Chapter 34: In choosing happiness

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May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 3 p.m.

Her eyes.

They are so blue, piercingly blue. I catch my breath audibly. But it isn’t just her eyes that get me —

it is the moment. I can’t believe it.

And in response, she laughs, kindly, cheerfully at me.

I am taken away by the very fact that here before me is the only living connection to the man long dead, the man I want to know more about than anything, the man whose research has consumed me for months. Finally, impossibly it seems, a living connection.

Still speechless I walk towards  Emmett’s niece. She reaches out her hand to me. It is warm, friendly; still holding my hand, she covers mine in both of hers.

“I am so happy to meet you,” I say.  But then, as the intensity of the moment washes over me, “I’m sorry,” I say, turning away slightly, and self-consciously. “I feel like I’m going to cry.”

Carol chuckles as she looks on the counter for a box of Kleenex.

“I’m fine,” I say to her, with a slight chuckle. “I am just so grateful and appreciative of the chance to meet you.”

Jule gestures to the sofa behind a coffee table; she takes the chair on the right; Carol sits next to me.

The first moment is a bit awkward; but Carol says she’s seen the letters and articles I’ve sent Jule, and is amazed at how much information I was able to find about the Wilson family. “We’ve really known nothing about them.”

“And my grandfather’s picture,” Jule says, nodding at the framed sepia-tone photo prominent in the living room. “I’ve never seen a photo of him before. It’s a miracle, really, all of this,’ she adds, gesturing at me, my briefcase, the fact we are all together.

Dr. Wilson on call at the W.O. Butler house, in Chipley, Florida, 1911. Original photo is courtesy of Jule Wilson Perry.

“I have so much more to show you, and to send you,” I say, opening my laptop. Carol leans forward expectantly. I show them the folder on the desktop with several articles from contemporary media that I found a few days earlier. Jule doesn’t have a laptop computer, so my habit has been to print out articles and mail them to Jule, then copy them in email to Carol.

“Two articles are interesting because they talk about your Father,” I tell Jule. “They describe what he looked like compared to Emmett. I was surprised to find out the twins didn’t look anything alike.”

Source: The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. May 29, 1914

And this:

The Daily Northwester, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, February 12, 1913.

“So they were fraternal twins,” Carol said. “And Mama probably got her blue eyes from her father.”

Jule then reaches into an envelope on the table, and hands me a cardboard photograph of three children.

“I’d always thought that the two blond headed boys were the twins, but now we know better,” she says.

Emmett (left), Walker (center), Julian (right), in 1890, taken for New Year’s Day 1891. Source: Jule Wilson Perry, used with permission. Copyright EmmettWilsonbook.com

It is unmistakably Emmett. I turn it over and read the beautiful copperplate handwriting — Emmett’s name is on it, and the year 1891. I smile up at Jule, so full of gratitude and appreciation.

Emmett’s hand is not exactly clenched and not exactly relaxed. Maybe he didn’t like being dressed up with a fluffy bow around his neck, I say to Carol and Jule, who nod in agreement.

“But what’s incredible is Emmett’s expression. Every photo I have seen of him so far is the same look — serious, focused, maybe a little uncomfortable. And here it is again, even as a child,” I say.

Jule says this was the only photo she knew of with the twins together as children, though there probably had been other photos taken of them.

I ask Jule to talk to me about Julian — she’d already told me some things in our correspondence — but I am interested in hearing about Julian’s personality, if he had any hobbies, what he did for relaxation, his relationship with other members of his family.

While she talks, describing her father, she shows me several other family photos, starting with a group photo.

The summer place in Perdido Bay that Frank owned. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry about age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard. Used with permission.

Jule remembers one aunt and uncle in particular, Uncle Frank Jr. (who lived in Pensacola and had a fishing boat) and Aunt Katie Meade (who lived in Virginia with her cousin Everard Meade). Fishing was a very big deal for Julian, she says and that was the thing he liked to do most for relaxation.

