Chapter 45: On Frank Jr.

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October 21, 2014
McKeldin Library Research Carrel

University of Maryland Campus, College Park

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Sometimes when I hit a dead end in the Emmett Wilson research trek, I try a side-road, namely, I stop looking directly for Emmett and instead dig around for information about his siblings. I figure with nine brothers and sisters, the odds of my finding Wilson descendants were good.

And maybe, I’d find out more about Francis Childria Wilson, Jr.’s story.

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I’ve been intrigued by a comment I’d received during a phone conversation with Walker Wilson’s grandson, Jim Milligan, who had kindly sent me a copy of his family’s genealogy; namely, that alcohol was a ‘problem’ for many of the Wilson siblings.

Some of the extensive side research I’ve conducted while working on my own sobriety has shown me that alcoholic tendencies run in families. It is, statistically, more likely someone will be alcoholic if one or both parents are alcoholic. I don’t know if Emmett’s parents drank extensively; but booze was a familial presence, at least in the medicinal sense.

Source: The Washington Examiner, 1912.

I’ve mentioned the booze issue with older brother Max, and with Jim’s grandfather, Walker in previous posts. Cephas doesn’t seem to have had a problem; nor did Emmett’s twin, Julian. Still,  it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if Emmett’s other siblings had problems with alcohol. It is possible that Emmett’s older brother, Frank, was also an alcoholic.

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So, here’s what I know about Frank Jr.:

  • He was a lifelong railroader. Frank was one of the two older brothers who helped Emmett get a job with the railroad when Emmett was a teenager.
  • He loved fishing. As a kid, he would skip church to go fishing; in fact, he loved it so much that he eventually had a boat in Pensacola, and he would take his brothers out for a day of angling in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • He was a character. You might remember an earlier post where Frank actually asked his sister Katie to accompany him on his honeymoon — Katie wasn’t exactly sure if Frank was kidding. Perhaps, though it was because
  • He and Katie were always close. I have copies of several letters written by Frank to Katie (courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard), in which he you can tell he cherishes his sister.
  • Frank and Emmett were likely estranged at the time of Emmett’s death. 

There’s a clue that Frank Jr. might have had a problem with alcohol; namely this:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers.

Research on liver abscess indicates alcohol abuse is a factor. (There are several resources about it; I have several, but here are a few: here, and another is here.)  According to a timetable I built on Frank based on biographical information, he was ill frequently leading up to his collapse during Christmas, 1900. There are clues in the articles I gathered that indicate most of Frank’s illness issues were tied to alcohol.

Like Emmett, maybe Frank knew he had a problem, but didn’t know how to stop. The difference between Emmett and Frank is that Frank truly hit bottom, during Christmas, 1900. He almost died as a result of his illness — and whether or not Frank had as ‘bad’ an alcohol problem as Emmett, one thing we know for certain: Frank had to have been told that if he continued to drink after treatment, he’d kill himself.

And that seems to have been enough for Frank.

May McKinnon Wilson. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Another reason I don’t think Frank drank again after hitting bottom had to do with his very strong willed wife, May McKinnon Wilson. May (pronounced with a short ‘a’, according Douglas Gillis, a direct descendant of the McKinnon family), was someone who loved with all her heart, who knew her own mind, and had unshakable faith in that which she decided to believe in.

May McKinnon Wilson was nobody’s fool. And she knew what she was getting when she married Frank Jr.

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Frank and May were married October 24, 1901 in Marianna. They lived in several different places along the railroad line (Florala, Alabama; Pensacola) as Frank worked for the L&N all his life.

They had only one child, Mary Elizabeth Wilson.

Frank and May’s only child, Mary Elizabeth was five months old when she died on June 1, 1904. “A precious angel.”Source: Findagrave.com

Frank and May are buried in Marianna — and so, I reached out to my most awesome source for anything related to Jackson County, Florida history — the most awesome Sue Tindel, former court clerk of Jackson County, Florida and local historian. She put me in touch with one of her great-grand nephews, Douglas Gillis. He was kind enough to share a few anecdotes.

