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



Rheumatism as Euphemism


Some alcoholics ‘hit bottom’ (i.e., reach a point where they become teachable, where they are sick and tired of being sick and tired) sooner than others.

I knew it was the end. I didn't even catch a buzz the last time I had a drink. Source:

I didn’t even catch a buzz on the day of my last drink. The romance was over. Source:

For myself, it came after about 30 years of moderate to occasional heavy drinking. At the end, it wasn’t as if I was having blackouts or medical issues related to the drinking (other than massive hangovers and nausea), but I was tired of feeling ‘this way.’ In fact, my last drink was awful: It was White Zinfandel from a wine box. Nothing sexy, fun, or exciting about that. Just gross. I had only one or two glasses of it that night, no buzz. The relationship was done.

For Emmett, I know he hit absolute bottom twice: First, on December 15, 1914, while he was a congressman in D.C. Second, on May 29, 1918, when he died.

But when he first hit bottom in 1914, it was called “rheumatism.” At least, that’s what the papers were told.

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

Rheumatism or alcoholism? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

In reality, Emmett had several other serious medical conditions, all of which found their common starting point in alcoholism. According to a friend who is helping me with the medical research, Donna the Nephrologist, a physician was required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder.

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “There were other things going on with him outside of a general rheumatic diagnosis. For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off), very likely cirrhosis was present.”

So, why the rheumatism diagnosis? Donna told me that at the turn of the century, rheumatism was used all the time as a safe public diagnosis for patients who were alcoholics. “Then, as today, people didn’t want to be called alcoholics. It was shameful, and there is still a stigma about it. Because of who he was, it was probably easier to keep out of the papers, and call it ‘rheumatism’ than for someone who was not a congressman.”

In Emmett’s day, there wasn’t much available from the medical community, in terms of pharmaceutical help. Psychotherapy was still new, and mostly suspect. Most people, when ill, would turn to their drugstore and purchase over-the-counter medications to treat themselves.

Even if you weren’t an alcoholic back then, it was easy enough to become one, innocently, just by taking OTC medicines.

In this example, Radway's was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

In this example, Radway’s was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

The government fined Radway's for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

The government fined Radway’s for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

(By the way, if you are interested in reading about some of the cure-alls Emmett and his peers had available to them as over-the-counter medication, you can read all about it for free, online via Google Books. The book is: Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery, reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 2 [Google ebook].)

N&QtitlepageWhat’s interesting in this book is the sheer number of over-ther-counter ‘medicines’ that included what we, today, know as controlled substances. I mentioned this to Donna; she confirmed that many of the OTC products he likely took, just to get some kind of relief, probably damaged his liver and kidneys further.

For instance, lithium.

At one point during 1914, Emmett did try to sober up at a spa that was well known for its natural ‘lithia water’ spring. Donna said that lithium, today a controlled substance, probably did make Emmett feel better (it is used in treating manic depression), but it was another chemical, not a true solution to his problem. Lithium also wreaks havoc on already-damaged kidneys, she added. With Emmett, lithia water might have played a role in hastening his death.

Lithia water was touted as a 'cure' for 'rheumatism.' Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to 'cure' alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

Lithia water was touted as a ‘cure’ for ‘rheumatism.’ Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to ‘cure’ alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

“I’m sure he was feeling rheumatic,” she said. The toxins would settle into a person’s joints because if your kidneys aren’t processing toxins out of the body, the toxins have to go somewhere, she added. “It was awful, painful for him, and it didn’t just go away after a day or so.”

Something else Donna said: Back in the early 1900s, if you had serious kidney problems (i.e., episodes of complete kidney failure), there was little that could be done for the patient. So, she added, as of 1914, Emmett was on borrowed time. “The damaged kidneys can still function; but, they are never again 100 percent healthy. Any minor illness he would pick up along the way would compound his problems.”

So, that cold he picked up at the football game? That could have been the start of the problem that landed him in the hospital in December, 1914?

“Very likely,” she said. “Your boy was a lot sicker than probably he, himself, realized.”

Did you know you can actually still purchase lithia water? One lithia water website will ship it to your door. Interestingly, it includes a background information link to “Wikipedia”, not to a vetted medical journal or more credible resource. I’m not sharing that link. Caveat emptor, people.