An Awful Folly and the Spider of Ennui

“Were I to be angry at men being fools, I could here find ample room for declamation; but, alas! I have been a fool myself; and why should I be angry with them for being something so natural to every child of humanity.”  

Oliver Goldsmith, “A Description of Various Clubs” (1759)

This is a true story of a great folly that took place here in Texas, a hundred and forty years ago.  Before I tell the story of this folly, I must explain that I am not telling it simply because the story is ludicrous or shocking.  It is, to be sure, ludicrous and shocking enough, but laughter and reproof are not the best response to this spectacle of folly.  The best response is awe, that curious combination of wonder and fear that we feel in the presence of a great power from which we are not altogether safe.

Folly is a great power from which none of us are altogether safe.  That is why folly is awful to behold.

When called upon to propose a scientific name for his own species, the modern men of science modestly declared that their species should be known as homo sapiens, which means “men who are wise.”  All previous men of science had agreed that men are rarely wise, and that folly is the hallmark of our breed.  If you have yourself lived among men, or have reflected with any honesty upon your own conduct, you know that, in this respect at least, the modern men of science were fools and the previous men of science were wise.

Folly is the hallmark of our breed.

I say this without excepting myself, or my friends, since to scorn men and women for their folly is as foolish as to scorn them for possessing two eyes and nose.  When a man puts on the fool’s cap and dances on the crumbling brink of disaster, the truly wise man thinks, “there, alas, I have been and will be again.”  And he does not laugh overloud when the dancing fool tumbles, as all but the dancing fool know he must, into the miserable mire of sorrow and remorse.  Those who are truly wise know that man is born to folly, that folly is the way of all flesh, and that every head (even his own) will wear the fool’s cap, again, and again, and again.

* * * * *

The principal fools of this story lived in Bryan, Texas, the town in which I now reside.  This was in the years just after the Civil War, when the railroad came to Brazos County and the town of Bryan sprang up like a weed just beside the new depot.  Bryan traded in cotton, was soon home to perhaps two thousand souls, about half of whom were black, and supported a small provincial gentry of lawyers, bankers and cotton planters.  The “quality” of Bryan comprised, perhaps, twenty or thirty prominent families, and in 1879, two members of the quality put on the fool’s cap and danced on the crumbling brink of disaster.

I will tell the story of their folly with a mix of newspaper clippings and expository interpolations, and I begin with a marriage announcement that appeared in a Houston newspaper on Christmas Day, 1865.

“Married.—On Wednesday,  December 20, at the residence of the bride’s father, in Brazos County, Maj. B. H. Davis to Miss Ruth, daughter of Col. T. D. Wilson.”[1]

Major Bennett Hillsman Davis was one of the most eligible bachelors in Brazos County when he married Miss. Ruth Wilson.  His father, William Davis, was a prominent lawyer, county judge and prosperous cotton planter in the Brazos River bottom.[2]  Bennett had graduated from a Kentucky college and was himself a lawyer and rising politician in the Democratic party.  He had joined Terry’s Texas Rangers as a private in 1861, and was mustered out as a major four years later, having served under General Magruder in the Red River campaign.  After he married Ruth, Bennett Davis settled in Bryan, the new seat of Brazos County, and was a founding partner in the first law firm of that small but booming town. He was thirty-three years old and his future appeared full of promise.[3]

Ruth Wilson was the daughter of T. D. Wilson, another prosperous cotton planter in the Brazos River bottom.  The Wilson plantation was located next to the Davis plantation, in the neighborhood of Mudville, on the flat and flood-prone bottom northwest of Bryan.  The Davis and Wilson families had been neighbors for many years, with the result that three Davis boys eventually married three Wilson girls.  Bennett Davis married Ruth Wilson, Napoleon Davis married Mary Wilson, and Charles Davis married Alice Wilson.

I do not know Ruth Wilson’s age, but presume she was younger than her husband, perhaps much younger.  She may have been petulant and something of a coquette, but she moved in the best circles of the little country town for fourteen irreproachable years.  In that time, she gave birth to two children, a daughter named Lucille and a son named Will; the girl in particular was dear to her heart.  Her husband was said to indulge her, and was wealthy enough to give her at least one summer holiday at the seaside in Long Branch, New Jersey.

But Ruth Wilson grew increasingly restless in the narrow society of the small Brazos County gentry, and as she entered her thirties increasingly “wanted to get rid of Bryan and its talk.” I do not know that Ruth Wilson sought escapist relief in popular novels, but discern in her makeup a certain resemblance to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary:

“Her life as chill as an attic with a northern sky-light, and ennui, the silent spider, spun its web in the shadow in every corner of her heart.”[4]

It was, perhaps, with the excuse that sea breezes would clear away such webs of ennui that Ruth Davis took the train to Galveston in late October, 1879.  She traveled to the Island City with her sister, Mary, a third woman by the name of Grant, and a gentleman escort called Miller. W. McCraw.  McCraw was another Bryan lawyer, as well as cotton merchant, land speculator, and popular member of the Brazos County gentry.  He lived in Bryan with his wife and daughter, across the street from Bennett and Ruth Davis, and the two families had been for many years on the friendliest of terms.

