Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

===

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I start to feel better.

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

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

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

“These are your cousins?”

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

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

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

Both graves have interesting additions at the bottom:

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

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

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

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

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

“That may be telling,” I say.

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

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

Next: Katie’s Story About Elizabeth

 

 

Advertisements

Chapter 27: A Chicken on Orange Hill Road

Standard

Friday, May 23, 2014 

Once upon a time, U.S Highway 273 in Washington County, Florida, was a hard-packed dirt road. There were occasional ruts from wagon tires that dug deep after a heavy rain; the hot summer sun would dry the road quickly, and some of ruts would harden into mini-canyons, which could be treacherous for buggies and wagons moving at a fast clip behind a trotting horse.

Today, Highway 273, also known as Orange Hill Road, is a two-lane paved road with yellow lines down the middle — no packed dirt, no rutted path to town. No horses, no buggies — at least not on a regular basis.

Somewhere along Highway 273 is the old Wilson homestead, the house of Emmett Wilson’s childhood, located slightly south of Chipley.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 60 acres that Emmett’s grandfather gave to his mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, upon the Wilson family’s return to the United States from British Honduras. The exact location of the original Wilson homestead has long eluded me. But thanks to county tax records, an 1885 Florida State census, and help from a local genealogist/historian  I chat with occasionally in the Washington County (Florida) Genealogy Facebook group, I narrowed the location to near Corbin Road. It’s not the exact location yet — but I’m closer to it.

Progress, not perfection, as we say in AA.

Because the 1890 census doesn’t exist, I tracked down the Wilson neighbors (several are listed as farmers; many kept their property in the family in subsequent generations) to confirm the approximate location of the original Wilson property.  I put a gray box around the Wilson information. Source: Ancestry.com, and the Florida State Archives.

One of the documents I hope to find on this trip to Chipley is a copy of the actual deed from Augustus Emmett Maxwell to his daughter, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson. I heard from a few contacts in Chipley right before I arrived that the archives, located in the basement of the Washington County Florida Tax Assessor’s office, were in bad shape; i.e., dangerous-mold-you-shouldn’t-touch-or-inhale-in-the-old-books bad. Efforts were underway to salvage the records, but it was time consuming and expensive, and some were being relocated to another building (such as an armory) after they were cleaned up for the public to view.  The archives visit would have to be delayed.

I’m not expecting the Maxwell-Wilson property deed to miraculously appear while I’m here, but you never know. Emmett’s research has continued to surprise me whenever I least expect it.

But at this moment, I’m in my car pulled over to the side of the road, air conditioning pulsing high and low as the engine idles in already-near 90-degree heat this morning. Already haze is rising off of the asphalt, giving a wavy, weird appearance to the house and field across the street, as if I were looking at it through water. The grass alongside the edge of the road looks burned and pitiful, cooked indirectly by the surface of the road. I wonder if people actually could fry an egg for breakfast on the asphalt — but that’s not why I’m here.

The house and property that were given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in 1884.

I have a photograph of the old Wilson home. I pull it up on my cell phone, then glance around at my surroundings.

I don’t see anything remotely like it out on the road today. I knew it would be a long-shot to expect to see that old place; I doubt it exists anymore.

I close my eyes. I try to get a sense of Emmett’s childhood home. I think: He would have learned to walk somewhere around here; to run; to ride a horse; to climb the trees in the front yard; to pick flowers off of his mother’s rose bushes in the front yard.

Probably he skinned his knees on the gravel walk in front; most likely he learned to fish in the nearby lakes. I don’t know much about what or who Emmett really loved, but I do know he loved fishing….

I turn off the engine, wait for a few passing cars to go by, open the door and walk to the back of my van, looking at the nearby random 20th century houses along the road, the knobby pine trees, kitschy yard ornaments. No, if the old house still existed in any form, it wasn’t visible, certainly not from the main road. I’d have to start knocking on doors, going from house to house.

If there are remnants of the old house or property around here, I’ll have to start physically looking. I imagine taking my cheap metal detector out of the back of the van and passing it over where I thought the Wilson family house stood and finding — what? Rusted hardware from the house itself? Emmett’s old retainer, maybe (which might explain why he never smiled in photographs)? Will the current owners demand to keep the retainer?

I think the heat is getting to me.

Before I can get up the nerve to start knocking on doors, a county police car slows down and pulls up alongside, as I stand behind my van, looking around. The passenger window of the police car slides down.

The officer nods at me politely.

“Everything OK, Ma’am?”

“Yes, fine thank you.”

“You’re a long way from home,” he said, noting my Maryland tag.

“My ancestors lived in this area a long time ago. I’m trying to figure out where the old homestead was located.”

I couldn’t tell if the officer believed me or not as his eyes were hidden behind the mirrored sunglasses.

“Just visiting, then?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I’m headed into Chipley to visit folks at the historical society, who may be able to help me too.”

