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.

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I Wonder

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When I first started blogging about the Emmett Wilson research project, my goal was to put his name back out into the public discussion forum, in the hopes that distant relatives or descendants (who were also doing genealogical research) would find me/him, and exchange information.

I knew that by itself, the blog wasn’t going to be as effective — if you want research to produce results, you have to be proactive — so I simultaneously launched an outreach project to descendants of both Emmett’s family and friends, as well as to archivists and historians in West Florida. This combined effort has worked well. I’ve met in person and online many wonderful people — and new family members — in this effort. Everyone I’ve met has been generous and helpful sharing information, photographs, clips, and the like.

I enjoy — and prefer — writing as my main means of communication. It isn’t that I don’t like to ‘talk’ to folks (I do!), but when I write, I have a chance to reflect before I hit ‘send’.  Writing the blog gives me a chance to try out new ideas and perspectives about my research.

For example, when I first ‘met’ Emmett, I felt sorry for him, and angry for him! I remember thinking (while reading his obituaries on microfilm for the first time): Poor, misunderstood young man. I even wrote those words in my notes that afternoon at the American University library, as I scrolled through the film. This was, of course, before I learned that he died pretty much by his own hand — drinking himself to death. I didn’t know him at all in those days.

I thought I could get to know Emmett this way, through reading about him, hopefully some of it in his own words, too. But alas, there’s very little of him, in his own words (save for the elusive scrapbook of his that may be floating around out there, somewhere).

And while I feel as if I know something about him, there’s so much I don’t know, and that is intimidating me, 100 years after his death. I know a lot of details about him, but there’s so much I still don’t know. I wonder:

  • why he persisted in a career that he was fundamentally unready to embark upon;
  • why he always seemed alone even in a crowd of admirers, both male and female;
  • why he seemed to always have an ‘escape’ from personal commitment when people got too close;
  • why he ultimately drank himself to death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the answers to these questions. Whether or not I do, the discovery of this long-lost cousin, and the journey to understand him — and myself — has been a worthwhile project.

 

One-Shot at a Free Ride

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I’ve been thinking about the vocational/educational breakdown of Emmett’s immediate family:

  • Two physicians; one on-the-job training, one college-educated (Dr. Francis Wilson and his second eldest son, Percy Brockenbrough Wilson)
  • Two lawyers; one on-the-job training, one college-educated (Cephas Love Wilson and Emmett Wilson)
  • Four railroad professionals; high school diploma only, mostly on-the-job training (Frank Jr., Meade, Julian, Walker)
  • Two state-certified teachers; high school diploma only (Dora and Katie)
  • One musician/pharmacist/editor; high school diploma only (Max)

Emmett’s education was a bit unusual because he was the only Wilson child with two chances to go to college — he either failed out or dropped out of West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University) in 1900, and two years later, enrolled at Stetson University, graduating in 1904.

Frankly, this surprises me, given that

  • higher education was expensive, even for an upper middle class family like the Wilsons, and
  • there was little if any extra money available for things other than necessities. And:
  • the Wilson family genealogy sent to me from Walker Wilson’s descendants indicated resentment among Emmett’s siblings that the younger Wilsons had to contribute funds to brothers and sisters attending college — a opportunity either not extended nor available to the younger Wilsons once they became old enough.

It seems like the family helped Emmett pay for the first college (West Florida Seminary) tuition, but the second time, I believe Emmett was on his own financially. It just doesn’t make sense to me that the family would put up two college tuitions for one child, and not do the same for the other younger children. Emmett had one shot at a ‘free’ tuition ride — and when it didn’t work out for him at WFS, he knew he’d have to pay his own way if he ever wanted to go to college again.

Ad from The Chipley Banner, 1894. DJ Jones was a well-established attorney and judge for many years. Source: Chronicling America.com

After Emmett came home from WFS in January, 1901, he immediate started clerking for Judge Daniel J. Jones, one of the most important lawyers in West Florida, with the idea that he would do as his brother Cephas: Clerk for a prominent jurist for a few years, take the bar exam, and begin his practice.  But times were changing for the legal profession around 1900, as more states were requiring law school and official degrees as proper credentials over old-school apprenticeship training.

 

Emmett and Judge Jones must have discussed the future of the profession, and I am certain Judge Jones would have encouraged Emmett earn a law degree at a college or university, to ensure his best possible professional opportunities.

Advertisement from August 30, 1901 edition of The (Pensacola) Daily News. Emmett had been clerking for Judge D.J. Jones, during this time — but he could only do so much without knowledge of shorthand. It is likely Jones recommended Emmett obtain shorthand training. Emmett was visiting family during the summer of 1901, and this advertisement got his attention. Source: The (Pensacola) Daily News, August 30, 1901.

Emmett remained with Jones as a clerk for about six months, before he left to take a shorthand course at Meux’s Business School in Pensacola, returning in 1902 to clerk for Cephas in Marianna for several months, earning enough money to attend Stetson University in September, 1902.

 

Congressional Directory, 63rd Congress, 2nd Session

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This arrived in yesterday’s mail, fresh from Ebay:

It’s the second in my collection of books Emmett would have owned. I wish it was the actual copy that Emmett owned, held in his hands, perused often.

Great details of staff members.

These old Congressional Directories are treasure troves of interesting details. For example, see the first entry — the Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives’ home address is listed! And bonus:

3527 13th St. NW, Joseph J. Sinnott’s house, is still standing!

Emmett is listed several times in the directory; his biography, his committee memberships, and his residential address while in Washington (Congress Hall Hotel, in case you were wondering). And in case you wanted to visit or call Emmett, here’s how you could find him in the Cannon House Office Building:

I’m still building my collection of books that Emmett likely (or, hopefully one day, actually) owned. Although I’m still looking for a copy of the directory for the 1st Session of the 63rd Congress, as well as editions for the 64th Congress, I’m off to a good start.