Carol says that Jule attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and that her cousin Everard and Aunt Katie were kind to her; seeing her often when she was in college, so Jule didn’t feel alone so far away from home.

Jule and Julian Wilson in the 1940s. Jule still has that lovely smile.

“The only time I saw my father cry was when he put me on the train from Montgomery to Washington, D.C., to go to school,” Jule says softly, as she hands me a photo of her with her father at a national park taken in the 1940s. “But he was always such a kind, quiet, peaceful man. I can say he was a happy and satisfied man; he loved our family very much.”

One of the packets of clips I sent to Jule a few months earlier included a copy of Emmett’s death certificate, along with two other corroborating reports that his death was directly related to alcoholism. I pull up the digital copy of Emmett’s death certificate on my computer while I ask Carol and Jule about it.

“I don’t remember that I met Uncle Emmett, but then, I was only a six-month old baby when he died,” Jule says, pointing at the date of May 28, 1918. “I might have, but I don’t know.”

The genealogy from Walker Wilson’s grandson mentioned alcohol as a problem with this branch of the Wilson family; but  did Jule know about this?

She shakes her head. “No. And that was probably the big reason why my father never mentioned his twin brother in any kind of conversation.” It wasn’t that Jule thought Julian didn’t love his brother, but it was probably overwhelmingly sad; frustrating. People even today don’t know how to deal with family members who have drinking problems, even with all the science and information available — imagine what it was like over 100 years ago.

Jule closes her eyes, rubs her forehead in thought as we talk about the relationship between Emmett and Julian. I’m worried if this is too much for her. She says no, it’s fine.

“Now that I think about it, with Daddy, it was more what he did not say about his brother than what he said.” She pauses a moment to gather her words carefully; she opens her eyes.

“Truth is, Daddy rarely drank, and now we know there was probably a reason for that. I know that there was also a sadness about Daddy when it came to talking about his family — and he never talked about Emmett, which seemed odd given that they were twins.”

I tell Jule and Carol that my own grandparents never talked about their family either — and I knew that several family members died of alcoholism.

Carol says that her grandfather would have an occasional beer, but only one, and that was it. Jule nods. “I imagine it was because of what he’d seen happen to Emmett.”

In the end, Jule said, it just didn’t seem like Emmett was a positive force in her father’s life, that he wasn’t happy, and perhaps that was behind her father’s choices to distance himself from a relationship with his twin brother.

I imagine this may have been a hard but necessary thing to see, much less live through in any family. I remember that Jule’s experience in social work throughout her career probably helped her understand the logic at Julian’s choice to set this boundary in his family, because there was nothing anyone could do to save his brother. It wasn’t just that Emmett couldn’t help himself — but according to addiction science, saving oneself only works when the addict decides to do whatever it takes to save himself.

“My father chose his family, and happiness, in the end,” Jule said.

And there’s a lot to be said for that.

 

Chapter 26: I suddenly grew up

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The final page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative is brief:

Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard. Used with permission.

There were no wharves or piers to land near, so the “big” boys jumped over-board and carried us in their arms. It was a lot of fun!

We were much freer out there because there was no jungle to breed wild animals. At “Big HILL” we hd to watch out for tarantulas, snakes, and big red ants right in the yard. Here it was entirely free of such things. This sounds like a dreadful place to live, but we didn’t feel so at the time.

Looking back on it seems much worse than when we were living through it.

Our Mother was always cheerful and gay and would play on the piano and sing hymns on Sunday afternoons, teaching us to love them and to sing in church.

She gave us a happy life until I was 12 years old — I suddenly grew up then, and helped care for the three “little” boys.

The last page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative ends abruptly — and curiously.

