Chapter 3: 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



The Second Research Trip to Pensacola


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!

Field Trip: Emmitsburg, Maryland


It is a kind of poetic justice that I would find a trove of information for Emmett’s book in a town bearing his name.

I surely did not see that one coming.

Emmitsburg, Maryland, is a small college town 10 miles south of Gettysburg, near the state line. What brought me here today was the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archive. As reported in the last post, the Daughters of Charity built Pensacola Hospital in 1915, where Emmett died in 1918.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine and Daughters of Charity Provincial Archive

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine and Daughters of Charity Provincial Archive

What I was looking for was specific information on where he died in the hospital (ward photos, descriptions), who cared for him, what his medical treatment was like, and any other details about the hospital and its staff from 1915-1918.

Holdings at the Provincial Archive specific to Pensacola Hospital.

Holdings at the Provincial Archive specific to Pensacola Hospital.

The most useful information was a set of correspondence from the Sisters who organized the hospital and, basically, ran it. The letters were chatty, which surprised me (my experience with Sisters has always been that they kept a lot to themselves). These letters documented some local scandals, hospital-related, of course, and provided an excellent insight into certain personalities of Pensacola.

Nothing was specifically said about Emmett. However, his doctors were mentioned, and the Sisters gave great insight into their personalities, bedside manners, and the like.

Also, I found a document that was very influential in the Sisters’ in psychiatric nursing training back in the day. It is descriptive, and from that, I have a good idea of how Emmett was cared for as he lay dying in Pensacola Hospital.

The archivists at the Provincial Archive are wonderful; I had a great time hanging out with them and talking about the Sisters who ran Pensacola Hospital in 1918.

Before I left, I wanted to pay a visit to a very special person on the premises — Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

There aren’t too many places where you can hang out with nice folks, do research, dig in an archive, and visit an honest-to-goodness Saint. Well, you can in Emmitsburg.

The Basilica is large, quiet, airy. There was no crowd, thankfully. The entire experience was peaceful, dignified.

There were a few people at prayer in the Basilica; I don't like taking photos when people are praying in a church, so I don't have many photos of the interior of the Shrine for that reason.

There were a few people at prayer in the Basilica; I don’t like taking photos when people are praying in a church, so I don’t have many photos of the interior of the Shrine for that reason.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This is a small altar on the right side of the basilica, with her relics.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This is a small altar on the right side of the basilica, with her relics.

A tiny relic close up, at the kneeler.

A tiny relic close up, at the kneeler.

Spending a few quiet moments in the Basilica was a nice way to end the research visit. Food for the mind, food for the soul.

Now that I have some new data to work into Emmett’s story, I’ll need to spend a few days reading the letters carefully, and cataloging what I find.

But not tomorrow; alas, I have mandatory faculty training all day. It’s all good. I do better processing new information after I step away from it for a day or so.

Have a good evening, everyone!

Get Me to the Nunnery!


Tomorrow, I have a field trip planned to the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives, and I cannot wait!

Daughters of Charity Provincial Archive, Emmittsburg, Maryland. Source: DOCPA

Daughters of Charity Provincial Archive, Emmittsburg, Maryland. Source: DOCPA

Why is this such a big deal? Well, other than the fact I love Sisters — I grew up in fear and awe of them, in a good way — this is the order that built the first Catholic hospital in Florida, Pensacola Hospital (now Sacred Heart Hospital), in 1915.

Pensacola Hospital, 1915. Source: Pensapedia

Pensacola Hospital, 1915. Source: Pensapedia

Before this hospital was built, there were only small sanitaria and other clinics, and if you became seriously ill, and needed surgery, you had to go out of state for treatment (the closest large hospitals in Mobile or New Orleans). That wasn’t always an option for the everyday guy or gal.

Even Emmett’s own father, Dr. F. C. Wilson, escorted his son Frank to Tuoro Hospital in New Orleans in the early 1900s when he needed a liver operation — Dr. Wilson couldn’t do it, nor would other local physicians, for some reason. The information I have on this did not specify Frank’s liver ailment; but, I do know that it was a risky procedure, in any hospital at that time, and traveling there was even more dangerous in his condition.

Long story short: The nuns brought a high-quality hospital and medical care to Pensacola at a time when it was desperately needed.

The Daughters of Charity cared for EVERYONE, regardless of race, creed, or ability to pay. Their motto was and is, “Service to all.”

By the way, Pensacola Hospital is important in the book’s research: It is where Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

What I hope to see in the archive are photos of the wards, the Sisters nursing patients, the layout of the rooms, the kind of furniture and equipment used, and the like.

Also, I’m interested in the Sisters’ nursing practices with regard to alcoholics and alcoholism itself. These patients were generally treated in a psychiatric ward, unless they were wealthy and/or prominent, and could afford a private room.

I’ll be back with an update in a day or so.


Before I go, did you know that there is an Archivist’s Prayer? The prayer can be found on the Daughters of Charity’s page, written by one of their own, Sister Ann Courtney, at the link below.

An Archivists Prayer
Lord, let us remember that
The trailblazers of yesterday
Are our traditions today
Boxed and labeled and
They leap from our shelves
Our forebears who fashioned
new stories to tell.
Their spirit escapes in new
patterns, new plans
Our web site of findings that
links and expands
To whatever the future is
wanting to give.
Lord, let your Spirit spur us
To tell the pulse of our work.
In our quest for the best.
Written for the Archivists of Congregations of Women Religious by
Sister Ann Courtney, Sisters of Charity of New York
August, 1997

He Just Went to Sleep


Notice the date.

May 29, 1918.

May 29, 1918.

In sum, here’s what happened, 97 years ago.

Emmett was hospitalized at Pensacola Hospital for almost a week prior to his death; he went through a few days of harrowing delirium tremens (and was likely strapped down during the time). It wasn’t a regular hospital room; Pensacola Hospital put alcoholics in the psych ward, which was basement level.

That was the typical way hospitals handled alcoholic cases like Emmett’s. Pensacola Hospital was a brand-new facility, too; state-of-the art equipment and trained staff for 1918. Emmett wasn’t being mistreated or mishandled; there just simply wasn’t anything else to do for patients presenting in his condition.

Emmett had cirrhosis, and was in end-stage kidney and other multiple organ failure. When he showed up at the hospital, it was the end, according to my friend, Donna the Nephrologist (a colleague and physician who has been vetting my research along the way), and the staff knew it.

According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she said.

But, Emmett wasn’t given any alcohol while in the hospital at the end. We know this because we have a statement indicating Emmett went through the DTs. Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system, the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since the alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.

Emmett’s body could not handle it; he went into a coma.

And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.



Emmett's candle, in St. Therese's corner at church.

Emmett’s candle, in St. Therese’s corner at church.

The seven-day candle lit for him this week has just about burned out.

Today, I’m remembering Emmett, and feeling thankful for the gift of his story in my life.