“OK. Well. You aren’t far from their office; just up the road at the old train depot,” he said, pointing in the general direction. “Have a good day.”

The window slid up; his car moved along a bit slowly, probably watching as I hesitated, then decided to walk back to the driver’s side of the car, and get in. It was only then that the officer drove ahead, disappearing into the distance. I wonder if maybe the neighbors called and reported my suspicious mom van — but no matter.

I’m here to visit Emmett’s home town, to piece together his fragmented story, which is actually part of my own story, I’m discovering.

You want to know something strange? Even though I’ve invested myself fully into Emmett’s story at this point, I’m afraid of it. Chicken. I acknowledge that. It’s hard to pick up a phone and call complete strangers, to tell them about the Emmett project, to ask for help. It is getting easier, as most of the folks I encounter are generous with time and resources, and are willing to help.

I can get over the hurdles of other people’s not understanding why this obscure guy is my project; mostly folks see me as an oddball academic anyway.

And ultimately, I do pick up a phone and call complete strangers after a moment’s hesitation. I’ve learned that hesitation actually is a gift, as it gives me a moment to think about what to say when asking about a resource, or an artifact, or to ask permission to visit.

But the chicken part? I’m scared about what I might find out about Emmett. I’m scared to do it because of what I may learn about myself in the process as well.

His story, my story. There really is a connection.

Maybe the neighbors, in peering out the windows, saw something about me that I can’t see about myself yet.

Hesitating won’t get me into Chipley, I decide.

I pulled out onto Highway 273 and drove into Chipley.

 

Chapter 25: We began a new life

Standard

Page six of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative continues from the trip out of the jungle back to civilization. This section picks up from the last sentence of page five in the previous post.

The men walked along side of the wagon, so when the oxen got stubborn the men yelled and lashed them with long raw-hide whips — But nothing doing! They wouldn’t move!

At last, a native worker made great balls of mud and pushed it up their noses and they struggles so hard they pulled us out!

We went from Punta Gorda to Belize that way. We boarded a ship in Belize, going up a rickety ladder hung over the side. It was a sailing vessel going to New Orleans.

The trip took about a week. It was here that I saw my first train, as it huffed and puffed into the station, the steam coming out from both sides and black smoke out of the smoke-stack. It was a fearsome sight to a child raised up to this time in a jungle.

==

My mother’s father gave her about 60 acres of land about half-way between Pensacola and Tallahassee, and we built a new house on it and began a new life. Father practiced medicine in the little town and for forty or fifty miles in the surrounding country. He was available day and night, from a baby case to small-pox to yellow fever. He would off a man’s leg one day and pull his tooth the next!!

A much beloved “family doctor,” whose chief interest in his life were his patients and his family of ten children — eight boys and two girls. A brave man and a Christian gentleman.

P.S.

Occasional reference to the ‘Big’ boys in this story means the five older boys who were born before either of the girls. My sister, Eudora, was four years older than I; then came a pair of twin boys, and last, my youngest brother, Walker. All these married in due course of time, except Emmett Wilson, the Congressman.

There are so many nieces and nephews scattered around in Florida I cannot tell the names, nor where they live.

When I was born the natives working on the Plantation came in to see the ‘picayune bambino’ and from that day to this I was called “Pic;” all the folks in Florida still use that nick-name — in Miami, where I visit each year the friends of Eloise (my niece) call me “Aunt “Pic”. I don’t mind; it reminds me of the old days of long ago.

In the Spring our parents took us all on a little trip to the Sapodilla Keys (Islands), not many miles from the coast of British Honduras where only natives lived. We ran around half clothed and played with the natives and loved every minute of it.

The steamer “City of Dallas,” a ship of the Macheca Line, which ran between the US from 1868 to 1900. This is the ship that carried Emmett and his family back to the U.S. in 1884. Source: http://onewal.com/jpmacheca/mships.html

The “City of Dallas” was a 915 ton steamer that ran regularly between the Port of New Orleans, Belize, and other Carribbean destination, according to the website. The ship’s master at the time the Wilsons boarded for their trip back to the United States was Reed.

Information about the “City of Dallas” from Macheca Fleet.

Katie mentions climbing aboard the steamer by way of a ‘rickety ladder,’ perhaps a rope ladder tossed over the side. Katie and Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Wilson, was about three months pregnant with Walker Wilson in June, 1884, the date of their departure [Walker Wilson was born December, 1884 in Chipley, Florida]. Poor Elizabeth — I hope she didn’t suffer seasickness in addition to morning sickness simultaneously during the week-long voyage between Belize and New Orleans.

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

From New Orleans, Katie said the family took the train to Chipley — it is possible they would not have had to pay for the fare, because Elizabeth’s father, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in addition to his important political connections, had railroad connections — he was once president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad, and family members could travel free or at a significantly reduced rate. But, it is more likely Maxwell paid for the railroad trip because there are several family sources that state the Wilsons’ sugar plantation investment was not successful (despite Katie’s description of a box of gold British coins in an earlier post).