Miller W. McCraw had come to Bryan around 1869, two years after the railroad track was laid and the new town sprang up beside it.  He soon married into a good local family, the Goodwins, receiving a handsome marriage settlement of nearly five thousand dollars (seventy-five thousand dollars in today’s money).  He also made large profits in fortunate real estate speculations.  By 1871, Miller McCraw was rich enough to make the largest individual contribution to the fund that drew the state Agricultural and Mechanical College to Brazos County.[5]

The party from Bryan arrived in Galveston late in the evening of October 21st and took rooms in the fashionable Tremont Hotel.  The next day the ladies shopped and McCraw saw a man about a parcel of land.  That evening, Ruth proposed that they visit the beach and enjoy some “surf bathing,” such as they had enjoyed at Long Branch, New Jersey, the summer before.  Her sister Mary was diffident, but yielded to her sister’s enthusiasm, so the two sisters took the streetcar to the beach under the protection of Mr. McCraw.

The following morning, an article in the Galveston newspaper reported:

“Mr. M. W. McCraw, Mrs. B. H. Davis [Ruth], and Mrs. N. B. Davis [Mary], of Bryan, guests at the Tremont Hotel, left the hotel about 9 o’clock Tuesday night for the beach, with the design of taking a bath in the surf.  About half past 12 o’clock, Mr. McCraw and Mrs. N. B. Davis returned to the hotel in the deepest distress and reported that Mrs. B. H. Davis had ventured out in the water ahead of them, after which they saw her no more . . . . The supposition generally entertained is that the lady was attacked with cramping in the water, sank before she could cry out, and drowned.”[6]

McCraw sent Ruth’s husband a telegram informing him that his wife had drowned.  The lawyer, who had been away from home trying a case at the county court in Rockdale, Milam County, immediately traveled to Galveston with his law partner and his brother.  Despite thorough searches of the beach, and repeated trawling with nets in the water offshore, the body of Ruth Davis was not recovered.  After a week of fruitless searching, Bennett Davis returned to Bryan a widower.  On Sunday, November 16, 1879, a funeral service was held for Ruth Davis at the First Baptist Church of Bryan.[7]

Suspicions, however, remained.  Ruth Davis had been an experienced surf bather, had braved the surf of Galveston many times before, and had spent much of the previous summer among larger waves at Long Branch, New Jersey.  There was no strong undertow on Galveston beach, so the bodies of drowned bathers normally rose and washed ashore.  Major Davis was a wealthy man and had offered a large reward for recovery of his wife’s body, so the search had been scrupulous and sincere.  What is more, there was no trace of the “wrap” Ruth Davis had worn around her bathing costume when she rode the streetcar from the Tremont hotel to the beach.  On top of that, there were those who said that her sister, Mary Davis, was not visibly stricken with grief.

These suspicions were whispered in parlors and over teacups across Texas until, six months later, they were confirmed in the pages of the Galveston Daily News.  Near the end of May, 1880, these astonishing lines appeared.

“The report which has been current here for some time that Mrs. B. H. Davis, who was supposed to have been lost in the surf at Galveston, some months ago, is alive in New York, proves to be true.  M. W. McCraw, who accompanied her and other ladies to Galveston on the occasion of the supposed drowning, was in Dallas a week since, and there stated the fact to W. B. Foreman, sheriff of this [Brazos] county.  McCraw came through Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he found Col. T. D. Wilson, father of Mrs. Davis, and delivered to him a letter from her, and told him that she was living in New York.  Maj. Davis left for the north on the train today.”

The newspaper then went on to say that some Texans were not astonished by the news that Ruth Davis was not dead.

“No vestige of the remains, or of the suit in which they were clothed on entering the water could be discovered, and what added still more to the mysterious circumstances, the robe or wrapper which the lady wore outside of her bathing dress when she left the hotel had been as mysteriously spirited away as the mortal remains of the lady.  Under these conditions, there were not wanting persons who declined to give credence to the theory that Mrs. Davis had been seized by cramps, carried beyond her depth, and become food for fishes.”[8]

Ruth Davis had staged her supposed drowning.  As we will see, she later hoped to persuade the polite society of Texas (and her husband) that this had been nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, albeit a practical joke in what most people agreed was extremely poor taste.  It appears no one believed that anyone could be capable of quite so stupendous a folly for the sake of a laugh, and the universal public opinion was that Ruth Davis and Miller McCraw had staged her drowning so that she and he could run away and live in sin.

Bennett Davis shared this dim opinion of his wife’s folly.