Here’s one Aunt May story:

I once asked Douglas if he knew if Aunt May was a strong temperance supporter; he said he didn’t, but he recalled “…Aunt May, my grandmother (a Jehovah’s witness) and Auntie [another relative] would only have a touch of wine around the holiday’s family gatherings (for medicinal purposes). So it could very well be [that Aunt May was a temperance supporter.].”

In some of the correspondence I’ve read from Frank to his sister, Katie Wilson Meade (generously shared with me by Elizabeth Meade Howard, Katie’s granddaughter), you can tell that Frank loved his family. He remembered birthdays. He caught up with his brothers and sisters with regular letters, mostly filled with humorous anecdotes. He sent amusing gifts to his siblings now and then ‘just because’. He loved his job working as a conductor for the railroad, and stayed until he absolutely had to retire. He loved to take family and friends to go fishing in his beloved boat, the “May.”

Frank took his brother-in-law fishing, along with a friend. From The Pensacola Journal, August 6, 1912. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

I often wonder what Emmett thought about Frank; a fun-loving, family-loving big-brother who appeared to live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what he had.

Despite his fun-loving nature, Frank had his share of hardships, but appears to have been the one to model how important it was to see things through to the end, without the distraction of booze. What’s more, Emmett had to have witnessed that the choice to drink or not drink, to live or die, was in Frank’s hands, and that Frank made the choice to live without a filter of liquor to ease life’s difficulties.

I sometimes wonder, having witnessed how close Frank came to dying at his own hands, why that didn’t stay with Emmett over the years, as he was faced with the choice to drink or die in 1914.

And I supposed that may have had something to do with Frank’s estrangement from Emmett in May, 1918.

 

Chapter 11: First Contact

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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:

Emmett’s siblings, Walker Wilson and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

  • 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.

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Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues

 

 

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.

that which is most familiar

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“We seek out what is familiar and comfortable emotionally, even though what is familiar and comfortable may not be healthy.” — Carolyn Hax, The Washington Post, June 2018

Everyone does this, alcoholic or not.

“Fixing” Emmett’s unhealthy drinking habit would have been possible if he’d had help with a competent therapist, and, if he’d been willing to hear the truth about his disease (and not just what he’d want to hear about it). Physicians and therapists back in Emmett’s day (psychiatrists were called ‘alienists’, which probably didn’t help further the notion that talking to a therapist was socially acceptable — it’s still an uncomfortable notion even in the enlightened 21st century) understood alcoholism about as much as modern physicians and therapists do.

Alcoholics in Emmett’s day were considered outcasts, both mentally and morally deficit. The idea that alcoholism was a disease, like diabetes, was new in the early 20th century. Source: Psychology Today

True, we have more pharmaceuticals available today to address the symptoms, but no one knows the cure to alcohol addiction, other than complete abstinence.

Two questions that keep coming back about Emmett, five years into the research: Did he realize he had a drinking problem? and, Did Emmett want to stop drinking?

Re the first question: He definitely realized there was a problem as of December, 1914. But it wasn’t rheumatism, as his PR posse informed the press:

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

Re the second question: Emmett might have liked drinking, liked the taste of alcohol. Perhaps he didn’t want to stop drinking, but I’m sure he wanted to stop being an alcoholic. Nobody wants to be an ‘alcoholic’.

The only way I’d really know is to ask Emmett directly, which, of course, can’t happen. There’s his elusive scrapbooks or journals to consult (if I ever find them), but still, even with that information, I’d probably not understand Emmett completely.

One important thing I have is a copy of Emmett’s will, in his own words, complete with typos and edits. From that, we can tell that above all else, Emmett had integrity, was trying to do the next right thing, and, that Emmett knew he was a hopeless case — well, maybe not hopeless. But by June 1917, I’m sure Emmett knew he didn’t have long.

