Chapter 18: Denies He’s a Foreigner

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I have interesting information — some in the form of primary sources! — about the Wilson family’s tenure in British Honduras.

I’ve annotated the page so you can see where the information on Emmett is located. Source: Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, Sunday June 1, 1913.

I’d like to start with this article, an interview with Emmett during his first term as a U.S. Congressman, because it is presented as his words.

Here’s what he said:

The interview with Emmett, as he explains his birth in British Honduras.

This is the last part of the interview.

Emmett explains some things, but there are still questions unanswered.  For example:

  • Why did his parents go there in the first place? What was the reason, given their roots were in Alabama and Florida, and their large families were very much alive?
  • And if this really was a short-term, temporary stay, why get so damn testy whenever he was asked about it?

There was a lot more to this story than the impression Emmett gave that his parents were on a temporary break. Since I couldn’t ask him directly, I picked the major fact from his interview apart and did some research on it.

Here’s what I discovered:

“For a period of about six years, my father owned a half-interest….” Emmett was born in British Honduras in 1882; his sister Katie was born in British Honduras in January 1878. Working backwards, the two chronological Wilson siblings older than Katie were

1) Eudora Neely Wilson, born in 1876, in Holly Springs, Mississippi and

2) Everard Meade Wilson, born in 1873 in Holly Springs.

In 1884, the Wilsons immigrated back to the U.S., through New Orleans. The youngest son, Walker, was born in Chipley that same year.

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

If we do the math, with Katie born August 1878, then we know the Wilsons were in British Honduras at least from 1878 on — and 1878 to 1884 is seven years. It is possible that Dr. Wilson was already in British Honduras with his family starting in 1878, then decided to invest in the sugar plantation while he was there. But Dr. Wilson was methodical — I believe he probably had this plan in mind BEFORE he relocated his large and growing family to a foreign country which, I estimate, was early as 1875.

He’d need resources to do this, because life as a former Confederate during Reconstruction days was difficult, as well as expensive, and I posit that Dr. Wilson’s trips to Central America were rare, given what I know about the Wilson family during their Holly Springs, Mississippi days.

The Central America Wilsons

You can read the entire original posts about the Wilson’s first years of marriage during Reconstruction here and here; but here’s what I found out about the Wilson’s. It tells a completely different, and disappointing, story than what Emmett reported about the family’s situation behind the move to Central America:

[From 1870 to about 1875] Emmett’s parents were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with six young children, renting a house next to Elizabeth’s sister, Lucy Maxwell Meade and her husband, Everard. The Wilsons has been married almost 10 years, with not much to show in terms of money and professional opportunities. Emmett’s father, Dr. Frank Wilson, was a dedicated and well respected country doctor, having a difficult time making ends meet during in Reconstruction-era Mississippi.

Meanwhile, things were not going well for Dr. Wilson’s parents [in Alabama], Cephas and Emily Wilson and Dr. Wilson’s siblings, who were struggling to keep the homestead (property taxes were high; the Cephas Wilsons has lost almost everything at the end of the Civil War). Survival was becoming an exercise in futility, as money was running out, time was running out. The Cephas Wilson family had few options, and did not relish the idea of becoming homeless.

Confederate expats settled in British Honduras with the idea that they would recreate another plantation world. Very few were successful; Emmett’s family tried to get a sugar plantation going, but it failed miserably. Source: Amazon.com

Cephas and his sons had come across a pamphlet, Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868 (copies are still available today, via Amazon.com), which described a group of ex-Confederates from Mississippi and other Southern states who had fled Reconstruction to settle in British Honduras (now Belize), and recreate a plantation life. The British government wanted settlers who knew how to grow sugar and cotton, and were willing to relocate, establish the crops, and make a good living. Several members of the Alabama Wilson family thought this was a good option, took what remained of their savings, and, in 1869, emigrated to Punta Gorda, British Honduras.

Apparently, Dr. Wilson felt the money and opportunity to live among family members, and away from the struggles of Reconstruction far outweighed the struggles the family would face relocating to a jungle with no infrastructure and minimum civilization. Things were that bad for the Wilsons, apparently.

This was not just a situation of being disenchanted over minor things

It was so bad that before the Alabama Wilsons left the U.S., around 1875, there is a codicil in Cephas Wilson Sr.’s will noting that his son, Dr. Wilson asked for and received $1000 against his inheritance to make the move. ($1000 in 1875 is about $19,750 in 2019 dollars.)

