John Smithwick: A Kind-of Renaissance Guy


John Harris Smithwick. Source:

As promised, I’m following up on the earlier post about the folks at the Smithwick luncheon.

I’ll start with information about the host, John H. Smithwick: Farmer, attorney, U.S. congressman, accused check kiter, and survivor of the Knickerbocker theater disaster.

When the 1907 article was published, Smithwick was Walter Kehoe’s law partner. We know from Smithwick’s official biography he was born in Georgia in 1872; was graduated from Reinhardt Normal College in 1895, then attended law school at Cumberland University. He was graduated in 1897; admitted to the Georgia bar in 1898, then moved to Pensacola the same year as Emmett, in 1906.

Kehoe & Smithwick, located at 306 Brent Building, Pensacola. Source: 1907 Pensacola City Directory, from

Smithwick and Kehoe remained partners through 1907; the next year, however, Smithwick and Kehoe separated amicably:

Smithwick is partners with T.F. West. Source: 1908 Pensacola City Director,


Kehoe in single practice. Source: 1908 Pensacola City Directory,

By 1910, Smithwick has changed vocation:

Source: 1910 Pensacola City Directory,

Although Smithwick appears to have stepped away from his legal profession, he maintained his important connections with The Pensacola Journal’s editor, Frank Mayes. Mayes was considered a political kingmaker in West Florida politics. On April 27, 1913, The Pensacola Journal’s editor, Frank Mayes, wrote a feature about traveling through Santa Rosa County with Smithwick, and visiting his farm:

Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 27, 1913,

Mayes ran another feature on Smithwick’s farm, in the  May 17, 1914 issue of The Pensacola Journal. Although Smithwick expanded into farming, he was listed in the Pensacola City Directory with a business in naval stores; his residence as 206 W. Lloyd (a house still standing).

When Emmett gave notice that he was retiring from congress in April 1915, his two friends, Smithwick and Walter Kehoe (along with two other) ran for the Third District Congressional Seat in the June primary.

Sample 1916 primary ballot, as it appeared in The Pensacola Journal. Source:

Kehoe won the primary, then the general election. He served a rather undistinguished one term, then lost his bid for reelection in the 1918 primary runoff against Smithwick. There were no hard feelings though:


One thing of note — Walter voted against suffrage at the same time his talented sisters, Fannie and Minnie Kehoe, were two of the prominent women leading the suffrage movement in Florida. (I can imagine how uncomfortable it was when Walter came home from Washington, to face his sisters at Sunday dinners and social events.)

Smithwick’s tenure in office was also undistinguished — until he left office.

Source: Wicked Capitol Hill: An Unruly History of Behaving Badly by Robert S. Pohl. Source:


Source: Richmond Times, May 15, 1947.

Smithwick claimed he was innocent until the day he died.


The most interesting story I found about Smithwick was that he was a survivor of the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster in Washington, D.C., January 28, 1922.

In an interview he gave to Associated Press reporters, Smithwick recalled in great detail the how the ceiling of the theatre caved in under the heavy snow that had accumulated on the roof, and that he’d climbed out of the rubble, and walked home, without his hat or coat. He had several cuts and bruises, and likely a concussion. Smithwick said he didn’t realize how badly he was injured, until he arrived at home and family members called in a doctor immediately upon observing his condition.

Interesting fellow, John Smithwick.


There are a few excellent articles on Knickerbocker Theatre disaster:

  • Kevin Ambrose’s excellent article 95 years after the disaster, including stories of those who helped rescue theatre patrons, and those who tragically lost their lives.
  • A historical essay about the Knickerbocker disaster on the blog, The Dead Bell.
  • The Knickerbocker tragedy, via the excellent Ghosts of DC blog, and
  • John Smithwick’s interview, with great details, published by the Associated Press (below), via the New York Times.

Source: New York Times, January 1922.


The Pensacolian


On Monday, the most awesome, intrepid, and wonderful Jacki Wilson (no relation to Emmett or Bill), friend, colleague and archivist, with the University of West Florida Historic Trust, told me that she was digging around in an old house, collecting artifacts for the UWF Historic Trust, and she came across this:


The Pensacolian, April 1912. There are very few issues of this rare publication in existence. Trust me. I’ve been looking for it for over three years.


Tah-dah! Jacki said that the publication is FULL of political ads, but Emmett has one the most valuable/visible positions for an advertisement — the back cover.

Jacki said that the publication is full of ads, but only Emmett has the cover.

