Chapter 40: Awesomeness and Context (Walking in Emmett’s Footsteps, part 2 )

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May 18, 2014, 11:40 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

Clearly, I am in the presence of awesomeness.

I can’t describe it, but  as I walk around historic downtown Pensacola with Jacki Wilson, retracing Emmett Wilson’s everyday steps, I am aware and humbled by her true awesomeness.

The awesome Jacki Wilson showing me the old houses in historic Pensacola. Photo by the author.

For the record, my relationship with Jacki grew mostly from lengthy email messages on a variety of Emmett and Pensacola topics; messages that were back and forth for several months. That can be an awkward way to start friendships, but as I walk with her, I feel accepted and totally at ease, just as one would a friend I’d known for years. What comes out in our hanging-out together is an appreciation for history and mystery, and a love of obscure facts that tell the deep story of people long gone.

And in fact, she’s introducing me as her friend and a fellow researcher as we walk about in Pensacola.

It’s humbling. In this moment I realize how precious this dual gift of acceptance and friendship really is — and I receive it thanks to the man who was pretty much shunned the last year of his life. How ironic. Yet how gratifying.

The other thing you have to really admire about Jacki is her access. EVERYONE knows here in this, downtown and historic Pensacola. She knows where to go.

Plus, she has a BADGE. That badge is power. But the lady wearing it is graceful and easy with such access. I tell this to Jacki, who beams at me.

“Yeah, well,” Jacki says with a laugh. “I enjoy my work.”

Jacki inviting me into historic Seville Tower, once known as the American Bank Building. Emmett’s office was on the top floor. Photo by the author.

Before I know it, we are in front of a tall pink building. Seville Tower, once known as the American National Bank Building, constructed in 1909. This is where Emmett had a law office with his partner, J. Walter Kehoe, on the 7th floor.

As you walk through the doors, there is a giant antique bookcase on the left hand wall. I wonder if Emmett ever saw this. Photo by the author.

Jacki says the building is on the National Historic Register, so it is mostly unchanged — and that goes also for the claustraphobically small elevator. Once upon a time, there was an elevator operator for this thing, Jacki says. Imagine how tight it was back in the day!

As we ascend to the 7th floor, I’m a bit hesitant as it is a law firm, we weren’t really coming with any advance  notice, and people were working, but Jacki is not a woman to be dissuaded for any historical fact-finding mission! That badge, you know, lends lost of authority.

(O.K. To be clear, her ‘badge’ is her Pensacola Historical Society nametag, but it has clout in this town. I digress.)

Looking out of Emmett's office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB. He used to work on the third floor of the one across the street.

Looking out of what may have been Emmett’s office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB to the old Customs House, where Emmett’s office was on the third floor. Today it is an art gallery and cultural events are held there. Photo by the author.

The doors to the elevator open to a law firm. The receptionist did not seem at all inconvenienced when Jacki explained out mission — she was very nice and let us take a look out of different windows of the office to see what Emmett may have seen back in the day — namely, his other old office building, which was (and is) right across the street.

Back in Emmett’s day, the building across the street was called the Customs House. It housed the post office, and several federal offices, which were located on the third floor. Emmett was the assistant district attorney for several years; so, his office was on the third floor of the Customs House.

The background about Emmett as the assistant D.A., I tell Jacki, was that he was the youngest D.A. in the country at the time. Also, when Emmett was named to the position, a lot of people were surprised because a) Emmett didn’t seek the job outright and b) he had little experience.

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. The photo is Emmett’s law school graduation photo. Source: PEN, September 7, 1907.

As we walked across the street to the Customs House, Jacki nodded her understanding, adding that not much seems to have changed in 100 years in political partisanship.

The Customs House is now an art museum. But when Emmett was a congressman in 1913, it had needed a lot of repairs. He lobbied for (and got) a $30K appropriation for the improvements. Today, that would be about $630,000. The improvements needed then were cosmetic (wall repair, painting, light fixtures, sidewalk). Unfortunately, something happened before the repairs were finished: The appropriations, somehow, never materialized, and the local party bosses (and community) blamed it on Emmett’s incompetency and/or ineffectiveness.

Editor Frank Mayes (and other political bosses) came to believe Emmett didn’t care enough about this project to see it through. Source: The Pensacola Journal, Oct 1914.