What I knew in the early days of Wilson family research was that Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth, died in Chipley, Florida, when Emmett was eight and Katie 12 — but that was all I knew. Katie’s narrative suggests Elizabeth was a loving, hands-on mother, someone who paid attention to details, but wasn’t a martinet. Elizabeth was the kind of mother who kept the family close, who knew the importance of faith to get through all kinds of situations — good, bad, tedious.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson.

Make no mistake: Elizabeth had led a privileged life, but what wife would follow a husband into an untamed jungle if she wasn’t strong, if she didn’t have faith that bad times would work out if everyone pulled together, even if the move was something she was afraid of in some ways?

Katie says her father, Dr. Francis Wilson, was tough; Elizabeth was much the same, I’d wager.

And Katie indicates in her narrative that Elizabeth’s death was unexpected; impactful, not just to her, but to everyone.

I have no idea what Emmett thought or felt when it happened; Katie doesn’t indicate anything about what anyone else thought but herself — she had to toughen up, grow up suddenly. Likely Emmett felt the impact of his mother’s death sharply as well.

Next: Sudden death

 

Chapter 24: Leaving Belize

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The fifth page of Katie Wilson Meade’s finishes the story began on page four about the family parrot named “Ada” and the family’s return to the United States in 1884.

…and looking positively devilish! She (Ada) was glad to get home though: We could tell!

Frank was the brother that always got into trouble. Often I was put in his care; he took me many times on little jaunts around the place.

One day he and some of the other boys were getting some bamboo canes and sharpening the ends to make arrows. I was sitting on the ground near by when they started shooting them. Frank shot his first and it hit me right behind my left ear; when Father examined it he said one inch further would have gone into my brain! I’ve carried that scar all the rest of my life. Fortunately, my hair covers it.

Poor old Frank! He was far from a stupid boy but somehow he always came out on the wrong end of things.

He was a grand and lovable person! When he was getting married he wanted to take me along on his wedding trip! I did not go, however.

Later in life he had a summer home down on Perdido Bay about 20 miles outside of Pensacola, Florida. He had a two-cabin cruiser and often went on fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. He always took his man-of-all-work along to wait on him. Once when he and Dan had been out all night he wanted to rest awhile and told Dan to take the wheel. He said, “Dan, do you see that star right up there in front of you? Well, you must keep the bow pointed right towards that star.”

“Yes sir, I sure will Boss!”

Some time later he came and woke Frank up and said, “Boss, I dun passed that star, you’ll have to get another one!”

Back to Honduras — My parents were expecting another child and were persuaded to return to the United States. They had a couple of boy twins and me down there in Honduras, and that made nine children to educate where there were no schools and not much of anything but wild country. They had been sending one boy at a time back to school in the U.S. and it was rather heartbreaking to put small boys on a ship alone, so they finally decided to give in and go back Home. It was quite a move!

We were packed in a wagon drawn by two oxen. It was during the rainy Season and the roads were almost impassable! At one point we sank down so far the poor oxen were standing in mud up to their stomachs! They couldn’t or wouldn’t move!

…to be continued!

Family photo at Frank’s summer place in Perdido Bay. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry (age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard.

The comment about Katie’s parents sending some of the older boys back to the U.S. for education is interesting, particularly because of Katie’s comments that these were “small boys on a ship alone”. As we view this through a 21st century lens, it would be unthinkable to send small children unescorted on a long voyage, not to mention unlikely; child protective services would be called in immediately.

We estimate the Wilsons left for British Honduras around 1874 or early 1875. Katie was born in British Honduras in August, 1875.

