But for the Grace of God

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When I close my eyes, I see it: The ancient scrapbook covered in gray dust, high on a shelf in a Florida library, long forgotten. And on the phone, I hear the excited voice of my friend Jacki the Archivist:

“We aren’t sure how it got there, but it’s been undisturbed for decades. It was part of a collection of mementos belonging to a long-deceased Florida lawyer named Kehoe.”

It? I ask.

“Your cousin Emmett Wilson’s long-lost scrapbook.”

I’ve fantasized receiving this message from Jacki since I began this research in 2013. This scrapbook is the major piece in the puzzle to tell Emmett’s story that’s still missing.

Emmett willed the scrapbook to his namesake, Emmett Wilson Kehoe, the son of his best friend and law partner, Walter Kehoe.

Emmett Wilson Kehoe, son of Jennie and Walter Kehoe. 1930, University of Florida. Source: Ancestry.com

But young Kehoe was only 12 when Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

And the scrapbook disappeared shortly after Emmett’s funeral. And it’s still missing, unfortunately.

Always the realist, Jacki has warned me: “The odds of finding Emmett’s scrapbook intact today are minute.” But I’m optimistic, because I’ve uncovered a surprising amount of information on my obscure and troubled cousin — once considered the Golden Boy of Pensacola politics — who succumbed at 35 to combined addictions of ambition and alcohol.

Emmett’s story isn’t a happy one. I doubt my ancestors would appreciate me writing his biography, even 100 years after his death. But I am compelled, because Emmett’s story is also my story: My long-dead cousin and I are related not only by blood, but also chemistry.

Emmett drank to escape. I drank to escape.

Emmett had three interventions. I had three interventions.

Emmett didn’t want to face himself, character defects and all, to find out who he really was minus booze in his life. It has taken almost a decade of continuous sobriety to be willing to face myself after drinking for more than 30 years.

Emmett’s struggle with alcohol killed him.

My struggle with alcohol almost killed me.

After Emmett died, my ancestors literally closed the book on him: They dispersed his meager belongings; shelved his memory, hid his truth. Tried to forget.

For years, Emmett had put his family through an emotional and psychological wringer; his death was probably a relief to them all. This may explain the disappearance of Emmett’s scrapbook. And I don’t really blame them.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to forget my alcoholic history. Sometimes I believe that if I can hide that part of my life, pretend it didn’t exist, then I, too, can move on.

Or can I?

I understand why my ancestors chose to bury Emmett’s memories along with his body, but ignoring an unfortunate truth only excuses it temporarily; renders it dormant to rise again, when you least expect it — as it was with Emmett.

Writing Emmett’s story isn’t only about coming to terms with Emmett’s truth — but rather it is about coming to terms with my truth. Perhaps Emmett couldn’t save himself; but now, 100 years later, he life story can save me from myself.

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Coffee with Emmett. May 20, 2014

It was a glorious Spring morning, May 20, 2014, the day I ‘met’ Emmett.

There was nothing to fear, but I was jumpy; my heart and thoughts racing as I walked through St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, anxiously scanning the headstones with a travel coffee cup, a cemetery map, and a dozen supermarket red roses in my hands. Few were about save for a middle-aged woman on a brisk morning stroll with her terrier, and a caretaker carefully moving a buzzing weed whacker along granite-lined family plots. He nodded good morning to me across the rows, as I picked my way along the bumpy, but well-manicured turf in search of Emmett. He politely silenced his weed whacker while I paid my respects.

Why was I nervous visiting a dead man? St. John’s wasn’t a frightening place during daylight hours; I felt perfectly secure. Absurdly, I wondered if, when I arrived at Emmett’s grave, the ground would move and he would reach up through ground and throttle me for unearthing his unfortunate life story —

— but before I could parse my feelings, I realized I was standing in the Wilson family plot — and there was Emmett beneath my feet.

The concrete slab over his grave was covered by several inches of sand — from occasional floods during hurricane season — irregular tufts of weedy grass, and sandspurs. Emmett’s granite headstone was in good condition: The engraving clear, the stone mostly unchanged in almost a century.