The Customs House today.

The Customs House today. Photo by the author.

Regardless, it looks as if the people of Pensacola care a lot about this historic building, because it is in excellent condition today.

One of the things I talked with Jacki about was the fact that there WAS a chance for Emmett to turn his image of incompetency around re the Customs House appropriation mess. In fact, Emmett did follow up on the issue. A mistake was definitely made somewhere in the bureaucratic document shuffling that is Washington, D.C. But in Pensacola, the only thing people understood was that Emmett said one thing, but something else happened:

The Montgomery Advertiser, October 27, 1914. Source: GenealogyBank.com

 

“But he didn’t. Or, he couldn’t,” Jacki said.

I think the political machinery was too much; that Emmett might have sold his soul, so to speak, for quick gain, to make something of himself so that he would be independent, or to feel good about himself, to feel fulfilled — and of course, I’m just guessing here at this point, I tell Jacki, as we walk along the sidewalks toward a diner for lunch.  “There’s a scrapbook that he willed to a friend, that somebody got, kept, treasured for a little while anyway. I just wish I could find it.”

Maybe you will, Jacki said. I hope so, anyway.

Lunch with the most awesome Jacki Wilson after the grand tour of historic Pensacola!

 

I hope so too.

But for now, I treasure one of the best gifts of Emmett’s research, and that is of 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

 

Chapter 2: Repository

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WFGS official seal. Source: WFGS

On April 27, 2013, I called the West Florida Genealogical Society in Pensacola, and spoke with researcher Peg Vignolo. I introduced myself, and explained what I was looking for.

“Nope,” she told me after checking several resources. “We don’t have anything on Emmett Wilson other than what I’d already found about him myself on the Internet,” which isn’t a whole lot, she added. I agreed.

Peg said it was curious that there was such little information, given that he was the youngest U.S. Congressman at the time, and the first from Pensacola after the new congressional district was formed in 1908.

From ChroniclingAmerica.gov.

I mentioned the date of his death, and asked for a copy of his obituary, if they had copies of The Pensacola Journal from 1918, since the 1918 edition of the paper didn’t seem to be on microfilm yet, or available via ChroniclingAmerica.gov, the online newspaper repository at the Library of Congress.  Peg said that they had the bound issues of The Pensacola Journal for May 1918, and would be happy to make copies and email the obituary to me.

“May 1918, huh…,” she added thoughtfully. “Maybe it was the flu. The pandemic hit West Florida pretty hard in 1918. It devastated many families here in Pensacola.” I told her I wasn’t sure, but what little information I had at that moment suggested he’d died at home, so it was a possibility.

Peg recommended that I next contact the Pensacola Historic Society (now known as the UWF Historic Trust).  “They have a large archive on prominent locals; if there’s anything on Emmett, it would likely be there.”

Meanwhile, she’d hunt for the obituary, and refused payment. In gratitude, I emailed some of the articles I’d found already so that she could start a surname folder for Emmett.

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A few hours later, Peg emailed three articles to my faculty email account, one each on Emmett’s death, obituary, and funeral. She mentioned it was curious that he garnered not one but three articles in the local newspaper, something unusual about a person of suggested prominence but lacking a file in their historical archives.

Definitely unusual — and mysterious.

Next: Dissection Homework

100 Years Ago Today

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The front page of The Pensacola Journal, 100 years ago today. If you click on the link here, you’ll see the entire front page as it was on May 29, 1918.

Here’s a better look at Emmett’s death notice:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one.

Emmett’s death notice was obviously unexpected and thrown together with few complete details as The Pensacola Journal‘s first (and only edition) of morning newspaper was going to press.

