My Name Is Earl

Earl Lee Comer was one of Robert E. Howard’s first cousins. When his mother died in 1915, he left his home in Big Spring, Texas, to live with the Howard family in Cross Cut. Just 17, he attended the Cross Cut school for at least one year, earning a spot on the basketball team. Whether he was a “big brother” or a “big bother” is not known, but there are a couple of “cousins” mentioned in Howard’s correspondence that could refer to Comer. In 1918, the Howards moved to the nearby town of Burkett (where Robert tried out for the basketball team). Whether or not Comer accompanied them on this move is not known: he may have returned to Big Spring before joining the military on May 25, 1918. Comer visited the Howards many times over the years and may have corresponded with his Cousin Robert. Most of this was not known in 1983 when Comer was introduced, as follows, in L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, Dark Valley Destiny:

Robert Howard was thirteen years old when his family bought their home in Cross Plains. Although Robert had not outgrown the Burkett school system, which lacked high-school facilities, we surmise that Mrs. Howard’s nephew, Earl Lee Comer, who had come to live with them, had already reached high school age. Very little is known about this nephew, except that he shared the Howards’ house for several years. Robert, in his later letters to Lovecraft, never once mentions the slightly older lad whose presence must have affected him in one way or another. Since the two boys shared the sleeping porch, ate at the same table, and even attended the same high school, it is indeed curious that no mention of him appears in the correspondence of either Robert or his father.

Queries to former teachers at the Cross Plains school and to others who lived in the neighborhood have revealed nothing. All we know is that after completing his high-school courses, Lee Comer left Cross Plains to work for one of the oil companies in Dallas. Perhaps no one will ever know what Robert thought of this interloper in his home or what this orphaned youth thought of his thirteen-year-old cousin. [pg. 133-34]

The second edition of Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard (2011) corrects the timing above (which was inaccurate in the first edition), but doesn’t add anything new:

It was at this time [while living in Cross Cut] that Robert had to endure the first of many boarders. His orphaned cousin, Earl Lee Comer, was staying at the Howard house, and attended the Cross Cut High School. Robert was forced to share the sleeping porch with this older boy, who came to them though Hester’s side of the family. Comer stayed for at least a year, presumably until he graduated, and then enlisted in the military. Robert never discussed his cousin to anyone. [pg. 37-8]

I’m not sure how I feel about calling an orphaned cousin “a boarder,” but I’ll leave that alone. What both of these biographies suggest is that Comer’s stay with the Howards was less than ideal, and that Robert E. Howard didn’t talk about it later. So, which is it? Was Comer’s presence in the house something to be endured, or was it welcomed? Did Robert Howard never talk about this cousin, or simply not use his name? Besides the fact that Earl Lee Comer lived with the Howards, what do we really know about him? His story begins in Tennessee . . .

Hester Ann Perry was born in Tennessee in March 1835. Around 1854 she married a gentleman named Good. That union produced three children and ended in 1860—cause unknown. Only Sarah, the youngest child, accompanied Hester when she moved to Illinois. Shortly thereafter, Illinois native John Fletcher Comer came calling. Born in 1837, he too had a child from a previous entanglement, but that son was living with his mother, so John Fletcher wooed and married Hester Ann in 1862. In September 1865, they had their first child together: John Frank Comer. At the time of the 1870 Census, the Comers were living in Massac County, in southern Illinois, and had been joined by another son: James A. Comer. John Fletcher was a farmer; his wife kept house.

By 1880, the family had moved north to the tiny town of Leef, in Madison County. John Fletcher still farmed, but he had a lot of new help: his first child, Jacob W, had returned to live with his father’s family, and one of Hester’s other sons, Thomas S. Good, had come to live with his mother; both boys were in their early twenties. The family laid down its roots in Madison County and had ties there into the mid-20th century.

Between 1880 and 1887, information is scarce, but by the end of 1888 the family had packed up and moved to Missouri—Saint Louis, to be precise. There are several Comers listed in the city directory starting at least as early as 1867, so perhaps they moved to be closer to family. Whatever the reason, in 1889 the Comer men are all listed: “John F” Senior, is an “agent” of some kind; his sons “James K” and “John F, Jr.” are carpenters. The information in the 1890 directory is the same, except that John Sr. is now listed as a salesman, and John Jr. is now going by his middle name, Frank.

