Chapter 48: She Wore a White Ribbon

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January 12, 2020
Chevy Chase, Maryland

I’ve been thinking deeply about this new article on Emmett’s mother that I located during one of my regular database re-check activities two days ago, and wishing I’d been able to find it at the start of Emmett Wilson’s research project.

But then, the ancient hard-copy newspaper (The Pensacola News from 1891) was unaccessible to everyday researchers because of its frailty, and, it takes time to scan precious pages into a database without destroying the artifact.

Better late than never, though.

Without further ado, here’s what I found:

Source: The Pensacola News, from June 26, 1891, via Newspapers.com

If you’ve been following the Emmett Wilson story so far, then you’ll remember a few earlier posts I wrote about the death of Emmett’s mother, and its impact on Emmett and his family. Also, this news item supports/confirms much of the first-person narrative of Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson’s death as told by Emmett’s older sister, Katie Wilson Meade.

With the info from those earlier posts in mind, I’d like to focus on several new things that enlighten our understanding of Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson.

In 2016, I wrote about Katie Wilson Meade’s reflections on the death of her mother, that she had stopped by the drug store for a soft drink. The Pensacola News article from 1891 confirms this, stating the ‘drink threw her into convulsions….’ 

The soda isn’t identified, but it most likely was a fountain version of Coca-Cola or something similar, and it wouldn’t have been bottled, but mixed by a soda jerk behind a counter. [Coca-Cola wasn’t bottled until 1894, at the Biedenharn Candy Company in Vicksburg, Mississippi.] Was there something wrong with Elizabeth’s drink? We don’t know, because there isn’t any information that the drink was the problem. Or, that anyone examined the components of the soda.

…which caused a hemorrhage of the brain.’ A brain hemorrhage is also known as a stroke. Could the drink have caused the stroke? Maybe; but another explanation could be that Elizabeth had undiagnosed high blood pressure. Katie makes no mention of problems with her mother’s health leading up to this event, but Elizabeth herself may have brushed off the symptoms (headache, stiff neck, numbness, and so forth), or perhaps had no symptoms. We know it came on suddenly, without warning, as the paper reported that Elizabeth appeared to be ‘in perfect health’ leading up to the stroke.

The Horns’ residence was Katherine and Richard Carey Horne‘s home, which was located over their business, adjacent to the drug store. [Katherine and Richard’s daughter, Mary Baltzell Horne, was a lifelong friend of Emmett Wilson; Mary would later wed Emmett’s best friend, Paul Carter in 1912.]

This section indicates that all Wilson children, except Max, were present at their mother’s death. Imagine Emmett and his twin brother Julian, bewildered eight-year-olds, holding their mother’s warm but lifeless hand, perhaps thinking ‘she might wake up,’ and yet everyone is saying goodbye. No one was prepared for this; no one knew how to handle it. Perhaps the young fellows were told to ‘be men’ now since their father would need them. Oy.

One final item of note from the article is this:

Elizabeth was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. That means she went to meetings; she read the literature about the problems of booze on individuals and families; she wore a white ribbon in support of abstinence from alcohol.

Source: ebay.com

I found out that members of the WCTU also had a White Ribbon Recruit ceremony, where members would bring their babies to dedicate them to the cause of temperance. At the ceremony, the parent-sponsors would pledge to help their children lead a life free of alcohol; a white ribbon was also tied around the baby’s wrist at the ceremony. I wonder if Elizabeth brought any of her children to such a ceremony, and if she took that pledge to help her children live sober lives.

===

Elizabeth Wilson may not have drank alcohol, but the men in her family did. That’s a fact; also, there is documentation that alcohol was a problem (for at least) the Wilson side of the family. Was booze a problem for the Maxwells? I’m not sure; but a letter from A.E. Maxwell’s son, Judge Evelyn C. Maxwell to a historian relates the story about how A.E. Maxwell loved toddies and during the Civil War regularly carried his own private trunk of sugar (a rare commodity) wherever he went to ensure he had his favorite drink whenever possible.

Could that be indicative of a drinking problem for Elizabeth’s father? Maybe.

Did Elizabeth understand that some of the men in her life were using alcohol as a means to escape discomfort, unease in their lives? Did she understand that drinking to avoid the demons in people lives was futile, because everyone has a demon of some sort on their backs, and drinking only made it worse?

Did Elizabeth see and understand Emmett’s demon before anyone else ever did, and she was, in fact, modeling how to live with that demon, not run from it, but to own it, because acknowledging it was the first step to being free of it?