Emmett’s parents must have believed that the economic and political situation in the South was not going to improve, and their best bet was to start over somewhere else, even if that was in a jungle. At least other family members would be there with them.

Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth moved to Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras in 1875.

 

The Wilsons lived in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras (now Belize). They emigrated from the Port of New Orleans to Belize City; then traveled by ox cart down to Punta Gorda. There were few roads; this was not an easy move for this family. Source: http://www.scf.usc.edu

Oh — and by the way — while Emmett’s parents were setting up house in British Honduras, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and several other expats (who were relatives of both the Maxwells and the Wilsons that relocated) helped establish an Episcopal parish in that community — a parish that still exists today.

I ask you: If you knew that you are visiting a country for a temporary stay, would you establish a parish?

OK, we can argue that some people might do it (for example, my mother-in-law is an Episcopal priest, so she might think about it) — but to me, to do it just as a visitor strikes me as arrogant and assuming. Yes, build a house for yourself, or a clinic, for your community. But a parish? That strikes me as long-term.

I believe the real reason WHY Dr. Wilson moved his family to British Honduras is that Emmett’s family was trying to recreate the life they had during the confederacy.

THIS was more likely why his parents and other relatives emigrated to British Honduras.

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As I write this, it is important to remember that I’m not judging them; just stating the facts that the Wilsons were a product of Confederate society, that was the way they lived, that was what they knew (for better or worse) at the core of their beliefs and traditions, that was the life they wanted. The Wilsons were not ‘bad’; they believed in different things than what I believe.

These were the values modeled for Emmett and his siblings, and shaped who they were; who Emmett was — and — although this is Emmett’s story, we need to know something about his parents, too.

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Back to the original point of this post: Was Emmett, then, a foreigner?

Answer: Maybe.

I’m not trying to tease you, but because this chapter is so long,  I’ll answer this one in the next post. Thanks for hanging with me on this long story.

 

 

 

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Chapter 17: Clues in the Obituary

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A reporter once wrote that if you really wanted to piss off Emmett Wilson, ask him about his nativity.

That is, if he was a REAL American citizen given he was born in British Honduras during his parent’s ‘temporary sojourn’ there.

“…woe betide the man….” Makes me wonder if anyone else thought Emmett’s short fuse about a fact he couldn’t change was him fearful of a damaging truth? Source: Chronicling America.gov

Emmett’s obituary in the May 29, 1918 issue of The Pensacola Journal, has subtle clues. I admit that when I first saw the obituary five years ago, the obvious British Honduras birth jumped out at me. We’ll get to that in depth; but first, we need to dissect a few things about this obituary.

 

Here’s a close-up of the page itself; you’ll remember this from a post a few days ago:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one.

(I took apart the obituary last summer and wrote about it here; some of the information bears repeating in this post, because it sets the stage for our next chapter.)

Here’s the original information, plus new information I discovered since this article was posted:

Emmett’s death notice was unexpected and essentially thrown together at the last possible minute as The Pensacola Journal‘s first (and only edition) of morning newspaper was going to press. It appears that the editors, in remaking the front page at deadline, might have cut down or removed another article that was less locally newsworthy.