The two fools had cracked and at least partly confessed their folly when they comprehended the enormity of what they had done.  Ruth Davis may have found the fascination of Miller McCraw much diminished after six months intimate acquaintance.  She most certainly grew frantic when she realized that she might never see her daughter or sisters again.  Miller McCraw, who had abandoned his wife and daughter, was guilt-stricken by the thought that he had cuckolded, or had at least intended and set about to cuckold, his best friend.

The pair saw that they had put on fool’s caps and danced on the crumbling brink of disaster; and so they tumbled, as all but these two fools knew they must, into the miserable mire of sorrow and remorse.

* * * * *

Sorrow and remorse had not, however, cured the two fools of their fondness for folly, for they attempted to extract themselves from the miserable mire with the preposterous story of a practical joke gone horribly wrong.  McCraw told this preposterous story to W. B. Foreman, Sheriff of Brazos County, who immediately leaked the story to the press, thus publicly humiliating Major Davis as a dupe and cuckold.  It should be mentioned that Foreman was a Republican, Major Davis a Democrat, and the leak quite possibly a dirty trick.  It was at least perceived as a dirty trick and cost Foreman his job.  It would be a hundred years before Brazos County had its next Republican Sheriff.

Here is Sheriff Foreman interviewed by a reporter from the Galveston Daily News:

“Said I [Reporter]: ‘I desire for the News a full statement of what you know of the Davis-McCraw matter, as I learn that you have had an interview with him, and also because your name has been connected to the drowning scheme.’

Said he [Foreman]: ‘I know all that, but I am ignorant of the whole matter except as to what McCraw told me in Dallas . . . .’

[Reporter]: ‘What occurred during your interview with McCraw at Dallas?’

[Foreman]: ‘I will state all that passed between McCraw and Mr. Flippin and myself.  McCraw requested the presence of Mr. Flippin [a member of the Brazos County gentry and owner of the Bryan bank].  I went to meet McCraw in answer to this dispatch, which you can read . . . .

As near as my memory serves me, McCraw said: “I want to make a clean breast of an affair that has become too great a burden and too distracting for me to longer bear.  Mrs. Davis is in New York, keeping boarding-house on Sixty-seventh street . . . . I come to consult you as to the chanced for a reconciliation.  Mrs. Davis wanted to return to Texas on the train with me, but I advised her not to do so, as I wanted to come down and consult you first.

I have with me a letter to Col. T. D. Wilson from Mrs. Davis, and after I leave you, I will go to Hot Springs [Arkansas] and deliver the letter.  The letter asks Col. Wilson to allow the writer to come back and asserts the motive for leaving Texas as she did was not for any wicked purpose—not to be with McCraw, but simply to get away from Bryan.  Mrs. Davis corresponded with no one on this matter till she wrote this letter.

As to the plot of drowning, no one was in it except myself and Mrs. B. H. Davis.  Her sister, who went in bathing, also, was not in the plot.  The plot was gotten up and executed by Mrs. B. H. Davis and me, and suggested by Mrs. D.  As to my conduct with Mrs. Davis in New York at her boarding house, where I boarded, I can refer to persons who will testify to its being proper.  I assert her innocence of any transgression of the marital vows, whatever else she has done, that is wrong.

Mrs. Davis keeps her house under her own name.  She asserts her chastity in her letter to her father, and asks him to come on to see her, and promises to abide by his advice in everything he might urge, except separation from her children.  She was willing to remain away if she could have them, and would live anywhere with Major Davis, except at Bryan . . . . Mrs. Davis never uttered a word against Major Davis.  She wanted to get rid of Bryan and its talk, not him.

As to the drowning—when Mrs. Davis was in deep water her sister was in shallow water, nearer shore, being more timid; I was still in the bath-house putting on my bathing suit.  This was part of the plan.  When Mrs. B. H. Davis could no longer be seen, her sister, becoming alarmed, ran towards the bath-house to give the news to me.  But Mrs. Davis had waded out to water reaching her chin, and then circled round to a carriage in waiting for her, into which she got and was driven off.’”

Thus ends the reported interview, but the newspaper article goes on with additional exposition and commentary:

“Mr. Forman here stated that McCraw gave no further details of the plot throwing light on the means and time of Mrs. Davis’s departure from Galveston.  He said McCraw’s said he would have told Maj. Davis the whole thing when the latter came down to Galveston to search for the body, but that Maj. Davis refused to see him and was very much angered.

In lively contrast with the above showing of the repentant and mild-mannered McCraw was the scene he carried out after the drowning.  Upon the arrival of Maj. Davis, his partner, Mr. Tallaferro, and others, to aid him in the search for the body, McCraw, in sackcloth and ashes, with sorrow written on every part of his face, and a manner betokening the greatest trouble, sought Maj. Davis, and on seeing him and his friends shed hot tears, cried aloud ‘My God, what shall I do?” and made similar exclamations.