The 1891 directory has Frank Comer listed as a collector for the Moffitt-West Insurance Company; in 1893, he is listed as a solicitor. The 1894 and ’95 city directories have the whole Comer clan living together, presumably at John F’s home, with one exception: Frank. During this period Frank had moved south to Commerce and become a reverend. The October 12, 1895 edition of The News Boy (Benton, Scott Co., MO) announced his arrival:

FROM COMMERCE
Quite a crowd was out Sunday night to hear the new preacher, Rev. J. F. Comer, for the first time.

The same paper mentions a few weddings that Rev. J. F. Comer officiated at Commerce later in 1895, but after a January 25, 1896 mention, Rev. Comer drops out of sight. His next appearance is on March 4, 1896, over in Exeter, Barry County, where he married Alice Ervin. The March 12, 1896 Muskogee Phoenix has a few more details:

The friends of Miss Alice Ervin, formerly a resident of Muskogee, and a sister of Mrs. J. 0. Cobb [aka Christena Ervin], will be interested in learning that Miss Ervin was married on Wednesday of last week to Rev. J. Frank Comer, of St. Louis, Mo., at the home of the bride’s parents at Commerce [sic: they lived at Exeter], Mo. The many friends of Miss Ervin in Muskogee join the friends at her home in wishing the wedded couple all the peace, joy and contentment that life affords.

I have found no other mention of J. Frank Comer or his bride in 1896. There is an 1897 Land Ownership map of Richmond, Missouri (Ray County) that has a “J. F. Comer” owning a lot next to a cemetery (below). This could be our man, but the 1897 Saint Louis directory has another candidate, a “John F” Comer listed as a teacher. All the other familiar Comers are sharing a house on Marceau Avenue, but this John F. has “bds” at 3922 N. 20th Street. Whatever the case, by July 13, 1898, both Mr. and Mrs. John Frank Comer were in Saint Louis attending the birth of their only child, Earl Lee. They were not together for long.

The 1899 Saint Louis directory lists “Comer, John F. Jr. Rev” at home with his father at 3113 N. 20th. As wives are not listed in the directories, it is not known if Alice and Earl were living with the Comers, but by 1900, the answer is clear. On June 6, 1900, in the city of Saint Louis, John A. Casserly arrived at the Comer home to enumerate the U.S. Census. He recorded the following: Comer, John F, head of household, age 62, born June 1837, salesman; Comer, Hester A, wife, age 65, born March 1835; and Comer, John F, son, age 34, born September 1865, collector, insurance. In the box for Jr.’s marital status, Mr. Casserly marked “widowed.” Where Alice Comer and her son had gone is a mystery. They do not appear to have been recorded on the 1900 Census.

As for Frank, life went on. He is listed as Rev. John F. Comer, Jr., living with his father, in the 1901 and 1903 Saint Louis directories. He does not appear in the 1904 directory, probably because he was elsewhere, meeting his next wife, Sarah R. They were married in 1905 and were back in Saint Louis by 1908, where Frank is listed in the directory as a clerk at the Saint Louis Times. The 1910 Census shows Frank and Sarah in Saint Louis. Frank is a salesman at a retail store. This second marriage doesn’t appear to have lasted long, either, as the 1920 Census has Comer as a single lodger in the home of Edward McCaslin and family. The 55-year-old Frank Comer reported his profession as Life Insurance Agent. In 1928, John Frank Comer was hit by a car and died. He was buried back at the Comer plot in Edwardsville, Madison County, Illinois.

Following the breakup of the Comer marriage circa 1899, Alice and Earl Lee appear to have sought out the comfort of family in Big Spring, Howard County, Texas, where Alice’s older brother, W.V. Ervin, ran the local newspaper and raised a family. The Comers may have been in Big Spring when the Howards visited there for several weeks around the turn of the New Year in January 1908. The Comers appear on the 1910 Census, there in Big Spring, with Alice listed as a widowed dressmaker (18 years before the death of Frank Comer). In 1911, Earl Lee took part in the formation of Texas’s Troop No. 1, the so-called “oldest Boy Scout troop in Texas,” which began in Big Spring that year. How long he was involved with the Boy Scouts is unknown. On July 14, 1915—the day after his seventeenth birthday—Earl’s mother died, cause unknown. He was shuffled off to a tiny town in Brown County to finish up his schooling. He moved in with his mother’s sister—his aunt Hester Howard—and her family, Uncle Isaac (or perhaps Uncle Cue) and a cousin, one Robert E. Howard, who was just nine years old.

