You want to hear something funny? Or more honestly, ironic?
As I sat with my newfound information about Emmett Wilson, I was angry. Pissed, actually.
First, this guy. Emmett Wilson, who (from what I had read so far) was from a privileged family; a family who held respectable jobs in the community, a family who lost everything more than once, reinvented themselves, survived abject poverty, educated themselves, saved every penny — and gave those pennies willingly to Emmett so he could go to college not once but twice…
Second, a family with connections who went out of their way to bail him out of more than one or two bad career choices and help him obtain jobs of prominence, which Emmett did an honestly average job about…
Third, Emmett, a man with family and connections that gave him places to live, opportunities no average Joe or Josephine could have dreamed of back then, resulting in national prominence….
….only to throw it all away before his 36th birthday.
What an asshole.
He had everything and threw it away.
And who was this guy anyway? OK, yeah, so hooray, he’s my cousin. A distant cousin whom I’d not gone looking for; someone who just showed up in the middle of another project, who thumped me on the head in the middle of the night asking me to do him a favor.
Man, does this Emmett guy have some nerve, reaching out from beyond the grave for yet ANOTHER favor. I mean, what the hell? You have to be kidding, I remembered muttering to myself. And to him, if he was actually listening.
I looked at his photo — the official one of Emmett posed with kind-of a frown/stern expression.
I said to him: “You have all the answers already. What more do you want? What do you want from me at this point?”
For two days, I was too pissed to work.
Instead, I went to see my sponsor, Courtney (who is also happens to be a genealogical researcher, by the way. Ironic?).
I recounted to her exactly what I found about Emmett, how I felt, what I was thinking, how used I felt by this Emmett Wilson, who seemed to use everyone and everything in his life, too, to get what he wanted, and then to just fucking die in the end, a useless, wasted life….
She listened quietly, patiently, as I ranted for probably about 20 minutes. Then she asked:
“Why are you so angry about Emmett? What’s he done to you, exactly?”
“Well, look,” I said, displaying the folders of information I’d collected. “This is just infuriating. This guy is a loser. He threw his life away; he didn’t care. How can you be given all sorts of opportunities to do well and just throw it away? It’s insane,” I shook my head at her.
“You sure are worked up over a guy who has been dead almost 100 years. I ask you again: What’s he done to YOU that makes you so angry?”
“I don’t get it,” I muttered defensively.
“Judy, don’t you see? None of this is about Emmett. This is all about you.”
I just shook my head, incredulous.
“Don’t dismiss the idea. Think about it,” she said. “You came from nothing; you had a family and friends who would and did give everything to help you, willingly. Or unwillingly,” she said with a chuckle. “But still, you had the resources. And what did YOU do with your resources during your early career? And when did you say you did most of your drinking?”
I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t actually because I felt my face burning.
“Did you appreciate them, your advantages?”
“I do now.” I said, sheepishly.
After a few quiet moments, she said: “They called you useless too. How did that make you feel, or do you remember?”
I did remember. I shifted uncomfortably; I started to assemble Emmett’s papers back into their folders.
“You’re angry because you are reliving your helplessness when you were literally, mentally drowning when you are reading all about Emmett and what he threw away in his life,” she said nodding at the papers in my hands.
My sponsor had my full attention.
“No. Just like Emmett, you didn’t appreciate what you had in those days because you couldn’t. You were out of your mind, insane if you will, putting the need for a drink first. Just like your cousin. And, this story you are writing. Think about this: Is Emmett’s drunkalogue the entire life story?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “His life was more than just being a drunk.”
Courtney smiled at me, kindly, and nodded.
“There is more to Emmett’s story than just ‘he drank, he died.’ I think you know this, too. How did he get there? What did he do about it? What lessons can we learn from his life that can help you today?
“And,” she continued, “would you still consider Emmett useless for having reached out to you, asking you to tell his story, if his story actually informed your own?”
