In Praise of County Courthouse Archivists

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I spent most of last week in three different courthouse archives: Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Jackson Counties, Florida. I don’t have a favorite. They are all my favorites. Know why?

It isn’t about the records. It’s about the archivists — the unsung heroes and heroines who care for ancient and important court records. They care for these ancient, well-handled books, mostly undigitized.

A small section of court records available at Escambia County Courthouse Archives.

A small section of court records available at Escambia County Courthouse Archives. There’s no online ‘index.’ It is good old-fashioned, hands-on research.

The records tell the story of who really runs things in county politics. The ladies I met, the keepers of the archives, are the people who know the interesting stories to read in the heavy court records from 100 years ago.

Escambia
I’d waited over a year to get into this building. If you recall, my first visit to Pensacola was the week after a hurricane hit, and the archive had sustained flooding and other damage. Thankfully, the records were fine.

I spend the entire first day in the Escambia County Court Archive with my friend Nancy. We were on a quest for five specific trials featuring Emmett as prosecutor. In each of these five trials, Emmett reportedly gave eloquent, moving speeches to the juries. I wanted to read what he said, ‘hear’ how he spoke to juries, hear his speech patterns, if you will.

The 'starred' list on the far right? That's where Emmett's case numbers were supposed to be listed. The documents for the specific cases aren't available. Where are they? The mystery continues....

The ‘starred’ list on the far right? That’s where Emmett’s case numbers were supposed to be listed. The documents for the specific cases aren’t available. Where are they? The mystery continues….

Nancy and I found it odd that the details about Emmett’s cases — the five cases I wanted to see were murders he was prosecuting — were not available. He prosecuted the cases. We have the records of the outcome. But what about the testimony itself? What about the stenographer’s notes?

If you hang out all day with archivists, and talk to them about what your research is about, you’ll find empathy for the hard search that is hands-on research, and, great suggestions if what you need cannot be found or is not readily available — which is what they gave us. One suggestion was to go to the federal courthouse downtown. Another was that one of the murder cases may not have been tried in Escambia, but in another jurisdiction — something that was not made clear in the newspaper report about one of the cases.

We came out of the archives with oratory for a few smaller cases, plus other valuable information about Emmett as a prosecutor. We also left having made friends with the ladies of the Escambia County Court Archive. They asked us to stay in touch with them, because one never knew — they may come across something of interest.

Santa Rosa
One of the murder cases Nancy and I continued to discuss the next day piqued our interests. The ladies at the Escambia Archive had suggested that because the name of the defendant Emmett was prosecuting was prominent in Florida politics — and a name still prominent today — it was possible that the case was sealed. “Or,” Nancy said, “maybe it was tried in the next county. Did Emmett prosecute a lot of cases in Santa Rosa?” He did, I said.

We knew the name of the murdered defendant — we looked it up, and sure enough, the guy was buried in Milton, Florida — the seat of Santa Rosa County! We looked at a map — we were only 20 miles away, and decided to go for it!

Santa Rosa County Court Archives. A nondescript building with a lot of valuable information within. Also, wonderful archivists ready and happy to assist researchers.

Santa Rosa County Court Archives. A nondescript building with a lot of valuable information within; also, wonderful archivists happy to assist researchers.

When we came in, we were greeted by two pleasant women, Susan and Margaret, who had me fill out a research request form, and check my identification as a matter of record. When I told them what I was looking for — they knew immediately what I was talking about.

“Oh sure,” Margaret said. “That bunch was always in trouble with the law for decades.”

I could barely contain my giddiness. “Do tell,” we said.

And they did. And they pulled up the electronic file of the 113-year-old case. And there was Emmett’s name all over the document. No courtroom oratory, alas, but a lot of useful information.

On a whim, I asked about another case that had stumped me, that I knew originated in Santa Rosa County involving Frank Penton, who Emmett tried for murder, and who later became sheriff of Escambia County.

“Oh yeah,” Margaret said. “They used to call Frank Penton ‘Doogie.'”

Is it appropriate to hug an archivist? Well, I did. She just laughed, retired to the store room, and brought me several county archival books. “We aim to please,” she said, pleasantly.

Another case of reading through the books page-by-page, but it was worth it!

Another case of reading through the books page-by-page, but it was worth it!

When I finished up, we got the grand tour of the store room — I worry about the books stored there. The building itself doesn’t strike you as permanent when you see it, and in fact, the archive was supposed to move into a more solid facility 10 years ago. We were told that was still the plan, whenever funding gets approved.