Some of the gentlemen took him away from the sight of Maj. Davis, who was angered by his presence, whereupon he burst forth in paroxysms of tearful expressions of grief that could not have been more impressive in its outward showing.  Persons who saw him were disarmed.  He had played his part—for a play it was—and made a scene over which a romancist [sic.] would gloat.  He had been the fast friend and near neighbor of Maj. Davis, at Bryan, living opposite, surrounded by his own interesting family, and had been given the liberty of the major’s hospitable home.

Final picture: Two happy families racked with grief; noble aspirations long in building up thrown down ruthlessly, and separation and estrangement of hearts that had once beat in unison; a household desolate that had been the pride of one whose relations had been those of a man of solid worth and unimpeachable character.”[9]

* * * * *

Do you begin to see why I say that folly is awful to behold?  Do you feel a certain horrified wonder when you behold the blind evil of this “drowning plot”?  Do you feel a certain chilling fear when you reflect how easily you could yourself back into a similar folly, with a stupid grin on your face, ruining not only your own life but also the lives of others around you?

Folly causes destruction without malice aforethought, and it is precisely this blind evil that makes folly so awful to behold.

It is, I believe, entirely possible that Ruth and Miller were foolish enough to half-believe that the drowning plot was simply a picturesque way “to get away from Bryan,” and that after some months of more or less guilty vacation, they would return home to happy tears, chagrinned guffaws, and warm embraces.  It is, I believe, entirely possible that Ruth and Miller were foolish enough to half-believe that they had no “wicked purpose” and did not design “any transgression of the marital vows.”  Indeed, I even believe it is entirely possible that there was no transgression of the marital vow in that boarding house on 67th street, because it is the very nature of fools like this to spread infinite pain without securing an ounce of pleasure for themselves.

* * * * *

The general supposition was that Ruth Davis had returned to the bath house and recovered her “wrap” while her sister and prospective paramour were running east and west along the dark beach, one in real and the other in feigned distress.  It was further supposed that a hackney cab had been waiting by prior arrangement, and that this cab had taken Ruth to a prearranged hideout where she laid low until the search for her body was abandoned.  Then, lightly disguised, she had boarded the regular steamship and sailed away to New York City.

Others supposed that the frantic search on the dark and lonely beach was another fiction of M. W. McCraw, and that Ruth’s sister Mary was an accomplice in “the drowning plot.”  The bathing season was over and there were in that day no beachfront hotels.  There was no one but McCraw and Mary Davis to say what had or had not happened at the foot of 23rd Street, Galveston, at ten o’clock in the evening, on the 22nd of October, 1879.  And, as I said earlier,

“ . . . The unconcern which Mrs. N. B. Davis [Mary] seemed to manifest over the loss of her sister was commented upon.  The third morning after the supposed drowning, she left the Tremont hotel, not seeming in the least depressed.”[10]

The theory of Mary’s complicity revived six months later, when it was known that Ruth’s drowning had, in fact, been only a “drowning plot.”  Two weeks after the ruse was exposed, the Galveston newspaper sent a reporter to Bryan to interview the suspect sister.  Her account of the fatal evening is to my mind a little too good.

“Bryan, June 12.—Recently several newspaper reports have been made tending to implicate Mrs. Mary Davis in the drowning plot.  In company with Mr. Napoleon Davis, brother of Maj. B. H. Davis and husband of Mrs. Mary Davis, who was one of the bathing party at the time of the alleged drowning of Mrs. Ruth Davis, I called to-day on Mrs. Mary Davis and asked if she would submit to an interview in reference to the knowledge of the Davis-McCraw affair.

The lady was told plainly by your correspondent that in the light of current report he name had been unfavorably connected with the drowning plot; that it was said she had treated the announcement of the death of Mrs. Ruth Davis with indifference, leading to the natural inference of possession of such knowledge on her part as prevented her from showing grief or surprise during the time he relatives and friends of her family were greatly exercised over an occurrence which the skillful acting of McCraw and surrounding circumstances led them to believe was true.

Mrs. Mary Davis stated what she knew rapidly and very connectedly, in substance about as follows:

‘I went down to Galveston with my sister, Mrs. Ruth Davis, Mrs. Grant and her daughter, and Mr. McCraw.  We went to the Tremont and took rooms.  Next morning we went shopping and provided to have some work done at a milliners.  We planned calls on some friends (naming them—leading families of Galveston) for the afternoon.

My sister suggested a surf bath at night, and at the very idea I objected, having a natural fear of water.  She insisted, and as I would do anything for her, and trusted her, for I love her devotedly, I went along with her and Mr. McCraw.  Mrs. Grant had gone to stay with Mrs. Goodwin, at her boarding house, as she wanted to see Mrs. G.