 

 

The Gift of Time

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I hate reporting this, but I’ve made little actual progress on Emmett’s manuscript since January.

My life has been mostly on hold because I’ve had to take several trips to my hometown in Mississippi to get my Dad’s affairs in order. He’s been in rehab after his fall in January, so he hasn’t been able to do beyond his hospital room.

But as of yesterday, Dad is out of the hospital and I completed the move from his home of 32 years into a retirement community. It’s done.

Finally.

Looking back, I’m surprised at how much time this whole project took. What really helped was good, old fashioned research skills.  In January, to keep myself from going crazy with all the details from 850 miles away, I created a set of “Dad spreadsheets” relating to the move. I categorized everything: Utilities, furniture distribution, contributions to charity, packing, social workers, you name it. As we drew closer to the actual move date, it was the most satisfying thing to check off items as they were completed. It made the whole process run like clockwork.

Also: The spreadsheets made the move understandable, more acceptable for my Dad. Whenever he’d get nervous or antsy, I’d just give Dad the move-related file folders and charts, and the logical, ordered information calmed him down. Helped him accept the change that was happening, whether he liked it or not.

These simple charts made our lives a lot easier. In the end, Dad didn’t argue with me about the move anymore. And the day before the move, Dad was (finally) more accepting. He told me: “I’m good with this. You’ve obviously got this in hand.”

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Constructing Emmett’s story has also taken a lot of time — five years, so far. The time involved in collecting the data is one thing; but it takes almost as long (if not longer) to organize seemingly disparate pieces into a logical, detailed timeline of events, and unfortunately, I underestimated that part of the research process. Here again, spreadsheets to the rescue. To keep myself from going insane with the (literally) thousands of pieces of Emmett information, I created something I call “Emmett’s Life Timeline” in spreadsheet.

I use a basic spreadsheet program with my own headings. Information is organized by year.

In addition to Emmett-specific information is context: I’ve added the comings/goings/activities of who I believe are the important people in his life within the same spreadsheets.

Another example from “Emmett’s Life Timeline” spreadsheets.

Now that things have settled down, I’m happy and grateful to return to Emmett’s story.

Both of these transitions (Dad from house to assisted living and Emmett from obscurity to research) have taken more time than I expected. But the extended time has been a benefit — a gift, really, in both instances. I feel pretty good about how Dad’s situation turned out (even though he’s still in adjustment mode). I also feel good about the status of Emmett’s story, even though it isn’t finished. Both projects are coming together — maybe not seamlessly — but they are falling into proper place.

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.

Good Orderly Direction (G.O.D.)

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“People who want to believe something will do so despite any and all evidence to the contrary.”

Carolyn Hax, The Washington Post, February 3, 2018

 

“Everything happens on God’s schedule, not mine.”

A.A. meeting, Washington, D.C.

These are two quotes I’ve come to appreciate over the past two weeks. I’ve been away dealing with a crazy family drama that I’d not wish on my worst enemy.

I’ll start by saying as of today, February 4, everyone involved in this story is fine. We all may be a little grayer, a little more frayed at the edges for having the experience, but there’s always a blessing to be gained for weathering a tragedy: Our family has grown closer, and I don’t think my Dad will put off following Good Orderly Direction (G.O.D.) again in the future.

On Saturday, January 20, 2:30 in the afternoon, I received a text from my first cousin Mike, who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was unusual because Mike and I (although close) don’t really talk that much via text or telephone — only on birthdays and holidays, and during football season when Mississippi State is playing well.

Mike: “When’s the last time you spoke to your Dad?”

“Thursday night.”

At first, I wasn’t overly concerned; but when two hours passed and he still hadn’t called us back, I was uneasy. Mike couldn’t simply drive over to check on Dad; he takes care of his 90-year-old mother full-time.

I told Mike: “I can’t stand waiting anymore. I’ll ask my friend Helen to knock on his door.”

Thank God I did.

When Helen arrived at my Dad’s apartment, she had me on her cell phone as she banged loudly on his door. No answer.

“He’s in there,” she said to me. “Something’s not right.”

“Call 911,” I said.

It was the worst 30 minutes of my life, as I waited 850 miles away, my friend standing by, awaiting EMTs and the police. My heart felt like it was beating 1000 times a minute. I knew it wasn’t good — I thought my heart was going to break right then.

When the EMTs broke down my Dad’s door, they found him on the floor, dehydrated. The apartment was 85 degrees, he’d not been drinking water.

“He’s alive!” Helen said to me, “but he’s insisting on not going to the hospital. He says it’s inconvenient for him! Can you believe it?”

Helen put me on the phone with the EMTs. I told them that I had  Power of Attorney, and to take him to the hospital. My friend stayed with my Dad until he was admitted and stabilized; I got on the next plane out.

When I finally got to Dad’s hospital, the doctors told me he was in renal failure, and would have probably died if the EMTs had gotten to him any later.

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Right now, Dad is in a nursing/rehab facility. And he’s damn lucky: His doctor told him his kidneys will heal, but he’ll need dialysis for several weeks. And he’ll move into assisted living. I insisted.

And yes, he agreed.

I hate that it took something like this to get my Dad to agree to necessary changes for the sake of his health and well being. For so long, he wanted to believe he was fine on his own, even when the signs were there that he needed help.

But the reality is that Dad wasn’t ready to hear the message until it took something dramatic to get his attention.

He’s doing fine — he’s actually making slow, steady progress with physical therapy. He’s cooperating with folks who want to help him.

And, he’s complaining, which my sister and I know is a good sign.