Jackson
Sue Tindel, the Jackson County Court Archivist, is one in a million. She’s also someone I’d been corresponding with regularly over a year, and so, when I met her, I’d felt like we’d been friends for a long time.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but, the current courthouse is on the original site.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but, the current courthouse is on the original site.

Sue is a fantastic lady. She’s funny, she’s interesting, and she loves history. I was immediately comfortable with her; Sue is the kind of person who, clearly, loves what she does. The documents in the archive are more than simple information resources to her; they are the history of Marianna, all original documents, and I don’t think people realize that. There are so many interesting stories to be found here.

Original court case documents from one of Cephas' cases. Most of the records here featured Cephas rather than Emmett, since Emmett was such a junior lawyer when he lived here.

Original court case documents from one of Cephas’ cases. Most of the records here featured Cephas rather than Emmett, since Emmett was such a junior lawyer when he lived here.

In addition to working all afternoon with her — she gladly sat at a table with me for several hours as we both read through minutes books — she gave me a personalized tour of downtown Marianna. Sue had located where Cephas Love Wilson’s house was back in 1900 (when Emmett lived with him), as well as Ceph’s original office, and his second office, which he built in 1910 (and still standing today).

Cephas built the red brick building, directly across the street from the Courthouse, in 1910. Emmett was not living in Marianna at this time, but, he would have come to Ceph's office. Ceph's law office was on the top floor, right. The bottom floor was a hardware store.

Cephas built the red brick building, directly across the street from the Courthouse, in 1910. Emmett was not living in Marianna at that time, but, he would have come to Ceph’s office. Ceph’s law office was on the top floor, right. The bottom floor was a hardware store.

The corner windows where Ceph's office was located. He and Emmett would have looked out the windows at the Courthouse across the street, probably while waiting for juries to reach decisions.

The corner windows where Ceph’s office was located. He and Emmett would have looked out the windows at the Courthouse across the street, probably while waiting for juries to reach decisions.

Sue took me to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (where Cephas is buried). This is not the same church the Wilsons attended back in the day; that one burned down in the 1940s, and was rebuilt. However, there is a plaque commemorating Ceph’s membership.

Ceph's plaque in St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Marianna.

Ceph’s plaque in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Marianna.

Sue spent the entire day with me. I learned so much about Marianna in the early 1900s, but what’s more, is that I got a real feel for what it must have been like for Emmett to live there. Marianna is a lovely place. The people are friendly to strangers; they are happy to answer questions about the history and love to share interesting details — even ghost stories — about some of the mansions located along Lafayette Street.

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In sum: Three different county court archives. Hundreds of pages read and photographed. Lots of great new information. But most important, many new friends.

My heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of the archivists I worked with on this trip.

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Qualitative Discomfort; Trip Prep

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The work on the second chapter of Emmett’s story — known as the First Plot Point section — continues. This is a dense chapter, folks, mostly because we get to know Emmett through the significant others in his life, and, we get a glimpse at what it is that pushes Emmett along his chosen path in life.

There’s a lot of texture to manage in this chapter. Emmett Wilson is the focal point, of course, but he became who he was through his relationships with these specific others in his orbit. Capturing those personalities accurately, carefully, compassionately, is challenging.

Mostly, the challenge comes from the fact that writing this biography is different, than my ‘everyday’ writing (mostly academic, focused on educational studies backed up with quantitative data). Numbers and data are comfortable to me. One doesn’t have to deal with ‘messy’ things like personalities, character defects, unscientific variables, and the like when working strictly with quantitative information every day, if you see what I mean.

Writing Emmett’s story has been a real exercise in reinventing my approach to research, a good thing. But the type-A quantitative researcher in me wants to see more results. Yesterday. LOL.

 


I’m getting ready for the second trip to Pensacola this Sunday. It should go well; this time, I’m hoping to fill in the blanks on a few of my still-open research questions, and trying not to go down there with a lot of expectations.

By that, I mean to keep a open mind about what I find. With Emmett’s research, I’ve learned to plan (as in, have a list of things to see/visit/view), but not to plan the outcome, or what I will find. Otherwise, I may miss what it is I’m supposed to see in the process.

My big hope is to find some — any — of Emmett’s courtroom oratory; specifically, five speeches he gave in closing statements to juries. I’ll find out whether or not these exist in the Escambia Courthouse archive on Monday. I’ll let you know what I find next week.

Archives on Blount Street. Source: Google

Archives on Blount Street. Source: Google

 

The Second Research Trip to Pensacola

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Friends I have finally booked the second trip to Pensacola.