I could not reconcile myself to the sea bath, however, and told my sister of a dream I had about a coffin and death.  We got on the cars to go to the beach, and we passed an undertaker’s, where a sign with a coffin on it hung out, and seeing it I said: ‘La, sister Ruth, see that sigh; remember my dream; let’s not go bathing.’  She laughed at me, and we went on to the beach and went in bathing.  I protested to the last.

My sister went into the water and I remained in shallow water, thinking best to wait for Mr. McCraw, who was in a bath-house preparing for the surf bath.  I thought it better we should join hands as we went into the water.  While I waited for him I naturally had my face turned toward the bath-house he was in, looking for him to come out, and I thought I heard a cry—‘Mary,’ sounding above the noise of the surf.  It may have been imagination, but I thought I heard it.

I gave an alarm and Mr. McCraw came out and to the water, and hurriedly told me to ‘go that way,’ motioning east, and he went the other way to make a search.  No tidings of my sister resulted and we went back to the hotel and Mr. McCraw went to where Mrs. Grant was and brought her to the hotel in a hack.

Mrs. Grant and I were together the rest of the night, and she did not leave me until my husband came down to take me back home.  I telegraphed him at once after the drowning report was made, and we went home by the early train (4:30 a.m.) the night after the night of the bathing.  He brought news of my sick child at home and I went at once to it.  That is all I know of the affair and all I have to say of it.  I would not see anyone in my room at the hotel after the report of the drowning and was with Mrs. Grant till I left with my husband . . . .”[11]

This may be entirely true, although the lurid detail of the ominous undertaker’s sign strikes me as a lawyerly invention.  Whatever Mary did, knew, or suspected, it appears to me that she was being shielded from the earthquake of destruction that that spread from her sister’s awful folly.

* * * * *

The same could not be said for Miller W. McCraw, who by the middle of June was losing his mind in a hotel in St. Louis, Missouri.  McCraw now saw that his reputation had been ruined, and his life destroyed, by the awful folly of the “drowning plot.  He had lost his wife, his daughter, his friends, and his place in the gentry of Brazos County.  Across the state of Texas, his name was a byword for a homewrecker and the lowest sort of snake in the grass.  And he had lost—perhaps never possessed—the love of Ruth Davis. In a half-crazed letter written to the Brazos Pilot, the newspaper then published in Bryan, McCraw doubled down on the excuse that the “drowning plot” had been nothing but a joke that fell flat.

“I feel that it will be your pleasure, as it is your duty, to do Mrs. Davis justice.  In your report of her troubles you leave the impression on the minds of your readers that she intended at first to abandon home and children permanently.  Such was not the fact.  But, briefly, the following are facts:

While North last summer [at Long Branch, New Jersey], one of us, reading aloud, read an account of the supposed drowning of a lady, her funeral and resurrection.  Mrs. D. remarked that she had always intended to play dead; that she had often told Major Davis so, and that was the way she would do it.  I replied it was a good idea; that she always wanted to create a sensation, and that would be a good one.  All joking.

Reaching St. Louis, at the river, I remarked to her: ‘This is your place; I’ll go home and report you dead.’  ‘Not ready yet,’ or some such reply she made.  All joke.

Afterwards she got anxious to try it, and your report of facts is about true.  She went to New York alone.  I was to report her drowned; keep notes of all; if funeral, notify her, and she was to return in disguise; hear funeral and resurrect.”

If this is true, we may suppose that Ruth Davis suffered from what psychologists call histrionic personality disorder—that she was what ordinary people nowadays call a “drama queen.”  It is the nature of a drama queen to stage dramas that alleviate her chronic boredom and satisfy her craving for attention.  We may suppose that, after many years of marriage, Bennett Davis knew that Ruth was a drama queen, and that he was angry in Galveston because he half suspected that his wife’s drowning was simply the latest, and greatest, drama that she had staged to alleviate her chronic boredom and satisfy her craving for attention.

Ruth Davis was, poor soul, as I said earlier, the Madame Bovary of Brazos County.  She may or may not have shared Madame Bovary’s taste for adultery, but she was almost certainly a histrionic drama queen.  The spider of ennui was the root of her awful folly.  It was the source of her reckless destruction.  We may say of her what was said of the original Madame Bovary in Flaubert’s novel:

“And so, we are bored!  We should like to live in the town and dance the polka every evening!  Poor little woman!  It gasps for love like a carp on a kitchen table for water . . .”[12] 

This line is spoken by Rodolphe, a cynic who will seduce Madame Bovary by exploiting her craving for excitement and attention.  I see no reason to suppose that Miller McCraw was another Rodolphe, since Ruth Davis seduced McCraw into playing the leading man in her drama, and he was too foolish to see what this meant until it was too late.  As he goes on to explain in his letter to the Brazos Pilot:

“It never became serious to me until it came time to telegraph Major D.  I could not telegraph a lie to a man I loved above all other men.  I tried, but hand could not write it . . . . The intended joke became a monster fraud—and on a man I loved, yet had not moral courage to plainly tell him facts.

