Confirmation

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The original Pensacola Hospital.

Piled high with boxes, the floor thick with dust and recently scraped paint chips, this room, like much of the building, is a work-in-progress. Aaron Ritz, one of the owners, has been hard at work all morning; he’s determined to bring his patient, Pensacola’s landmark 1915 Gothic Revival hospital built by the Daughters of Charity, back to life.

I’m here to find the room where my ancestor, Emmett Wilson, was a patient in 1918. I have Emmett’s admission records, but I dread finding his room, because it absolutely confirms my research.

Aaron bends over in paint-splattered coveralls to open a drawer in a low cabinet; he gingerly sifts the brittle original blueprints — water and rust have not damaged the clarity of the drawings. He pauses, peers closely at one page — “Here,” he says, with satisfaction. “There’s two patient rooms on the basement level, next to the electric therapy room.”  He notes that these patient rooms had a separate vestibule, which was unusual.

The vestibule in between the patient rooms in the alcoholic ward.

“It was for security purposes, as some patients would likely have been restrained,” I said.

After reviewing the blueprints, Aarons escorts me downstairs. The original terrazzo floors echo our footsteps as Aaron points out faded Tudor arches, and radiant tiger oak window frames. To lighten the mood, I ask if he thought the arches were to accommodate the Sister’s tall, winged cornettes, which were often as wide as the Sister’s shoulders.

As we reach the basement, Aaron points out the rooms from the blueprint. I thank him; he heads upstairs back to work, leaving me to explore.

The basement’s cool calmness quells my anxiety — it was probably a good place for patients like Emmett, who were desperately seeking peace and tranquility from their demons. It isn’t lost on me that patients in this ward — the alcoholic ward — were sequestered from the rest of the hospital on purpose. The quarantine is poignant: I know that Emmett’s final months were also spent in isolation, as his family and friends had given up on him, unable to convince Emmett to heal himself, to achieve sobriety.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway.

But Emmett knew he was dying of alcoholism almost a year to the date of his death. I saw it in the words of his last will and testament: A terse, pathetic document that dispensed with his worldly goods in less than two pages. He didn’t have much in his life; he didn’t have much at the end. Not even family, really. He was brought unconscious to Pensacola Hospital by strangers on May 25, 1918.

Hesitantly, apprehensively, I touch the door of what was Emmett’s room. I close my eyes, and try to image what he was feeling, or thinking.

When Emmett came to, God only knows what he thought, as he was in the throes of delirium tremens: Irrational, raving, and likely strapped down to his iron bed. He was probably shocked to see a dove-like cornette hovering over him, as the Sister-nurse ministered to him. 

Was it possible that in the throes of his delirium, Emmett, like King David, prayed for the wings of a dove, so that he could fly away and be at rest? Did he know that the end was near, and that the Sisters were there to ease his passing?

Perhaps, as he closed his eyes for the final time, Emmett realized his prayers were answered.

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I Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.