And perhaps, this is the main reason why Emmett never really got over the loss of his mother during his brief life?

I wish we knew for sure.

 

Chapter 43: Detour Unusual

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February 7, 2015
The American University Library, Washington, D.C.

One small screenshot of one page. Emmett’s entire timeline is well over 5,000 items long. Timelines created by the author.

 

For the record, I have documented everything you can imagine about Emmett, including family members and close friends of Emmett, receipts or documents mentioning Emmett, schools in which he was enrolled, clubs he attended, and so forth.

I like my data organized, chronological, structured. But most of the time, research data doesn’t come to you that way. So, you have to devise a sense of order for it to make sense; to tell a story.

Example: One day I found Emmett’s funeral record; the next day an article mentioning him playing a baseball game for the Chipley, Florida local team. Totally out of order.

But, if I strung them together on a timeline, I would basically have his life story in front of me, and this would help me write his story.

===

At this point, three years into Emmett’s research, I have a large chunk of Emmett’s life mapped out, except for some gap years; namely 1901 to 1902 and 1905 to 1907. The missing information for those years bothers me, because these are his early adult formative years, when he’s out of college and supposedly building his visibility for a political career. During these gap years, Emmett seems to just drop out sight. For a man who seemed to be hung up on ambition, to disappear during these very important formative years was strange.

From the 1899-1900 college catalog of The Seminary West of the Suwannee (better known as West Florida Seminary). Source: FSU Digital Repository

I think, well, maybe Emmett just had his nose to the grindstone in 1900-1901; laying low, studying hard, then maybe graduating.

The West Florida Seminary (late known as Florida State College, then Florida State University) catalog for 1900-1901 — released January, 1901. By now, Emmett is both Freshman and Sophomore. But this catalog is only for January of 1901. Source: FSU archives

He might have studied hard, but he didn’t graduate with his WFS class.

He isn’t in the 1901-1902 catalog.  In fact, he only finished half of his sophomore year (1900-1901) at West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University); not returning to Tallahassee with his best friend, Paul Carter, when school started at the end of January.

Although it is possible, I doubt he flunked out. I believe something else happened — something probably stood in the way of his completing his studies. The archivists at FSU tell me that contemporary media might have a clue. I jump on it right away.

====

I’m anxious as I pace back and forth in front of Bender Library on the campus of The American University in Washington, D.C. The doors will be open in a few minutes; I have faculty privileges at the university, so I plan to sit in front of a microfilm reader for hours, with the 1898-1903 microfilm of The Chipley Banner, graciously obtained for me via library loan from the University of West Florida.

Microfilm: It’s reel time consuming! One of several reels received via InterLIbrary Loan. Thanks so much to the archivists and librarians at UWF, AU, and U of Maryland for their help. Photo by the author.

I have no idea what I will find, if anything, because there are literally hundreds of unindexed pages to read through on the film. I’m well caffeinated; I have healthy snacks, and I’m looking forward to hours of losing myself in the old newspapers. There’s really no other way to gather the information I need to tell Emmett’s story without tediously reading every single microfilm page I can find. None of pages on the microfilm have been scanned anywhere yet. I think about filming myself doing this to show my research students what it really is like to seek hard-to-find data, since so many seem to want to give up if they don’t see it on the first three or four hits via Google.

===

OK. Two hours into the search, and I find something interesting:

From The Chipley Banner, December 29, 1900. Frank Wilson is Emmett’s older brother, who lives in Pensacola, and is a conductor with the M&M Railroad, later with the L&N Railroad.

What’s interesting about this is that Frank wasn’t present for Christmas with the rest of the Wilson brothers. He reportedly had to work;

And then, a few hours later, there’s this item:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers. An ‘operation’ of this sort would have been serious in 1900.

Emmett’s family may have been comfortable, but they definitely were not wealthy. A trip to New Orleans for a stay at a hospital, and for Dr. Wilson to accompany his son the entire time was costly for the family. Dr. Wilson had to suspend his practice while he was gone, in addition to expenses for both Wilson and his son. Dr. Wilson and Frank were gone for several weeks.

If the Wilsons were supporting Emmett in college (very likely), this would definitely be a reason to delay his return to WFS to continue his studies.

From The Chipley Banner, February 16, 1901.