I thought it would be over soon, knowing she would return in a few weeks.  But imagine my horror on returning to Bryan, learned through friends that many thought she was not drowned.  I notified Mrs. D. of the fact, and concurred with her that she had best stay dead until matters could quiet down; she could not bear to return and face these reports; time passed; matters grew worse . . . .  Mrs. D. was almost crazy . . . . I thought of going to Mexico—but she did not want me, and I could not leave her in that fix.”

McCraw’s letter then breaks down in a jumble of exculpatory stammering, but his principal aim is to get Ruth out of her “fix” by taking as much blame as possible onto himself.  It was Ruth who actually had the mad idea that she could get excitement and attention by staging a drowning and resurrection, but it was he, McCraw, who had facilitated this folly and paid to make the mad idea into an awful reality.

“I know and deeply feel I acted wrong and Mrs. Davis thoughtlessly; leaving home, expecting to be absent and play dead three or four weeks, pretending to be drowned, is her offense; furnishing her the means, aiding her and reporting her drowned is mine; I know ’tis human nature to destroy, but give her justice; damn me for what I have done—the better element of the public can afford to deal liberally with a woman.  Respectfully, M. W. McCraw.”[13]

* * * * * *

It remains to sketch the aftermath of this awful folly.  I begin with a notice that appeared in a newspaper in late September, 1880, four months after the astonishing resurrection of Ruth Davis, and nearly fifteen years after the marriage announcement with which I began.

“In the district court at Bryan a divorce has been granted Maj. B. H. Davis.”[14]

This was followed, four months later, by a second notice.

“The bar of Bryan held a meeting and adopted a resolution expressive of esteem for Major B. H. Davis, and regretting his withdrawal from our bar, and his removal to another portion of the State.  He is soon to change his home to El Paso.”[15]

Bennett Davis did not leave Brazos County simply to escape of social shame.  The Southern Pacific Railroad reached El Paso in 1881, and a new and promising city was springing up beside the track in much the same way as Bryan had sprung up fourteen years before.  Bennett’s brother Charles was already in El Paso, and at the age of forty-nine, he still had time to start a new life.

It appears that Bennett Davis prospered in El Paso.  He became a county judge and had several business interests, but hope did not triumph over experience and he did not attempt a second marriage.  Seventeen years after he went to Galveston to recover his wife’s body, Bennett H. Davis was dead.

“Although the death of Judge Bennett H. Davis has been expected for some time, the final termination of his life at 9 o’clock this morning caused a shock to his relatives and friends.  That fatal disease paresis, had been eating away the life threads for several months and at last it snapped the last chord . . .”[16]

Ruth Davis returned to Brazos County just as her ex-husband Bennett Davis left for El Paso.  Her father was wealthy enough to regularly travel to Hot Spring, Arkansas, where he could soak his old bones in the steaming water of the baths, but he was not wealthy or indulgent enough to support a disgraced daughter in New York City.  So Ruth had to return to his plantation outside Mudville, and live as she might on his charity.

To avoid possible unpleasantness in Bryan, Ruth stepped down off the train at Hearne, the next station north of her old home town, and finished the journey to her father’s house in the discreet privacy of her father’s buggy.

“Mrs. B. H. Davis, the heroine of the McCraw-Davis scandal, which created so much comment in the papers last year, has returned to her father’s house in Robertson county.  She has been sojourning in New York.  The Post’s Hearne correspondent says that she looks none the worse from her romantic exit and sojourn in the Northern metropolis, and did not seem the least embarrassed as she walked from the door of the hotel to the buggy that was to carry her to her father’s house.”[17]

It is possible that Ruth Davis returned to nurse her father through his final illness, just as it is possible that the shame of her folly hastened the course of that final illness.  In any case, eight months after she took the long buggy ride home from Hearne, this notice appeared.

 “Col. T. D. Wilson, an old and respected citizen of Brazos county is dead.”[18] 

I do not know how long Ruth continued to live on the plantation near Mudville, but when her father died she inherited seven hundred acres of prime cotton land in the river bottom.  That would have been good for an income of nearly one hundred thousand dollars a year in today’s money.  Ruth Davis did not live out her days in poverty.  Nor did she live them out near Mudville, for in 1911, by which time Ruth must have been in her late sixties, this notice appeared.

“The biggest real estate deal made in this county in some time was recorded yesterday, in which John E. Austin purchased from Mrs. Ruth Davis of Los Angles, Cal., her farm of 700 acres in the bottom near Mudville.  The consideration was $31,000.  This is a very fine farm, and added to Mr. Astin’s present holdings gives him a very fine property.”[19]

How poetic that the Madame Bovary of Brazos County should find her way to Los Angeles, California, Mecca of all great drama queens!