Before I left, Courtney reminded me about being self-righteous in all of this: “We are lucky and blessed to have found AA, and that it works for us. But remember, there are plenty of people who can’t or won’t accept this program or any other program out there, for whatever reason. We’re powerless over other people, places, things…they have to do it for themselves.
“There’s another gift in the program that I think you need to work on,” she added, looking at me over the rim of her glasses.
“What?” I said, with surprise. “I appreciate all of the gifts of the program, truly…” I started. She shook her head.
“Really? What about humility?”
“What about it?” I asked.
“You’re also mad at Emmett because he couldn’t ‘get it’ and you did. A lot of people don’t, can’t or won’t get it. It’s a daily struggle, you know. And just because you could do it — and I know you work hard to stay there — not everyone can. Your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your own program,” she said, sitting back and looking at me pointedly.
I didn’t say anything because now I was mad at Courtney for calling me out — and correctly. We sat quietly for a few minutes; I couldn’t stay mad at her for very long because I always knew that she’d tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not, and Courtney is precious to me. Eventually, I looked at her in the eye and nodded.
“I have a lot of work to do, and not just with this story. And I am sorry for being so rude.”
“It’s fine. But don’t be angry because Emmett couldn’t or wouldn’t get it while he was alive — his death and story serves a purpose for you, now, today. His story, and how you found it or he found you or whatever, is a wonderful gift and opportunity to learn and grow.
“So, I wouldn’t call him or his life useless. But your reaction is pretty ironic,” she said with a chuckle, as our session together ended, and she walked me to her apartment door.
“Keep coming back,” she said, as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek.
Next: Emmett’s story, from the very beginning.
That was the question I kept asking as I dug deeper into this stranger’s — Emmett’s — story. I couldn’t keep calling him a stranger, though.
For such an obscure guy who didn’t leave much of a mark while he lived, I was turning up dozens of tiny blurbs about his life almost daily from newspaper microfilm. I spent hours (courtesy of faculty privileges and InterLibrary Loan) at both the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library and The American University’s Bender Library, scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed pages from the past, newspapers searching for anything Emmett Wilson. The small pieces would have to come together to illustrate the coherent whole as best as possible, because I lacked true primary sources at this point. This was literally the needle-in-the-haystack approach, but it was the only approach available.
Over time, the small, often one-line items about Emmett’s life grew together into an extensive 4.8 megabyte chart. Essentially, I’d created Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner in reverse, a calendar overview of his life which included an incredibly detailed map of what the man did on a regular basis, folks he hung out with, where he went for entertainment, venues he visited regularly. Ad infinitum, or as close as I could get to it.
Good research, right? Except that I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch with regard to Emmett. I’d have to be asked to leave the microfilm readers at closing. I’d look up at the library clock one moment, 9:25 a.m. and the second time I’d look it was 3:45 p.m.
Pity the librarians and archive workers; pity the research assistants at nearby tables: I’d chat Emmett up with anyone who asked me what I was working on at the university, whether they were interested or not.
And that was when I noticed I’d embraced a whole other -ism.
As an alcoholic in recovery, I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, but the desire to escape whatever it is I need to focus on at the moment, to procrastinate from living in the current world, is always there. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to escape or to feel better about; I was doing research, and damn good progress too, I thought.
But my husband, who never complains or comments on my work unless something seems truly over the top or awry, actually spoke up: “This is taking over your life. What is it about? What is this to you?” he said.
I didn’t know, I said.
“Then what’s the point of doing the research? What do you hope to get out of it? If you figure that out, then your path in pulling all this information together will be clear,” he said, gesturing at the piles of files stacked on my desk, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, transcribed notes.
There was one other thing I hadn’t checked — I’d purposely put it off. It was time to find out for sure. So, I typed his name into my Geni.com account — Geni.com is a genealogical research tool.
Lo and behold:
Now I knew who Emmett was to me. For sure, I couldn’t say he was a stranger anymore.
But I wasn’t sure if I wanted more than that.
Next: Acceptance is the key.
