urine or ammonia, because the body can’t excrete it normally. “So, the body excretes the waste product through the skin. You would see crystals on the scalp. But then, it is also evident in the person’s behavior. Because the body can’t get rid of the ammonia in the system, it poisons the the brain so that the patient has hallucinations, for instance.”

Additionally, she said, if a patient is in kidney failure, there’s almost always other organ failure going on at the same time.

“It seemed an unusual determination if the press was calling Emmett’s death a ‘short illness’ and his friends were supposedly surprised he was ill. I mean, if you could SEE how he wasn’t acting right. Or, worse, smell him coming five minutes before he got somewhere,” I said.

Donna nodded. “There’s no way someone wouldn’t have known he was sick like that. There’s a lot more to this, I think.”

Indeed.

Meanwhile, I reached out to the family of Dr. E.F. Bruce, Emmett’s physician who signed the death certificate, and contacted the Pensacola Historical Society, to find out about the Pou Funeral Home.

Also — Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital — I know the original hospital is now on the National Historic Register; the records had to go somewhere.

I flexed my fingers and began typing new inquiry letters. I was sure there had to be more information about Emmett’s medical condition, considering how serious it appeared.

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Writing Break: Death Records

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Research into Wilson family records continues, even though I’ve started drafting Emmett’s story. This morning, I found a new item courtesy of the Church of Latter-Day Saints database, familysearch.org.

 

Hard copies of available death records from the Florida Death Index.

It’s hard to read, but these are all the records of Emmett Wilson’s family members with death records recorded with the Florida Department of Vital Statistics. Not every member of Emmett’s family had a death certificate available on that database; I’ll give the background on that in a minute.

The important thing about checking on death records via this index is that it can save you a lot of money if you want to get an actual death certificate.  For example, if you see your ancestor’s name on this list (which includes record numbers, date of death [but not the cause], and place of death), it will expedite your search.

If you don’t see your ancestor’s name on this list, chances are more likely that a record doesn’t exist, but not always. For example, Emmett’s name is not in this database. Records are sketchy for deaths reported before mid-1920s, when Florida mandated death certificates for all residents. You can request information for records earlier than the 1920s at the Department of Vital Statistics, but know you will get charged, even if they don’t find anything. Luckily, Emmett did have a death certificate, which was signed by his father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson.

Anyway — I check the database periodically for updated records. Here’s what I found today:

These are the two pages at the bottom left of the photo above. It’s hard to read — sorry about that.

Here, we have the death record of Emmett’s youngest brother, Walker Wilson. Walker was born in Chipley Florida, 1884, and died in Duval County, Florida, 1943.

On the next page, is another entry for a Walker Wilson — death listed in 1922. Note that there is a suffix — junior. I knew already from talking to Walker’s descendants of two children (Margaret and John), but this child was not mentioned.

The cemetery records in Hillsborough County, Florida, reveal that Walker and his wife, Jessie Evans Wilson, did indeed have a third child — Walker Wilson, Jr., born 14 September 1920, and died 26 March, 1922. He is buried near his mother. I don’t know how the child died; but infant mortality rates were higher than today. The American Journal of Public Health presented the following statistics for infant mortality for 1920-1926 per 1,000 births:

Source: The American Journal of Public Health, p 922, A Statistical Report of Infant Mortality for 1926.

A research tip: If you request death certificates from the Department of Vital Statistics, it’s a good idea to send/email a copy of the death index report, with the individual’s name and record number circled. It expedites the process.

Also: Local churches/parishes and hospitals often keep burial,  funeral, or death records. Sometimes a cause of death is listed there, if one cannot find a death certificate.

 

Chapter 6: Suffrage Jerk

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For 17 years, my husband and I owned and lived in a 98-year old row house in Washington, D.C. about 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol. We loved our neighborhood — the Victorian (and older) row houses had history and character despite the fact the neighborhood was sketchy, the front yards were handkerchief-sized, the closets tiny, and parking impossible. What was great was living in and around history, so to speak  — those who helped build the city and our nation lived in our neighborhood once upon a time, and you could see the U.S. Capitol dome from my house (true, you had to stand on the roof to see it, but still, there it was).

Sewall-Belmont House. Source: Smithsonian.gov

One of my favorite places in the neighborhood was the oldest house on the Hill, the Sewall-Belmont House (now a museum of women’s suffrage and equal rights). I walked by the house every day when I worked at an association on Capitol Hill.

As I passed the Belmont House in the mornings, I would sometimes think about the story my mother told me about my great grandmother Rosa LeBarte Countryman — how her support of women’s voting rights embarrassed my great grandfather, Richard Sr.

I wondered what it was that made Richard Sr. uncomfortable — several relatives used to say how Richard Sr. was a strong-minded guy; stubborn on occasion, but someone who did what he wanted when he wanted. Surely he appreciated a strong-minded spouse, as Rosa seemed to be. Maybe it was that Richard Sr. preferred to have only one strong-minded person in the family at a time.

My great grandfather, Richard H. Countryman Sr. Family photo.