  • “Following a very short illness….” Those who were closest to Emmett knew what actually killed him had been killing him for years (Emmett’s “poor health” had been reported in West Florida papers at least since 1913 when he took office. A joke was once made about Emmett in the July 14, 1913 issue of The Miami News about how he, once again, “had taken to his bed”. Subtle, but Emmett’s problem was visible.) In fact, Emmett’s ‘poor health’ was one of the reasons reported in earlier versions of The Pensacola Journal and other Florida papers why “he decided” not to run for a third term.
  • “…died at 12:25 o’clock this morning…” Emmett’s death took place right after midnight as the morning paper was going to press. Laying out a newspaper page in 1918 was by hand, and stressful on a deadline. The position of the death notice in the paper is interesting: Right above the fold, but not with a prominent headline. The story was important, as Emmett was a recent U.S. Congressman, and his sudden death definitely newsworthy.
  • …aged 36 years.” Emmett was actually 35; a few months short of his birthday.
  • “Of course no funeral arrangements had been perfected….”  It is likely only a select few knew Emmett was in the hospital. Although Emmett’s health had been deteriorating for years, he’d experienced several blackouts and unconscious scenarios (for lack of a better description), no one probably figured this was Emmett’s last blackout.  There is an article in The Pensacola Journal from 1914 when Emmett was hospitalized in Washington, D.C. in which his brother Francis told the press that it wasn’t a serious problem, and that Emmett’s illness was not of major concern. (I’m paraphrasing.) The family probably had a long history of covering for Emmett because he did, indeed, get over it often.
  • “It is probable remains will be held pending….” The late night copy editor was scrambling to fill available text space. It is curious where the information about Emmett’s death came from; i.e., did the desk editor do a last minute call to the police station and hospitals for late breaking news, or did someone from the hospital call the newspaper to let them know Emmett had died? I lean towards the former, just from experience — funeral homes, hospitals, police stations have their own work to do, not pass on hot news tips — and long ago when I was a cub reporter, my job was to call these places at the last minute before press for just such information.
  • “Deceased from (sic) born….” The typo is another clue the copy editor was scrambling. But the bigger clues that this caught everyone off guard is that the second paragraph was taken from Emmett’s official U.S. Congressional Directory biography in 1913, and not more recent sources, because the death notice doesn’t include any information about his second term, or anything notable he did in office.
  • Emmett’s photo is from his 1912 congressional primary campaign. There had been several high-quality photos of Emmett taken while in Congress and certainly provided to the media free of charge. It’s curious why a more recent photograph was not used — unless it was just what was on hand, so as to put the May 29, 1918 edition to bed.

Having broken down the obituary, our next chapter will look at the British Honduras fact — how the heck did his parents get to Central America in the 1880s? Why wasn’t Emmett born in the United States? Who were Emmett’s parents, anyway? And why would Emmett get so pissed off at people asking about his personal history?

Stay tuned.

Chapter 8: Something Awry

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Most of the contemporary articles I found about Emmett were read as they came in, in no particular chronological order.  To keep things straight, I cataloged every detail I found into a timeline.

The first column is the date of the article, the second column summarizes the story, the third column are my notes, and the fourth column includes publication information, as well as a link if one was available. I had to break the timeline into four different date-specific files towards the end of data collection because of the amount of information.

After three weeks of reading and documenting articles about Emmett, I took a few days off to clear my head. When I came back to the timeline, I saw some items about Emmett with new eyes. For example:

Emmett would make sure to let the newspapers know when he was headed off on vacation every year. We do something like this today in social media. Maybe this was Emmett’s version of Facebook. Source: The Pensacola Journal, August 5, 1908

In the 21st century, you don’t see the comings and goings of a U.S. attorney reported on a society page; maybe this was a thing back then, you know, like Facebook?

And I was curious — did Emmett actually give this information about his comings and goings to the society editors on a regular basis? It seemed petty and pompous, the idea he was planting information in the paper himself about himself. If he’s that important, he’d not need to do that, if you see what I mean. He wasn’t ‘news’ yet, but it seemed he sure wanted to be.

Here’s another example:

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. Source: Pensacola Evening News, September 7, 1907.

This would prove to be one of many examples in the articles I found that Emmett, a die-hard Democrat without a lot of experience but good family and political connections, landed this job during a Republican administration out of nowhere — he’s even quoted in the article as being surprised he got the appointment, because he hadn’t even applied for it. Other candidates with more experience were not pleased, and his lack of experience despite being promoted to prominent, lofty positions was turning out to be regular thing across his career.

I know it happens all the time, but that still doesn’t make it right. And yeah, I still didn’t have all the details about this story yet. I admit that I had to tamp down my irritation at Emmett — I had to quit thinking, “Who the hell did this guy think he was, asking me to tell his story?”, and “Was he some kind of pompous ass pretending to be more important than he really was?”

Or was there something else?

And then, something else jumped out at me from the timeline:

If he was such a social climber, ambitious, and popular, as per the information I had on him at present (spanning about 10 years), it was odd that he died alone, without anyone knowing he was sick….

….that he was so public yet in the end, so few people knew what was going on with him.

“Numerous friends…were visibly shocked….” See what I mean? The Pensacola Journal, May 30, 1918.

That didn’t seem right. Something was awry.

There was much more to come.

An Interview With Minnie

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Towards the end of December, I came across an excellent interview conducted with Emmett’s close friend Minnie Kehoe. The text of the interview is below, along with the original source information.