Emmett’s will, as it appears in the Florida probate documents. Filed June 1, 1918 by his brother, Cephas Love Wilson, executor. He left the bulk of his estate to Jennie Jenkins Kehoe, who was, essentially, a surrogate mother to Emmett. Source: Ancestry.com

“We seek out what is familiar and comfortable emotionally, even though what is familiar and comfortable may not be healthy.”

To Emmett: Booze was comfortable, living with the Kehoes (instead of his own family) was comfortable, being a loner was comfortable, being a workaholic was comfortable, remaining unattached was comfortable. With most people, none of these ‘comforts’ would be considered negatives unless taken to excess, and with Emmett, all of these were taken to excess, particularly the alcohol.

I wish I knew what it was Emmett was trying to soothe with these different kinds of comforts.

On to the Second Draft

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The review of the first draft is finished.

Complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

It’s a five-chapter mess, not counting the bibliography and notes section.

It is a relief to have gotten through a complete first draft. But, no lie, the real work begins with the second draft.

The good news is that I have enough information, but about a third of it needs to be put somewhere else and massaged into shape.

The bad news is that this is the first rough draft, and frankly, it looks like it.

And sometimes, the problem with the text simply comes down a need for clarification.

I’m not sure when I’ll have a final draft in hand. I wish I knew, but for now, I’m good with not knowing. As my friend Nancy used to tell me, the book is meant to be; it is a matter of time. It will come together when it is the time is right.

I tell my students that writing is both a journey and a process:

  • Much of what and how you write is about self-discovery, and finding out where you need to change. I noticed in the review of the draft that I am uncomfortable talking about Emmett’s alcoholic behavior. The writing feels stiff and awkward; as if I’m trying to save face for him — when the reality is that writing about the discomfort, shame, and embarrassment of his drinking misbehavior closely resembles my drinking behavior. Even though I’m almost 10 years sober, I’m troubled thinking about my past; I know that if I don’t address this, it could lead to trouble.

In AA literature, the third Promise tell us that, as we become sober people, ‘we will not regret the past, nor will we wish to shut the door on it.’  Becoming truly, completely sober doesn’t happen overnight; it requires living the principles of the program every day, and being mindful of them. Emmett’s story has helped me discover my need for a close relationship with my program, and that I can’t ‘wing it,’ as Emmett tried to do (and failed).

  • Your first draft will not be perfect; neither will the second, and maybe not the third. My experience has almost always been that the first draft is the worst, especially if the particular writing project is new. For example: In my writing classes, the first papers almost always reflect the lowest grades of the semester. It isn’t that the assignment is particularly hard; mostly, the issue is that students do not proofread final copy before submitting it for a grade. But almost always, when students do second, even third, drafts, the writing is dramatically improved.

The other issue with drafts is time: Writing can be tedious if you dislike the topic, procrastinate, or simply don’t have enough information/research. With Emmett’s book, I worried constantly over the past four years whether I had enough information to tell the story adequately. There are still information holes but there is enough to do a decent biography for Emmett.

[I am also hopeful that perhaps one day, someone may read this blog (or read the book!) and realize they have one of Emmett’s scrapbooks in an attic somewhere.]

More later!

Journaling & Self-Editing Finds

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I’ve been posting less on Emmett’s blog this month because I’m working on Emmett Wilson-related articles to submit to two publications:

lpr

I met the representatives of the Little Patuxent Review literary journal when I was at the AWP Conference two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, they told me to submit my article.  The deadline is in two days, and my piece is in rough condition. No pressure. 😐

durmar6I also met a few representatives showcasing a new literary journal, The Ponder Review. I spoke with them about my Emmett Wilson project, and was also encouraged to submit my article; I have a little more wiggle room with their deadline, which is March 6.

And, in the midst of preparing journal submissions I am halfway finished with the first read-through of Emmett’s 450-page manuscript. So far, the quality is mixed — the first chapter is in fairly good shape. But the second chapter is awful.

Frankly, I’m not surprised at the poor condition of the second chapter, because when I look back at my notes on this section, I saw that I was complaining to myself and to Nancy mightily about how hard it was to write. In my notes, I said that I couldn’t figure it out why this was so hard, because ironically, it is one of the periods of Emmett’s life where there are relatively few information holes.

