Following the Money


One of the things I’ve always found curious about Emmett Wilson’s life was why he never lived on his own, never owned a house, never had his own apartment in which he was responsible for everything (food, furniture, utilities and the like).

Emmett was a bachelor with an active and upscale social life and a good job. According to an interview in the Sterling (Illinois) Daily Standard in 1905, Emmett said he was always anxious to be on his own, to prove himself in the legal profession, to be his own man as soon as he could, because he was ready for it.

But according to different editions of the Pensacola City Directory, the U.S. Census for 1900 and 1910, and several articles in Florida contemporary newspapers, Emmett never really was on his own in the true sense of the word.

908 N. Spring Street, Pensacola. Source: Google Maps

In the 1900 U.S. Census, Emmett was enumerated at his father’s home in Chipley, then he moved that same year to his brother Cephas’ house in Marianna. Emmett had roommates both in college dorms and boarding houses while a student at Stetson University; when he moved to Pensacola, he lived with friends at a boarding house, then with the Kehoe family from 1911 onward. Obviously, he paid rent at the boarding houses (In 1908, 124 W. Belmont, today an office building, and in 1909, 908 N. Spring Street, still standing).

Was it money? Couldn’t Emmett afford it?

Sure he could.

Source: Who’s Who in America, Volume 4, 1906, p. 1201

It wasn’t that Emmett didn’t make enough money to live on his own. For example, in 1906, when Emmett was a clerk, then temporary Assistant District Attorney (a part-time position while he also worked in his uncle Evelyn Croom Maxwell’s law office). Emmett eventually became Maxwell’s partner in 1908. But in 1907, Emmett’s salary was $1,500 a year (the average salary for a family of four in the U.S. was about $600 in 1907), in addition to whatever he was making as a private attorney.

Emmett was named to the clerkship, then temporary assistant district attorney in 1906, which terminated in 1907. The image is hard to capture, but you can see the original at this link.

Source: Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States, 1907.

Emmett also lived with the Kehoes from 1911 onward — he may have paid something towards rent or household costs, but it probably wasn’t substantial, and because Jennie and Walter Kehoe considered Emmett a member of their family, I doubt they would have accepted much, if anything from Emmett towards rent. He made good money, and he had plenty of opportunities to save it.

In 1908 Pensacola, the average rent at a good boarding house was $5 a week, which included room, board, electricity and laundry services.

According to the Inflation Calculator, $5 a week in 1908 has the same purchasing power as $124.56 today — about $500 a month in rent. That was a bargain, considering Emmett’s rent included board and laundry services. Try finding that kind of rent package deal today.

I know that Emmett had to spend a lot of his own money on his political campaign in 1912. He complained in a speech after he won the primary in June, 1912, about how expensive it was — campaign spending records for 1912 show that he spent over $2,000 of his own money leading up to the primary — which is the equivalent of $50,074.14 in today’s dollars, according to the Inflation Calculator. Expensive, indeed.

So, although Emmett certainly would have been able to afford a home of his own by 1912, it seems he put his money towards his political ambitions. It was a gamble, but it makes sense.

But it is too bad that Emmett didn’t invest in real estate, or have something to call his own. Real estate ownership was considered a solid, sound investment. Also, owning a home conveyed the appearance of reliability, consistency.

Even sobriety.

And perhaps the last point was the other stickler.

By 1913, we know Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic, and booze was costly: For example, ONE gallon of nine year old Kentucky whiskey cost $9 in 1913. In 2018 dollars, that’s $225. I doubt Emmett limited his drinking to a gallon a week. It was likely SEVERAL gallons.

Emmett was also a member of two prominent men’s clubs in Pensacola: The Osceola Club and the Elks. The Osceola Club was a fancy society club where one could read, meet and socialize with select and prominent Pensacolians, and drink (although that was not publicized). Membership in The Osceola Club was approximately $500 a year, not including your bar tab, if you had one. And Emmett had one, for sure.

Yes, that’s $500 a year.

In 1913 dollars.

Or, $12,518, according to the Inflation Calculator in 2018 dollars.

I don’t have Emmett’s receipts, of course, but it seems obvious to me that spent most of his money on his political campaigns in 1912 and 1914, and booze.

And when Emmett died in 1918, he was in financial trouble. Emmett’s brother and executor of his estate, Cephas Love Wilson, stated in a letter that Emmett didn’t have anything of value in his belongings except a life insurance policy worth about $13,000, and that Emmett had already borrowed $3,000 against it (that he knew of). In the end, there wasn’t much, if anything, left of Emmett’s estate.




Wanting to Be Found


Call me crazy, but when I find myself hitting a brick wall in the research, I ask Emmett for help. Truth. Also, every time I’ve done it, I’ve gotten a response — usually in the form of new information, or a new lead.