There are five older brothers than Katie. Below are the approximate ages of the brothers at the time the family emigrated to British Honduras:

  • Augustus Maxwell, born 1866; by 1875, age 11
  • Cephas Love, born 1868; by 1875, age 9
  • Frank Jr., born 1870; by 1875, age 5
  • Percy Brockenbrough, born 1871; by 1875, age 4
  • Everard Meade, born 1873; by 1875, age 2

Fast forward to 1884. Take a close look at the passenger manifest for 1884 for the ship, “City of Dallas” headed back to New Orleans with the Wilson family on board:

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

Here’s a closeup of the Wilson family on the manifest:

From top to bottom:

  • Dr. Frank Wilson, age 42, physician;
  • “L.B.” is Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth V., who also was called “Lizzy”, age 39.
  • K Wilson, (Katie) age 8
  • E Wilson, (Eudora, also called Dora) age 11
  • A Wilson (Augustus Maxwell, who also went by Max), age 16
  • C Wilson (Cephas), age 14
  • Meade Wilson, age 10
  • E Wilson and J Wilson (Emmett and Julian, twins), age 2

Elizabeth was pregnant with Walker when the family left British Honduras.

The Wilson children not listed on the passenger manifest were Frank Jr. and Percy. Let’s say that the Wilsons sent the boys back to the U.S. in 1880; so Frank Jr. and Percy would have been 10 and 9 years old, respectively. Maybe the Wilsons had a maid or caretaker travel along with the boys, but based on Katie’s narrative, I’m going with the idea the boys traveled alone, one at a time. As a parent of young boys, I cannot imagine what it was like to entrust a child to strangers (most likely) for a risky trip through the Gulf of Mexico in the 1880s.

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

Frank — a real character, wasn’t he? Imagine asking your SISTER to go on your honeymoon. Imagine his fiancee, May, being OK with that. Yeah. No. Me neither. Still, I wish he were still around to interview.

The last item about leaving British Honduras during the rainy season (June to November) first via a wagon drawn by oxen is intriguing. I feel mostly for Elizabeth Wilson, who was pregnant at this time with Walker Wilson (born December 1884 in Chipley, Florida), and caring for two-year-old twins, in addition to older children (who likely assisted their parents and the younger children).

The Wilson family saga continues in the next post. Stay tuned!

Chapter 23: More Anecdotes of Wilson Family in British Honduras

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What I love about Katie’s narrative about her family’s years in British Honduras are the anecdotes. She’s a wonderful storyteller, sharing family experiences in detail. I wish she were still alive — I would love to interview her.

Here’s the fourth page of Katie Wilson Meade’s story:

Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative of the Wilson family in British Honduras. Source: Elizabeth Wilson Howard. Used with permission.

We had a plague of locusts one time while in Honduras; the ‘big” boys and a young uncle visiting from the “States” went out with their machetes and had fun trying to kill them but it was impossible because the things rained down too thick. They stayed only about an hour and disappeared, leaving a few stray ones lying around dead.

Great mahogany trees grew in the forest, and once a native (in the spirit of gratitude to Father for some kindness shown him) carved a beautiful walking cane out of a solid piece of mahogany and presented it to Father. It had a round knob on top and the man shined it up, and it was used in the family for many years. It is now in the possession of my youngest Brother’s son, who is a doctor in Rochester, N.Y.

Another native carved a huge shallow bowl from a mahogany log and presented it to Father, and it was used every day to make bread and biscuits.

Father was commissioned by the English Government to vaccinate the natives against yellow fever. He did this by getting a boat and traveling up and down the coast, the only way to reach them. Some of these people had worked on his place and once he noticed some of Mother’s big silver spoons. He picked them up and said his wife had been wondering where they had gone. There was no protest. They had sense enough to know he was right. They had Mother’s monogram on them.

For this work the Government paid in gold. So when he got home he called us all in to see this gold — large tin box full. I put in both hands and played in it. A child of today would  have to go to Fort Knox to do that!

One interesting occurence was when we moved from our first house to “Big Hill.” Sister had a parrot that could talk. She used to stand and call my brother in a voice exactly like mother’s. Well, the parrot got away and flew into the jungle while the family was busy with their moving. No-one noticed she was gone till they arrived at the new home. Then every one was distressed because Ada (the parrot’s name) was missing. This lasted a week. Then one morning, we were sitting in the house with Mother and we heard the voice calling, “Maxwell, Maxwell” on the same high note that Mother used — but there sat Mother right in the room with us! We hurried out side and there was old Ada on the roof looking down on us with a twinkle in her eye!