Comer was almost eight years older than his cousin, but the two young men appear to have engaged in behavior typical of teenage boys. Comer joined the basketball squad at the Cross Cut school and was described in a December 10, 1915 Cross Plains Review item as a “goal thrower.” In a May 24, 1932 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard described a scene that seems to include Comer, a known Boy Scout:

Another thing that discourages me is the absolute unreliability of human senses. If a hunting hound’s nose fooled him as often as a human’s faculties betray him, the hound wouldn’t be worth a damn. The first time this fact was brought to my mind was when I was quite small, and hearing a cousin relate the details of a camping trip, on which one Boy Scout shot another through the heart with a .22 calibre target rifle. I was never a Boy Scout, but I understand that they are trained to be keen observers. Well, there were about twenty looking on, and no two of them told the same story in court. And each insisted that his version was the correct one, and stuck to it. And I understand that this is common among all witnesses.

More shenanigans are described in Howard’s circa December 1933 letter to August Derleth:

One of the damndest falls I ever got in my life was on a frozen pool—or tank, as we call them in these parts. I was just a kid, and wrestling with my cousin who was much older and larger. Eventually our feet went from under us, and we both came down on my head.

Both of the incidents that Howard describes could be remembrances of his time in Cross Cut, when his cousin Earl lived with them. Of course, this is just speculation; perhaps Earl’s stay was as bad as de Camp thought it was. Either way, by May 25, 1918, Comer was gone.

Sometime before his departure, Earl had enlisted in the United States Navy, probably at Abilene. His start date was May 25, 1918. Perhaps as part of his enlistment, he ended up in Milwaukie, Wisconsin. At the time of the 1920 Census, enumerated on January 23, he was recorded as a lodger (on a page full of lodgers). A 1920 city directory has “Earl Comer” living at the YMCA. But he was “home” for the holidays that December:

E. L. Comer of Big Spring is here to spend the holidays with his aunt, Mrs. I. M. Howard. He is helping W. E. Butler, grocerman, during the holiday rush.

Cross Plains Review, December 17, 1920

It appears that his discharge from the Navy was completed on September 30, 1921, but given his arrangements in 1920, it seems he was out of the service before then. A January 7, 1921 note from the Big Spring Herald seems to confirm this:

Earl Lee Comer who recently returned from Milwaukee, Wis., where he had been to take a course in mechanical drawing, after spending the holidays with friends and relatives in this city left for Cross Plains where he will make his home.

Earl didn’t stay long in Cross Plains the second time, certainly not long enough to cause the family much trouble. He arrived sometime after January 7, 1921, and was off to Dallas in time to be included in the 1922 city directory. His profession is listed as “draftsman.” He would remain in Dallas until at least mid-1924, possibly into 1925, but by the summer of that year he was way out west. California! He shows up in the 1925 Los Angeles city directory as a draftsman. And, while living in the Golden State, he kept in touch with his relatives in Cross Plains.

In Howard’s Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, his semi-autobiographical novel, the character that represents Howard says that a letter “boosting” his first-published story appeared in Bizarre Stories (aka Weird Tales), and that the “letter had been written by a cousin in California, at [his] special request.” For a couple of cousins who supposedly didn’t get along, a request like that would be unusual. Comer’s letter appeared in the September 1925 issue of Weird Tales and said, in part, “I ran across ‘Spear and Fang’ by Robert E. Howard—a good story of our remote ancestors before the dawn of civilization and intelligence, when man’s reasoning powers were in the formative state. Your July issue affords thrilling entertainment for those who enjoy the unusual. And if you continue to publish such appealing stories, then the well-deserved popularity of Weird Tales is certain to grow.” The addressee’s name was transcribed as “Earl C. Comer of Los Angeles.” But Earl wouldn’t stay there for long.