Then, it struck me: No one has visited Emmett in decades. Maybe almost a century.

I remember thinking: Booze took everything from you, Emmett.

And then: There but for the grace of God go I.

My anxiety was gone.

I laid the roses atop Emmett’s grave. I sat down next to him with my coffee.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” I started.

I left St. John’s feeling calm and resolute: I’d keep looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I’d tell his story. Not from a sense of obligation, but because even though we’ve never met, I understand him. And in understanding Emmett, I understand myself:

His story’s tragedy is my life preserver.

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Jacki the Archivist and I are still looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I hope we find it, because Emmett’s story isn’t complete without his words. His truth.

There’s a saying in the AA rooms: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I’ve almost twelve years in recovery, and I’m still discovering the secrets that drove me to drink. The reality is that I live authentically when I can come to terms with all of myself, including those dark days of alcoholism. My truth.

That truth saved my life in 2007, when I took a deep breath and declared in an AA meeting that I was an alcoholic.

And so, with Emmett’s scrapbook, I would take a deep breath, and carefully open the cover —

And accept the truth, Emmett’s and mine.

For better or worse.

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Modeste Sierra Hargis

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I have new information to share on Modeste Hargis, entrepreneur, professional whistler, and Emmett’s pharmacist!

It’s the obituary for Modeste Hargis‘ mother, Modeste Sierra Hargis, from the Pensacola Daily News, Friday, January 22, 1904, page 1:

Obituary for Modeste Sierra Hargis. Source: Pensacola Daily News, Jan 22, 1904.

I love finding these old obituaries; they often include a sentimental (and perhaps charitable!) description of the deceased’s personality, plus clues about their lives and other family relationships.

At the time of Modeste Sierra’s death, she was about 68 years old. Her husband, Dr. Robert Bell Smith Hargis, who was about 15 years older than Modeste Sierra, died eleven years earlier, in 1893.

One other item I’ve discovered is that Modeste the Younger had a half-brother, Dr. Robert Whitmore Hargis. Robert is not mentioned in the above obituary; he was the son of Dr. Robert Bell Smith Hargis and Susan Catherine Horton, who died in 1852. (Modeste Sierra and Dr. Robert Bell Smith Hargis were married in 1854.) He would have been about two or three years old when his father married Modeste Sierra, effectively being the only mother he would have remembered. Perhaps he wasn’t listed in the obituary because Robert Whitmore died in 1899, yet Modeste Sierra’s deceased sister is listed. Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps not; I’m just curious about it.

Anyway — what’s interesting about the information at the link on Dr. Robert Whitmore Hargis is that it identifies the name of one of his descendants who possesses the family Bible! I’d love to see that precious primary source in person!

New Information on Percy Brockenbrough Wilson

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It’s the Wilson family members I don’t have much information about that intrigue me the most. Over the past few days, I’ve been filling in the blanks of background information for Emmett’s second oldest brother, Percy Brockenbrough Wilson. (I’ve written about him before; you can check back here and here.)

From family genealogy and other background information, we know:

  • Katie referred to him as the ‘angelic’ brother (the overall good kid who could not lie to his parents when asked questions directly as a child)
  • He was the first Wilson sibling to attend college, the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile. He graduated after completing the required three years in 1895.
  • His first wife, Lulie Butler Wilson, was 17 when they married; alas, she died less than four months later from complications either from a miscarriage or in childbirth in 1897.
  • Percy remarried in 1900 to Bonnie Bessie Stapleton. They lived in Sneads, Florida, and had several children; Percy served Sneads and most of Jackson County, Florida much like his own father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, in Chipley and Washington County, Florida.
  • Percy died of tuberculosis in July, 1914.

Some of the items I found going back through different databases were items added since my last check-in; they basically are second- and third-confirmation sources for the research. For instance:

A confirmation of Percy’s graduation from the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile, 1895. The school closed in the 1920s, and records were transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Source: Louisiana State Medical Society Bulletin, 1895, via Google Books

There’s nothing located yet in the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa archives about Percy or his class at the MCA-Mobile, but I found an image of the school at a great blog on Alabama history:

An image of Percy’s alma mater in Mobile. Source: Alabama Yesterdays blog.

And, an 1899 photo of surgical instruction from MCA-Mobile from the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa archives:

Medical students in a surgical training class, 1899. Even though this is dated five years after Percy was a student, medical history colleagues tell me this was what Percy’s class would have resembled four years earlier. Source: The University of Alabama Archives, Tuscaloosa

This was not inexpensive for Percy or his family. Tuition for MCA-Mobile was modeled similarly to a sister institution, the Birmingham (Alabama) Medical College. According to their 1895 school catalog, tuition costs were as follows:

Source: Birmingham Medical College Bulletin, 1895, from the University of Alabama-Birmingham archives.

Finally, I came across an obituary for one of Percy’s sons, Robert Wilson, dated 2005:

Obituary of Robert Wilson, son of Percy Wilson. Source: Legacy, via Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I wonder if Robert looked like Percy. I’d love to find a photograph or any other information about Dr. Percy Brockenbrough Wilson to include in Emmett’s biography.

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.

 

Eclectic Research Findings

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As mentioned in previous posts, I do regular check-ins for new/updated items in databases for information about Emmett Wilson. Following is an mix of different/oddball items of interest:

First, the actual copyright information for Emmett’s official portrait for his first term in office.

Harris & Ewing copyright data for Emmett’s official congressional portrait. The first copyright date of August 6, 1913 is attached to the main photo of Emmett in the upper left corner of this blog.  Source: Google Books.

Notice that there are two dates. The first date refers to the main photo I’ve used in this blog, in the upper left hand corner. The second date refers to a second photograph/pose. Emmett didn’t sit for the photos in August; Harris & Ewing took the photos of Emmett probably right after he was sworn in, because the second photo (below) appears to be a different pose of Emmett’s original sitting, and it was published in June, 1913 in The Washington Post.

I’ve only seen a newspaper print of that photograph, not the original, and I don’t know if that original exists (I’d love a copy of it if it exists!), but here is the second photo:

From microfilm of The Washington Post, June 15, 1913.

The next item is about Emmett’s older brother, Cephas Love Wilson, from the University of Florida archives. It goes way overboard praising Cephas, just short of canonization IMO:

From the University of Florida’s archives, as published in The Gainesville Daily Sun, July 19, 1904.

The digging continues, and — as we say in the program — more will definitely be revealed/found! Stay tuned!

 

Family Disease

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My sponsor cornered me after a meeting a few days ago. She hadn’t seen me in awhile — weeks — which isn’t a good thing for alcoholics in recovery. “Where have you been? What’s up?” She asked. Demanded, actually.

So we sat down together in a coffee shop, and talked. She eventually got the truth out of me — I’d stalled out in writing about Emmett, and more critically, in my program. I didn’t realize it was happening until it just happened, I said.

My sponsor (a no-nonsense Sister of Notre Dame and psychotherapist) basically called bullshit on me. “The isolating and the procrastination with Emmett’s writing are symptoms of something else. And the problem is that something else could ultimately be a drinking trigger.”

My sponsor then told me just to start talking about whatever I thought was the beginning, and not think about it.

Here’s the paraphrased version:

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From January to May, managing Dad’s affairs because of his serious health problems and his resistance/outright refusal to take care of himself took over my life. It was damn near impossible to write when I was in the thick of everything for five months, and I hardly was able to get to meetings because of all the travel back and forth, and then, catching up on work and my family’s obligations when I was finally back home.

(Today, Dad’s health is better than it was before he was hospitalized and he’s on his own in an assisted living senior residence, as much as he can be. He hates it, but that’s a story for another time.)

By the time June rolled around, I figured I’d be back into serious work on Emmett’s chapters, and life would settle back down into normalcy. But I picked Emmett’s research up sparingly, and always with some weird dread, and when I did work on his story, it definitely was not with the same spirit and dedication.

More to the point, I wasn’t picking up anything with the same energy, feeling and spirit. I told my sponsor that I felt like I had turned into another person altogether — I snapped at everyone over things that used to never bother me, picking fights even with loved ones and friends, over inconsequential and illogical things. For instance, I got into a terrible argument with my husband, a non-Catholic, because he’s non-Catholic. We’ve been married 28 years. I dated him for 10 years before that. I’ve always KNOWN he’s non-Catholic, and it has never bothered me. But I digress.

