Emmett and Petersburg


I’m sorry for the radio silence. I’ve had so much information and writing ideas to sift through from the field trip to Richmond and Petersburg that it has been hard to figure out what to tell you about first!

Let me start by saying that I approached this field trip with an outcome in mind: That this was strictly a data-and-fact finding mission, to fill in the gaps about the one day Emmett was in Petersburg for an official event as Florida’s newly minted Congressman-Elect, a stop-over, as Emmett was on his way to Baltimore to attend the 1912 Democratic National Convention as an alternate.

For starters, I arrived in Richmond, Virginia last Wednesday afternoon in the exact same train station Emmett did on June 23, 1912. I was met at the station by my dear friend, colleague, and fellow writer/history mystery enthusiast, Ann.

Main Street Station, 1500 E. Main Street, Richmond, Virginia

The rear of the station is under renovation — a spacious, all-glass atrium structure. Travelers exit the platform and enter a gorgeous, well-preserved historic station built in 1901. Emmett would have taken the Seaboard Air Line, after making an initial connection from the Pensacola & Atlantic Line terminus at River Junction, Florida.

Emmett would have traveled east from River Junction to Jacksonville, where he took the SAL up the East Coast en route to Petersburg, terminating in Baltimore. I doubt Emmett would have had to pay for his ticket, as he had two brothers who were conductors, and family passes were common. At this time, congressmen were being criticized in the press for taking favors such as free or deeply discounted railroad passes while in office. Emmett wasn’t yet in office, but I can imagine he would have been sensitive to this issue, and would have gone out of his way to avoid any impropriety.

The ceiling of the Main Street Station. Lots of gorgeous details.

As noted, Emmett was supposed to be in Baltimore for the opening of the Democratic National Convention, Tuesday, June 25. He had been invited by the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg several weeks earlier to dedicate the Florida window in the Old Blandford Church on Monday, June 24. I’m not certain if the LMA worked this date out to accommodate Emmett’s travel schedule, but it seems as if the timing of the event was planned with this in mind.

The Pensacola Evening News for June 22, 1912 reported that Emmett left that evening for Baltimore, and he was traveling with Tom West, and B.S. Williams (also convention alternates). It took at least four hours to travel from Pensacola to Jacksonville, and then almost a full day from Jacksonville to Richmond. So, with that information (and a copy of the timetable from June, 1912) we estimate that Emmett’s train from Jacksonville arrived in Richmond late on Sunday, June 23. There was no indication that West and Williams attended the dedication ceremony with Emmett, and so they likely remained on the SAL until they reached Baltimore.

Timetable from the Petersburg Index-Appeal, June 23, 1912 via microfilm.

Emmett either caught the Richmond & Petersburg Electric Railway for the rest of the trip to Petersburg, or, perhaps his transportation was covered by the LMA.

Old Blandford Church, in the middle of the cemetery. The path to the church winds through fragile and weather-worn tombstones, which were there when Emmett visited in 1912.

Our first stop in Petersburg was the Old Blandford Church. We met Martha Mann Atkinson, the site manager for the Old Blandford Church. We told Martha about Emmett Wilson and his role in the Florida window dedication ceremony, and that I wanted to include that information in Emmett’s biography. Martha was leading another tour that morning, but she graciously included Ann and myself with the group, and said she wanted to hear more about Emmett’s story after the tour was over.

Before we went inside, the group gathered around the entrance of the church, where we were given the history of the parish. Ann and I walked around the perimeter of the Church, and took photos of some of the more striking headstones.

The marker of John Taliaferro, age 27.

Once we were inside the church, Ann and I went straight to the Florida window, and sat down next to it. All of the windows are truly beautiful in Old Blandford Church, but the Florida window — I call it Emmett’s window — is really beautiful. I cannot describe to you how peaceful it is, and soothing to look at.

We were told not to take photos, but I couldn’t help myself.


Did you know that there are only a handful of churches in the United States with Tiffany windows? Petersburg has a national treasure. I’m surprised more people don’t know about it, or visit this site.

Martha and her staff are interested in the personal stories and details attached to each of the windows. I agreed to share everything I knew about the dedication of Emmett’s window.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a collection of artifacts or a copy of Emmett’s dedication speech in the archive at Old Blandford Church, but one of the ladies who was assisting with the tour told me that she has access to old scrapbooks (!) kept by the LMA, and would gladly check to see if a program, or a photo, or anything related to the June 24, 1912 dedication exists. It is likely there was an official program, because there is a reprint of the program from the dedication of the Georgia window on November 18, 1912. I would LOVE to get my hands on a program.

Before we left, I sheepishly admitted to Martha that I had snuck a photo of myself next to the Florida window, and apologized for it. She just laughed and said she was more than happy to let me take my own photo of Emmett’s window.

