Chapter 21: Katie’s Memories of British Honduras

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We continue with the second page of Katie’s narrative of her family’s years in British Honduras. There’s a lot of good information on this page, specifically related to the Wilsons  settlement in Punta Gorda.

The second page from Katie’s narrative. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard; used with permission.

This place was situated on a creek named after some Englishman — Joe Taylor! There was a great building called the “Mill House”  and I can remember dozens of big barrels of brown sugar standing under that shed. They were there waiting to be hauled to Belize and shipped to the U.S.A.

An early recollection is of the sugar cane being cut down with machetes (a sword-like knife that every man carried all the time on account of wild animals). The cane was rolled in to bundles and carried by the native workmen to the “Mill-house” to be ground. These Caribs were a mixture of American, and Spanish and spoke a sort of “pidgeon” (stet) Spanish.

Their women-folk were the house servants. One of them dropped me from her arms down a flight of steps and broke my collar-bone.

The Caribs fed the sugar-cane in between large metal rollers which squeezed out the juice, and was kept rolling by being hitched to a pair of oxen that walked round and round all day long. This juice ran down into a metal basin and was boiled until it thickened into syrup, then it was run through an evaporator– starting as syrup and coming out as brown sugar.

With the aid of Julious (stet) Payne, an Englishman from the old country, and two brothers, Beers, from Montreal, Canada, our parents started a little Episcopal Church on the edge of the Plantation. Mr. Payne, who was my Godfather, was also the lay leader, Organist, and general handy-man around the Church. A very fine fellow and friend of all the “Big” boys. He later married the lady who was my Godmother, a native of British Honduras.

We were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy, but sometimes slipped a bit, as the following incident will show.

My brother, Frank, loved to fish. So one Sunday he persuaded Percy, the angelic one, to go fishing with him. They went down to the creek and had marvelous luck! When time came to go home they were afraid to take the fish home, it being Sunday. Old Frank was not going to throw back his good fish, so he strung them on a line which he tied to a tree and let them float in the stream.

Monday morning came and the boys asked permission to go fishing. They went but did not stay nearly long enough. Father knew they had not stayed long enough to have caught that many fish, so he accused Frank of catching the Sunday, which Frank stoutly denied!

Stay tuned for the continuing saga of Frank, Percy, and the Illegal Fishing Expedition, which continues tomorrow!

 

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

 

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Chapter 20: Katie’s Story About British Honduras

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Katie Wilson Meade, June 23, 1936, Bluemont, Virginia.

Although Emmett mentioned in an interview that he was too young to have any real memories about what his life was like when he lived in British Honduras (he was two years old when his family emigrated back to the United States), his sister, Katie Wilson Meade, wrote a narrative about her memories living in British Honduras, and I have copies of the pages, thanks to Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard.

For the next several posts, I’ll let Katie tell the story. (Please note that the information in the text following is a verbatim personal narrative of Katie Wilson Meade, and is not reflective of the views of this blog’s author.)

 

Page one of Katie Wilson Meade’s story of her childhood in Belize, British Honduras. Published with permission of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

In 1878, I was born in a thatched house (thatched with palm leaves and other leaves I can’t recall) on a sugar plantation in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras, Central America.

The plantation was named “Big Hill.” My parents were Doctor Francis Childria Wilson and Elizabeth Virginia Maxwell. Father was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, and removed at an early age, to Mt. Hebron, Alabama. His parents acquired a cotton plantation on which prospered so well they finally had 3000 acres. His father had a good many slaves at the time of the War Between the States, and at that time he gave my father a negro boy named Jim. Jim went through the whole war with his young master and many times managed to get food for them both when they were in sore need. Much later in life I was privileged to visit this old plantation and actually saw five of the old slaves. One white-haired old fellow swept off his had and bowed nearly to the ground, calling me “little Missy.” It was quite an experience for me.

Augustus Emmett Maxwell, Emmett’s grandfather.

Mother was born in “Oakfield,” her father’s country home outside Pensacola, Florida. Her father was a lawyer and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Florida. This man rode on horse-back from his home in Florida to the University of Virginia. While there, he married a girl named Sarah Roane Brockenbrough, daughter of a Proctor of the University. Judge Maxwell was in U.S. Congress before the War, and later resigned to become Senator in the Confederate Congress. He held 16 different public offices in his state.

