Chapter 1: Dissection Homework From the WFGS


Before I contacted the Pensacola Historical Society to find out more about Emmett Wilson, I made copious pots of coffee and immediately dissected the three articles sent to me from Peg Vignolo of the West Florida Genealogical Society.

Newspaper articles are rich with information — it’s not only the details IN the piece itself, but it’s the context to pay attention to when you read the articles: that is, what is said (subtly), what is not said (subtly), how the article is positioned in the paper, the language used about deceased, and so forth.

First, the obituary:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one. Courtesy of the West Florida Genealogical Society.

Note the cause of death. Nothing in the obituary text gave a clue to his death — the writing didn’t focus on the cause of death, but seemed (to me) to deflect. A ‘very short’ illness could be anything: Appendicitis, for example. On the surface, ‘very short illness’ sounded innocent enough, so why not give the reader that detail? 

[Aside: I wouldn’t realize until several months later, after I’d collected more information on Emmett and talked to Wilson family descendants that the photo in the obituary was almost 10 years old — it was the one he’d scraped money together to have taken professionally when he first ran for office in 1912.  The newspaper morgue at The Pensacola Journal would certainly have had one of the professional shots taken by Harris & Ewing when Emmett was U.S. Congressman.]

Note the time of death. Emmett died right after midnight, meaning the editor and the layout team likely had to stop the press, strip the first page of the newspaper and create a new layout at the last minute to make the first edition.

Note these nitpicky details. The article announcing Emmett’s death was placed just slightly over the fold, indicating this was a prominent person, even though Emmett’s congressional career was not distinguished. Anyone of less importance would have had a death announcement on another page, or the editor may have held the news for the next day.  Also: Whoever wrote the bare bones obituary had only the basic details about Emmett’s death at Pensacola Hospital. He or she wasn’t able to confirm anything else about Emmett or funeral plans in the middle of the night, and the details about Emmett’s life came directly from his congressional biography — obviously, the writer didn’t contact or interview local family members or friends to round out this last minute addition to the paper.

Finally, note the typos, which indicate that this death notice was very last minute. The other articles around Emmett’s death notice appear well edited. This is what reinforces my belief the editor stopped the presses for the May 29, 1918 paper for this last minute addition.


Second, the funeral notice:

From the May 30, 1918 issue of The Pensacola Journal, page two. I think it is interesting to see the placement of Emmett’s funeral story the following day; I also wonder why (if he was so important to have three articles about his death in the paper) this item is moved off the front page.

Here is a close-up:


There was a lot of good background information to unpack (which I did in earlier posts, here and here).

As I reflected on this article, what stood out to me was mention of the surprise and shock of Emmett’s sudden death, and that few knew he was ill. But, at the same time, why no mention of the illness that brought about the surprise demise?

Since Emmett’s death was a surprise, that WAS news — so why not tell the reader the reason BEHIND Emmett’s death –unless the reason was embarrassing to the family and friends who knew him best?

Also, wasn’t it ironic that he was ‘popular’ and yet no one knew he was sick? I have several articles from The Pensacola Journal  during this time period of ‘popular’ friends of Emmett who were reported home sick or in the hospital. (I checked the West Florida newspapers for several weeks leading up to the day of Emmett’s death, and there is no mention of him being ill or hospitalized.) Previously, when Emmett was ill, it was mentioned in the paper, by the way. One example is provided below.  (He’d supposedly had rheumatism at one point — which was often the euphemism for something else.)

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

Another interesting item: Emmett was buried from the home of what appeared to be (at the time) a political frenemy — J. Walter Kehoe, and not from Emmett’s own home, or his brother Frank’s home in Pensacola.

As I was collecting any and all information about Emmett and his pals in those early days into Emmett’s research, I’d discovered that Kehoe had long coveted the office of U.S. Congressman. In fact, it was reported from Kehoe’s speeches and other news coverage that he considered the office his dream job. (The Florida Democratic party leadership didn’t agree; they liked him fine, but they always considered Kehoe as the runner-up to someone else whenever it came time to select the candidate for the office.) Emmett and Kehoe had an unusual relationship, and this was going to definitely be an interesting part of Emmett’s story to unwind.


Third, the post-funeral article:

The Pensacola Journal, May 31, 1918.

This was the post I wrote about this item a while back; also, this post included details pertaining to Emmett’s funeral, including the info featuring Emmett’s mortician (who sported a creepy mustache to boot).

The shorter third article ran on the third page, although in a good layout position (right hand page, under the number). The details are a bit general — which makes it hard to tell if the writer was actually present at the funeral. The subject is that a lot of people attended Emmett’s funeral.

The last sentence of the article made me believe the writer may have been there (noting several people weeping at the service), but with the feeling of ‘thank God this poor guy’s life is over and I can go on to my next assignment.’