Even though he was not president of the railroad in 1884, it is likely Maxwell paid the fare for the family because of the financial problems reported at this point in other Wilson family genealogies. Source: Herringshaw’s Encyclopedia, page 626

Here’s another clue that the Wilson family’s finances were in bad shape: Katie said that Augustus Emmett Maxwell gave his daughter, Elizabeth, 60 acres between Pensacola and Tallahassee. We now know that property was in Chipley, Washington County, Florida, and today it is located outside the city limits, on Orange Hill Highway. I wrote about it in an earlier post, here, which explains why I thought Maxwell gave the property to his daughter (and not Dr. Wilson).

Dr. Frank and Elizabeth Wilson’s original home on Orange Hill Road, about 1890. The property was given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, around 1884-1885, and not Dr. Wilson. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard.

The mystery of who “Aunt Pic” was was finally solved with this page of Katie’s narrative. I’d seen the reference to ‘Pic’ here and there in the genealogies, but I wasn’t sure if that was a reference to Katie, Dora, or even Lula Wiselogel Wilson (Cephas’ wife, and Katie’s sister-in-law), or if it referred to another Wilson relative.

“Eloise”, mentioned in the narrative, was Eloise Smith, the daughter of Dora and W.E.B Smith.

===

There’s one more page of Katie’s narrative; stay tuned.

 

 

Chapter 19: Dual Citizen or Crown Subject?

Standard

This week, I’ve been kicking around the idea that Emmett may or may not have been an American citizen. In our last post, we learned this was one of his hot buttons.

And, we learned that his father, Dr. Francis Childria Wilson, decided to leave the United States to start over, because the life he and his parents, and some of his siblings wanted didn’t exist anymore. Why not just create the life you want where you can have it?

You see, when Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, moved family, kit, and kaboodle 900 miles from the Port of New Orleans to the jungle wilderness  of British Honduras, he went in halfsies on a sugar plantation. The Brits needed people expert in raising sugar to settle their wild country and to develop an export crop; the expat Confederates, who basically felt they were without a country needed to find a place where they could start over without the tyranny of carpetbaggers and the Republican party lording it over them. British Honduras offered everyone a win-win situation.

Thing is, back in the day, one couldn’t just buy a piece of the Crown’s land and settle down on it as you pleased. Nope. Those who purchased the land from the British government had to swear a loyalty oath to Queen Victoria — in effect, becoming British citizens.

Sooooo… What did Dr. Wilson do? Did he actually take that oath so that he and his colleagues began to build new homes and a sugar business? If so, it happened several years before Emmett was born — which means Emmett may have actually been a British subject when he was born in 1882.

Which means Emmett wasn’t qualified to run for political office in 1913.

You could, of course, hold dual citizenship. Some American citizens assigned to foreign embassies, for example, would have children born in other countries. Those children could be considered dual citizens of that country. If Emmett’s father did not take a loyalty oath, then his American citizenship would still be intact.

But:

  • We are talking about someone who was part of a group who wanted to leave the United States soon after the end of the Civil War, because they found the political and social living conditions intolerable. It seems as if Dr. Wilson may have held his American citizenship lightly.
  • We are talking about a group of people (of which Dr. Wilson belonged) who packed up family and belongings and risked sailing almost 900 miles over rough waters and through dangerous conditions — pirates were in the Gulf of Mexico at the time — to start a new life.
  • We are talking about an official partner in a potential lucrative business — Emmett Wilson said so himself in that interview — where ownership of that property required a loyalty oath to another country.

A few questions about the whole enterprise:

Did partial ownership of the property require ALL holders to swear loyalty to the crown, though, or was this more of an under-the-table kind of deal, where someone else was actually the owner, and Dr. Wilson was quietly financing part of the sugar plantation, an ‘angel’ of sorts?

Emmett, of course, always referred to the family’s time in British Honduras as a ‘temporary’ residency, but did the word temporary mean something different back then than today? It just seems rather odd to me that one would risk one’s family’s life and well being for a ‘temporary’ thing, like moving away for several years, to a foreign country. This was also an expensive undertaking for a family that had lost everything after the Civil War.

I believe the question of property ownership may have been more angelic, based on a document I found in 2015:

 

affidavit of citizenship

Source of document: Elizabeth Meade Howard

The date on this affidavit is March 27, 1943. This document was created for Elizabeth Meade Howard’s grandmother Katie Wilson Meade (Emmett’s sister). Katie Meade didn’t have an official birth certificate, and needed one for identification purposes. Katie would use this to obtain a delayed birth certificate.

Her brother, Frank (Francis Jr.) was who she selected to provide the relevant information. He says that his father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, did not relinquish his American citizenship; ergo, our Emmett is a legit all-American boy.

I’ll accept this sworn statement as proof of Emmett’s story as truth — unless something else comes up!

 

 

 

 

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

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!