Ooooh, lots of background in this page!

This is a page from Dr. Wilson’s father’s will, which was written while several of Emmett’s family had emigrated to British Honduras. Several Wilson brothers are still in the U.S., namely Cephas Jr. (not Emmett’s brother, but yet one of many Cephases in this family) who ultimately moved to Virginia), William, and Walter or Walker. Source: Ancestry.com

The Simeon Maxwell family sailed out of Belize on the E.B. Ward, Jr., into the port of New Orleans on October 22, 1879. Emmett’s grandfather left about this time as well; Emmett’s parents would stick it out until 1884, when they pretty much had lost everything in the failed sugar plantation venture. Source: Ancestry.com

  • I contacted Walker Wilson’s grandson about the walking cane anecdote, and copied Katie’s memoir to him as well. He knows the story, and said as far as he knows, the cane still exists. It was given to Dr. John (Jack) Wilson of Rochester, New York. I have not been in contact with the John Wilsons of Rochester yet; I haven’t been able to locate any descendants.
  • “Big Hill”, the second Wilson home, is a bit of a mystery. I found this reference to Big Hill, but no reference to the Wilsons. Interestingly, there is a “Wilson Road” leading to Big Hill, but because there were many Wilsons in Belize, it isn’t clear which Wilson family is attached to the name of the road:

Big Hill is a resort in Belize today. But since the family story is that Dr. Francis Wilson only had a part ownership, was this perhaps a Wilson family compound? Another mystery unfolds in Emmett Wilson land….

Hang in there; page five is next.

 

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

Chapter 22: The Wilsons in British Honduras

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The third page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative of her family’s experiences in Toledo Settlement, British Honduras continues.

In yesterday’s post, the Wilson boys, Frank Jr. and Percy, went on an illicit Sabbath fishing trip:

Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative of the Wilson family in British Honduras. Source: Elizabeth Wilson Howard. Used with permission.

Father quietly turned to Percy and got the truth!

Frank got a good whipping for his lie. Percy didn’t because of his truth. Alas, it came later in the day — from Frank!

Father practiced medicine on horse-back, day and night riding through the jungle on trails cut through. There was only one real road, and that was up to Belize [the city]. It was a rugged business but he was rugged too! The four years of war did that! He (and others, of course) carried a conch shell and when they were uncertain where they were on a dark night they would blow into the shell and get an answer from the nearest home.

I can remember my brothers answering him on the kind of shell they kept for that purpose. In this way he kept on the trail and always got home safely, even on the darkest night.

Occasionally, in the day he would see monkeys playing in the trees over his trail. One day he saw them swinging across the trail from tree to tree holding the tails of those in front. Once one of them jumped down on the back of his horse and scared the poor thing nearly to death.

Another time he was returning home and saw a red mountain lion coming down from the mountain to his place. His cattle had been disturbed lately and now he knew what  had been after them. He called to one of his sons to bring his rifle. When the lion got close enough he shot him.

Another time he came home and found a big snake curled up in a large pit in the back yard. Again he used his rifle and killed him. The snake measured nine feet and was as big around as father’s thigh. We were never allowed out in the yard without an older member of the family with us because of the jungle. My mother heard wild animals scratching themselves against the house at night while she sat alone waiting for the “Doctor” to get home. The jungle grew very fast and had to be cut back at least once each week or it would have been up to our very doors.

The moon and stars seemed very close and they were larger and brighter then than they are in this country. Once, I recall my father waking me in the night and carrying me to the window and showing me a big gleaming light with a flaming tail — a comet. He said I would probably never have a chance to see another; which I haven’t!

This happened in the 1880s, so you may be able to place the comet. John Kieren could tell you.

This page has great information!