When we last saw Miller W. McCraw, he was suffering a nervous breakdown in a hotel in St. Louis, Missouri.  He apparently pulled himself together and made his way up the Missouri River to Fargo, North Dakota, where he went into banking, prospered, but then sickened after only a few years.[20]  McCraw died only ten years after his great folly with Ruth Davis, but even his story ends happily enough.  The touching story is told in this notice, printed in the Galveston newspaper in December, 1889.

“San Antonio, Tex., Dec. 19.—There died in the Maverick hotel in this city at an early hour this morning a man who figured conspicuously some ten years ago in one of the most dramatic and sensational episodes which has occurred in Texas.  His name was M. W. McCraw, and with his wife and daughter he had been here since November 16 last.

It will be remembered by the readers of The News that about ten years ago McCraw and his family lived in Bryan, as did also Hon. B. H. Davis and family.  Mrs. Davis left Bryan for Galveston, and disappeared after taking a bath in the Gulf.  Her disappearance was attributed to accidental drowning, and the greatest exertions were made to recover her body by dragging the Gulf, firing guns, and so forth, but without success.  She was mourned as dead, and most impressive funeral ceremonies were held in her honor in Bryan, where she had been universally respected.

Soon after her disappearance Mr. McCraw, also a prominent citizen of Bryan, took a trip to New York, and soon after it developed that he had deserted his wife and family and had gone to join Mrs. Davis who, instead of having fallen into the Gulf, had secretly taken passage for the same city a few days before, and had adopted the drowning plan as a ruse to throw the public off the scent.  When this became known there was a profound sensation throughout the entire state, and Mr. Davis, who now lives in El Paso, was the subject of the deepest sympathy, as was also McCraw’s deserted wife.  Davis soon after left Bryan and located in El Paso.

After a few months Mrs. Davis and McCraw, who had met in New York, separated, and McCraw went to Dakota, where he engaged in business and became rich.  A year or two ago, while on a visit to Chicago, he met an old Texas friend and of him inquired as to his wife and daughter.  He learned their whereabouts and opened negotiations which resulted in his gaining his deserted wife’s consent to have the daughter sent to Vassar.  This proved the first step toward the reconciliation of the wife with her husband, from whom she had been separated for years.

Through the medium of the daughter, now a most charming young miss, they opened correspondence with each other, and in June last met and were married for the second time, the first marriage having been dissolved by a divorce granted on account of the husband’s desertion years before.  This last marriage proved  a happy one, and about a month ago McCraw, his wife and daughter came here to spend the winter.  Mrs. McCraw, before her reunion with her husband, had been in the habit of spending her winters here with her daughter.  McCraw’s death was caused by a cancer on his face.  His remains were embalmed and shipped this evening to Bryan, his wife and daughter accompanying them.”[21]

Miller W. McCraw was forgiven by his wife and his daughter, and also by the Bryan gentry that he and Ruth Davis had so thoroughly shocked and scandalized.  The funeral of the old fool was held in the parlor of Milton Parker, a local grandee, and McCraw was buried with due respect in the city cemetery.

“The remains of the late M. W. McCraw, of whom mention was made in yesterday’s News, was buried here yesterday at 4 o’clock, the funeral taking place from the residence of Mr. Milton Parker.  Mrs. McCraw and daughter will remain a short time in Bryan, after which they will probably return to San Antonio.”[22]

* * * * *

Ennui is the state of a soul oppressed by strong impressions of dull monotony.  Life has lost its flavor, the world has lost its color, and, as was said before, the poor soul “gasps for stimulation like a carp on a kitchen table for water.” The original quote of course said “love” instead of “stimulation,” but to a man or woman oppressed by ennui, “love” is a stimulant, adultery a pick-me-up, betrayal a breath of fresh air.

Indeed, I daresay adultery is less often a response to Eros than it is to what Flaubert called the “silent spider of ennui.”  Life grows dingy and grimy, just like a room that is slowly and silently coated with cobwebs and dust. Life is drained of it flavor; the color goes out of the world.

Awful follies are a means whereby fools propose to undo the work of this silent spider.

In a long forgotten essay on the power of ennui, the American historian George Bancroft wrote:

“To the prevalence of ennui must be traced the craving for intense excitement.  When life has become almost stagnant, and the ordinary course of events proves unable to awaken any strong interest, ennui assumes a terrific power, and clamors for emotion, though that emotion is to be purchased by scenes of horror and crime.”[23]

Horror and crime are strong stimulants for sad souls.  And so was the awful folly with which Ruth Davis attempted what even she described as a “resurrection” of something that had died in her.

[1]) Houston Tri Weekly Telegraph (Dec. 25, 1865), p. 13.

[2]) Born in Georgia in 1804, William Davis moved first to Tennessee and then to Texas.  He had eight sons and a daughter who died at a young age.  Henry William Clark, A Genealogy of the Davis Family (1905).