Now to Honduras — My father practiced Medicine after the War in Mississippi until a group of sons of some cotton planters decided to go to Central America and he joined them. They sailed to Balize (now spelled Belize) and from there looked over the plantations. Father bought one near Punta Gorda. He had an overseer who ran the place while he practiced medicine. They raised sugar cane and made brown sugar which was shipped in big barrels to the United States to be refined.

A little bit of conflicting information from the last two posts about Dr. Wilson and property ownership, isn’t it? Even though we have a sworn statement from Katie’s brother, Francis Jr., that Dr. Wilson never relinquished his American citizenship, the fact Katie claims he owned British property when one had to be a British citizen makes me wonder….

Of course, Katie wrote this reflection at least 30 years after the event, so she may not have had all the facts straight. Still, her personal recollection is the only one I have (so far) unless another one turns up.

Stay tuned for the second page.

 

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

 

 

Chapter 19: Dual Citizen or Crown Subject?

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This week, I’ve been kicking around the idea that Emmett may or may not have been an American citizen. In our last post, we learned this was one of his hot buttons.

And, we learned that his father, Dr. Francis Childria Wilson, decided to leave the United States to start over, because the life he and his parents, and some of his siblings wanted didn’t exist anymore. Why not just create the life you want where you can have it?

You see, when Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, moved family, kit, and kaboodle 900 miles from the Port of New Orleans to the jungle wilderness  of British Honduras, he went in halfsies on a sugar plantation. The Brits needed people expert in raising sugar to settle their wild country and to develop an export crop; the expat Confederates, who basically felt they were without a country needed to find a place where they could start over without the tyranny of carpetbaggers and the Republican party lording it over them. British Honduras offered everyone a win-win situation.

Thing is, back in the day, one couldn’t just buy a piece of the Crown’s land and settle down on it as you pleased. Nope. Those who purchased the land from the British government had to swear a loyalty oath to Queen Victoria — in effect, becoming British citizens.

Sooooo… What did Dr. Wilson do? Did he actually take that oath so that he and his colleagues began to build new homes and a sugar business? If so, it happened several years before Emmett was born — which means Emmett may have actually been a British subject when he was born in 1882.

Which means Emmett wasn’t qualified to run for political office in 1913.

You could, of course, hold dual citizenship. Some American citizens assigned to foreign embassies, for example, would have children born in other countries. Those children could be considered dual citizens of that country. If Emmett’s father did not take a loyalty oath, then his American citizenship would still be intact.

But:

  • We are talking about someone who was part of a group who wanted to leave the United States soon after the end of the Civil War, because they found the political and social living conditions intolerable. It seems as if Dr. Wilson may have held his American citizenship lightly.
  • We are talking about a group of people (of which Dr. Wilson belonged) who packed up family and belongings and risked sailing almost 900 miles over rough waters and through dangerous conditions — pirates were in the Gulf of Mexico at the time — to start a new life.
  • We are talking about an official partner in a potential lucrative business — Emmett Wilson said so himself in that interview — where ownership of that property required a loyalty oath to another country.

A few questions about the whole enterprise:

Did partial ownership of the property require ALL holders to swear loyalty to the crown, though, or was this more of an under-the-table kind of deal, where someone else was actually the owner, and Dr. Wilson was quietly financing part of the sugar plantation, an ‘angel’ of sorts?

Emmett, of course, always referred to the family’s time in British Honduras as a ‘temporary’ residency, but did the word temporary mean something different back then than today? It just seems rather odd to me that one would risk one’s family’s life and well being for a ‘temporary’ thing, like moving away for several years, to a foreign country. This was also an expensive undertaking for a family that had lost everything after the Civil War.

I believe the question of property ownership may have been more angelic, based on a document I found in 2015:

 

affidavit of citizenship

Source of document: Elizabeth Meade Howard

The date on this affidavit is March 27, 1943. This document was created for Elizabeth Meade Howard’s grandmother Katie Wilson Meade (Emmett’s sister). Katie Meade didn’t have an official birth certificate, and needed one for identification purposes. Katie would use this to obtain a delayed birth certificate.

Her brother, Frank (Francis Jr.) was who she selected to provide the relevant information. He says that his father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, did not relinquish his American citizenship; ergo, our Emmett is a legit all-American boy.

I’ll accept this sworn statement as proof of Emmett’s story as truth — unless something else comes up!

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18: Denies He’s a Foreigner

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I have interesting information — some in the form of primary sources! — about the Wilson family’s tenure in British Honduras.

