[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted May 14, 2015 at rehtwogunraconteur.com. This version updated and expanded.]
When researching Robert E. Howard’s father, Doctor Isaac Mordecai Howard (seen above circa 1908), the devil is in the details. He almost always used only his initials when registering somewhere: Dr. I. M. Howard. The problem here is that his handwriting was terrible. His “I. M.” was often transcribed as “J. M.” or “S. M.” or some other scribble. And, there were a lot of Doctor Howards practicing medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was a D. M. Howard in Mineral Wells at the same time I. M. Howard was in the county, and another Dr. Howard in Cornish, Indian Territory, around the same time that our man was registered in Petersburg, Indian Territory, just to name two.
I am not the only researcher to follow the wrong Dr. Howard down a rabbit hole:
When Isaac Howard decided to study medicine, he was following a family precedent. His uncle J. T. Henry, a great favorite of Isaac’s mother, Eliza Howard, was a distinguished physician who was graduated from the University of Nashville in Tennessee in 1883 [sic: 1873]. In practice near the Arkansas-Missouri line, Dr. Henry became a role model for his nephew Isaac, who doubtless sought Dr. Henry’s advice and may have studied under him.
Physicians of that day often welcomed their kin as medical students. Such associations with older physicians afforded young would-be doctors opportunities for observation, access to medical books, and such didactic sessions as the preceptor thought necessary in exchange for the apprentice’s help in maintaining the dispensary, cleaning the office, and tending the horse and buggy if there was one. After a few years, when the older man deemed his candidate worthy, he would issue him a certificate to practice medicine. For an ethical man with strong family ties, the certification by a kinsman would be a real throwing of the torch.
Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register gives its first listing of “I. Howard” in 1896 as practicing in Forsyth, Missouri, in Taney County, just over the Missouri line, a short distance from his uncle’s home in Bentonville, Arkansas. It is unclear whether Isaac Howard apprenticed himself to his uncle or whether Dr. Henry had passed him on to another doctor in Forsyth. The dates suggest the former. If Isaac Howard had left Texas in the early nineties, when he turned twenty-one, he could have finished his training and been ready to set up his own practice by 1896.
The young physician did not long remain in Missouri. Perhaps he was homesick. Whatever his reasons, on April 19, 1899, Isaac M. Howard of Limestone County, Texas, was examined by the State Board of Medical Examiners in Texarkana, Texas, and awarded a certificate of qualification to practice medicine. Then he went home.
—L. Sprague de Camp, Dark Valley Destiny
I did a little digging and found an Isaac Howard on the 1860 US Census in Webster County, Missouri. He’s 41, married to Esther, born in Rhode Island, and has “M.D.” listed under “Profession.” After the Civil War, the 1870 Census has the same Isaac as a “Farmer” in Swan Township, Taney County; the post office is listed as Forsyth and Isaac Howard appears to have been the enumerator—his name is signed at the top of the document as “Ass’t Marshal.” In 1880, he’s listed as a “Physician” in Oliver Township, Taney County. He’s 62 years old here. The 1886 edition of Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register shows him in Forsyth, Taney Co. Most of the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, so no help there. All this would make Isaac 78 at the time of the 1896 edition of Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register. Seems pretty clear that the “I. Howard” de Camp found in that early edition of Polk’s is not our man.
With the only piece of evidence that might place our Isaac M. Howard near his Uncle J. T. Henry at that time removed, his actual whereabouts are a complete mystery. It’s still possible that he received his medical training there; in fact, this has pretty much become an accepted part of the biography. To wit:
By 1891, Isaac Howard had decided that he was not cut out to be a farmer. He left the family farm, sold his share in the property to his brother, and decided to practice frontier medicine.
Isaac’s medical education, a combination of on-the-job training, apprenticeship to his uncle, himself a doctor, and attendance at a variety of schools, lectures, and courses, would spread out over the next four decades. His initial training took four or five years, and allowed him to practice medicine as early as 1896. From that time on, Dr. Isaac Howard moved frequently from place to place, venturing as far out as Missouri and back to the family farm in Limestone County again.
—Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder
That J. T. Henry (above) was a doctor is well established; that Isaac M. Howard apprenticed under him, not so much. While I am not a fan of speculation, I recently ran across not one but two doctors who, in my opinion, make more sense as possible trainers of Dr. Howard. So, as long as there’s no proof either way, I’ll throw my speculations out there too.
Robert E. Howard said that his family moved to Texas in 1885. The earliest I can place them there is 1889. According to a “Widow’s Application for Pension” filled out by Isaac’s mother in 1910, Isaac’s father, William B., died “near Mt. Calm, Texas, on 3rd day of August in year of 1889” [possibly 1888]. While William’s death in Texas contradicts de Camp’s version, it agrees with Robert E. Howard’s account in an October 1930 letter to Lovecraft:
My branch of the Howards came to America with Oglethorpe 1733 and lived in various parts of Georgia for over a hundred years. In ’49 three brothers started for California. On the Arkansas River they split up, one went on to California where he lived the rest of his life, one went back to Georgia and one, William Benjamin Howard, went to Mississippi where he became an overseer on the plantations of Squire James Harrison Henry, whose daughter he married. In 1858 he moved, with the Henry’s, to southwestern Arkansas where he lived until 1885, when he moved to Texas. He was my grandfather.
There is a document dated 1885, but it wasn’t recorded until 1898, so I’m a tad skeptical. The document is basically a contract between Isaac Howard and his brother David Terrell Howard of Prairie Hill, Texas, in Limestone County. Dave agrees to purchase Isaac’s land in the county and has ten years to pay for it, starting in 1885. How a 13-year-old Isaac managed to possess that land is a mystery. De Camp speculates that it was Grandpa James Henry’s originally, and James did die in 1884, a fairly prosperous guy, so that’s reasonable, but there’s no mention of Texas land in his Arkansas will.
On November 6, 1893, Isaac’s sister Willie married William Oscar McClung in Limestone County. They moved to Indian Territory shortly thereafter, but probably not before attending brother Dave’s wedding on November 12 (or possibly December 12). This is where things get interesting.
Dave’s bride was Fannie Elizabeth Wortham (seen above quite some time after her marriage). From 1894 to 1919, the couple would produce 12 children. This isn’t so unusual when you figure that Dave had eight siblings and Fannie had seven. We’ll get back to one of Fannie’s siblings in a minute, but first, let’s look at her dad, Mortier (or Mortimer) LaFayette Wortham.
Born in Tennessee in 1822, Wortham moved to Texas while in his early 20s. He shows up on an 1846 tax list in Harrison County, east Texas. He appears to have hooked up with an unknown lady and had at least one child, John, before she died or left. The 1850 Census has an “L. M. Wortham” who is farming with the Martin family in Harrison County. He has with him “J. Wortham,” who is 2 years old. No wife is mentioned.
The 1860 Census of Anderson County has the now 12-year-old John, with father “L. Wortham,” joined by wife “E. Wortham” (the former Elizabeth Chaffin). The senior Wortham’s profession is listed as “Doctor.” On a pension application, Elizabeth says that she married Mortier in 1855. Her family had been in Texas since at least 1843, in Anderson County, which is two counties east of Limestone, with Freestone County in-between.
On March 6, 1862, “M. L. Wortham,” of Palestine, Anderson County, reported for infantry duty in the Confederate Army, Company K, 22nd Regiment, under Colonel R. B. Hubbard. It looks like he served all over the place, doing some time in Louisiana and Arkansas, before returning to Anderson County. He shows up on an 1868 voter registration list there.