[3]) J. Morgan Broadus, The Legal Heritage of El Paso (1963), p. 218

[4]) Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

[5]) Galveston Daily News (September 15, 1878), p. 7; John Henry Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: L. E. Daniel, 189?), p. 595.

[6]) Galveston Daily News (Oct. 23, 1879), p. 4.

[7]) Galveston Daily News (Oct. 29, 1879), p. 4.

[8]) Galveston Daily News (May 28, 1880), p. 1

[9]) Galveston Daily News (May 30, 1880), p. 1.

[10]) Dallas Daily Herald (June 1, 1880), p. 2.

[11]) The Galveston Daily News (June 13, 1880), p. 1.

[12]) Flaubert, ibid

[13]) No copies of the Brazos Pilot survive, but the letter that McCraw sent to that paper on June 14 was reprinted in the Dallas Daily Herald (June 22, 1880), p. 1.

[14]) The Daily Banner [Brenham] (Sep. 24, 1880), p. 3.

[15]) The Galveston Daily News (April 13, 1881), p. 1.

[16]) El Paso Daily Herald (May 20, 1897), p. 4.

[17]) La Grange Journal (March 3, 1881), p. 1.

[18]) Brenham Daily Banner (Nov. 11, 1881), p. 2.

[19]) The Bryan Eagle (March 30, 1911), p. 3.

[20]) Clement A. Lounsberry, North Dakota History and People, 3 vols. (1917)

[21]) The Galveston Daily News (Dec. 20, 1889), p. 2.

[22]) The Galveston Daily News (Dec. 22, 1889), p. 3.

[23]) George Bancroft, “Ennui,” in Literary and Historical Miscellanies (1856).

7 thoughts on “An Awful Folly and the Spider of Ennui

  1. Your protagonist, like Flaubert’s in his novel, was what Christopher Lasch would call a narcissist. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, institutions, entirely without knowledge of the word, were so adjusted as to inhibit the formation of narcissism or at least, through social coercion, to minimize it where it appeared. Unfortunately, and for the last few decades, our institutions, especially our schools, are so adjusted as to breed narcissism, which has become an epidemic — and a much worse one in its effects than the Wuflu. Virtue-signaling, almost ubiquitous, demonstrates the extent of the problem. The problem has a complicated interloop. In a society dominated by drama-queens, self-centeredness will predominate; but self-centeredness is boring and annoying. So everyone constantly looks for a way to be the star of his own drama. Since in a narcissistic society, the range of ideas is limited and all of them are banal, everyone perpetually acts out the same banal script, which only exacerbates ennui, making the self-made problem all the worse.

  2. I thought of using the word narcissism as I wrote this post. I’ve been interested in the concept since I first read Lasch, but always find the word hard to use because it has distinct psychological, cultural, and colloquial definitions. I think you put your finger on the cultural definition when you say that in a narcissistic society “everyone constantly looks for a way to be the star of his own drama,” and that you put your finger on the cultural problem when you say that there used to be “institutions . . . so adjusted as to inhibit the formation of narcissism.”

    I think we have discarded the institutions (formal manners, polite conversation, social dance) at the same time as we have created a would in which a great many people are starved for attention. It wasn’t that long ago that we listened to relatively boring people because there was nothing else to listen to, but technologies beginning with the newspaper and radio made it possible to ignore the relatively boring people around us, and give our attention to more interesting “voices” in the media. This got much worse with television and went off the charts with the internet.

    I say this as someone who gets bored very easily, and who finds it very hard to pay attention to the cliched maundering of a simpleton. But even a simpleton needs attention and will go crazy if he don’t get it.

  3. So even the Scandals and Follies are Bigger in Texas!

    The eponymous YouTube channel of the prolific Sam Vaknin is a fascinating source of information on narcissism. Vaknin himself is a high-functioning high IQ pathological narcissist who has devoted a lot of thought and scholarship to the subject

  4. Would I be correct in guessing that this sordid little tale occurred about 15 years too late for a duel to have been the expected thing?

    The cynic in me thinks that a late rapprochement and remarriage (with inheritance implications) might not have occurred had the man not been visibly dying and loaded. And Cancer of the Face — in days or yore, bits falling of faces more often than not suggested the Spanish Lady’s embrace, no?

    Can’t help it… in a very Poe-ish frame of mind this evening.

    • Men of their class generally did not duel by 1880, although my sense is that they often took care to keep out of each others way. A dishonored man was not expected to hunt his enemy down, but he would have a hard time turning the other cheek if the two met on Main Street. The banker in whose house Miller McCraw’s funeral was held had a gunfight on Main Street under what seem to have been such circumstances. McCraw’s wife came of good family and so may not have needed his money. I’ve searched the graveyard for his tombstone to see if they are buried together, but so far without success.

  5. Pingback: The Duty to Crush Dreams – The Orthosphere

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