  • “Following a very short illness….” Those who were closest to him knew that what actually killed Emmett had been killing him for years, and Emmett’s “poor health” had been reported in  West Florida papers for several years. In fact, this was one of the reasons reported in earlier versions of The Pensacola Journal and other Florida papers why “he decided” not to run for a third term.
  • “…died at 12:25 o’clock this morning…” Emmett’s death took place right as the paper was going to press. The position of the death notice in the paper is interesting and important: Right above the fold, but not a top headline. The story was important, as Emmett was a recent U.S. Congressman, and his sudden (and mostly unexpected) death definitely newsworthy. There had definitely been last minute reworking of the front page by the composition editors.
  • …aged 36 years.” Emmett was actually 35. The late night copy editor didn’t know Emmett personally.
  • “Of course no funeral arrangements had been perfected….” Because this was unexpected. Although Emmett’s health had been deteriorating for years, it seems likely that he’d experienced several similar scenarios (for lack of a better description) and family or friends had not thought this was anything new. Or life threatening. I believe that only Emmett, and perhaps one or two others, really knew that Emmett was dying of alcoholism in 1918.
  • “It is probable remains will be held pending….” The late night copy editor was scrambling a bit to fill available text box space. What else would Pensacola Hospital do with a former congressman?
  • “Deceased from (sic) born….” The typo is another clue the copy editor was scrambling. But the bigger clues that this caught everyone off guard is that the second paragraph was taken from Emmett’s official U.S. Congressional Directory biography in 1913, and not more recent sources, because the death notice doesn’t include any information about his second term.
  • Emmett’s photo is from his 1912 congressional primary campaign. There had been several high-quality photos of Emmett taken while in Congress and certainly provided to the media free of charge. It’s curious why a more recent photograph was not used — unless it was just overlooked in the haste to put the May 29, 1918 edition to bed.

 

Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal. Champion grudge holder.

Once upon a time, back in 1912, Emmett was a good friend of Frank Mayes, political kingmaker, and editor and publisher of The Pensacola Journal. Emmett had been Mayes’ prodigy; he was intended to serve as Mayes’ entree into the Woodrow Wilson’s inner circle.

But there had been a major falling out around October, 1914, and Mayes basically washed his hand of his prodigy. After that, Mayes stopped running regular articles in his paper about Emmett — and when news necessitated mentioning Emmett, Mayes never mentioned his name, referring to Emmett instead as the Third District’s Congressman. Mayes knew that indifference was more damaging politically and professionally to Emmett than anything.

I also believe Mayes knew his indifference hurt Emmett personally, too. Frank Mayes was a smart fellow, he was an excellent ‘read’ of people because he got to know them well. Mayes was also the guy who never forgot a slight, and he knew the best way to get folks to do his bidding. Manipulative? Probably. That’s not meant to be a put-down; that character description often comes with the political kingmaker job title.

I mention the angst between Frank Mayes and Emmett Wilson because in 1918, Mayes’ widow Lois was running The Pensacola Journal, and she had no illusions about the relationship between her late husband and Emmett: Emmett wasn’t useful to Frank, and so The Pensacola Journal had no use for Emmett, either.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page 1, via ChroniclingAmerica.gov

When Frank died in February 1915, he had been on a mission to separate himself from the mistake of supporting a candidate unprepared to hold national office. That meant breaking away from Emmett’s supporters, like Walter Kehoe, as well. If you look at the front page layout for May 29, 1918, notice the article about a debate between Walter and John Smithwick right under Emmett’s death notice. Kehoe is running for reelection for Emmett’s old congressional seat against Smithwick — and Smithwick declared the winner of the debate — no surprise, since The Pensacola Journal endorsed Smithwick over Kehoe for the primary election.

 

Percy’s Funeral

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On March 10, 1918, Emmett’s older brother Percy Brockenbrough Wilson died of tuberculosis.

Percy’s death, as reported in The Chipley Banner, March 1918.

 

Percy’s death, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 1918, Vol 70, No. 14, page 1025. Source: Google Books

Percy was only 46 years old, a well-respected and admired community physician.

 

The quote on the headstone says: “We knew no sorrow, knew no grief, till that bright face was missed.” Source: Findagrave.com

Percy’s funeral was held one hundred years ago today, March 12, 1918, in Sneads, Florida. It was likely well attended by most of Percy’s family, although I wonder about Emmett’s attendance. If I could find a copy of the obituary from any of the Jackson County, Florida archives, it would tell us who was at the funeral. But according to the holdings records of the Library of Congress, and the holdings records for institutions that have archived Jackson County, Florida newspapers, a copy for this particular date doesn’t exist. (Percy’s descendants apparently don’t have a copy of the local obituary either — at least, not one known to them at this point. At least we have two obituary sources that provide some information — that’s better than nothing!)