About two weeks after following up with Mike Burke with the proper Wilson ancestor information, and approval from Sacred Heart Hospital’s general counsel, I received this email message:
Well, there it was: An official hospital record indicating Emmett was an alcoholic. But was that enough?
In research, one has to triangulate the data — I had Jim Milligan’s genealogy, which stated Emmett became an alcoholic. That’s two sources. I wanted to dig around some more, to reinforce what I had already.
Lo and behold, thanks to the miracle of the Worldcat database, I located a second Wilson family genealogy, written by Arabella (Belle) Fannin Wilson, wife of Emmett’s oldest brother Augustus Maxwell Wilson.
Belle also mentioned Emmett’s alcoholism, but it doesn’t sound certain:
But I remembered that I also had the funeral report from the Rev. Dr. Melville Johnson, which reported Emmett died of the “D.T.s”
At this point, I wondered how in the world the Episcopal church pastor would write “D.T.s” if:
a) he hadn’t observed Emmett in distress before his death himself, while visiting parishoners in the hospital,
b) he wasn’t told of this by the nursing/medical staff for his official record?
In other words, I doubted Dr. Johnson would have made this up. Still, I reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast for any information on Dr. Johnson (the kind of guy he was), and inquired if there was a copy of Emmett’s eulogy on record.
Dr. Johnson didn’t leave a copy of the eulogy at Christ Church, so I was hoping perhaps one was sent to the diocese office, since Emmett was a congressman.
A staff member of the Historiographer Team got back with me about two weeks later, and said that unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on record for Emmett’s eulogy — but with regard to Dr. Johnson’s character, he was known to be a rock-solid, compassionate, reliable shepherd of his flock. It would be very unlikely, in other words, that he would have written anything about his congregation in official records if it were not so.
The family may not have wanted it known on record that Emmett died of alcoholism, i.e., they may have been able to keep that part out of the newspapers, but Dr. Johnson didn’t budge on the facts. Apparently, neither did Dr. Bruce.
Considering the news article announcing Emmett’s death “after a short illness” on the front page of The Pensacola Journal for May 29, 1918 didn’t appear exactly true, I considered that some may want to present a sanitized version of Emmett’s demise. Again, the Episcopal Diocese staff said there would do that; nor would there be any reason to think Dr. Johnson was casting aspersions on Emmett’s character — he was simply reporting what he was told, period, and he’d have no reason to change an official record just to save another person’s reputation.
I felt confident that I could consider the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s report to be that of an objective third party.
I also figured that if Emmett’s physician in Pensacola, Dr. E.F. Bruce (who’d also signed his death certificate) wrote an alcoholism diagnosis, the disease is not something that suddenly appears, nor is it ‘short term’ in any capacity. Emmett’s obituary had said he died after a ‘short illness.’ Emmett’s alcoholism — which, according to Dr. Bruce, was the reason he was in the hospital — led to his death.
But the death certificate had reported “Uremia” as the cause of Emmett’s death –so I contacted Donna the Nephrologist and showed her what I’d found.
Donna said that a physician is always required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder, and even if it was the primary cause of Emmett’s demise, it can’t be listed as a cause of death, even nowadays. (Original source of quote here.)
“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “…For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off)…”
But you can be sure, she said, that if he was in the throes of the D.T.s at the end, cirrhosis was present.
I asked her what it was probably like for Emmett at the very end. Back in the day, there wasn’t much more a medical staff could do besides restrain patients, help them through the end. It wasn’t that being strapped down was mistreatment; it was for their own safety. She said that if Emmett was in end-stage kidney failure AND was presenting with cirrhosis, it was the end, and the staff knew it.
“According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she added.
“Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system (which is what happened at Pensacola Hospital), the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since an alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, and so the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.
“Emmett’s body could not handle it; so he likely went into a coma.
“And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
OK. Well, I can say with certainty Emmett was an alcoholic. That was what got him in the end.
Was I ‘disappointed’ with the diagnosis, though?
