More on Sue Allen

I had thought my next project might be about The Thing, but I have to be honest with you, I just can’t stop thinking about Sue. I dream about her inviting Jack Macon’s widow to her house, causing a minor scandal (not that Jack Macon had a widow that I know of). I think about her becoming a widow so young. According to Margaret Lindsley Warden, Sue was a Perkins, one of Powhatan Perkins’s children. Powhatan was an Edminston (of the Edmonson Pike Edminstons–same family, slightly different names due to a minor family feud about someone’s asshole behavior. Ha, if I changed my name slightly every time a Phillips did something assholish, I’d be Betsy Ppphhiiilllllippppsssss by now.) on his mom’s side. Powhatan died young. His wife went on to marry a Ewing, and have even more kids with him. He also brought children into the marriage. But then he must have died because Sue’s mom and a half sister come to live with her and Ben.). Sue married, according to Warden, a Thomas Hays who died fighting for the Confederacy. I am fairly certain I have Sue’s birth year correct–1848–which means that, with a window of “She must be able to be the widow of a Confederate who died during the Civil War,” even if she waited until the last possible second to get married and he waited until the last possible second to die, the oldest she could have been when she got married was 17.

I haven’t been able to find him dead yet, but Sue’s brother Metcalf died in May of ’64, in some dust-up in Georgia that’s considered–even in that Georgia town, and you know how much Southern towns like to elevate a few ugly words into the “Battle of Wherever”–to barely have counted as fighting between two major battles. And, of course, by December of ’64, there was the Battle of Nashville. I think there’s a chance Metcalf and Thomas shared a similar military path (I wouldn’t be surprised to find Thomas also under Hood) and, if so, I think it’s likely that, by the end of ’64, he was dead.

Which would make Sue a widow by 16.

Since I haven’t found record of when Thomas mustered in (you’ll be unsurprised to learn that “Thomas Hays” was a pretty common name), I don’t have a good guess for when they were married, but I think she was probably about 14. That would be a similar arc to what her older sister Eliza did, born in ’44 and had her first kid in ’61. But when you think that Sue’s step-father brought five kids into the marriage and Sue’s mom had four living Perkins kids, it makes sense to start marrying off the girls into prominent Nashville families as soon as possible, just to make room in the house for the children to come.

Anyway, so there’s Sue, wandering around a widow from about 1864 until she finally marries Ben in 1883. And she never does have kids.

Really, in some ways, the fact that she was a medium is the least curious thing about her. Almost twenty years a widow. What did she do with herself? I suspect she helped raise the youngest Ewings with her mother but I don’t see her in the censuses, so who knows? I almost don’t want to know, because my mind churns.

I’m in the middle of Black Magic which is going quickly, so I’ll have some more thoughts. Parts of it are a little “Ugh, come on!” like when she finds enslaved people using terms like “old hag” or “hex” and doesn’t identify them as borrowings from European traditions. And I want there to be more about how borrowings or even the lies about borrowing from Native Americans functioned. But I am loving it. I think it’s one of the most astute books about how magical traditions among black people and magical traditions among white people fed and feed off each other, with there just being a shit-ton of cross-pollination, while still being recognizably distinct because of some major differences in similar world-views.

I do think there’s work to be done here, though. I mean, it’s one thing to say that slaves regarded The Long-lost Friend or The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses as indispensable for magic, if one could read. But how did they get into slaves’ hands in the first place? The Long-lost Friend is also known as Pow-wows, or The Long Lost Friend, and it was originally published in German. This suggests that it was literally a text used by German-American Pow-wows (or Pow-wow Doctors). That’s a magical tradition you find by locating Mennonites and then asking around. I’m not saying only Mennonites are pow-wows, but there’s a lot of overlap.

And Mennonites were anti-slavery. So, if slaves were using Pennsylvania Dutch magical texts, it wasn’t because the few exceptions to the “We don’t own slaves” rules were powerful pow-wows who managed to put books into the hands of the right conjurors. The cultural exchange had to be happening some other way. I don’t know how, but it seems like there’s room for exploration there.

The other thing that the author does, which I have seen done pretty regularly and probably done it myself, if I went back and looked, is assume that hoodoo and conjure in the 19th century were blossoming among black people just as white people were like “We’re all rational and shit now.” But no, white people were like “We’re all Spiritualists now! We talk to dead people!” And there were black Spiritualists. And we can trace some of this “I talk for dead people” stuff back to the Methodists in the early part of the 19th century and many of those services and camp meetings were integrated.

Lots of possibilities for “Here’s how we go into a trace” “Oh, cool, we do that, but like this” cultural exchange there.

But let me be clear that I’m only picking nits because it’s so good and it has me thinking. I’m really engaged with her ideas and I hope other folks will pick up on her line of thinking and clarify some of the bigger things her research seems to suggest (or fuck, sure, she could do that, as well).

5 thoughts on “More on Sue Allen

  1. Some thoughts on widowhood in the south — most scholars agree that it wasn’t all that unusual for a white middling woman to remain unmarried in the Reconstruction South. Class-approprieate marital choices were severely limited (because a lot of men had been killed) and the cachet in being a widow for the Glorious Cause made the condition less stigmatizing. Also, economically speaking, there were many more opportunities for single women who were femme soles (legally independent) — lots of orphans to rear, businesses to run, etc. So, she actually would be pretty typical for a woman who made an impulsive early marriage and then experienced widowhood early. She probably wouldn’t have qualified for a TN CSA widow’s pension (started in 1905, by which time she’s long remarried), but it might be worth a look through the TSLA records online to see if she applied.

    Have you thought about Afro-Moravians in NC (and their interactions with NC Cherokees) as one possible vector for folk magic intersections? Jon Sensbach’s work (A Separate Canaan) might be helpful.

  2. I do think there might be something to the Afro-Moravians, for sure.

    I hadn’t considered the “Who would she marry?” angle, but it sure explains why her sisters married the same dude. Not just for the “take care of the kids” angle, but for the “he’s alive and I’m alive” angle.

  3. A Susan Allen in Davidson County applied as Benjamin Allen’s widow — Widow’s pension # 2222. Most of these aren’t very rich as sources, but you might luck out and she might have corresponded with the Board.

  4. I think that must be the Sue and Ben Allen that are in the city cemetery. Our Ben Allen was too young to have been in the Civil War. That was part of the scandal of their marriage. He was supposed to pick one of the younger, single sisters and he wanted to marry the widow eight years his senior.

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