A little backstory:  Frank would later wed May McKinnon of Marianna. In 1900, Frank and May were not yet married, but they probably already knew each other:

U.S. Census page from 1900 via Ancestry.com: May McKinnon is single in 1900, and a telegraph operator (probably at the same railroad where Frank worked).

I wrote about Frank and May in an earlier EmmettWilson.com post; the family members who knew May indicated to me that she would have had a positive influence on Frank regarding cessation of his drinking. In fact, the New Orleans episode may have frightened Frank enough to stop drinking.

And then, I find this gold nugget:

From the February 23, 1901 edition of The Chipley Banner. One door closed for Emmett and another opened elsewhere.

As I think about this article, less than two months after Emmett returned home from WFS, perhaps it was a culmination of things that kept Emmett from returning to finish his sophomore year. Deep down, Emmett probably wanted to be a lawyer from the get-go, finding this out only after being in college and studying something he really didn’t like.

And instead of having to tell his father that he didn’t want to go back to school (after the family spent all that money for his tuition), Frank turns up ill, and that keeps Emmett from going back to school.

And, as that door closed on Emmett, another one opens up with the clerkship at D.J. Jones’ law office.

===

Finding these items in the film during my visit to Bender Library fuels me onward. I can’t wait to see what else is on the reel.

 

Chapter 42: The shape of a heart

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May 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Fort Morgan, Alabama

The crisp breeze off the Gulf of Mexico buffets me a little as I walk westward along the beach towards the old fort. The surf is comforting, but I watch my step as I walk along the edge of the warm water, because jellyfish have been plentiful along the beach this spring.

I’m alone; there is no one else here, either. It’s uncharacteristic, I think, for both myself and this popular spot along Alabama’s coast. Today is gorgeous: A bright blue sky, comfortable temperature, perfect for teenagers to skip class, or grownups to call in sick at work. I remember then that I did, in fact, decide to take today off because I’ve been working pretty much nonstop, every single day since April of last year, the day I ‘met’ Emmett Wilson.

I crouch down to watch the bubbles that pop up after the wave recedes; the bubbles that follow tiny crabs burrowing back down into the sand. I notice an interesting little shell. I pick it up; I turn it over in my hand, trace the edges with my finger. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone in the distance, walking towards me. As he gets closer, I can’t hear footsteps over the sound of the surf. It’s a tall man in a dark suit, black leather shoes, completely dressed in almost funeral attire on a beach. That alone should make me feel afraid, but I’m not. But there is something really weird about this —

He stops about a foot and a half away from me. I look up at the man’s face…

…Emmett.

He hold out his hand. He wants the shell. And then he says…

“Hey girl! Wanna take a walk?”

I start a bit, as my friend Elizabeth nudges me.

“Daydreaming?”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess I zoned out for a little bit.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said, pulling her beach towel more snugly around her shoulders as she stood up. “You’ve been working nonstop on this Emmett project since you’ve been here. You gotta be wiped out.”

Elizabeth and I have been friends for decades. She’s the lovely, calm, easygoing one, who always seems to have it together, and I’m the dysfunctional kook who needed a drink to feel whole. Somehow, we compliment each other, enjoy each other’s company, are always there for each other even though we live about 1,000 miles apart.

She knew I would be in Pensacola for a few days, so she invited me to her family’s beach house in Fort Morgan to sit on the beach and decompress, to catch up, to reconnect.

The view from the back porch of Elizabeth’s beach house. I’m gonna walk down that road and right onto the sand in about five minutes. Photo by the author.

This is the place where we can both recharge our psychic batteries. Elizabeth knows me well; we’ve seen each other go through job crap, personal crap, spiritual crap — and yet, here we are, four decades after we first became friends in Sr. Mary Clarissa Rose’s typing class at St. Joseph High School. Picture it: Five desks across by six rows of desks in a cinderblock 1960s school. All the desks have Underwood manual typewriters on them. The room is loud with the clacking of typewriter keys against paper and platen; hands in proper position arched properly, students focused, intent on increasing words per minute to earn the nun’s approval.

The old St. Joseph High School in Jackson, Miss. The red arrow points to the typing classroom. Source: stjoebruins.com

This went on five days a week, nonstop. It was mind-numbing.

One day, as the class was deep into typing mode, I reached into my sweater pocket, quietly winding the stem on the side of the toy. I turned around and caught Elizabeth’s eye — she looked at me questioningly. I opened my hand slightly and showed her the toy. Elizabeth gaped at me, then stifled a laugh.