I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again, and filling in some of the information holes in Emmett’s story. I’ve met some very nice folks along the research trek, so, that makes doing work enjoyable. I wish everyone liked their job as much I like mine.

Here’s my tentative plan for Pensacola:

  • Escambia County Courthouse Archives. The wild card in the whole trip. I get the feeling that there’s not much about Emmett’s cases in terms of oratory there, but I have to see. I’m in search of three speeches he gave at three different trials. If, perchance, they are there, this will be huge.
  • University of West Florida Archives. The Frank Penton papers. This guy gave Emmett holy hell during most of his tenure as District Attorney, then State’s Attorney. Penton and several family members were charged with murder more than once. Ironically, or, maybe not ironically, Penton later became Escambia County Sheriff. His papers may include commentary on Emmett’s prosecutorial skills.
  • Christ Church. Emmett’s funeral service was held here. Also, the day before his funeral, Emmett’s friends viewed his remains at the Kehoe’s home on Baylen Street. Today, it is a private residence, but it still looks pretty much the same as it did in 1918. I’d love to see the inside of that place; cross your fingers. I’m working on that.
  •  Pensacola Hospital. That’s where Emmett died. There is a lot of this structure that is still intact and original; the first floor is where he was treated (i.e., the hospital had two rooms specifically designated to treat alcoholics. It was ahead of its time).

I have a few other places I want to visit, but it depends on how much I find in the Courthouse Archive. And of course, I plan to pay Emmett a visit, perhaps clean his stone up. It was looking a little frumpy last time I saw it.

I also have two other places to visit: Chipley, where his boyhood home was recently refurbished (and looks great, by the way), and Marianna, where Emmett lived with his older brother Cephas for about four years. He called Marianna home when he was in college. I cannot wait to meet the kind folks there who I’ve been corresponding with on this project!

It’s exciting to think about finding new information about Emmett, and how it will shape his story. I’ll keep you posted as the big day draws near!

The Perfect Storm

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Readers, I had been planning another trip to Pensacola to get information on Emmett’s career as an attorney, District Attorney, and State Attorney during 1906-09. However, that second trip may be delayed.

I found this today:

This was one of the key places I needed to visit back in May. Looks like that still may be on hold.

This was one of the key places I needed to visit back in May. Looks like it will be awhile before I can visit.

Uh oh.

I’ve kvetched about hitting roadblocks before, but this barrier is a significant one. Emmett’s cases are in there; probably courtroom oratory, too, something I’m desperate to get my hands on (since I still haven’t found his scrapbooks!).

Emmett’s information is sitting behind those closed doors, hopefully not in a damp, decrepit room, exposed to the elements, or mildewing away.

A colleague of mine at the Pensacola Historical Society tells me that quite a bit of the courthouse archive data is on microfilm. If that’s so, then perhaps the court records for these years were filmed, and the film moved. I’m waiting to hear back.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Chris Patterson discusses the courthouse closure & mold cleanup. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2Ka9cYUbAQ

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Chris Patterson discusses the courthouse closure & mold cleanup. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2Ka9cYUbAQ

Speaking of mildew and records, a friend of mine in Chipley (Emmett’s boyhood home) had told me about the courthouse-and-mildew situation there. I needed to see the records in Chipley, too, wouldn’t you know.

Here’s a video featuring Circuit Court Judge Chris Patterson explaining what was going on. The problem wasn’t just with the building: The mold was in the historic documents and records, and local authorities were told that the mold was hazardous to health, so, both building AND records were off limits.

Talk about a perfect storm (pardon the pun). The hurricane-force storm that hit Pensacola two weeks before I came down to do research in May; the mold situation in the Washington County was going on at the same time. Both sources were out of my reach. Alas. Alack. Damn.  Sturm und mold. (With apologies to F.M.Von Klinger.)

There is good news:  Colleagues with the Washington County Historic Society report that earlier in the summer, the records were removed from the courthouse, and cleaned by a team that handles restoration and preservation of historic documents.

The records have been cleaned up now, they are available and accessible to the public at the County Annex on South Boulevard in Chipley.

Frankly, I’m a little nervous about the Escambia Court archives — I know what mold can do to historic documents. So much about Emmett, personally, has been hard to find. I am grateful for what I have, and I appreciate it so much when I (or a colleague) finds even the smallest detail.

Historic documents are precious. Let’s hope the folks in the Escambia Court archives have good luck getting their facility in good order again, and that their records are safe.