First, Katie gives us an image of the Wilson home truly in the middle of a wild, untamed, dangerous jungle. I can only imagine what it was like for Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson to raise children in this environment, and that Katie’s family found it preferable to living in post-Civil War America. There were some amenities, I have the feeling it would be similar to long-term camping.

Second, when Katie talks about the house being a plantation, one has the image of a huge white mansion similar to what the Wilsons knew during pre-Civil War days. The plantation house in Toledo Settlement had a thatched leaf roof — a clue that the building was not Tara from Gone With the Wind. (The Bocawina National Park in Belize has a photo of a modern thatched roof which is similar to what it would have looked like in the 1880s.) True, the house could have been large, but it definitely was not a mansion.

Another thought — if Elizabeth Wilson could hear animals rubbing up against the outside walls of the house at night while she waited up for Dr. Wilson to return home, the house could not have been a huge building with thick, insulated walls. This plantation was likely a modest house.

Third, the red mountain lion shot by Dr. Wilson might have either been one of the two lions mentioned in this overview of big cats in Belize: A puma or a jaguarundi.

Fourth, the comet! It was probably the Great Comet of 1882, which was reportedly easily visible to the naked eye.

Great Comet of 1882 as photographed by David Gill, Cape Town. Source: Wikipedia

Finally — John Kieren! I have no idea who this gentleman is, although I am looking for the connection to Katie. Likely this was not someone who knew the Wilsons when they lived in British Honduras, but rather a colleague of Katie’s.

The Wilson family saga in British Honduras continues tomorrow!

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

Chapter 21: Katie’s Memories of British Honduras

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We continue with the second page of Katie’s narrative of her family’s years in British Honduras. There’s a lot of good information on this page, specifically related to the Wilsons  settlement in Punta Gorda.

The second page from Katie’s narrative. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard; used with permission.

This place was situated on a creek named after some Englishman — Joe Taylor! There was a great building called the “Mill House”  and I can remember dozens of big barrels of brown sugar standing under that shed. They were there waiting to be hauled to Belize and shipped to the U.S.A.

An early recollection is of the sugar cane being cut down with machetes (a sword-like knife that every man carried all the time on account of wild animals). The cane was rolled in to bundles and carried by the native workmen to the “Mill-house” to be ground. These Caribs were a mixture of American, and Spanish and spoke a sort of “pidgeon” (stet) Spanish.

Their women-folk were the house servants. One of them dropped me from her arms down a flight of steps and broke my collar-bone.

The Caribs fed the sugar-cane in between large metal rollers which squeezed out the juice, and was kept rolling by being hitched to a pair of oxen that walked round and round all day long. This juice ran down into a metal basin and was boiled until it thickened into syrup, then it was run through an evaporator– starting as syrup and coming out as brown sugar.

With the aid of Julious (stet) Payne, an Englishman from the old country, and two brothers, Beers, from Montreal, Canada, our parents started a little Episcopal Church on the edge of the Plantation. Mr. Payne, who was my Godfather, was also the lay leader, Organist, and general handy-man around the Church. A very fine fellow and friend of all the “Big” boys. He later married the lady who was my Godmother, a native of British Honduras.

We were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy, but sometimes slipped a bit, as the following incident will show.

My brother, Frank, loved to fish. So one Sunday he persuaded Percy, the angelic one, to go fishing with him. They went down to the creek and had marvelous luck! When time came to go home they were afraid to take the fish home, it being Sunday. Old Frank was not going to throw back his good fish, so he strung them on a line which he tied to a tree and let them float in the stream.

Monday morning came and the boys asked permission to go fishing. They went but did not stay nearly long enough. Father knew they had not stayed long enough to have caught that many fish, so he accused Frank of catching the Sunday, which Frank stoutly denied!

Stay tuned for the continuing saga of Frank, Percy, and the Illegal Fishing Expedition, which continues tomorrow!

 

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

 

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.

===

Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues