[By Rob Roehm. Originally posted on September 10, 2011, at rehtwogunraconteur.com. This version lightly edited and updated.]
With football season getting started, I was reminded of my first post on the Two-Gun Raconteur blog, “Post Oaks and Football.” In that post, I talked about how accurate the opening scene of Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is. This got me thinking, so I pulled the Grant edition from the shelf and read the chapter again. [The text is the same in the new edition put out by the REHF Press.] The following conversation between Steve Costigan (Howard) and Clive Hilton (Tevis Clyde Smith), which takes place right after the football game discussed in my first post, grabbed my attention:
“That was sure a great run Franey made, wasn’t it?” remarked Steve. “Yes, it was,” Clive acquiesced. “Guess you’re here writing the game up for The Rattler?” “Yes. I guess the student body’ll read it, on account of Franey.” [. . .] “I guess I’ll have the title lines in ten point type,” Clive said suddenly. “I think I’ll try a new style for the front page this week. The students won’t know the difference but a man appreciates his own work.”
Given how accurate Howard’s description of the football game had been in this fictional work, I wondered if he had played fast and loose with the post-game conversation or kept mostly to the facts. Luckily, I had a way to fact check it.
At Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, they’ve got Smith’s collection of The Tattler, including the edition that came out right after the November 27, 1924 game between Howard Payne and Simmons. Both of my questions are answered on the front page.
First, “Clive” says he’s writing an article about the game for the paper. In the real world, Clyde Smith was editor-in-chief of The Tattler for the 1923-24 school year. The paper’s staff box does not list a sport’s editor, so I guess we can’t be certain who wrote the following story, but my money’s on Clyde:
After that, “Clive” says he’s going to experiment with a new style for the paper that week. Clyde Smith did exactly that:
Written in 1928, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is presented as fiction, but it’s sure got a lot of fact included. If nothing else, this underlines how good Howard’s memory was. I can’t remember a conversation from last week, never mind four years go.
[By Rob Roehm. Originally published in Onion Tops #62, Feb. 2015. A revised version was posted on March 17, 2015, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version slightly updated.]
Mary Ervin, aka “Maxine,” the youngest of her Ervin clan, was born at Big Spring, Texas, on October 12, 1906, to William Vinson Ervin, Sr. (Hester Howard’s brother) and Ida Ezzell Ervin (the sister of Hester Howard’s former heart-throb, Frank Ezzell). In January 1908, the Ervin family played host to William’s sister, Hester, her husband, Dr. I. M. Howard, and their baby boy, Robert. The Howards stayed a few weeks “due to illness” and then made their way to Seminole, up in Gaines County.
The 1910 US Census for Howard County, Texas, lists W. V. Ervin, age 48, as “Editor” for a “Paper” in Big Spring, with wife, Ida, 38; two sons, Vinson, 15, and Jessie, 13; and two daughters, Lesta, 8, and Maxine, 3. By the time of the 1920 Census, Jessie had flown the coop, W. V. was upgraded to “Publisher,” and everyone was 10 years older.
In 1921, Maxine participated in at least two declamation contests for the Big Spring high school, winning first place at one of them. She was on the Seventh Grade Exercises program with a “Reading” (sister Lesta performed a piano solo).
There is little evidence of the Ervins in the Big Spring High School yearbooks, the El Rodeo: only the senior photo of Lesta from 1919 and the “Irven” in the “Public Speaking Club” from 1922 that heads this post. My guess is that’s Maxine. She bears a striking resemblance to her Aunt Hester, if you ask me.
In the early 1920s, W. V. Ervin appears to have been starting newspapers in several small Texas towns, including Gail, Westbrook, and Putnam, all practically ghost towns today (yes, I’ve been to all of them). This caused him to be away from the family much of the time, but items in the newspapers show that he visited home frequently, and that his daughters often returned the favor—when they had a break from school. While working on the paper at Putnam, in Callahan County, the Ervins visited the Howards in Cross Plains:
The Misses Maxine and Lesta Erving [sic.], of Big Springs [sic.] were visiting their uncle, Dr. Howard and family, last week. They formerly were in the newspaper business, and for a time the two girls published a paper at Putnam, doing all the work themselves. They stated that they thought Cross Plains was a splendid town, and their visit here was a pleasant one.
Cross Plains Review – Oct. 5, 1923
In a letter dated the same day as the newspaper, Robert E. Howard told Tevis Clyde Smith a little more about the visit: “I’ve had two cousins visiting me, whom I hadn’t seen for fifteen years. They’d read the International Adventure Library and from what they said, Dracula is a hum-dinger. I’m going to order the set right away.”
In 1924, Maxine ran an ad in the Big Spring paper: “I am prepared to take a few pupils in expression. Maxine Ervin.” Also in 1924, sister Lesta moved to the big city and landed a job with the Dallas News; by 1927, Maxine had joined her as both appear in that year’s Dallas City Directory at 2515 Maple Avenue. Early in 1927, Lesta switched from the newspaper game to Etna Insurance. In November, their father William died.
In his essay, “The Last Celt,” Harold Preece reports on Maxine’s activities at the time: “During 1927, while I was enrolled at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, I was introduced by a fellow student to a visiting Dallas girl named Maxine Ervin. Maxine was employed as a clerk by a Dallas newspaper, though she shared my then very incipient literary ambitions. She was a remarkably intelligent woman, and a friendship of some years would follow.”
In another of Preece’s essays, “Robert’s Lady Cousin,” he describes Maxine as handsome and conservative, and says that she once described her cousin Robert as “a Tristan” from Celtic legendry. That essay also describes a 1927 Lone Scout convention that gave rise to a group called The Junto. Maxine was responsible for a photo of those Lone Scouts that appeared in the paper (an alternate shot appears above), was mentioned in the 1927 Texicoma Yearbook (a copy is here), and ended up being a member of The Junto, as well, but not many of her contributions have surfaced.
In 1928, Maxine is listed as a “journalist” with her sister at 4933 Victor Street in the city directory, but she wasn’t in Dallas for the whole year; on September 21, 1928, the Big Spring Herald reported the following: “Miss Maxine Ervin arrived from Dallas to accept a position with the West Texan, the new weekly publication, which is to make its advent here in the near future.” By 1929, Maxine appears to have moved back to Dallas. Both she and Lesta are at 2505 Maple in the city directory. Maxine again listed as “journalist.”
In March 1928, The Junto began its circulation. The first contribution by Maxine that survives is a comment on a previous issue that appeared in the October 1928 mailing:
Good Lord! What are we, cut throats? Have we lost sight of our treasured philosophy, our staunch independence, etc., etc? Did somebody accidentally drop a bomb that wasn’t a dud? I feel like I’d just been in a volcano or something after all this. The Junto is very good. Who is A.M.Y.? No fair hiding behind an alias. Anyway, what he or she said about Truett isn’t quite fair. As for “Our Beloved Barbarian” he can take care of himself.
Her only contribution to the December 1928 issue is this short comment about the November issue: “Not as good as usual.”
Around this time, Junto editor Booth Mooney was asking for biographies of the members. Robert E. Howard was less than enthusiastic about this, telling Clyde Smith in a letter that “I’ve decided I don’t care to have mine appear in the Junto. There are several reasons, the main one being that as several of my cousins receive it, my mother would be pretty near bound to hear about it and there are a good many things in my life that I don’t want her to know about.”
By July 1929, Maxine was back in Big Spring again; on The Junto’s mailing list for that month, Maxine had crossed out the Maple Avenue address and written “Box 1224, Big Spring, Texas.” She also had this comment about the mailing: “The best issue we have had in a long time, and it still has plenty of room for improvement.”
The August 1929 Junto contains a rather sexist piece on women by Harold Preece. Maxine wrote the following on the mailing list: “This issue is very good. I agree with Schultze that Harold is all off about women. Fact is, all men are.” She followed this short comment up with a longer one in the September mailing:
More about Mr. Preece by Maxine Ervin
I may be putting my foot into it, but I feel like Harold has rather flung a challenge at some of “us girls” and that it should be taken up.
Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not defending womanhood against any mere male’s implications, accusations, attacks, satires, or what not for the simple reason that it isn’t necessary and it isn’t needed. Woman stands alone. She doesn’t give two “whoops and a holler” (quoting hill slang) what the world thinks of her; not if she is all genuine woman, she doesn’t; she may pretend she does, but deep down in her heart, she knows it isn’t so, and that she is going to go her own sweet way and enjoy herself.
The trouble is that women are just now beginning to find themselves. They have been so hampered and fettered by these generations past of strong men that they haven’t had the time nor the opportunity to find out what they really and truly do want. They are just now beginning to understand what life is all about and the vital part that they can play in it. They are learning that they have rights and the power to assert those same rights.
Pistols and horse whips have played a large part in woman’s emancipation, for she has learned that she, too, can meet brute force with brute force when it becomes necessary. If more women would shoot and horse-whip men who insult them and try this cave-man stuff, there’d be less of it, believe it or not.
The fact of the business is that men don’t like to see their chattels, toys, buffoons, slaves and what-not getting on an equal footing with them, economically, socially, or otherwise. It doesn’t suit his male desire for supremacy, for bullying, and brow-beating. He is denied having a meek, helpless something on which to vent the rage and other emotions that he is not man enough to control.
Oh, be fair. I think that all of this double-standard business is the most asinine, insane, and idiotic rot that ever was. I also think the same thing about this constant war of the sexes. We are human; we have human desires, aspirations, and hopes; we have our peculiarities, but first, last, and all the time we are HUMAN. Why can’t we behave as such and live and let live? Of course, there are some men who are unspeakable and some women who are unspeakable, but there are so many, many times their number who are real that I think it is silly to think of the few misfits and rotters when there are so many wonderful ones to think about.
Perhaps women haven’t yet become artists and musicians to rank with their brothers, but give them time. There never has been anything yet that women haven’t been able to attain once they set themselves to it. Anything within reason and that can be accomplished without a great deal of force as wars, for instance.
This is the way I feel about the subject. But I agree with Schultze that Harold should study his subject more. I am inclined to think that for some reason Harold is prejudiced and has not yet been able to re-assume an open minded attitude on the subject. Yet he swears he’s a genuine socialist!
This was the last of Maxine’s contributions to The Junto, as far as we know. The mailing list for the February 1930 issue has her address as “Maxine Ervin, c/o Beaumont Enterprise, Beaumont.” The US Census for that year has her there with her sister Lesta B., lodgers in the hotel of William Martin; Maxine’s occupation is listed as “newspaper work.”
By 1934 she’d moved to Longview, where she appears in the city directory with her mother and brother, William Vinson, Jr. In 1935 she had a short story, “They Die by Night,” published in Murder Mysteries. She appears to have spent some time writing radio scripts in Texas and California after this. In 1937, her first novel appeared, Death inthe Yew Alley. I found a copy of this and can’t recommend it, nor its digest release, retitled If I Die, It’s Murder (1945). An October 30, 1938 article in the Wichita Daily Times (click here) has Maxine living in Wichita Falls, but the 1940 Census has her back in Longview, working as a reporter, with two years of college under her belt. Her mother Ida died in November of that year; the obituary reports Maxine’s address as Houston. On August 14, 1945, Maxine was the “informant” on sister Lesta’s death certificate. Her residence is reported as Fort Worth, profession is “writer.”
On July 27, 1948, the Breckenridge American had this: “Mary Ervin has come up from Mineral Wells to help out with society a while, telephone her your news.” Two days later, they ran a follow up:
Miss Mary Ervin has come as a relief worker on society to the Breckenridge American. She is away from California about three years. We asked today to give us her first impression of Breckenridge. She wrote:
“A gradual descent extending over more than three years has taken me from San Francisco’s forty-five degree hills to Mineral Wells’ not-so-steep hills, to the smooth, level prairie that is Breckenridge. My notion was Breckenridge leaned more to hills and woodlands than to prairie, so I had a surprise. It is all one piece of that long West Texas stretch which reaches from Fort Worth to El Paso. Breckenridge is a nice place to be in and part of, even if it hasn’t an up and down side to it.”
This didn’t last long though. The August 10 issue has this: “Miss Mary Ervin, who has been helping out in American office, in hospital in Mineral Wells—Society news will be printed as sent in until successor arrives.”
The early 1950s has Mary working the Society column for the Liberty Vindicator, out of Liberty, Texas. An introductory piece, “Mary Ervin New Editor of Page,” appeared on August 30, 1951. Her pieces appeared until at least mid-1952.
On July 25, 1963, Mary “Maxine” Ervin died of heart failure at the Wichita Falls State Hospital. Her residence at the time was the Jerome Hotel in Mineral Wells. Her profession was recorded as “reporter.” She is buried in an unmarked grave at the Riverside Cemetery in Wichita Falls.
[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted at rehtwogunraconteur.com on September 4, 2012. This version slightly expanded.]
In 1928, Robert E. Howard was looking for contacts outside of the small town he was living in. A reader of the E. Haldeman-Julius publications, it seems likely that he encountered an ad for a correspondence club in an issue of The Debunker or Haldeman-Julius Weekly.
At least as early as the mid-1920s, a Pennsylvania chemist named Merlin Wand had started a list of “intellectually marooned” pen-pals. By 1927, he had acquired enough names to start a “one-man operation called ‘Contacts’ [which] was a clearinghouse for isolated book-lovers and neophyte writers.” (*) He began placing ads in various publications—The Survey, Haldeman-Julius Weekly, etc.—where, for the cost of a stamp, interested individuals would receive the “Contacts Listing Form.” Once the form was completed, applicants sent it and one dollar back to Wand to be listed in Contacts, “the only correspondence club for the mentally marooned.” (**) A typical ad appears below:
Contact Without Friction!
Are you mentally isolated? “Contacts,” literary correspondence club, introduces you to versatile, unconventional minds. No Formalities. Books loaned free to members. Registration fee $1.00. Particulars, stamp: Merlin Wand, Manorville, Pa.
Thanks to the Glenn Lord Collection, we now know that in the spring of 1928, Robert E. Howard mailed in a stamp and was sent the “Contacts Listing Form” on May 26 (see The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard: Index and Addenda). He filled out the personal information, indicating that his general attitude was “Liberal,” that he was “young” and “single” and that his occupation was “Magazine writer, prose and rhyme.”
Based on how Howard filled out his Contacts Listing Form, it appears that he was more interested in gathering information than in obtaining pen-pals. Under a list of 28 subjects including Mysticism, Sexology, Art, Literature, etc., Howard chose only three: Poetry, Anthropology, and Psychology (he typed “Abnormal” after the last). Then, in the “subjects not mentioned” area, he added Criminology and “Obsessional dementia.” In the additional information slot, Howard wrote the following:
Especially would like to hear from anyone having had experiences with cases of compulsory and criminal insanity; information will be treated as confidential. Also interested in devil worship, human sacrifice, anything unusual, grisly or strange.
The fact that this form remained with Howard’s papers shows that he didn’t send it in with the dollar membership fee. One wonders what type of pen-pal he’d have met if he had sent it in.
*Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. University of Illinois Press: 1998. **Sears, James Thomas. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine. Psychology Press: 2006.
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.]
If Robert E. Howard was ever an actual member of the Lone Scouts of America (LSA) , it was probably during his Cross Plains High School days. In the summer of 1919, C. S. Boyles, Jr., a classmate and future publisher of Howard’s (in Brownwood High School’s Tattler), contributed to that organization’s official organ: Lone Scout. The magazine was the glue that held the membership—isolated almost by definition—together and kept them in contact with each other. Besides Boyles, there was at least one other confirmed Lone Scout in Cross Plains: Renerick Clark. All three of these boys were part of a group that installed “an up to date radio plant” in the Cozy Drug Store in August 1922.
After moving to Brownwood for his final year of high school, Howard met two more former Lone Scouts: Truett Vinson and Clyde Smith. According to Smith, by the time he met Howard in the spring of 1923, he had put “childish things” aside and was no longer an active member of the LSA. Despite that, he produced a handful of issues of what could easily be described as a LSA “tribe paper,” which were mini versions of Lone Scout. One of Smith’s contributors was Herbert Klatt, who may also have been a correspondent of Vinson’s at this time. Smith, Klatt, and Vinson had all sent in their addresses to the “Lone Scout Messenger Department,” which served as a meeting place for would-be correspondents. Later, through Klatt, Vinson “met” Harold Preece, and through Preece, everyone met Booth Mooney.
Over in Bosque County, one of Klatt’s regular Lone Scout contacts was Menloe Jermstad. The two had attended the 1925 Central Texas Encampment on the Leon River and together were responsible for the 1926 Bosque County Lone Scout Rally. Their friendship ended with Klatt’s death in 1928, but it appears that Jermstad had also been introduced to at least some of the Howard circle.
Menloe Andrew Jermstad was born January 24, 1907, and was raised on a farm in Bosque County, Texas. Following his marriage to Clomer Allen on October 6, 1928, he decided to increase his Lone Scout activity for 1929. He started by conducting a Lone Scout department in the Clifton Record and then decided to run for Council Chief of Region 9. And therein lies a tale that involves Robert E. Howard—at least tangentially.
Following the merger of the Lone Scouts with the Boy Scouts in 1924, disgruntled Lone Scouts redoubled their efforts with tribe papers. One of these, Lone Scout Weekly News out of Stigler, Oklahoma, became one of the meeting-places for our cast of characters in 1928-29. The publication featured contributions from several of Robert E. Howard’s acquaintances from The Junto, including Roy McDonald, Roy DeMent, Alex Doktor, Hildon Collins, as well as Preece and Mooney. Early in 1929, Menloe Jermstad announced his candidacy for 1930 council chief. At some point he talked to Harold Preece about his decision and Preece told him the following, which Jermstad contributed to the March 9, 1929 issue of Weekly News:
Since October 1928, Harold Preece had been running a series of articles in Weekly News called “Outstanding Personalities of Region Nine.” He took a break from this for the March 16, 1929 issue and instead ran “Texas Scouts Now in Professional Ranks”:
The March 23 issue revealed the “Joke on Jermstad”:
It seems that the “Texas Scouts” piece was designed, in part, to present Bob Howard’s credentials and thus wind up Jermstad a bit. There is no evidence in Preece’s letters to Clyde Smith or Howard’s letters to Preece that anyone else was even aware of the prank.
A side note: Menloe died on April 24, 1936. I found this little story about his death at ancestry.com:
Clomer Allen Jermstad was tried and convicted for the murder of her husband, Minlow [sic.] Jermstad. The charge was “Murder with Malice” and she was tried in the Meridian, Bosque Co., Texas court house. On October 19, 1936 she was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in prison. After serving 11 of the 45 years, Clomer received a full pardon dated January 26, 1948 and signed by the Texas State Governor.
In the trial Clomer’s defense had been that she had been forced to poison her husband by her boyfriend, George Pace. Clomer contended that George had threatened to kill her daughter if she did not kill her husband, Minlow. She said that she had given Minlow strychnine mixed with coffee while George watched through the window. Minlow died very soon after consuming the poison and was buried on the same day. George Pace was also tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to prison.
George Pace’s sister, Nancy Anna Bell Pace, was married to Alvin Allen, Clomer’s brother. Alvin AlIen’s son, Charles Birt Allen, insisted that the truth about the murder of Minlow Jermstad was that Clomer had bought the strychnine (rat poison) herself and tried to get George to poison her husband for her. When George refused to do the dirty deed, Clomer poured the poison into Minlow’s coffee.
[Originally published in Onion Tops #53, REHupa mailing #242, August 2013.]
[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted September 12, 2016 at rehtwogunraconteur.com. This version updated and lightly edited.]
