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.

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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

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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

 

Confirmation

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The original Pensacola Hospital.

Piled high with boxes, the floor thick with dust and recently scraped paint chips, this room, like much of the building, is a work-in-progress. Aaron Ritz, one of the owners, has been hard at work all morning; he’s determined to bring his patient, Pensacola’s landmark 1915 Gothic Revival hospital built by the Daughters of Charity, back to life.

I’m here to find the room where my ancestor, Emmett Wilson, was a patient in 1918. I have Emmett’s admission records, but I dread finding his room, because it absolutely confirms my research.

Aaron bends over in paint-splattered coveralls to open a drawer in a low cabinet; he gingerly sifts the brittle original blueprints — water and rust have not damaged the clarity of the drawings. He pauses, peers closely at one page — “Here,” he says, with satisfaction. “There’s two patient rooms on the basement level, next to the electric therapy room.”  He notes that these patient rooms had a separate vestibule, which was unusual.

The vestibule in between the patient rooms in the alcoholic ward.

“It was for security purposes, as some patients would likely have been restrained,” I said.

After reviewing the blueprints, Aarons escorts me downstairs. The original terrazzo floors echo our footsteps as Aaron points out faded Tudor arches, and radiant tiger oak window frames. To lighten the mood, I ask if he thought the arches were to accommodate the Sister’s tall, winged cornettes, which were often as wide as the Sister’s shoulders.

As we reach the basement, Aaron points out the rooms from the blueprint. I thank him; he heads upstairs back to work, leaving me to explore.

The basement’s cool calmness quells my anxiety — it was probably a good place for patients like Emmett, who were desperately seeking peace and tranquility from their demons. It isn’t lost on me that patients in this ward — the alcoholic ward — were sequestered from the rest of the hospital on purpose. The quarantine is poignant: I know that Emmett’s final months were also spent in isolation, as his family and friends had given up on him, unable to convince Emmett to heal himself, to achieve sobriety.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway.

But Emmett knew he was dying of alcoholism almost a year to the date of his death. I saw it in the words of his last will and testament: A terse, pathetic document that dispensed with his worldly goods in less than two pages. He didn’t have much in his life; he didn’t have much at the end. Not even family, really. He was brought unconscious to Pensacola Hospital by strangers on May 25, 1918.

Hesitantly, apprehensively, I touch the door of what was Emmett’s room. I close my eyes, and try to image what he was feeling, or thinking.

When Emmett came to, God only knows what he thought, as he was in the throes of delirium tremens: Irrational, raving, and likely strapped down to his iron bed. He was probably shocked to see a dove-like cornette hovering over him, as the Sister-nurse ministered to him. 

Was it possible that in the throes of his delirium, Emmett, like King David, prayed for the wings of a dove, so that he could fly away and be at rest? Did he know that the end was near, and that the Sisters were there to ease his passing?

Perhaps, as he closed his eyes for the final time, Emmett realized his prayers were answered.

Why Everything is Not Digitized

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Of course, I’d love to have had everything available about Emmett Wilson to be accessible via the Internet. It would have certainly made my life easier as I dug around for primary sources in a variety of libraries and archives, both near and far, over the past five years!

Two tables worth of research materials, when I was at the University of West Florida. About half of the artifacts I handled were in good condition. None of these artifacts are digitized.

But even if Emmett’s primary sources were available or extant in a library archive, here is an excellent discussion about why everything in an archive is not always or necessarily digitized.

Great Source: Sanborn Fire Maps for Pensacola, 1907

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Here’s something that finally answered one of my big Emmett Wilson puzzles over the past five years of research:

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Pensacola Florida, 1907. Source: University of Florida

Check this out: The line drawing (above) is a screen shot of the duplex 211 West Cervantes, as it appeared in 1907. Note that this one structure had TWO numbers (211 on our left, 209 on our right).

This tells us that Emmett and the Kehoe family lived on the left side of the duplex!

The number two in the bay window tells us that it was a two-story structure. The number two immediately to the left tells us that there were porches on both levels. The “x” indicates a door.

If you look at the current photos from the Zillow site in yesterday’s post, it looks like the bay windows are long gone. The porches are still there; the entrances appear to be the same.

It’s nice to be able to compare the original footprint of the house to the current building.