Emmett was in end-stage alcoholism only weeks away from death, and mostly shunned by his siblings. Several articles from The Pensacola Journal mention Emmett’s presence at different local activities, so we know he was ambulatory and getting around, but may not have been in any condition to attend the funeral.

I tend to think family members may have simply asked Emmett to stay away.

And Emmett, who himself shunned family dramatics, who himself probably didn’t want to face his family members anymore, would have complied.

The Puzzler

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The next information I have about Emmett’s nephew, Cephas Love Wilson Jr., is dated 1905 — he’s 10 years old — and back in the day, having one’s name printed in newspaper (especially The Pensacola Journal, a paper with a much larger circulation than the Marianna Times-Courier) was a big deal.

CLW Jr. was into puzzles — something I can definitely relate to. For several weeks during 1905, The Pensacola Journal offered a silver dollar to the first person (determined by postmark) who could solve the puzzle each week (a dollar in 1905 is about $27 in 2017).

Ceph Jr.’s first try at the puzzler contests found in The Pensacola Journal. June 4, 1905. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Alas, Ceph Jr. didn’t win the prize. Here were the results of the June 4 contest:

The results of the June 4 puzzler, as reported in The Pensacola Journal, June 11, 1905. Ceph Jr. was a runner-up. (Apologies for the blurry image; you can see the original here.  From ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Ceph Jr. was persistent. I have clips from several of the 1905 edition of The Pensacola Journal where he was listed as a runner-up, and always with the correct answers; always a participant, but never the winner.

Still, I admire and respect the fact he took the time to solve these brain-teasers, all without the benefit of technology, probably always on his own. I can picture Ceph Jr. energetically jumping on the puzzle as soon as his father was finished reading the paper — methodically tracking down the right answers, then rushing off to the Post Office with his sealed envelope, hoping his was the first, hoping to win the silver dollar!

Another ‘also ran’ for Ceph Jr., in the September 17, 1905 edition of The Pensacola Journal. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

 

Break Up

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I like to check on my favorite databases every six or eight weeks, so as not to miss any updates. And — SCORE! — the excellent Chronicling America newspaper database (of the Library of Congress) had added several years of The Pensacola Journal since my last visit!

And what an interesting find!

dec9_1915

Check out the “Letter to Santa Claus,” almost in the center of the paper. It was written 101 years ago today!

emmett-breakup

A breakup in progress! Or was it? Lots of little digs at Emmett in here, too.

The editors who wrote this snippy little piece had had it with Emmett by this point. If you recall from an earlier post, Emmett damn near died almost exactly one year ago — he was found unconscious in his room at the Congress Hall Hotel, where he lived right across the street from his office in the House Office Building (today known as Cannon House Office Building).

This was the nadir of Editor Frank Mayes‘ patience with Emmett — whom he had brought out of obscurity to national prominence as  a U.S. Congressman. All Emmett had to do was follow Mayes’ bidding in Washington, D.C.; follow the party’s directives without question, and Emmett would likely be given a nice, cushy job on the Florida State Supreme Court (which Mayes & Co. KNEW was Emmett’s lifelong goal).

mayes73gbs

Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal. Champion grudge holder. Poor judge of character too, I think.

What Mayes & Co. didn’t realize was that despite Emmett’s terrible addiction, he had a good heart, and integrity. Emmett was also a people-pleaser of sorts: The  outcry and negative publicity that good old Frank Mayes put out in his own paper, about his personally selected man to represent the party’s ideas in Washington, got to Emmett. He was already a full-blown alcoholic when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1913; Mayes knew that, too. He figured Emmett would spend a lot of his time soused, a little out of his mind, and he’d probably just do as he was told.

Mayes underestimated Emmett’s character, which makes me feel good (because I am not Team Frank), but it also points out the poignancy of someone trying to do what’s best, only to get tripped up by politics, and someone else’ plain old ambition. Emmett wanted to do a good job for his constituency. Mayes didn’t care; as long as his ambitions were satisfied.

Long story short: Emmett followed his heart/good sense with a postmaster appointment because it was the right thing to do, and it cost him his career.

Back to the breakup item: In April 1915, Emmett had already announced he wasn’t running for a third term. In the article about his decision to retire from Congress, he said that it was all his decision, but you can bet your sweet bippy (or the 1915 equivalent) that the Florida State Democratic Party forced it.

Whatta guy.