Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
The Mystery Woman
Author's juggling of fact and fiction delves into the past of one of Texas' most colorful figures and the woman who determined his destiny
by Mike Sweeney
This is the face of the biggest mystery in Texas history?
The teen-age bride, whose parting with Sam Houston 11 weeks after their marriage in 1829, ruined him as governor in Tennessee, sending him broken into the western wilderness?
The Texas Republic's first-lady-in-absentia?
The face that, among Houston's hecklers, launched a thousand quips?
It doesn't seem possible that a color slide in the hands of Austin author Elizabeth Crook can be a duplicate of what is believed to be the only picture of Eliza Allen. The looks suggest Mary Todd Lincoln or Carry Nation more than some heart-stealing ranch girl.
But Crook, whose just-published biographical fiction The Raven's Bride uses historical research and a bit of conjecture to reconstruct the relationship of Allen and Texas' first president, says the facts suggest it is she.
The photo is of a crude watercolor portrait handed down through the family of Allen's second husband, Elmore Douglass. A letter attached to the back of the portrait gives identification.
"It's nice that she's not predictably beautiful," Crook said, although the artist's level of skill may account for some distortion of features.
"She's in middle age, her hair parted in the middle, looking severe and fairly stern and a little bit homely."
An observer might add that Allen appears a little overweight in her black dress. Her nose is a long teardrop shape, her blue eyes birdlike.
Words such as these will have to suffice for Texans who look upon Allen as the question mark in Houston's -- and their state's -- past.
Shortly before her death in 1861, Allen ordered the destruction of all of her letters and likenesses. Crook is now a compromising accomplice, guarding the picture that came to light after one of the Douglass family's descendants in San Marcos read an early review of her book.
"I'll never have it reproduced," Crook said. "I believe in honoring the dead and their wishes.
"I ask myself, 'Have I exploited anybody [in the book]? Have I dramatized anybody in a wrong way?' . . . If I publish the photo, I might tip the scales in the wrong direction."
The Raven's Bride -- Crook's first work, published with the aid of Bill Moyers and Doubleday's Jacqueline Onassis -- balances the scales of fact and fiction to explore an episode that neither Houston nor Allen discussed publicly.
Houston, the 35-year-old randy, hard-drinking governor of Tennessee, married Allen, 19, the eldest child of a Gallatin colonel, on Jan. 22, 1829. Something apparently happened on the wedding night; shortly afterward, when the couple stayed with Martha Martin on the Gallatin Pike, Eliza watched through a window as Sam engaged in a snowball fight with Martin's daughters.
"I wish they would kill him," Allen said coldly.
Politically, he was as good as dead by April.
"I have just this moment heard a rumor of poor Houston's disgrace," wrote President Andrew Jackson, who had been grooming the governor for greatness. "My God, is the man mad."
No, not according to Crook, 31, who is intrigued by the mystery. In 1985, she was looking for a fresh female historical subject for a book when her father, who was Lyndon Johnson's VISTA director, pointed her toward Eliza Allen.
Crook dug through archives to compile her book's historical framework, which she published in the July 1990 Southwestern Historical Quarterly partly to demonstrate her expertise.
Grafted onto this skeleton of fact, the fictional part of her hybrid Raven examines several theories on why the marriage failed:
- The festering wound. Houston was severely injured near the groin when he fought under Jackson's command. The arrow would have not healed properly and sometimes filled with pus. But Crook doubts that Allen, who helped breed horses and had nine younger siblings, would be disgusted into a separation by any such injury.
- The admitted indiscretion. Documented sources who knew Houston and Allen say she loved another man. The Raven's Bride identifies him as Will Tyree and describes an affair. Besides the picture of Eliza Allen, Crook said her discovery of Tyree's will and the fact that he was terminally ill at the time of the marriage made for the biggest surprise of her research.
- The ambition. Houston had a wife but wanted to build an empire. The two were not compatible.
- The Indian romantic method. Houston lived as a teen with the Cherokee, who called him "The Raven" and also, reportedly, "Big Drunk." The Indian style of lovemaking, if adopted by Houston, might have proved distasteful to a lady of the gentry. (After the breakup, Crook fills the Nashville streets with hecklers suggesting that Houston's approach to sex was rather canine.)
Which, if any, is right? In Crook's book, all play a part. But perhaps the biggest reason she cites for the breakup if the clash of an irresistible force and an immovable object.
Allen was headstrong. So was Houston.
"He was so much an egotist, so much an exhibitionist in his behavior," Crook said, acknowledging comparisons between Houston and LBJ. "I don't think he [Houston] was formed; I think he was born that way . . . very idiosyncratic, very compelling. A great man. His judgments were good, his heart was in the right place -- but I would have left him, too."
To some extent, Eliza Allen -- who stayed in Tennessee after her husband skedaddled, and eventually divorced her in 1837 -- is the catalyst for Houston's legend, Crook said.
"By sending him west a devastated man, she changed history," she said. Without the scandal, Houston likely would have chosen a more conventional route to power in the United States; without legalities and entanglements, however, Houston more ably plotted revolution against Mexico, Crook suggested.
To those who take umbrage with a writer's mixing of fiction and history, Crook is quick to defend her method.
"History is facts without emotion, without humor, without anything that lends interest," she said.
But an author can give history a human face, and if one is to believe the book jacket blurb by Moyers, Crook's yarn is believable. To her, that's preferable to a documented exposé about Sam and Eliza and their breakup.
"Some day someone may find the answer," Crook said. "I hope they don't."
"They're entitled to their secret."