It looked sort-of like this. Image source: amazon.com

I surreptitiously bent down as if to tie my shoe, and let it loose.

The result was laughter, excitement, welcome distraction as students moved their feet out of the way of the hopping chick moving randomly under desks, down the aisles, towards the front of the class. No one tried to stop it.

Except Sr. Clarissa.

She swooped down one row of desks, then another to catch it. Although the tiny toy was fast and unpredictable in its movements, the nun was agile, used to herding errant and nonconforming teenagers for several decades. Sr. Clarissa swooped down upon the little toy and held as high as she could for all to see (she was 4′ 11″ and everyone was taller than she was, including me).

“Whose is this? Whose is this?” She repeatedly shouted to the now-silent classroom.

No one answered. I dared not respond; I knew Elizabeth would never rat me out, but she was damn near choking on stifled laughter behind me. Sr. Clarissa gave everyone in the class a dirty look, then ordered us to continue typing.

Sr. Clarissa kept the chick in her desk drawer for the rest of the school year — after I’d received my final grade in the typing class and knew I was safe from her holy wrath.

“You know that plastic wind-up chick I had in Sr. Clarissa’s class?”

“Yeah?”

“I found it the other day in a box of stuff from high school. Damn thing still works.”

Elizabeth snorts with laughter. “Sr. Charisma was so pissed.”

“And it was the start of a great friendship.”

“Yeah.”

===

The thing about our friendship is that we feel comfortable telling each other anything, and we can listen to each other without judgment. I’ve always felt completely at ease around Elizabeth; I’ve never felt that kind of trust with very many people in my life. Her friendship is one of the most precious things in my life.

She knew me before, during, and after my drinking career, and she’s one of the few friends still around. And she’s never judged me for any of that.

And because we are completely honest with each other, I’ve told her everything that I’ve learned about Emmett Wilson so far, and the research itself. Elizabeth is curious why Emmett fascinates me.

“It’s the whole mystery of him,” I tell her. I’ve told Elizabeth how I came across Emmett in the first place, completely unknown to me; how we are distantly related. “Why is this story important to tell? I’m still in the artifact-information gathering stage, so I honestly don’t know him very well yet. Eventually, I’ll just put everything in front of me, and try to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of his story. Maybe then I’ll know what’s at the heart of the story.”

“Do you have a crush on him?” Elizabeth asks me.

I laugh. “Yeah. A crush on a dead man. It’s kind of a one-way relationship.”

“Yes, but you know, he did kinda reach out to you. Maybe it isn’t as one way as you think.”

“I’m skeptical, but I will remain open minded,” I say, as we continue walking along the beach.

And then, we stop and admire the small shells at our feet. One of them catches my eye. I pick it up…

…and it is remarkably like the one that Emmett seemed to reach for in my dream.

“Oh, that’s pretty,” Elizabeth says, looking at the shell in my hand. “It looks like a heart.”

 

I still have it.

A quick thank you!

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Thanks very much to Amy, one of the Emmett Wilson Book readers for finding the burial site of Emmett’s nephew, Cephas Wilson and his wife, Louise, pictured below:

I have been looking for this one for quite a while — thank you, loyal reader!

 

Now that I have the burial location, perhaps I can locate the Wilson descendants from this point! Thank you so much, Amy!

 

Writing Break: Norma

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Early in sobriety I attended AA meetings daily, as prescribed by my temporary sponsor. I was told to listen closely to others with many years of sobriety, especially the women, because eventually I would hear my own story coming out of other women’s shares. It’s important, because we learn that recovering alcoholics are not terminally unique; that there is a way forward out of the madness. If other AAs with similar stories to mine could get sober, I could too, if I followed the program one day at a time.

One of the women in my program was Norma. She was brusque, large, outspoken, tough, and sober 15 years when I met her almost 12 years ago. When Norma shared, she told it like it was. She was plainspoken and not above saying something or someone’s point was bullshit when it needed to be said (because ‘rationalizing’ one’s reactions or activities can be a gateway for AAs to drink again).

I was intimidated by her; I’d never been around anyone who was so brutally honest about drinking, but truthfully, I was intimidated by everyone in the rooms at that point, because my emotions and thinking were raw and jagged with fear, anxiety, and unsteadiness — I had had to replace the tranquilizing booze with things like yoga, exercise, meditation. Early sobriety can be a weird transitional time.