 

 

 

 

Update: New Article on Emmett’s Twin Brother Julian

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I’ve been spending the last few days of 2017 checking in with old databases and past sources, to tie up any loose ends, or to check on any updates.

Surprise! A ‘new-to-me’ publication found on Google Books, The Train Dispatcher (1950, Vols 32-33, p. 674), has a retirement article on Emmett’s twin brother, Julian Anderson Wilson!

Source: The Train Dispatcher, Vols. 32-33, 1950, via Google Books

There’s good information in this brief bio about Julian’s retirement in 1950. One thing that stood out was that Julian spent almost a half-century working for the railroad.

Another interesting fact is that he started out as a clerk-operator on the P&A (Pensacola & Atlantic) division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in December 1900 — this means he started working for the railroad AFTER Emmett did. I’d had the impression they started working for the railroad at the same time, but Emmett began first, when he was about 15 or 16, about 1897.

Emmett also started out as a clerk-operator, eventually working his way up as a telegrapher/manager of smaller train stations along the P&A line.  Likely it was big brother Meade or Frank Jr. who helped Emmett get the position. By1899, Emmett was no longer with the railroad, as he was enrolled at West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University) as of December of that same year.

The retirement article also mentions a three-year period when Julian wasn’t working for the railroad; this is confirmed by Julian’s family members who told me he became a Morse code expert (a telegrapher) on a steamship during this time. In fact, Julian’s steamship was the Gertrude, which plied the Chattahoochie River.

A side view of the steamboat “Gertrude,” taking on a supply of wood, about 1905. Source: Florida Memory

A GPS Adventure in Boligee, Alabama

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Today, I visited Boligee, Alabama, population 328, in search of Mt. Hebron Cemetery, in a quest to locate Emmett’s grandparents, Cephas Love Wilson Sr. and Emily B. Wilson.

Using the information posted on Find-A-Grave, and typing the address into Waze, I set out with my husband on Interstate 20/59 West, to Alabama State Road 20.

Source: Google Maps

There’s cotton in huge bales wrapped, ready to be taken to a nearby gin.

There’s rutted roads with logging here and there.

There’s houses with dozens of junked cars in the yard; this is a poor part of Greene County. Little signage along the way; SR 20 winds a bit. According to the information on Find-A-Grade, the cemetery is only about 15 minutes north of I-20/59. My husband reassures me it isn’t too far off our scheduled trip to the in-laws — hell, we’ve been driving for hours anyway. It’s fine.

Fifteen minutes after taking the exit, the Waze voice chirps, “you’ve reached your destination.”

This is the church I was looking for near Boligee, Alabama. Source: Stephen McBride for Find-A-Grave

My husband pulls over to the side of the road. It’s a deeply rutted mud road. No signage anywhere, no primitive white church building on the property.

“I don’t think this is it,” I said.

“Let’s go on a bit further,” he said.

We crossed Highway 39 and continued another 10 minutes.

“What exactly is the address, again?” my husband asked.

“There isn’t one; only the location is given — Mt. Hebron Cemetery. According to Waze, this is where it is, but Find-a-Grave says it’s near the intersection of Highway 39 and State Road 128.”

“Aha,” he said. “Waze doesn’t have the right GPS coordinates for Mt. Hebron. So, let’s find 128.”

Alas, I could not. The dreaded “No Service” in my cell phone status bar.

“Wait. I have a map of Alabama from the last rest stop. Let’s check it.”

Unfortunately, State Road 128 wasn’t even listed. And unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the back roads of Greene County: The kids were starting to complain about wanting lunch. And, neither of us knew enough about Greene County to feel confident exploring without a map or a technology assist.

“Tell you what,” my husband said. “Let’s track it down when we get to the house. We can try to stop by on the way back out.”

We did find Mt Hebron Cemetery — and S.R. 128 — on a map when we got home. It is in the middle of nowhere — there may be a dirt road off of S.R. 128. I hope. Source: Google Maps

We have a better idea how to find it now. And, I’ll pay Emmett’s grandparents a visit when we do.


Meanwhile — I promised to post information about Emmett’s secretaries in the last post. I’ll do that this week. Good news: I found one of the clerk/secretaries who worked for Emmett’s brother, Cephas L. Wilson, in Marianna! Progress!