This was a rather expensive ad; the timing of it was important, too, as the first primary election for U.S. Congressman was held on April 30, 1912. There was three candidates running — Emmett, Dannitte Mayes, and W.W. Flournoy. Typically, there was a second primary between the top finishers on the Democratic ticket — but this year, Flournoy came in third, and Mayes chose not to run against Emmett in the second primary because of Emmett’s overwhelming lead.

Isn’t it great?

Of course, the description that he is “…Good Material for a Congressman” is interesting. No one touched the fact that Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic, or said anything about it publicly (much unlike today’s media coverage). At this point, Emmett likely hid his drinking pretty well, except from family members and his closest friends. If his alcoholism was obvious, there’s no way he’d have made it this far, running on the ‘clean-cut young man’ platform.

I’d love to have more information, more political materials, especially the extremely elusive “Emmett Wilson Club” button (which was given out right after Emmett won the primary; the club was short-lived because Mayes ceded the election within days of the election results).


The Pensacola Journal, May 9, 1912, p. 4


I wonder if Emmett (or his family and friends at the time) could have even guessed that almost 100 years after what had to have been an embarrassing, frustrating, and dysfunctional life and death, that he’d be making amends of sorts — i.e., being ‘of service’.  Bringing people together in the spirit of family and friendship in curious and satisfying ways?  It seems ironic, and oddly fitting, for a complicated man who might have lived another kind of life if only Bill Wilson (no relation) and AA had been around.



If Only…



If only Emmett had become a cult hero, he’d have a shirt like this too!

Although he didn’t have a t-shirt, he did have a club. True! When Emmett was running for Congress in 1912, his constituents organized an Emmett Wilson Club, and set one up in every county in the Third Congressional District (fyi — Florida’s current Third Congressional District is completely different from what it was in 1912).

The Emmett Wilson Club organizes. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1912

The Emmett Wilson Club organizes. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1912

The club was only in existence for about two weeks because his opponent, Dannitte Mays, decided to withdraw from the second primary runoff (there were second primaries in 1912). Mays, the incumbent, had concluded that Emmett’s political machine was too successful and well organized to make a successful challenge. Mays was correct.

I know there were little campaign buttons made — I’d love to find one. Perhaps one of these days I’ll come across one of them! When I do, I’ll share a photo!


Emmett’s PR Posse


Readers, one thing I’ve always wondered about as I dig through Emmett’s life is the people he chose as advisers; then, the people he chose as managers as his campaign took off.

Who were these people, and why did Emmett think he could trust his career to their advice? After all, once Emmett was elected to Congress, his key advisers turned their backs on him, because Emmett chose to follow his own thinking, which he felt was more in tune with what West Florida’s constituents preferred.

One key thing from the research that has always got my attention was Emmett’s obscurity, and how quickly he was able to rise to a seat in Congress. Emmett was talented and smart, but so were a lot of lawyers in his circle;  those lawyers also had more experience and money to make the run for Congress than Emmett.

Clearly, this PR posse wanted to create a candidate for their own purposes, someone they could shape in their own image, and they selected Emmett.

I hope Emmett wasn't made to wear a beanie to court his first years as a lawyer.  Source:

I hope the local bar association didn’t make Emmett wear a beanie to court during his tenure as a Freshman lawyer. Source:

For a very young, obscure, assistant district attorney, Emmett got a lot of press. To me, this was unusual, because Emmett’s boss, Fred Cubberly was the District Attorney; yet, Fred, an accomplished historian, experienced attorney and politician, had probably less than HALF as much press as Emmett. And Emmett was the beanie-wearing Freshman of the law community in his career at this time. I find myself asking, “Fred. What’s up with that?”

Prior to 1912 (the year Emmett first ran for office), there were many instances where Emmett has news blurbs in both Pensacola papers (the morning paper was The Pensacola Journal; the afternoon paper was the Pensacola Evening News). In addition to stories about the cases Emmett was prosecuting, you could find brief news items about him in the society or personal columns.

Example of a Tersely Told column from The Pensacola Journal, June 24, 1908. Source: LOC.

Example of a Tersely Told column from The Pensacola Journal, June 24, 1908. Source: LOC.

For example, the personal column in The Pensacola Journal was called “Tersely Told,” and was mostly three- or four-line reports on what important people in Pensacola were doing. This column appeared on the business page of The Pensacola Journal.

Emmett had most of his PR blurbs in the Tersely Told column. However, whenever he was at a local country club dance, or participating in a society event, his name was in the event article on the society page along with all the pretentious of Pensacola. It is interesting that he didn’t seem to attend country club dances or similar society events once he began his run for office in earnest.