Maybe Richard Sr. may have realized that if Rosa somehow gained voting rights, she’d feel empowered to enforce those rights around the house, to balance the scales of family justice.

To make Richard Sr. iron his own damn shirts.

Or to make Richard Sr. quit seeing Protestant women he met at prayer meetings on the side.

====

In a nutshell, Richard Sr. couldn’t shut Rosa up, so he did the next best thing, Mom said. She didn’t tell me outright; I had to do some creative fishing to discover what it was, and when I did, I got pissed off.

I later reckoned it was a waste of energy to be pissed off about this family story all the time, so I decided to get busy.  So, for much of my adult life, I’ve tried to uncover Rosa’s story from anyone and anywhere.

I would spend months at a time digging around in family files, reading old newspaper clips in both bound and microfilm versions — and even questioning my reluctant, stonewalling aunt for what seemed the millionth time — to find out if there was anything to confirm Mom’s story.

The old St. Francis Xavier Academy convent, where Rosa attended school, and where Richard Sr. installed electrical wiring. Now also serves as the Southern Cultural Heritage Center. Source: Mercy.net

After exhausting all known family records, I visited the Southern Cultural Heritage Center several times (which used to be my old elementary school — and Rosa’s school — St. Francis Xavier Academy) and found some information about Rosa when she was a student and soldalist, but not much more than that. The staff at the Center were helpful and friendly; but they didn’t have a large budget, so hardly any records were scanned when I visited. I was very careful, but tense as I handled the fragile old attendance books, careful not to damage any of the tan, brittle pages.

In 2013, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t find anything concrete tying her to the Mississippi suffrage movement.

Family anecdotes could not stand up as proof, and, based on other contemporary information about Rosa (from census data, city directories, school records), it was unlikely she was prominent in the movement: In 1914, Rosa was a 32-year-old mother of four children (ages 12, 10, 5 and 1); Richard Sr. was a foreman at the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company, as well as a part-time itinerant Baptist preacher building a congregation on weekends. Richard Sr. was likely gone more often than he was home, and I seriously doubt Rosa would have left a baby and young children to lobby for suffrage, even though she may have supported it strongly.

Of course, just because I couldn’t find information that Rosa was a corset-burner doesn’t mean she didn’t work behind the scenes in some way to support the cause — after all, she was intelligent, well-read, a good writer, and active in the community.

Despite the personal disappointment, I’d collected a fair amount of information about Mississippi women in the suffrage movement. I decided to put together an outline and draft an article anyway.

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I often do my best work in the middle of the night, when everyone else is asleep.

One evening, I was at home going through the Library of Congress database and found an archive of photographs online and other resources on the March 3, 1913 women’s march. In addition to the contemporary accounts of the parade, I wanted to look at paraded itself; to see what the women were wearing, to see the crowds, and so forth, to best describe them in my article.

It was an intriguing series of photos:  Throngs of women — many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to walk down crowded, muddy, slush-encrusted Pennsylvania Avenue on a cold, brisk March morning, one day ahead of Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade — their banners, their expressions, their energy clearly captured in crisp black-and-white.

The 1913 march higher up Pennsylvania Avenue. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

 

Crowds blocking the women’s suffrage parade; this is on Pennsylvania Avenue close to the U.S. Treasury Building. Source: The Ohio State University & the Library of Congress

The series of photos captured the energy of the event, as the marchers fought the cold reception from the men as well as the biting, brisk cold air that whipped the women along on the parade route. Those women were uncomfortable, all, but they would persist.

I scrolled past one photo after another —

And then — there was this:

The photo that got my attention.

This handsome man’s photo inserted in the queue. It struck me, not only because it seemed out of place. Perhaps he was an early champion of suffrage, I thought —  I checked the name: “Honorable Emmett Wilson.” I made a note, and continued to go through the photos.

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Two days later, I was reading through transcripts of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings of February and March 1914  in Washington, to hear their issues debated in the Senate and House of Representatives. Even though Rosa wasn’t there, I know she — and other Mississippi suffrage sympathizers — must have read the newspaper accounts of the upcoming meeting with Wilson’s staff with hopeful expectations!

As I settled into my chair, with a hot cup of Earl Grey tea, I started reading. Actually, I forgot about the tea as I was caught up in the minutes, and realizing what was going on. It was profound, really — all these white men in a large room debating whether or not women were ‘able’ to cast a vote responsibly, on the basis of their mere gender. It dawned that this took place less than 100 years ago — and that I really take a lot for granted, living as I do in the 21st century.

Then, I came across this item:

These fellows were interruptors?

I remember thinking, “these assholes surely aren’t interrupting their fellow congressmen,” as I looked up the names in the Congressional Database and read about Keating and Wilson’s careers as U.S. Congressmen.

“Aha. Wilson,” I remembered Emmett of the handsome visage right away, and looked through my notes.

It was clear that neither Keating nor Wilson appeared to have been popular or had an illustrious tenure in congress. They left without distinction — “serves ‘em right. “What a Jerk.” I also actually scrawled into my notebook “Thank God I’m not related to him.”