The fact I am also dogged and persistent, and (yes) somewhat addicted to my research is also a factor in finding new information and leads.

But sometimes, I honestly get the feeling he’s in the room with me when I’m digging around. It is when I get frustrated at the plate-tectonic-speed at which I think I am moving with the research at times that it seems Emmett puts something in front of me. Something I’m supposed to see, but might not notice, otherwise.

I know it sounds nutty, but I believe Emmett actively helps me. I asked him for help two days ago. Here’s what happened:

I was trolling through reels of the Sterling (Illinois) Daily Standard for 1905 and 1906, and frankly, there wasn’t much in there about our Emmett. It’s a big change for me: I would typically see something published about Emmett and his family in the Marianna, Chipley, or Pensacola papers almost every other day, so I’ve been expecting to see his name. Emmett clearly isn’t a famous, popular guy in Sterling, Illinois. It is a little odd, frankly: Lawyers are mentioned quite often on the front page of the Sterling Daily Standard. Lawyers have social cachet — well — the established ones in Sterling hold cachet. Emmett doesn’t seem to run with that club yet.

I’ve seen Nicholas Van Sant’s name here and there; mostly in connection with his work for the local YMCA, and his bank (Van Sant was president of the bank, a leader of his church, and involved in prominent business activities). What about the law firm he was running with Emmett? Not a darn thing. Nothing about the cases, nothing about the firm, which is unusual, I think, given the stature of Van Sant in Sterling. As a point of reference, he was bigger than Cephas EVER was in Marianna.

Nick Van Sant's brother, Sam, was big in Republican politics in the early 1900s. You can't say the same thing about Ceph or Emmett. Image source: Ebay

Nick Van Sant’s brother, Sam, was big in Republican politics in the early 1900s. You can’t say the same thing about Ceph or Emmett. Image source: Ebay

(In fact, the Van Sant brothers were a much bigger deal than the Wilson brothers ever would be. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and that’s for Emmett’s book, by the way.)


I scrolled the film for several unproductive hours on Friday, finding nothing, feeling like I was spinning my wheels. I said out loud, “OK Emmett. What is it that I’m supposed to see here?”

Just like that.

Then, I scrolled on to the next day’s edition of the Sterling Daily Standard for January 15, 1905, and there was an article on the front page that says Sterling, Illinois will have a city directory to be published, with information “about the twin cities” good up through June 1. Big deal, I thought.

But something told me to stop, save the article, and try to find this source, right now. Just like that.

So, I looked over on, and found that Sterling’s city directory for 1906 didn’t exist. Dead end.

But that same ‘something’ told me to look at the article again, that I missed something.  So I reread it. “Twin cities?” Sterling was a ‘twin?’ That was odd. I stopped to look up this term in relation to Sterling — and yes — Sterling and Rock Falls, Illinois, were referred to as ‘the twin cities’ in Whiteside County.

This time, I looked back into the city directory database for Rock Falls.

Bingo. The city directory for 1906 — AND — it is for BOTH Sterling and Rock Falls!

Sterling City Directory. Source:

Sterling City Directory. Source:

And there, my friends, is where I found Emmett’s address, the address for the law firm he set up with Nicholas Van Sant. What’s more, I also identified the family Emmett was living with at the time. A big new lead!

Emmett's address in Sterling. Source:

Emmett’s address in Sterling. Source:

It gets better.  With the addresses in hand, I scouted around and found the Van Sant house, as well as Emmett’s house. Both are still standing.

Van Sant house in Sterling. Source: Ebay

Van Sant house in Sterling. Source: Ebay


The Van Sant house today. Source:

The Van Sant house today. Source:


What’s cool is there’s a realtor’s video of Emmett’s house, and you can see some of the original features that I know Emmett had to have seen in the house (pocket doors, the gas connections still in the walls of the master bedroom, the upstairs hallway, the archway of the living room).

Where Emmett lived in 1906. Source: Zillow

Where Emmett lived in 1906. Source: Zillow


I wonder which of the upstairs bedrooms was his?

After two years of digging around, I have to tell you that I am still surprised at how much information I am coming up with on Emmett the Obscure. I am continuously amazed — and grateful, and humble — at what I am still able to turn up.

I keep thinking back to the night I found his photograph ‘stuck’ in this odd queue of photographs that, frankly, had nothing to do with him. I realized the other day that it was my sobriety anniversary — April 27 — two years ago that I ‘found’ him.

Or, he wanted to be found, I sometimes think.

The more I’ve learned about Emmett, the more I believe that none of this with him is coincidental or even accidental. He wants his story told. God willing, it will happen.