I’ve annotated the page so you can see where the information on Emmett is located. Source: Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, Sunday June 1, 1913.

I’d like to start with this article, an interview with Emmett during his first term as a U.S. Congressman, because it is presented as his words.

Here’s what he said:

The interview with Emmett, as he explains his birth in British Honduras.

This is the last part of the interview.

Emmett explains some things, but there are still questions unanswered.  For example:

  • Why did his parents go there in the first place? What was the reason, given their roots were in Alabama and Florida, and their large families were very much alive?
  • And if this really was a short-term, temporary stay, why get so damn testy whenever he was asked about it?

There was a lot more to this story than the impression Emmett gave that his parents were on a temporary break. Since I couldn’t ask him directly, I picked the major fact from his interview apart and did some research on it.

Here’s what I discovered:

“For a period of about six years, my father owned a half-interest….” Emmett was born in British Honduras in 1882; his sister Katie was born in British Honduras in August 1878. Working backwards, the two chronological Wilson siblings older than Katie were

1) Eudora Neely Wilson, born in 1876, in Holly Springs, Mississippi and

2) Everard Meade Wilson, born in 1873 in Holly Springs.

In 1884, the Wilsons immigrated back to the U.S., through New Orleans. The youngest son, Walker, was born in Chipley that same year.

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

If we do the math, with Katie born August 1878, then we know the Wilsons were probably in British Honduras at least from 1878 on — and 1878 to 1884 is seven years. It is possible that Dr. Wilson was already in British Honduras with his family starting in 1878, then decided to invest in the sugar plantation while he was there. But Dr. Wilson was methodical — I believe he probably had this plan in mind BEFORE he relocated his large and growing family to a foreign country which, I estimate, was early as 1875.

He’d need resources to do this, because life as a former Confederate during Reconstruction days was difficult, as well as expensive, and I posit that Dr. Wilson’s trips to Central America were rare, given what I know about the Wilson family during their Holly Springs, Mississippi days.

The Central America Wilsons

You can read the entire original posts about the Wilson’s first years of marriage during Reconstruction here and here; but here’s what I found out about the Wilson’s. It tells a completely different, and disappointing, story than what Emmett reported about the family’s situation behind the move to Central America:

[From 1870 to about 1875] Emmett’s parents were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with six young children, renting a house next to Elizabeth’s sister, Lucy Maxwell Meade and her husband, Everard. The Wilsons has been married almost 10 years, with not much to show in terms of money and professional opportunities. Emmett’s father, Dr. Frank Wilson, was a dedicated and well respected country doctor, having a difficult time making ends meet during in Reconstruction-era Mississippi.

Meanwhile, things were not going well for Dr. Wilson’s parents [in Alabama], Cephas and Emily Wilson and Dr. Wilson’s siblings, who were struggling to keep the homestead (property taxes were high; the Cephas Wilsons has lost almost everything at the end of the Civil War). Survival was becoming an exercise in futility, as money was running out, time was running out. The Cephas Wilson family had few options, and did not relish the idea of becoming homeless.

Confederate expats settled in British Honduras with the idea that they would recreate another plantation world. Very few were successful; Emmett’s family tried to get a sugar plantation going, but it failed miserably. Source: Amazon.com

Cephas and his sons had come across a pamphlet, Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868 (copies are still available today, via Amazon.com), which described a group of ex-Confederates from Mississippi and other Southern states who had fled Reconstruction to settle in British Honduras (now Belize), and recreate a plantation life. The British government wanted settlers who knew how to grow sugar and cotton, and were willing to relocate, establish the crops, and make a good living. Several members of the Alabama Wilson family thought this was a good option, took what remained of their savings, and, in 1869, emigrated to Punta Gorda, British Honduras.

Apparently, Dr. Wilson felt the money and opportunity to live among family members, and away from the struggles of Reconstruction far outweighed the struggles the family would face relocating to a jungle with no infrastructure and minimum civilization. Things were that bad for the Wilsons, apparently.

This was not just a situation of being disenchanted over minor things

It was so bad that before the Alabama Wilsons left the U.S., around 1875, there is a codicil in Cephas Wilson Sr.’s will noting that his son, Dr. Wilson asked for and received $1000 against his inheritance to make the move. ($1000 in 1875 is about $19,750 in 2019 dollars.)