I mean, look at the ‘article,’ folks. It is only three sentences long. 

I’m curious about the Rev. Johnson, who gave a ‘touching tribute’ memorializing Emmett — I wonder who actually briefed Johnson about Emmett’s life, because although he was an Episcopalian, Emmett was not a regular churchgoer, and probably had few conversations with Johnson.


All this information was great, but it left me with many more questions than answers — and critically — I still didn’t know how Emmett died.

I knew I’d have to work backwards with this information in order to tell Emmett’s story — but I would need more details about himself, and his family. I reasoned that if this guy was important enough to garner three articles just about his death, there was more to this story.

The hard work was just getting started — I knew I’d have a long slog ahead to uncover Emmett’s story.  But I didn’t care. I was on a mission. I was possessed by Emmettism!

Next: Strategy



Emmett, Catholicism, Faith, Amends


It was a tough time to be Roman Catholic in Florida during the early 1900s. Heck, it was tough to be Catholic anywhere in the U.S. at that time.

When Emmett moved back to Pensacola in 1906, to rebuild his career after his embarrassing tenure in Illinois, image was important. Connections were important. So, Emmett spent a lot of time during the first year making connections, attending luncheons with important folks, avoiding any opportunity or situation that might reflect negatively on his character and/or business future.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, close friend, mentor, Roman Catholic.  Source:

And yet, Emmett was surrounded by Catholics. Several of his closest colleagues were Catholic. His closest friends (whom he considered family, and vice versa), the J. Walter Kehoes, were Catholics. I wonder if, during this time, Emmett felt torn being around them on occasion.  Catholics were persona non grata at this point in Florida political history. Florida’s governor Sidney Catts, who ran on the Prohibition ticket, campaigned mightily against Catholics, and anti-Catholic sentiment was growing during this period in the United States. Yet, the Wilsons and the Kehoes were longtime friends, and trusted business partners.

I believe Emmett didn’t really care about the Kehoe’s Catholicism, even when he lived with them, broke bread with them daily. Emmett had to have bowed his head — and prayed along on occasion — as Walter or Jennie and their children said grace with each meal.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, about 1865.

It wouldn’t have been a stretch: Emmett was Episcopalian, raised in Chipley, Florida by a mother who was devout and would spend Sundays singing hymns with her children at home when they were unable to travel to church for services (the closest Episcopal church was in Marianna). The Episcopalian prayers are almost identical to the Catholic prayers. Emmett was comfortable in the Kehoe household, regardless of brand.

When Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, he joined Christ Church (the same that his mother, grandfather, and uncle attended). His attendance was inconsistent, although he did give occasional financial support, and it was noted in The Pensacola Journal that he signed a parish petition to retain a minister.

It is near impossible to know what Emmett thought about God and religion; knowing Emmett, if he did have a strong faith in a higher power, he would have kept it, like his personal life, quiet. He was not demonstrative about these things, certainly not in public.

I like to think Emmett had some kind of ongoing, internal dialog with his Higher Power, but perhaps, he spent more time talking than listening — something else Emmett and I have in common.


I’ve been putting edits into the first chapter of Emmett’s book this week, and it is going well, although it is a difficult process. The first chapter opens on Emmett as he lay dying of alcoholism in the San Carlos Hotel. It is a painful exercise recreating the end-stage alcoholic condition, its intensity, and its effect not only on Emmett, but on the Kehoe family, who obviously loved him as a son, and but could only helplessly stand by and wait for the end.

There was no Alcoholics Anonymous yet; treatment of the alcoholic was inconsistent and sporadic in most communities, and the general philosophy was to give the alcoholic drugs — which were often just as addictive. The general view was that drunks were mentally and spiritual decrepit — why else would they turn to outside substances to maintain their addictions?

So, it has been a tough 10 days — it is emotionally wrenching as I try to understand what it was like to struggle with alcoholism at a time when there weren’t many options? Emmett tried to stop at least twice — and he couldn’t do it, obviously. He needed help, and he was unable to get what he needed.

I know what it feels like to struggle with this disease; today, we have options, and programs, and (for the most part) more understanding about how to treat alcoholism. There are programs that work. One needn’t suffer alone — and that’s a foundation of AA — you are NEVER alone, and together, we can make it.

Ten years.

Yesterday, I picked up a 10 year chip. It may sound strange to say this: Sobriety hasn’t been easy, but it has been good, and the struggle is worth it.

Telling Emmett’s story is part of my program, you know. His story has helped me stay ‘on the beam’, and I often believe that doing this with Emmett is a way to help him close the circle, make amends. His message is still relevant, even 100 years after his death.

Tracking the Obscure

Is this for real? I love it, regardless!

Is this for real? I love it, regardless!