St. Matthew, the Florida window. Old Blandford Church, Petersburg, Virginia. Thank you, Martha!

Next, Ann and I visited the Petersburg Public Library, where we looked through the microfilm of the Petersburg Index-Appeal for June, 1912. There wasn’t much about the dedication ceremony; and, none of it was new to me:

The article about the dedication. Notice Emmett’s name is misspelled. So much for popularity! Petersburg Index-Appeal, June 25, 1912.

There’s not much published about this event, which is disappointing, considering that the dedication was made much of in The Pensacola Journal, and the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser in June, 1912. And, now that I know better, I believe that the ‘big deal’ about the dedication was just the Journal‘s Frank Mayes promoting Emmett above and beyond his true abilities. In June 1912, Emmett still had to win the general election in November; and, Emmett still was considered a political novice. Frank Mayes’ protege still had a lot to prove — and a lot of voters to win over — before November.

Ann and I spent the rest of the day touring Petersburg, enjoying the architecture and the history. There is a lot to see, great food and coffee to be had, and some of the nicest folks you’d ever meet in one place. We plan to do another history/writing road trip again in the future.

History detecting and hanging out with friends in graveyards = fun!


Emmett’s Enneagram


I don’t really give much credence to the little quizzes I see on the Internet at different sites like Playbuzz.com, although I think they are entertaining, even funny.

For instance:

“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Clairee Belcher, Steel Magnolias. Source: bongotimes.com

Which ‘Steel Magnolia’ Are You? (According to the quiz, I’m Clairee Belcher.)


Which Addams Family Member Are You? (Results show that I’m Wednesday Addams.)

But the other other day, I thought it might be interesting to channel Emmett with one of these quizzes, answering them as if I were him. After living with the guy (so to speak) for two years now, I feel pretty comfortable taking a guess at how he’d answer the questions.

So, I took a stab at one, channelling Emmett, called, Which Enneagram Personality Type Do You Have?

(An enneagram is a form of alternative psychology that describes nine different personality types, identifies the key psychological addition (fault), and offers a suggestion to counter that fault.)

And here’s what the results said for Emmett:

The Loyalist. Source: www.playbuzz.com

The Loyalist. Source: http://www.playbuzz.com

Honestly, I think it is a fairly good description of Emmett (despite the typo in the fourth line, ‘lacing’, which I think should be ‘losing’). Emmett was deeply committed to what he believed in (the progressive democratic philosophy, honesty, due process). He desperately sought unconditional acceptance from his friends and family, and it seriously troubled him when he didn’t get it. When he was not sure of something, he surveyed his closest friends for their advice instead of trusting his gut — which, had he actually done more of in his life, would have served him better.

Speaking from a researcher’s perspective, I take this thing with a major grain of salt. But do you know why I did this? Because there’s no one alive who can vet my gut feeling about Emmett, and I wonder, sometimes, if I really do ‘get’ Emmett after all this time.

The good news is, I think I do ‘get’ him. Here’s why:

The other day, while rereading the microfilm from the Pensacola Evening News of 1912, I found a comment he made in an interview that confirmed a gut feeling I had about something he did in a case he prosecuted as State’s Attorney that year. It made me feel good about how I interpret Emmett’s reactions and behavior while I write his story. This isn’t the first confirmation I’ve found; it’s the fourth or fifth, actually.


By the way, I shared the “Clairee Belcher” result with a friend whose opinion I absolutely trust. I asked her if she thought this was accurate. She said, “Yeah, you could be Clairee. Easily.”

Circle of Family: Lula Wilson Grether

Lula Wiselogel Wilson. Source: FloridaMemory.com

Lula Wilson, poet & musician

The more I dig into Emmett’s family, the more incredible back stories I find about those who loved him best.

For instance, his sister-in-law, Lula, was a poet and musician. She had a song published in 1928, which was similar to having a tune go viral via social media today.

Lula was talented, tactful, thoughtful, tough. I imagine some of that remarkable expressive creativity was the result of living with her husband (Emmett’s older brother), Cephas Love Wilson. She had to create her own Eden, since life with Ceph could be Hell on Earth.

Lula was born in 1873, in Chicago, Illinois, to Louis and Margaret McArdle Wiselogel. Wiselogel moved his family to Chipley, Florida, in the mid-1870s to take advantage of business opportunities (he was a successful blacksmith and wagon-builder).

Lula met Cephas in Chipley, where they were married. Later, they moved to Marianna, where Cephas’ career as a lawyer, judge, state senator and politician took off. Lula and Cephas had two children, Cephas Jr. and Kathleen.

Being married to Cephas was not easy; for starters, this was a man with a large legal practice spread across several counties in West Florida, so he was away from home for days or weeks at a time, especially when the Legislature was in session in Tallahassee. Speaking of Tallahassee, Cephas had his eye on the governor’s mansion. The higher he climbed politically, the more time he spent out and about, away from home. Therefore, Lula was, in effect, a single parent for long periods.