My sponsor listened carefully — then told me to talk to my doctor because she said it sounded as if I was going through a kind-of PTSD after all the stress of my Dad’s situation — having to keep it together for so long, without really talking about it, and certainly not talking about it in meetings, since I hadn’t been to any in awhile.

I didn’t debate her or argue about her suggestion — I got my ass to my therapist two days later. Diagnosis: Anxiety post the family drama. Totally understandable, the therapist said. Talking about it has helped me calm down tremendously.

But something else that came out in the therapy that I had forgotten about — and stuffed down — which really is at the heart of all this:

In January, I’d had a conference with one of Dad’s doctors about his condition, and the doctor revealed that all the stuff that happened to my Dad is related to alcoholism.

Although Dad says he’s not drinking, the doctor said the previous drinking history was linked to his bouts with colon cancer, as alcoholism IS a factor in the disease. And, oh yeah, something else I didn’t know until this conference January: He has cirrhosis of the liver. So, in addition to the anxiety, I’m angry.

Deep down furious.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

Dad’s lack of care for himself, or for anyone else, has seriously, negatively, affected me and my immediate family. And he frankly doesn’t really care. He just wants to escape whatever it is that is bothering him, regardless. It’s easy to feel sorry for someone like that, but when the alcoholic behavior affects how I’m able to care for my children and be a supportive member of my own family…..

Yeah.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

When the AA literature calls alcoholism a ‘family disease,’ it’s the truth. The alcoholic doesn’t think what he or she is doing bothers anyone else but themselves. That’s the key — the alcoholic isn’t THINKING, and certainly, the alcoholic isn’t in his or her right mind.

Anyway. I’m here to report that I’ve held all this shit in since January. A true constipation of the brain. No wonder I haven’t been able to write anything, or function like my old self.

But thanks to a good therapist, a good sponsor, and a good program, things are headed back to normal in Emmett Wilson book land.

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One good thing that has come out of this experience is a better  understanding about Emmett’s biography —  it isn’t just a biography of a long-dead distant ancestor. It’s also about my — our — family relationship with booze, and what we’ve done to live with it, for better or worse.

When I first started learning about Emmett and his relationships with his family members, I remember thinking rather tough thoughts about them — especially his brother Cephas and Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson. If you love your brother and son, and see that he is struggling, why didn’t they do something to help him? Something MORE?

And towards the end of Emmett’s life, most of his friends and almost all of his family members pretty much distanced themselves from Emmett, because he kept on drinking, even though I’m SURE both Emmett’s father, and Emmett’s personal physician advised him to stop drinking years before he died of alcoholism.

I’m sure Emmett’s family and friends were furiously angry and frustrated with Emmett, too. Emmett would always choose booze over every single opportunity that came his way.

The situation with Emmett and his drinking/health outcome is similar to the one I’m experiencing with my Dad today, 100 years later. The time away from writing about Emmett has given me a more objective view of his story, a better understanding of why family and friends acted/behaved/distanced themselves when they did. I feel as if I will be able to present Emmett’s family and friends with more understanding of the situation.

It’s not an easy situation to be in today; it wasn’t easy 100 years ago, either.

I’m sorry I’ve had this experience with Dad, but I’m also glad I’ve had it. I’ve learned a lot from it.

Not Quite the MOC

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I found this brief article about Emmett while doing a periodic database check last week:

Source: The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Friday, June 21, 1912.

It is another piece related to the dedication of the Florida window, in the Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, Virginia. (More details about Emmett and the Florida window can be found here.)

What’s interesting is that the reporter calls Emmett a “…member of Congress from that State (Florida) …”, which really isn’t true. Emmett won the Democratic party nomination for the Third Congressional District of Florida only three weeks earlier.

He still had to win the general election in November. But in 1912, Florida was primarily a one-party state, and Emmett, the neophyte politician, would win the seat with more than 90 percent of the vote.