“M. L. Wortham” appears on the Anderson County tax rolls for 1861, 1865, 1867, 1869, and 1870. While there are several Worthams on the lists throughout the 1880s, our guy doesn’t appear; this is probably because he had moved to Limestone County, where he and the family appear on the 1880 Census. His profession there is listed as “Farming.” The 1890 Census was mostly destroyed by fire, but in 1891 Mortier is back on the tax lists in Anderson County, appearing as “Dr. M. L. Wortham.” So, Dave Howard’s soon-to-be father-in-law went back to medicine (if he ever left) just before his daughter’s marriage. How convenient for Dave’s younger brother, who just happened to be interested in the medical profession.
[A quick, non-chronological note: On Fannie Wortham Howard’s 1960 death certificate, her father is identified as “Dr. W. M. Wortham”; on another daughter’s 1932 death certificate, he is identified simply as “Dr. Wortham.”]
And there’s more. When the Howards arrived in Texas they settled in around Mount Calm, which is in Hill County, but right on the line with Limestone County. They soon spread into Limestone, in the little community of Delia, which is close to Prairie Hill. The 1900 Census has Dave Howard’s growing clan listed with the Prairie Hill inhabitants. One of those was John C. Clark, who was married to another of Mortier Wortham’s daughters and happened to be, you guessed it, a doctor.
Born in 1847 in Jamaica to English parents, Clark was living in Texas by the end of the Civil War. He married Louisa E. Wortham in 1877 and was living in rural Limestone County at the time of the 1880 Census, where he is listed as a “Physician.” The 1890 edition of Polk’s Medical and Surgical Registry has him as the only doctor in Prairie Hill, with no report received in answer to their inquiry regarding his graduation from medical school. This probably means that he didn’t attend a school, but was trained by another doctor . . . perhaps his father-in-law?
So, in the early 1890s we’ve got a young Isaac Howard, purportedly not interested in the family business of farming. He’s got a doctor uncle in far-off Arkansas who seems to be doing pretty well for himself, and his older brother Dave marries into a family with at least two doctors, one of whom is practicing in the very town in which they live, the other in a nearby county. [I say “at least two” because one of Mortier’s sons, James Franklin Wortham, is identified as a doctor on an ancestry.com family tree, but there is no documentation provided to support that claim and I haven’t looked into it yet.] And right around this time, the mid-1890s, Dave is paying for Isaac’s land. Hmm, I wonder what Isaac was doing with the cash?
Meanwhile, brother Dave purchased some more land in 1897 from Gussbaum and Morris, whoever they were. Then, the 1885 document was filed for record on January 15, 1898, and on February 12, 1898, Isaac Howard filed a quit claim, closing the land deal with his brother. The next time Isaac M. Howard appears on paper it is as a doctor:
The Medical Board of Examiners, Fifth Judicial District, State of Texas, done at Texarkana, Texas, April 19, 1899, I.M. Howard of Limestone County received his Certificate of Qualification to Practice Medicine in any or all of its branches throughout the State of Texas.
The first place he appears is Freestone County, where he registered his new credentials on July 20, 1899. Right next door to Limestone, this makes sense, but, as long as I’m speculating, let me go a step further. On a recent trip to Groesbeck, the county seat of Limestone, I asked about their Medical Register—the book that lists the doctors who had registered their credentials in the county. Isaac M. Howard was not listed in that book, but the book only went back to 1907. Turns out the older records were destroyed by fire. So I’ll bet Isaac did indeed go home—right back to Limestone County, then to Freestone. But again, that’s just speculation.
Dr. Howard next appears up north near Indian Territory in Montague County, where his uncle, George Walser, was living. I have no idea if the two had any contact at this time, though I would think it odd if they didn’t. Dr. Howard registered in the county on May 30, 1901. This appears to be just before Isaac started practicing in Petersburg, just across the Red River in Indian Territory, and not far from where his sister Willie had moved after marrying Oscar McClung. The doctor couldn’t have spent too much time in Indian Territory, though, he had a date with destiny back in Texas, Palo Pinto County, where a certain lady named Hester was spending time with her siblings in Mineral Wells.