The Florida governor's mansion, 1912. This building was torn down in 1955 because it was structurally unsound and rebuilt on the same site. Source: www.floridagovernorsmansion.com

The Florida governor’s mansion, 1912, also known as “Ceph’s Dream House.” This building was torn down in 1955 because it was structurally unsound. The current mansion was rebuilt on the same site. Source: http://www.floridagovernorsmansion.com

Speaking of getting around, Cephas had a reputation for courting women despite still being married. One state editor who was not impressed with the Hon. Cephas Love Wilson, Esq., wrote a feature item about how Ceph was about to board a train home to Marianna, but at the last minute, snuck off to a young woman’s house — someone he’d only met a few days earlier — for romance. The Marianna Times-Courier didn’t pick up the exchange, but the Pensacola Evening News did, and the Wilsons subscribed to both.

He loves the women. Source: Pensacola Evening News, August 12, 1912.

He loves the women. Source: Pensacola Evening News, August 12, 1912.

I can imagine what dinner was like at the Wilson house the next day after the article came out: Lula handed Ceph the afternoon edition of the Pensacola Evening News, opened right to the story. Lula then handed him a cup of coffee — but did she hand him the scalding hot coffee or drop it right in his lap? Oops.

I doubt the article was news to Lula. She wasn’t stupid. Also, this was probably not the first time Ceph did some extracurricular schlorting in his district; other married men probably did the same thing. But outing Cephas’ activities in the papers for all the world to see, and the resulting public humiliation Lula must have endured, was probably the last straw. She took matters into her own hands, and (according to family records) filed for divorce.

This would be a problem for gubernatorial wannabe Cephas, and an even bigger problem for Emmett, especially if it was filed at the same time state Democratic Party execs decided to back their obscure dark horse candidate, Emmett Wilson, as U.S. Congressman. If word got out about the divorce in the Wilson family, the sins of one brother could easily be visited on the other, especially since Emmett was young, unknown, and had problems staying sober.

Interestingly, Lula didn’t go through with the divorce. I’m not sure if someone talked her out of it; I know it must have been a tough, yet necessary decision.

Although everyone in West Florida who knew the Wilsons would have agreed that Lula had reason to file for divorce, common sense told her that she would have the most to lose if she went through with it. A divorce would negatively impact her daughter Kathleen’s standing in society and future marriage prospects. Also, financially, Lula would be on her own, and likely, without custody of her children. I don’t think the idea of being self-sufficient bothered Lula, but she was sensitive to what others may say to her elderly parents about the situation, or how her teenage children would be affected, and she was protective of them.

The fact Lula withdrew her divorce petition was not a sign of weakness. Deciding to stick it out with someone who didn’t respect her in order to protect her loved ones required an incredibly strong character. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t dwell on it, either. Instead, Lula got busy.

Lula channeled her energies into several major community and public services. One example: Lula established and organized the Marianna chapter of the American Red Cross in 1917 (although The Pensacola Journal erroneously credited that to Cephas). The successful Marianna chapter was the model for the Pensacola chapter, as Lula was invited to lead the setup in Escambia County later that year.

WWI Red Cross volunteers in Florida rolling bandages. Very likely Lula was instrumental in setting up this group. Source: State Archives of Florida

WWI Red Cross volunteers in Florida rolling bandages. Very likely Lula was instrumental in setting up this group. Source: State Archives of Florida

Lula found her happiness and fulfillment in doing good for others.

And Cephas? He doggedly pursued his dream: Cephas told reporters for years that the one thing he truly wanted in his life was to be Governor of Florida. He ran for the office twice, but withdrew before the first primary for either race. The public reason he gave both times was that his business and family were his first priorities, and the race was distracting. I kinda doubt that, because Ceph was a master politician. He could have handled being governor. Hell, he could have handled being congressman. What I think happened was that his extracurricular personal life was an addiction of sorts that got in the way of his professional life. Similar to what happened with Emmett and alcohol.

Lula remained married to Cephas until he died in June, 1923. She remarried about two years later. She found happiness. I hope she found love. I think she did; she was now channeling her energy into music and poetry, which resulted in her getting her song published. Nowhere is there a mention of her first married name.

"Chipola River" by Mrs. Lulu (Lula) May Grether. Source: Floridasheetmusic.com

“Chipola River” by Mrs. Lulu (Lula) May Grether. Source: Floridasheetmusic.com

Well done, Lula.

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: http://www.univdistcol.com/eggfight.html

I hope the local bar association didn’t make Emmett wear a beanie to court during his tenure as a Freshman lawyer. Source: http://www.univdistcol.com/eggfight.html

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.