These items were called in or reported to the the Society column editor.

Would or did Emmett call in his own PR this way? The idea of Emmett ‘boasting’ his whereabouts and doings is not likely; by all reports, Emmett wasn’t a boastful, bragging kind of guy. He kept things about himself to himself. So, I doubt Emmett would call his own PR in to the papers.

However, I can see Emmett telling his clerk to let the editor of the papers know he’s off to prosecute a big case in Santa Rosa County. Emmett was probably told by his boss (and others who had a personal interest in Emmett’s career), that the more the public sees him in the press doing his job, the more likely he will have a smooth reelection when that time rolls around. So, Emmett knew to play the PR game.

Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal

One of the most important members of Emmett’s PR posse was Frank L. Mayes, editor of The Pensacola Journal.

Once Emmett became more well known, a select group of people in Emmett’s circle worked hard behind the scenes to get Emmett elected. It wasn’t obvious to me when I first looked at Emmett’s career, but a deeper study reveals these individuals had a significant vested interest in seeing Emmett do well, because they hitched their careers to his rising star.

Emmett’s posse worked hard to promote him as a candidate for Congress. Several contemporary newspapers in 1912 mention how Emmett, when he was running for office, came out of nowhere, and was mostly the ‘creation’ of Frank Mayes, editor of The Pensacola Journal. Mayes endorsed Emmett wholeheartedly, and used every opportunity to mention him in a positive light as often as possible in the paper’s editorials.

The incumbent congressman, Dannitte Mays, did not take Emmett seriously for the first two months of 1912. By the time Mays realized Emmett was a serious contender for his office, Mays looked like he had been asleep at the wheel of his own campaign. Emmett’s campaign management organized an “Emmett Wilson Club,” similar to that of the “Woodrow Wilson Club” that was in existence. The posse had clubs in every county, and they were run like a well-oiled machine. Setting up these clubs took a lot of time and preparation.

I doubt Emmett's idea to run for Congress was so instantaneous or life-changing.

I doubt Emmett’s idea to run for Congress was so instantaneous.

This is why I believe that Emmett’s decision to run wasn’t made by himself overnight. A few articles in the Pensacola papers read as if this was the ‘Road to Damascus’ event in Emmett’s life. No.

Emmett had been planning a run for office for at least a year before the opportunity presented itself, and the groundwork was laid by Emmett’s close friend, Frank Mayes.

Frank Mayes was one of the three key players in the Florida’s Progressive Democratic party. The party needed someone new to replace Dannitte Mays, whose philosophies were not Progressive enough for the state party machine. Emmett was ambitious, had credentials, was smart, had a good image, was young and energetic — and, so the party thought — could be ‘properly guided’ once he was in Congress. Emmett and the progressives thought they would be unstoppable.

The voting turnout for Emmett’s election was the highest in West Florida’s history at the time. Emmett swept the polls; Mays came in second, and instead of going through a second primary, withdrew based on the election results. There was a large enough gap between Emmett and Mays to indicate Mays was on his way out.

From the beginning of his career, Emmett appeared to lead a charmed public relations life.  But one year after Emmett made it to Congress, the PR team would, out of necessity, turn into a crisis management team.

Because the team couldn’t salvage Emmett’s image after October, 1914, they bailed out on him.

Emmett’s near-death in December 1914 meant the PR posse had to rethink their strategy until a replacement candidate was chosen. The Progressive Democratic party members were upset with Emmett. All along, Emmett’s opponents said he was too young, too inexperienced, and drank too much. Emmett’s PR posse had worked hard to stifle all of those claims, and they felt let down by him.

Those remaining who still supported Emmett as his congressional career folded, those who had tied their careers to Emmett’s success were left shaking their heads, saying, ‘what happened?’

I wonder if any of Emmett’s handlers, the people who helped Emmett get elected, ever considered “Emmett the man”, or, “Emmett their friend,” instead of “Emmett the federal job provider,” and what he may have been going through personally during the second half of 1914, when his health and career were on the wane?

I wonder if any one of his handlers reached out to Emmett at all during this time?  I think that someone could have stepped in and stopped (or at least delayed) Emmett’s downward spiral.


I’ll be able to explore some of these questions in detail over the next few weeks. A few days ago, a new box of film came in from the University of West Florida to read, and it is The Pensacola Journal for for 1915. I am anxious to get started to see what happened.

I’ll keep you posted.