Chapter 37: Coffee and a selfie

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May 18, 2014, 8:45 a.m. Pensacola

The female GPS voice crisply announces “Destination,” as I pull up slowly along North G Street, in the St. John’s Coalition neighborhood in Pensacola.  I feel my stomach know up with anxiety. It’s not logical; there’s no reason for anxiety, but it is what I feel.

St. John’s Cemetery is on my left. I see the green and white gatehouse at the intersection of West Belmont and North G. The gatehouse looks to have been built around the early 1900s, so the driveway is not as wide as a modern one would be. I drive slowly through, taking the structure in, looking up and around. The structure is solid; at least 100 years old.

Emmett drove through this back then, I realize. As I do today.

I stop about 50 feet away from the gatehouse, on the right hand side of the road. Up ahead, parked on the other side is another van, but the side doors are open and a lady with a little girl are sitting on the side, feet on the ground. The lady nods politely at me as she hands the little girl a sippy cup.  I wave, leaving my car in idle as I pull out my map and get my bearings.

Emmett’s close by, I realize, as I check the burial grid provided by St. John’s Cemetery:

Section 3, Space 3, Lot 15, in St. John’s Cemetery. That’s Emmett.

Well, here goes, I think, as I pick up my coffee cup, grab my bag.

I take a deep breath — I wonder — hope — there will be some kind of psychic pull, or jolt, or spiritual event when I get to Emmett’s plot. I psyche myself for it —

I open the car door —

and whatever I was trying to psyche for myself evaporates immediately.

Wheeeeee wheeeeeee bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Buzz buzz buzzzzzz wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The annoying, ear-piercing sound of a weed whacker nearby.

I look towards at the van, and from around the back comes a man who has to be the groundskeeper.

Dust, dead grass, and small gravel bits fly around his feet as he weed whacks the dried brown turf next to the cemetery driveway. The lady must have gotten his attention, said something, because he suddenly glances up at me, smiles sheepishly in apology, and switches off the weed whacker.

He then walks toward the rear of his van and pulls out other quieter equipment, shears or something, and heads off in another part of the cemetery, to take care of something else.

As I walk along an access row, I scan the stones around me —  I’m actually above row three — I turn right.

This is the old part of the cemetery. Most of the stones around me are worn down by acid rain, dates barely recognizable, especially so with the flat grave markers, the ones that are the length of a plot. Some stones have broken edges, likely from riding mowers, and many are stained or covered with lichens, although the grounds look well tended.

Perhaps the families are long gone, and there’s no one to consider these old stones, or to repair them anymore.

The gatehouse is in the background, to the left. Note how old the stones are in this section. Photo by the author.

I see a faded plastic bouquet at the grave of a woman who died in the 1950s. And down further is a shrub someone decorated as a Christmas tree once upon a time. There’s a few ornaments still stuck to the branches, a silver glass ornament is on the ground underneath, still there even in May, I marvel….

I look at my map, and suddenly realize where I am.

Section Three.

And here he is, on my right.

Here he is. Photo by the author.

I take the bouquet of supermarket roses out of my bag; remove the cellophane and lay them atop Emmett’s grave.

I take a white plastic rosary out of my pocket — I don’t know why I’m doing that, though, he wasn’t Catholic, but it feels right — and I place it on his stone.

“Hi, Emmett. I’m here,” I say.

I try to clear my mind, to think nothing, but just to feel, to sense — I don’t know — anything? Maybe Emmett trying to talk to me? To send me a sign? But I can’t quiet the thoughts for very long. Mostly I just stand there, looking at his plot, wondering about his funeral, who kept the plot up, if anyone else brought him flowers.

As I look about Emmett, I realize this was supposed to be Meade Wilson’s family plot, and they probably didn’t expect to have to inter Emmett here when they purchased it.  Emmett’s brother, Meade, was buried here in 1914; he died also a young man, but of tuberculosis. Meade and Carrie are buried to the left of Emmett’s plot.

Meade and his wife Carrie. They had three children; two sons who are not buried here. The plot is large; perhaps they had planned everyone to be buried here at one time. Photo by the author.

There is an empty space next to Emmett. Above Emmett is Meade and Carrie’s daughter, who died in 1900 of scarlet fever.

Emmett’s niece, located directly above Emmett. Photo by the author.

The ground is covered with sand and weeds; I scrape some of the sand away from Emmett’s grave to discover a concrete slab atop his plot. I’m intrigued by the sand and the slab — then I realize that the area floods during hurricane season.

Weeds. Sand. The finality of the slab atop his plot.

I realize no one has been here to see him in decades. He’s been forgotten.

Well, at least, not by me.

I sit down in front of his stone, and I start to talk to him.

I drink my coffee, I tell him a joke; I take a selfie with him.

Selfie with Emmett. Photo by the author.

It is the start of a beautiful friendship.

 

Chapter 3: Dissection Homework From the WFGS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Death Takes Mrs. Wilson

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New-to-me via my monthly check-in with various databases:

Verbatim text taken from the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL), date March 3, 1943:

Death Takes Mrs. Wilson at Mulberry

“Friends in Jacksonville and other parts of the State will regret to learn of the death of Mrs. Carrie Bond Wilson, widow of E. Meade Wilson, which occurred yesterday at the home of her son, E. Meade Wilson, Jr. at Mulberry, Fla.

“Mrs. Wilson was born March 28, 1872, at Brewton, Ala., and resided on Jacksonville for nearly 30 years. She was the daughter of Fisher E. Bond and Clara Nicholson Bond.

“Besides her son in Mulberry, she leaves another son, Frank M. Wilson; a grandson, Frank M. Wilson, Jr., U.S. Naval Reserve, and a sister, Mrs. Dora Walker. Funeral services will be held at 3 P.M. Thursday in the family plot on St. John’s Cemetery, Pensacola.”

Carrie Bond Wilson was Emmett’s sister-in-law. Her husband, Meade, died in 1914.

What’s interesting about the obituary is that four other siblings-in-law were still alive, but were not named: Julian (Emmett’s twin), who lived in Montgomery Ala.; Dora Wilson Smith and Frank C. Wilson, Jr., who lived in Marianna, Fla., and Katie Wilson Meade, who lived in Alexandria, Va.

 

Meade’s grave, at St. John’s, Pensacola. Source: findagrave.com

Meade (left) and Carrie (right), the Wilson family plot at St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola. Source: Find-a-Grave.com

Carrie, Meade, and Emmett are buried together in the Wilson family plot at St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola. Emmett’s grave is about five feet to the right of Carrie’s.