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question — I didn’t really know Emmett all that well yet, and I still wasn’t sure why the hell he asked me to write his story. I kept coming back to this question: What was the purpose of this project? It was too intriguing for me to set aside.
Mike Burke’s comment in the email made me realize that even today, in our enlightened, scientifically advanced society, alcoholism is stigmatized — maybe less so than it was in Emmett’s day — but you can be sure folks still look upon those of us in recovery as “less than” in some ways. (Personally, THAT doesn’t bother me so much; what other people think of me is none of my business.)
It is still hard, even in the enlightened, scientifically advanced society today to get help with one’s addiction. Recovery is never successful unless the addicted person is absolutely ready to do the work; no one else can do it for them. Emmett had very few resources available to him in the 1910s; even if he wished to take advantage of them, he and his family/friends would have had to keep it absolutely quiet, which might have been near impossible as he was a public figure from 1910 on. So, there was a personal AND public struggle going on. Sobriety statistics are rather low for alcoholics in recovery.
Regardless, new pieces of information were starting to trickle in, and Emmett’s story was just beginning.
Next: Surprise, surprise.
I dug into the Milligan family genealogy right away. With note-taking, it took two days. It’s basically written as a conversation from the author, John Evans Wilson, to his children and descendants.
Emmett’s family story is on the second to last page. Here’s what John Evans Wilson said about him:
There’s the notation about Emmett’s drinking, and a clue about what might have brought on the uremia. But what’s interesting is the part about the ‘rich northern lumber man.’
I wondered if that could have something to do with Jim mentioning Emmett might have been gay? I wasn’t interested in pursuing that angle of the research, because honestly, his sexuality didn’t matter to me. Besides, I doubt I’d be able to prove that. Emmett might not have been gay; however, something about that relationship and Emmett’s drinking seemed to be connected — another mystery to study in this ever-growing biography.
There was something else about the genealogy that struck me — namely the earlier Wilson ancestor’s family names — namely Graves — which I’d seen before, but was trying to place where. It bothered me enough that I made a note on a yellow Post-it, and stuck it on the frame of my computer monitor to check later.
I couldn’t go any further on the Emmett health diagnosis without a medical record of some sort. Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital on May 29, 1918.
The original hospital, located at 1010 N 12th Avenue in Pensacola had long ago closed (although it is now a historic building with other businesses in it) and the medical facility moved to Sacred Heart Hospital; I crossed my fingers hoping historic records had not been lost over the decades.
Thanks to a recommendation from the excellent Jacki Wilson (no relation to Emmett’s family), archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society, I reached out to the public information offices at Sacred Heart.
After several days, a very nice gentleman named Mike Burke got back to me by phone.
“The good news is that we do have a record on Emmett Wilson’s admission and stay in Pensacola Hospital in our archives.”
Omg, omg, omg — I don’t know if Mike could tell I was freaking out in a good way 800 miles away through a telephone connection —
“I had to check with our general counsel on whether or not we can release this information to you, even thought it is almost 100 years old. Regardless, we’ll need an OK from a family member to see the record.”
I told him the closest relative I’ve contacted was a great-nephew, since Emmett died unmarried, and had not descendants that I knew of — plus everyone closer related was deceased by now — he agreed that an OK from Jim Milligan plus contact info would suffice.
As soon as I was off the phone with Mike, I got in touch with Jim, who said it was fine that I could see the record. I emailed Jim’s information with the verbal approval back to Mike, crossed my fingers that the Sacred Heart Hospital general counsel would approve my seeing Emmett’s hospital record, and waited.
Next: Emmett’s Hospital Record
I remember Saturday, June 8, 2013, as one of those glorious late Spring days in Maryland — the sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight, the temperature around 72, the trees were (finally!) all full with fresh green leaves. The plants I’d set out a few weeks earlier after a long hiatus inside were full and lush on the patio. My kids were on a scouting trip in St. Mary’s County with my husband — so I was in my home office, grading final exams so as to meet the 72 hour grade posting deadline at the University of Maryland.