The September 10, 1926 edition of the Big Spring Herald told of Comer’s return to Texas:

Earl Comer, en route from Los Angeles to Dallas, where he has accepted a position, visited friends in this city this week, leaving Thursday morning for Dallas.

Once he was back in Dallas, Earl Comer’s trips to visit his family and friends in Big Spring and Cross Plains resumed. The November 23, 1928 edition of the Cross Plains Review informed its readers that “E. L. Comer of Dallas, nephew of Dr. and Mrs. Howard, spent past weekend here.” It is shortly after this visit that Robert Howard probably prepared two strange documents. One is just a list of three names: Truett Vinson, Clyde Smith, and Earl Lee Comer; toward the bottom of that page, the word “life” has been added. The other sheet has the same names, with Booth Mooney added after Smith; this sheet includes the cities where these people lived (except for Mooney, who lived in Decatur, not Brownwood) and a few couplets of verse—more indication that relations between Comer and Howard were not strained.

From 1929 to 1933, Comer appears as a draftsman in the Dallas city directories. On April 3, 1930, he was enumerated on the U.S. Census as a draftsman lodger in the city of Dallas. And then things start to get spotty. There is an Earl Comer living in Dennison, Texas, in 1934, but this probably isn’t our man as Lindsey Tyson remembered Comer attending the Howards’ funeral in 1936 and thought that he lived in Dallas.* A 1938 city directory has him still in Dallas. Also in 1938, on December 10 Earl got married to Ruby Nell Poe. His wife accompanied him on at least two visits to Big Spring, one during Christmas 1938 and another in 1939, but after that she disappears. Earl’s 1941 visit to Howard County was taken alone and his death certificate indicates that he was divorced.

[* Here’s what Tyson told de Camp in an October 10, 1977 letter:

There was one relative of the Howards that no one seems to remember much about. His name was Earl Lee Comer. Earl Lee was a nephew of Mrs. Howard’s, he came to live with the Howards while they were still in Burkett. He was an orphan.

Earl Lee left here in the early twenties, went to Dallas, and Bob told me went to work for the Mobile Oil Co. Earl Lee was I think four or five years older than Bob. He came back here to the funeral service and I talked to him for a few minutes before the services, but I did not get to ask some things I was interested in. I was one of the pall bearers, thought I would talk to him some more later, but he left as soon as the service was over and I have never seen him again.]

The few Dallas directories I’ve seen from the 1940s and ’50s all have the same old thing: Comer as a draftsman. After the 1960 directory, which has Earl working for the U.S. Geological Survey, the record goes blank. There is an Earl Comer being brought up on charges of child desertion in Rusk, Texas, in 1963; whether or not this Earl is our Earl, we’ll probably never know. The earliest mention of a Mrs. Earl Lee is December 1938. It seems odd that the couple would have a child young enough to be “deserted” in 1963. I’m guessing this was someone else.

The last definitive sighting of Earl is from the Galveston Daily News for Sept. 16, 1970:

Earl Lee Comer, 72, a retired Galveston draftsman, was found dead in his room at Moody House Tuesday. Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Brookside Memorial Park in Houston, the Rev. William C. Webb Jr. officiating. Cremation will follow under the director of J. Levy and Bro. Funeral Home of Galveston. Born in St. Louis, Mo., Comer worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Bureau of Mines prior to his retirement. No survivors were reported.

His death certificate indicates that he was a retired draftsman from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Cause of death was acute myocardial failure. He is honored as a veteran at the Houston National Cemetery in Texas.

Thanks to Damon Sasser for the photo of Earl’s grave.

[By Rob Roehm. Originally published in Onion Tops #40, REHupa mailing #229, June 2011, and expanded for posting online at the now defunct Two-Gun Raconteur blog, July 8, 2012, where it won the second place Cimmerian Award for online articles from the Robert E Howard Foundation. The current version incorporates all of the information acquired since then, some of which appeared in “An Earl Addendum” (July 21, 2012) and “Another Earl Addendum” (November 18, 2012) posted at the Two-Gun Raconteur blog, and “The Comer Connection” in Onion Tops #51, REHupa mailing #240, April 2013. With any luck, this will be my last word on Earl Lee Comer.]

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