But before I turned off my computer for the night, I looked back at the photos — at Emmett’s specifically. There was something about it — and about him that bothered me. I didn’t know this guy at all, I wasn’t remotely interested in learning more about this guy.

I don’t know what it was, but I swear, as I sat there at 3 a.m., in the complete quiet and stillness of my office, studying his photo, I heard:

“Tell my story.”

Just like that. Simply. Plainly. Out of nowhere.

I remember turning around, thinking it was one of my kids — and I dismissed it. I was probably hearing things because I was tired —

— but I heard it AGAIN. Clearly.

“Tell my story.”

I felt my skin crawl — like something else was in the room. I’m not superstitious,  nor do I believe in ghosts, but I swear, it was as if Emmett was there, asking me.

What could it hurt to find out about this guy while I’m doing the suffrage story? I said to myself. Maybe there’s something to it. So, that night, I decided I’d figure out who this Emmett person was, and  perhaps it will be enough to put a little story together, so I could put this ghost or whatever out of my mind — it couldn’t be too time consuming. 

And here we are, six years later. What a story it has been. And a journey. And a blessing.

There’s so much to tell you, which I will over the next several months as Emmett’s story unfolded, left me awestruck, amazed, saddened, and grateful. Emmett was many things, including a suffrage jerk, when it was to his benefit. But there is so much more to the story of this one obscure man, and I can’t wait to tell it.

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About Rosa and Richard Sr.:

I’ve since disproven the story Mom used to tell me about Rosa being a suffragette.  I hated having to burst this family bubble — the image of my great-grandmother marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in chill March air, in a white dress and sash proclaiming equal voting rights for all, but Rosa marched to her own drummer anyway — and — whatever she did in to support this cause apparently irritated Richard Sr. enough to take action against his wife

I think the truth was that Rosa was mostly a private person despite her strong opinions, and was more comfortable in a behind-the-scenes role. If she was involved in suffrage, it would have been secretly, quietly, maybe writing articles under a pseudonym, or doing the necessary research to help the movement, and the like. Small gestures towards a larger goal are still important, worthy things.

I also think the truth was that Rosa and Richard Sr.’s marriage was often troubled. If it was, my grandmother would never have said anything about it. She adored her father, but Richard Sr. was no saint, despite his religious calling.

It turns out that my great-grandfather had girlfriends on the side while he was out and about, saving souls and all that — and —  this was one of the catalysts that drove Richard Sr. to have Rosa institutionalized at the Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian. But there was a catch: In Mississippi, one couldn’t just lock up one spouse in the insane asylum to trade in on another; there was a 10-year wait.

This is where Rosa lived for about 25 years. 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

So, Richard Sr. waited, along with the girlfriend.

And…almost exactly 10 years to the date my great-grandfather divorce came through, and he was all set to marry again, Richard Sr. dropped dead of a heart attack.

Next: Library of Congress

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.

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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

 

Chapter 1: Emmettism

Standard

I couldn’t get this handsome man’s face out of my head. It was strange. It was almost like I had embraced a whole new ‘-ism’, this time, Emmettism. Something new to replace the mania for alcohol, a feeling that comes and goes even with a few years of continuous sobriety.

The photo that got my attention.

My sponsor tells me (often) to watch out for these things, because they can take over, take you out of the living in the current moment, which is something normal to this alcoholic. “Stop for a minute. Think. What do you think is missing in your life that you think you have to throw yourself into this new project?” she asked.

At that time, I didn’t know. “I just feel this need to find out more about this guy. I don’t know what it is.”

I told her about hearing the words “tell my story” in the middle of the night while I was looking at that photo.

I told her that I think there’s something to this, and I didn’t know what it was, except to follow it for awhile and see where it lead me. ‘It’s harmless,” I said. I told her not to worry, that at least I’m not drinking, or using drugs, or doing anything unhealthful or hurtful to someone else, right?

“Yeah,” she said, a little uncertain. “Just keep me in the loop, OK?” We agreed to get together again at our weekly meeting, and I agreed to check in with her in a few days.

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

I spent the next five days in my office, in my bedroom, in the University of Maryland carrels (where I have faculty privileges), at the American University library (where I had alumni privileges), anywhere I could link up to as many databases as possible, reading everything I could find about Emmett online. I wasn’t teaching a class at the time and I didn’t have any client work going on; so, I could throw myself into the deep end of research.

I started with the basics — his name, where he was from and the year he died, and making copious, stream-of-conscious notes in black ink in an old computation notebook with quadrille paper — the graphic organization of the blue boxes on the thick yellow tinted paper was calming and made me feel in control of this project that just seemed — for days — a lot of isolated, independent facts rooted in nothing.

At the end of the week, I’d read hundreds of articles. I wasn’t exhausted — rather, I was energized. I felt like I was onto something, but I needed more. I knew that not everything was ever online — I’d have to look locally.

There had to be a repository about Emmett in West Florida, a minimal biography or an old brown folder somewhere with information about Emmett; he was their U.S. Congressman once upon a time, I reasoned.

Next step: Repository.