This last week I’ve been tracking down an elusive document in Emmett Wilson’s research; specifically, a copy of a eulogy given for him at the annual Elk’s Lodge memorial service, held on December 2, 1918. It’s obscure, folks. So what else is new? LOL!

All these obscure leads I’ve been following make me think I could apply for the History Detective’s badge by now, if one truly exists. Have you ever seen one of these? Covet!

Not to complain, but I’ll bet you a lifetime membership with my local PBS station that the History Detectives hosts do a fraction of the actual research on each story they produce. They have research assistants helping them; I hope they appreciate those RAs. Hell. My institution barely has a budget for research.

As you know, I do my own legwork and nitpicking on Emmett’s research, and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in tracking obscure data. I’d like to share a few research strategies that have been helpful:

1.  Background information can be just as important as direct subject information. I have spent months reading microfilm issues of his hometown newspapers. This is a tedious, labor intensive process, folks, but I have gathered a lot of information on Emmett’s friends and colleagues — basically, I am learning about Emmett on a personal level through his friends.  This is how I found out about the Elk Lodge memorial service — there was a brief mention about this ceremony in one of the 1917 papers. It occurred to me that Emmett may have also been eulogized in 1918.



I contacted the Florida Elks organization; the Pensacola Lodge (Emmett’s group) had unfortunately surrendered its charter a few years back after 100 years of existence. The historian told me he had few archival records from that Lodge. But, indeed, there is a ceremony held each year to honor Elks who died. Emmett likely was honored in that way.

Score! The December 1918 microfilm of the Pensacola Journal  had a writeup of the ceremony, a little bit of the actual eulogy, and a next step lead: The eulogy was given by Emmett’s friend, Robert H. Anderson, who had been a pall bearer at his funeral. The article indicated Anderson gave a much longer speech for Emmett than what was printed. He probably wrote it himself (because he was Emmett’s close friend), and because Emmett was a former Congressman, it might exist somewhere. That’s the story behind my latest quest.

2. Studying Emmett’s friends gives clues about the person he was, and in what regard he was held. One of the big holes in my research is that I have very little of Emmett’s personal writing. One doesn’t wish to infer without concrete facts, but one way to gather information about Emmett as a person is to study the people with whom he socialized. In reading about the parties and social events Emmett and his friends attended, I learn more about who was important to Emmett’s in his life (for instance, Emmett was best man at two different weddings, so far that I’ve found).

For the past few days I’ve been focusing on Anderson. A general Google search brought up   his biography in the USGenWeb archives. Basic details there reveal that Anderson was a man of importance in both political and legal circles, and worked for Henry Flagler‘s Florida’s East Coast Railroad. Anderson graduated from Stetson University about eight years after Emmett; also, right after Emmett died in May, 1918, Anderson moved to Jacksonville.

I’ve been in direct correspondence with the Jacksonville Historical Society, and the Jacksonville Elks. This week, I’ll follow up with Stetson and Jacksonville University, on the chance that Anderson’s papers and memorabilia may have been donated there; perhaps Emmett’s eulogy would be in those documents. You never know until you ask. (FYI, Anderson is only one of several of Emmett’s friends and family members I’ve tried tracking down.)

Sample image of ArchiveGrid's site. Source:

Sample image of ArchiveGrid’s site. Source:

3. Don’t be discouraged if you hit one or several brick walls in the process. One database I like to use is ArchiveGrid, which is a list of archive holdings in institutions in the U.S. and other countries. The thing is, not every institution is tied into ArchiveGrid. For instance, an initial search for Robert H. Anderson with ArchiveGrid indicated no holdings at member libraries or university institutions. Just because you can’t find someone in one or two databases doesn’t mean information is nonexistent. This often means you need to contact university archives and others on your own. This is why I’m following up with Stetson and Jacksonville Universities this week; they are participants with ArchiveGrid, but they may have new additions to their holdings and, their records may not be updated on the service. One never knows. Again, you just have to ask.

4. Don’t let rudeness stop you, either. Folks, I have been blessed in that out of the hundreds of people I’ve spoken with and emailed with regard to Emmett’s research, I can count only THREE different occasions where someone flatly turned me down and was rude about it — two of those were from the same person who, unfortunately has dementia (and I did not know it). Yeah, it hurt my feelings when it happened, but I couldn’t let it derail my work. If someone doesn’t want to help you, I can pretty much guarantee you will find several who will. If you are polite and professional about asking, you will have success.

Alumni helping faculty! Go Terps! Source:

Alumni helping faculty! Go Terps! Source:

With Anderson’s inquiries, one of the Jacksonville contacts turned out to be a U of Maryland alumni, and she said she was thrilled to help a faculty member! She wasn’t able to provide data, but she did recommend a few places to contact that may have other leads.

Emmett’s story is coming together, one lead and one contact at a time. Slow going, but definitely progress. I think he’d be pleased.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Feel free to comment or add your own in the comment box, below.