Emmett’s parents must have believed that the economic and political situation in the South was not going to improve, and their best bet was to start over somewhere else, even if that was in a jungle. At least other family members would be there with them.

Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth moved to Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras in 1875.

 

The Wilsons lived in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras (now Belize). They emigrated from the Port of New Orleans to Belize City; then traveled by ox cart down to Punta Gorda. There were few roads; this was not an easy move for this family. Source: http://www.scf.usc.edu

Oh — and by the way — while Emmett’s parents were setting up house in British Honduras, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and several other expats (who were relatives of both the Maxwells and the Wilsons that relocated) helped establish an Episcopal parish in that community — a parish that still exists today.

I ask you: If you knew that you are visiting a country for a temporary stay, would you establish a parish?

OK, we can argue that some people might do it (for example, my mother-in-law is an Episcopal priest, so she might think about it) — but to me, to do it just as a visitor strikes me as arrogant and assuming. Yes, build a house for yourself, or a clinic, for your community. But a parish? That strikes me as long-term.

I believe the real reason WHY Dr. Wilson moved his family to British Honduras is that Emmett’s family was trying to recreate the life they had during the confederacy.

THIS was more likely why his parents and other relatives emigrated to British Honduras.

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As I write this, it is important to remember that I’m not judging them; just stating the facts that the Wilsons were a product of Confederate society, that was the way they lived, that was what they knew (for better or worse) at the core of their beliefs and traditions, that was the life they wanted. The Wilsons were not ‘bad’; they believed in different things than what I believe.

These were the values modeled for Emmett and his siblings, and shaped who they were; who Emmett was — and — although this is Emmett’s story, we need to know something about his parents, too.

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Back to the original point of this post: Was Emmett, then, a foreigner?

Answer: Maybe.

I’m not trying to tease you, but because this chapter is so long,  I’ll answer this one in the next post. Thanks for hanging with me on this long story.

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Clues in the Obituary

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A reporter once wrote that if you really wanted to piss off Emmett Wilson, ask him about his nativity.

That is, if he was a REAL American citizen given he was born in British Honduras during his parent’s ‘temporary sojourn’ there.

“…woe betide the man….” Makes me wonder if anyone else thought Emmett’s short fuse about a fact he couldn’t change was him fearful of a damaging truth? Source: Chronicling America.gov

Emmett’s obituary in the May 29, 1918 issue of The Pensacola Journal, has subtle clues. I admit that when I first saw the obituary five years ago, the obvious British Honduras birth jumped out at me. We’ll get to that in depth; but first, we need to dissect a few things about this obituary.

 

Here’s a close-up of the page itself; you’ll remember this from a post a few days ago:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one.

(I took apart the obituary last summer and wrote about it here; some of the information bears repeating in this post, because it sets the stage for our next chapter.)

Here’s the original information, plus new information I discovered since this article was posted:

Emmett’s death notice was unexpected and essentially thrown together at the last possible minute as The Pensacola Journal‘s first (and only edition) of morning newspaper was going to press. It appears that the editors, in remaking the front page at deadline, might have cut down or removed another article that was less locally newsworthy.