Note that this wasn’t exactly an in-person interview; Minnie apparently took issue with one of the articles published by The Typewriter and Phonographic World, sent extensive comments supported by data, and included a photograph of herself — talk about a sistah who was sassy AND thorough.

This was an excerpt of the interview, by the way. Page 279 of the same publication is another (different) article.

You can find the article, published in The Journal of Commercial Education, volume 24, at this link.

Not her father’s daughter

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I’m not one to go about picking on other’s research, but I suppose (with five years of Emmett Wilson research — that’s way over 10,000 hours of continuous digging and nit-picking) I can safely call myself an Emmett Wilson Expert.

…at least, that’s what my colleague (who is a credible researcher) over at the National Archives called me the other day, when I stopped by to do a source check. 😀

Anyway. Today’s post is about our resilient Minnie E. Kehoe.

Yesterday, I found this:

Source: Florida Bar

Details of the book.

A Who’s Who of the first woman lawyers of Florida. One of the nice things about this resource is not only does it provide the bios, but also the timeline of when the women were admitted to the Florida bar.

And yes, Minnie is listed as one of the first women lawyers in Florida, starting on page 8.

But, despite the fact the information has sources, there’s several errors. Here’s what I mean:

The first error in the rectangle.

Yes, Minnie was admitted to the bar in 1913; she worked in Pensacola for many years, then moved to Miami to be near family, namely her prominent brother J. Walter Kehoe, then she returned to Pensacola.

But Ervin’s incorrect about her father’s vocation. John Francis Kehoe, Minnie and Walter’s father, was a prominent bricklayer/brickmaker, and in fact supplied some of the materials for the construction of the Jackson County (Florida) Courthouse in Marianna.

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From the Pensacola City Directory, 1885. Note the lack of lawyerly vocation info.

 

Minnie’s brother, J. Walter, was a U.S. Congressman for one term (1917-1919).

The next item to note:

John Kehoe died in 1906, so, even if John was an attorney, Minnie couldn’t have practiced with him.

Actually, in the 1913 Pensacola city directory, Minnie was a court reporter — she wasn’t exactly ‘practicing’ law right off the bat in 1913, and she wasn’t working with anyone else:

Pensacola City Directory for 1913. Note that brother Walter has a different office address.

Eventually, Minnie did have her own practice, as well as a business school (but today we’re talking about her as a lawyer):

Pensacola City Directory for 1916. By 1916, she had her own office, again, separate from her brother Walter. According to family information, she ALWAYS did it HER way.

I’m glad to see Minnie getting her due recognition, but disappointed in the sloppy data confirmation.

I’m a little surprised that a Bar publication would use sources with unverified information (i.e., Ervin’s statement about Minnie ‘may have been the daughter….’). Not to be a nitpicker, but c’mon; spend more than five minutes to confirm information that others may use in their own research.

Here’s to Minnie Kehoe. A woman of her own making, and definitely, not her father’s daughter.

Coffee-spit-worthy Clip

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I admit I spewed a bit of coffee this morning when I saw this new-to-me clip freshly found in the January 3, 1917 edition of The Pensacola Journal:

Check the fourth paragraph. Source: GenealogyBank.com

“Mrs. Emmett Wilson?” GAH.

I turned immediately to all of my known and collected documents — and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The “Mrs.” is a typo. Of course. I should know better — after all these years of researching Emmett, I’ve learned to take many of the articles written about him with a major grain of salt until I’ve done the background checking on the information. Editors interesting in pushing their agendas (I’m looking at you, Frank Mayes) said what they wanted about Emmett regardless of fitness for office, or the truth.

I should also know better than to read this stuff at 4 a.m. with only one cuppa under my belt.

Cemetery picnics

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Here’s a great article from Atlas Obscura on a once popular fad,  picnics in cemeteries.

Actually, I think it’s great — I’m not just saying that because I like to hang out in cemeteries ‘getting to know’ the individuals who will play prominent roles in Emmett’s book — but there’s so much one can learn from cemeteries beyond the birth and death dates. And here in D.C., Congressional Cemetery holds actual events in the cemetery (tours, a foot race, even movies during the summer) to encourage the living to get to know the locals!

Source: Congressional Cemetery

Unfortunately, the last time I was in Pensacola, I didn’t have enough time to picnic with my guy. But does having coffee with Emmett count?

Coffee with Emmett.