In the early days, I stayed quiet in the meetings, because my temporary sponsor told me to shut up, listen, and learn — after all, my ‘best thinking’ landed me in the rooms of AA. So I mostly observed Norma. I listened to her shares and learned from her experiences. She was also an expert knitter and I was intrigued that she could knit at AA meetings. But her knitting wasn’t a distraction — Norma’s needles would move so fast they seemed to blur and she would not even look at her work during the meetings, she was that engaged in the discussions.

Because Norma was consistently at these meetings I thought of her as kind-of a role model, especially with knitting, because I had picked up the hobby after many years, and was also bringing work into the meetings. Knitting soothes me, slows my thinking down, becomes meditative after a while, and I found it helped me focus more on the discussions in the meetings. But my knitting was slow and simple with subtle colored yarn, retiring; Norma’s knitting was complicated and textured, done quickly and with bold, vibrant yarn of different textiles.

Norma lived the example of a woman in sobriety with qualities I wanted — she’d learn to live many years without ‘needing’ a drink, she was fearlessly honest about her struggles living life on life’s terms, and she could knit a beautiful sweater in about three days. I needed a permanent sponsor; I thought she was the one I could learn the most from in the program.

So one day, I brought her a gift of unusual yarn I’d found at a local knitting store that I frequented. I gave it to her, and she appreciated it. She thanked me, and said she was looking forward to using it.  I said that I admired her work and her time in the program, and that I’d like to talk to her about it. But she thanked me again, and then the meeting started — and that was all we said to each other that day. I thought I’d ask her about sponsoring me another time.

The following week, I was walking to the Sunday women’s meeting, and saw her walking up the sidewalk. She said hello to me, and said she was looking forward to using the yarn I gave her.

I asked her what she planned to knit with it, and she stopped where she was, turned to me, and said with exasperation, “you know, you’re just so irritating. Go on ahead. I really don’t want to be around you.”

Norma’s response shocked and surprised me — I honestly did not know where it came from. I felt my face flush, and my stomach turn over — but instead of getting angry, or upset, or reacting in like manner, something made me say, “I understand. I’ll see you later,” and I walked on ahead to the meeting room.

But when I got inside, I went into the women’s rest room, and sobbed. I took a bunch of deep breaths, calmed myself, and went into the meeting — Norma was already seated in the front of the room — I sat in the back, and made myself stay there the entire time. I don’t know how or why I said what I did to Norma, because I really didn’t understand what had happened.

The old me probably would have had a drink over something like that; instead, I waited after the meeting for my temporary sponsor, who was also in the room. I told her what happened — she gave me some good advice quoting the poet Miller Williams — and she said she’d love to be my permanent sponsor.

Even though the event with Norma was almost 12 years ago, remembering that event still troubles me.

From that moment on, Norma was rude to me; I didn’t speak to her that much afterwards, and I avoided meetings I knew she frequented.

The thing is, I never knew what it was that got under Norma’s skin. Last year, I tried to call her. I wanted to talk to her about it, because I wanted to learn what it was I did that was irritating — I wanted to correct whatever it was, if I could.

But I was too late. When I tried to call her, her number had been disconnected. I later discovered she’d died nine months earlier in her sleep.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk to her. Hearing hard truths is something I’ve had to get comfortable with over the past 12 years of working the AA program. I want to hear the truth — even if it is difficult — because I don’t want to be the person I used to be before sobriety.

Even so, Norma lived a life of transparency, accountability, and honesty. That’s what keeps me sober today, every day, and for that, I am grateful to have had her in my life. Maybe that’s the lesson I was supposed to have from Norma.

===

Oh — the quote my sponsor gave me from the poet Miller Williams is as follows (and I keep it close to my heart always):

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.

“You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”

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.

Chapter 6: Suffrage Jerk

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

Sewall-Belmont House. Source: Smithsonian.gov

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

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

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

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

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

To make Richard Sr. iron his own damn shirts.

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

====

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I scrolled past one photo after another —

And then — there was this:

The photo that got my attention.

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

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

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

Then, I came across this item:

These fellows were interruptors?

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell my story.”

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

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

— but I heard it AGAIN. Clearly.

“Tell my story.”

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

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

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

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

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About Rosa and Richard Sr.:

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

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

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

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

This is where Rosa lived for about 25 years. From Meridian, Miss., East Mississippi Insane Hospital. Sysid 92221. Scanned as tiff in 2008/08/18 by MDAH. Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

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

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

Next: Library of Congress