  • “Following a very short illness….” Those who were closest to Emmett knew what actually killed him had been killing him for years (Emmett’s “poor health” had been reported in West Florida papers at least since 1913 when he took office. A joke was once made about Emmett in the July 14, 1913 issue of The Miami News about how he, once again, “had taken to his bed”. Subtle, but Emmett’s problem was visible.) In fact, Emmett’s ‘poor health’ was one of the reasons reported in earlier versions of The Pensacola Journal and other Florida papers why “he decided” not to run for a third term.
  • “…died at 12:25 o’clock this morning…” Emmett’s death took place right after midnight as the morning paper was going to press. Laying out a newspaper page in 1918 was by hand, and stressful on a deadline. The position of the death notice in the paper is interesting: Right above the fold, but not with a prominent headline. The story was important, as Emmett was a recent U.S. Congressman, and his sudden death definitely newsworthy.
  • …aged 36 years.” Emmett was actually 35; a few months short of his birthday.
  • “Of course no funeral arrangements had been perfected….”  It is likely only a select few knew Emmett was in the hospital. Although Emmett’s health had been deteriorating for years, he’d experienced several blackouts and unconscious scenarios (for lack of a better description), no one probably figured this was Emmett’s last blackout.  There is an article in The Pensacola Journal from 1914 when Emmett was hospitalized in Washington, D.C. in which his brother Francis told the press that it wasn’t a serious problem, and that Emmett’s illness was not of major concern. (I’m paraphrasing.) The family probably had a long history of covering for Emmett because he did, indeed, get over it often.
  • “It is probable remains will be held pending….” The late night copy editor was scrambling to fill available text space. It is curious where the information about Emmett’s death came from; i.e., did the desk editor do a last minute call to the police station and hospitals for late breaking news, or did someone from the hospital call the newspaper to let them know Emmett had died? I lean towards the former, just from experience — funeral homes, hospitals, police stations have their own work to do, not pass on hot news tips — and long ago when I was a cub reporter, my job was to call these places at the last minute before press for just such information.
  • “Deceased from (sic) born….” The typo is another clue the copy editor was scrambling. But the bigger clues that this caught everyone off guard is that the second paragraph was taken from Emmett’s official U.S. Congressional Directory biography in 1913, and not more recent sources, because the death notice doesn’t include any information about his second term, or anything notable he did in office.
  • Emmett’s photo is from his 1912 congressional primary campaign. There had been several high-quality photos of Emmett taken while in Congress and certainly provided to the media free of charge. It’s curious why a more recent photograph was not used — unless it was just what was on hand, so as to put the May 29, 1918 edition to bed.

Having broken down the obituary, our next chapter will look at the British Honduras fact — how the heck did his parents get to Central America in the 1880s? Why wasn’t Emmett born in the United States? Who were Emmett’s parents, anyway? And why would Emmett get so pissed off at people asking about his personal history?

Stay tuned.

Chapter 16: The end and the beginning

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I have to forget the sanitized, clinical image in my mind about Emmett spending his last days in a hospital bed. You should, too.

His last days weren’t tragically romantic. It wasn’t pretty, despite the fact Emmett was tended to in Pensacola Hospital, by the Sisters of Charity, nun-nurses hovering nearby in their stiff white coronets and black habits; angelic figures giving consolation to patients writhing, dying, in their hellish final days.

Emmett probably thought he was already in Hell, though, that last week of his life.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway. Taken at historic Pensacola Hospital a few years ago.

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End-stage alcoholism is nothing like what is portrayed in movies.

Attend a meeting in a psych ward sometime; you’ll see what it is like to really wrestle a demon that has hold of you by chemistry, the pitiful shaking, screaming, vomiting all at once by friends, loved ones, or strangers.

It’s not something you can just ‘get over’ or let go of; the disease absolutely has you, until YOU let go, absolutely.

It is too much for those who don’t know the person behind the alcohol; it is too much for those who do.

My friend Donna the Nephrologist once told me that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the human body tries to correct itself internally right away, to expel the ‘poison’ from the system, but the patient has become so used to living with booze in the system, that the damaged body cannot handle the transition, and so the patient often endures terrible delirum tremens — the last stage of alcohol withdrawal, with a mortality rate up to 37 percent if untreated.

Note that modern treatment of delirium tremens has a lower mortality rate; this table assumes the patient has access to medical help. Still, even with medical help, a 5% mortality rate is reported from DTs. Source: http://www.grepmed.com

That’s a 2018 statistic, by the way.  Mortality from delirium tremens was probably higher in Emmett’s day.

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I didn’t want to make Emmett’s biography about him as an alcoholic, but the disease was the launching point into his life story.

We know that alcoholism is a family disease   but it also affects those in the alcoholic’s immediate circle — friends, coworkers, neighbors, and so forth. We don’t really think about how others (not just immediate family) have to adjust their lives, work around, enable, or whatever to ‘deal’ with an alcoholic’s illness.

Emmett’s friends and colleagues likely did that with him too. In fact, I’m sure they did. And, I know they went to great lengths to keep it out of the public eye.

And, there is the issue of alcoholism heredity. Several peer reviewed articles indicate that genes are responsible for about 50 percent of alcoholism in a family (I have many other resources; here’s one; here’s another); but addiction is a complicated science. Not everyone inherits the predisposition (Emmett had nine siblings), and some members of a family can be more susceptible.

This would set the framework for Emmett’s research:

  1.  Where and when the drinking problem started with Emmett?
  2.  Was Emmett’s family also alcoholic?
  3.  What is Emmett’s family story anyway?

The best place to begin was with Emmett’s obituary.

Next: Dissecting the obit.

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!