My cell phone rang — an unrecognizable number on caller i.d. — I was deep into work and loathe to interrupt progress, but something told me to answer it anyway.
“Is this Judy Smith? I’m Jim Milligan in Florida. You wrote to me on Ancestry about my uncle, Emmett Wilson.”
Uncle. Emmett Wilson.
I remember my adrenaline shot up — Omg. Omg. Omg.
I shoved the gradebook out of the way, pulled the research notebook in front of me and started scribbling madly, to capture everything Emmett’s blood relative was saying.
First contact with an actual Wilson family member.
This was gold! This was better than gold!!!!
Jim said he was interested in my research, and was glad to help out in any way.
“I have a document to send you by email — a family genealogy. It’s rather large, though. It will take a little while to upload. ”
I told Jim that was fine — to go ahead — and while I was waiting for the file to appear on my end, he filled me in on Wilson family facts:
- Jim is the grandson of Walker Wilson, Emmett’s youngest brother. Jim never knew Emmett personally.
- Jim was not certain how Walker died exactly; family members would not talk about it, which always led him to believe something curious or unusual about Walker’s death.
- Drinking was reported to be a real problem in Emmett and Walker’s generation of the Wilson family.
And then, Jim said,
Emmett “was an alcoholic, you know. He drank himself to death.”
I felt an internal jolt — I stopped writing.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “The death certificate I received says kidney disease was the cause of death, but I’ve also learned that the symptoms of kidney disease looked an awful lot like end-stage alcoholism in those days.”
As Jim talked about the genealogy, something came over me — clarity, actually — as if a piece of this strange puzzle materialized before me.
I told Jim that if Emmett was an alcoholic, that shed a new light on the information from the Christ Church burial record. But still, what we have at present is anecdotal, and Emmett was an alcoholic, we needed a medical record.
Jim was positive the story was that Emmett drank. “And he might have been gay,” he added.
I doubted seriously I’d ever find a confirmation about Emmett and homosexuality — not that it mattered — but Jim’s comment gave me the idea that perhaps if Emmett was, indeed, alcoholic, there was an underlying ‘thing’ he was trying to escape, since drinking to excess is a means of escape….
As he and I continued to talk, Jim’s file appeared in my email. I asked if I could follow up with other questions later after reading the genealogy, and that I would send him clips he might want to add to his own research. He said that was fine, contact him anytime.
I settled down with the document; it took three days to read the entire thing.
Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues
Emmett’s funeral was, apparently, a big deal for Pensacola, particularly since folks were ‘surprised’ and ‘shocked’ that he was in failing health. But I wonder about that — I mean, his family and friends were able to put together a large funeral at a big church within 36 hours of Emmett’s death.
Or maybe it wasn’t as big as the local newspapers reported. “A large number of friends” doesn’t equate to hundreds of attendees. Maybe the reporter was being kind. I mean, I have perhaps a dozen people in my life I consider true friends, and to me, that’s a large number. You know what I mean?
Emmett was a member of Christ (Episcopal) Church in Pensacola — a gorgeous building, well preserved, with a professional, helpful staff. The church has a good database of parishoner’s records — membership, contributions, reception of sacraments — but no “attendance” records. It is hard to tell how devout an attendee Emmett was, but there are records showing he signed the occasional petition, wrote the occasional check; therefore, he was considered a member of the parish.
I contacted Kelly Heindl, the Christ Church parish secretary, and inquired about Emmett’s burial record. A few days, this arrived:
And I did a double-take when I saw what was listed:
But the death certificate said the cause of death was uremia.
At one point, I remember reading about where end-stage uremia patients often had similar behavior and symptoms of those in end-stage alcoholism — but they are two different illnesses.
And how did the Reverend Melville Johnson get the information that Emmett supposedly died of the D.T.s, when the death certificate said otherwise?
I would have to find an actual medical record that may not exist almost 100 years later.
It wouldn’t be easy, but the effort would pay off.