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Source: Wikipedia

But now, after eight months since I drafted the chapter — what immediately jumps out is Emmett’s Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior, and I can see that I was trying to present Emmett’s behavior consistently, when in fact, there was nothing consistent in his behavior at all. He was up and down because this is when Emmett’s drinking habits became entrenched. He’s only 22 years old in the second chapter, but there’s already evidence of blackout drinking.

The inconsistencies are quite telling, and an important aspect of Emmett that needs to stay in this story.

I’m kind-of surprised I didn’t notice this pattern eight months ago, when I was in the midst of writing the chapter, but then, I had a similar situation back in my dissertation days. My dean recommended that I step away from the research for about month — do something different — then come back with fresh eyes, because it would make all the difference.

Such good advice then, and now.

I should clarify that when I say ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ I don’t want to imply that Emmett was evil; but when Emmett became intoxicated, he became a different person. Perhaps he did seem as if he was possessed by an evil spirit once he had had too much; it is clear that Emmett Wilson was a completely different person when he was sober.

 

 

I’ve made the notes and crafted a more cohesive structure for the second chapter, which I’ll rewrite after I’ve gone completely through the manuscript.

 

Dissecting the Message, Part II

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Picking up where we left off in our last post:

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Cephas’ letter to Emmett Meade (Cephas’ brother-in-law) also mentioned a woman named ‘Jeanet.’ She was not married to Jhon Burton; she never married, in fact.

Jeanet Love McKinnon (1880-1940) was a member of the Wilson family by marriage; she was the sister of Mary Catherine (“May”) McKinnon Wilson, the wife of Francis Childria Wilson, Jr., of Pensacola, Florida. According to the U.S. Census:

  • In 1910, she was a stenographer in a law office — possibly her father Daniel Love McKinnon’s law office.
  • In 1920, she was a stenographer in an ‘office’ — unspecified.
  • In 1930, she was a cashier in a Marianna insurance office.
jeanet-visit_1914

Source: The Pensacola Journal, March 1914.

Jeanet went back and forth between Marianna and Pensacola regularly to visit her sister May; there’s several articles in The Pensacola Journal from 1900 through 1922 (the last year in the ChroniclingAmerica.gov database) that mention Jeanet’s comings and goings.

She died at age 60, on October 1, 1940 in Dothan, Alabama. The death report lists Jeanet’s residence as Marianna at the time of her death, and that she was stenographer.  I have not been able to locate her in the U.S. Census for 1940 to confirm, which is a little unusual given the lateness in the year of her death (most census data gathering took place in the first quarter of the year).

It is likely Jeanet was living with siblings in Marianna, and was perhaps visiting friends or other family members in Dothan when she died.


“…to prove how unaccustomed I am to such stuff…”

This is an interesting comment.

Cephas was not an alcoholic, although there were several active alcoholic family members, some of whom lived with Cephas and his family periodically. Cephas kept alcohol in his home (he entertained important people regularly at dinner, for instance, and was known to serve wine at least). Champagne was a special drink for special occasions.

I know from other sources that Cephas was not considered an alcoholic; the point he made in the letter that he kept the bottle for several weeks — just in case — is not something an alcoholic would do.

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Lula Wiselogel Wilson. Source: FloridaMemory.com

Also interesting is how unaccustomed he is to opening the bottle — I can see him struggling to extricate the cork, and as the cork shoots out with a loud POP, the foam of the wine erupts out of the bottle, onto the carpet and onto Dood’s expensive dress —

“Dood.”

That’s the family name for Lula Wiselogel Wilson. Cephas knew Lula from the time he moved to Chipley when he was 17 years old, newly repatriated after living in British Honduras with his family since the early 1870s. Lula’s family was wealthy, prominent, important, Republican. Cephas’ family was just starting over. Lula was smart, attractive. So was Cephas. The younger children in the Wilson household probably couldn’t say “Lula”, so they called her “Dood” and the name stuck.


I’ll finish with the rest of this section in the next post. Stay tuned!