Before getting too far into this, have a look at the section of a 1905 Rand-McNally map above. On the left is Palo Pinto County; near the center of the northern edge is a place called Christian, where a young doctor I. M. Howard practiced in the early 1900s. He also practiced in several nearby communities: Graford, just below Christian about five miles to the south; Oran, about five miles to the east; Whitt, just over the Parker County line to the east of Oran (the little circle next to the vertical “Creek”); and Peaster, Robert E. Howard’s birthplace, about ten miles southeast of Whitt and 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth (off the map to the right). The distance from Christian to Peaster is 25 miles, as the crow flies. On today’s roads, interested travelers can tour all of these tiny towns in one or two hours.
After a brief stint in the Indian Territory, where he had most likely gone to help out his favorite sister, Willie, Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard (IMH) returned to Texas, where his Physician’s Certificate was filed for record in Palo Pinto County on January 8, 1902. Polk’s Medical Register and Directory for 1902 has him in both Petersburg, Indian Territory (which I assume is a holdover from a previous notification), and Graford, in Palo Pinto County, population 19. He is the only doctor listed there. The 1904 edition has him still in Graford, but the population has grown to 24, one of that number being another doctor, J. M. Patterson.
But the Polk’s directory doesn’t tell the whole story, and maybe not even the correct story. I’m guessing that the 1902 mention at Graford is probably correct, but by the middle of 1903, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Christian, not Graford, which would make the 1904 listing another holdover. Polk’s does list one F. R. Bowles practicing in Christian in 1902 (population 50) and 1904 (population 90), but no IMH. The Standard Medical Directory of North America for 1903-04 lists both IMH and Bowles at Christian. It also adds that IMH was “licensed by examination without college diploma” and began his career in 1899.
And, since the good doctor was listing his address as Christian up to November 21, 1904, it’s safe to assume that that is where he and Hester Jane Ervin made their first home together after their January 12, 1904 marriage. (Today, the only remnant of that town is a road sign, “Old Christian Rd,” about five miles north of Graford.)
There are few documents to testify where the Howards were from December 1904 to May 1905, but we can hazard a few guesses. The first is over Palo Pinto’s northern county line in Jack County, the tiny town of Bryson. The only evidence for this is an April 13, 1905 item from the Jacksboro News: “Dr. Howard, formerly of Christian but now located at Bryson was in Jacksboro yesterday on business.” The Jack County courthouse had no records pertaining to the Howards when I visited there several years ago. Their Physicians Registry did not go back to 1905, so it’s impossible to know when Howard arrived or if he actually meant to stay there.
During this period, the number of medical schools in Texas was expanding and Dr. Howard picked up his diploma from Gate City Medical College, over in Texarkana, on May 1, 1905. While “the founders of these schools had the best intentions to offer bona-fide instruction in medical science, [. . .] they had too few resources. Most of them ceased operations or were absorbed by other schools within a short time.”  Gate City was closed in 1911 when it was caught selling diplomas, but I think it’s safe to assume that IMH spent at least a little time in Texarkana before being awarded his.
Also during that time, the newlywed Howards approached IMH’s older brother, David Terrell Howard, about adopting his youngest son. Wallace Howard told L. Sprague de Camp that Dr. and Mrs. Howard, “they come to mama and papa and wanted to take me and raise me as their, their foster son.”  David Howard was farming in Limestone County at the time, some 125 miles southeast of Christian, and had quite a large family (six children in 1904, and 12 before he was finished having children in 1919). In 1977, Wallace Howard wondered if he “wouldn’t have been better off” going with the doctor, but nothing came of the plan and before the summer of 1905, Hester would have known that she was pregnant.
Another possibility is Dark Valley, a few miles southwest of Graford. In July 1977, L. Sprague de Camp interviewed Florence Green, who was close to 100-years-old at the time. In his notes, de Camp writes that “Hester and I. M. Howard came from Christian miles away to Dark Valley as a young married. They lived for several months with Mrs. Green who had a house a few feet away from the creek.” According to Green, the Howards stayed with her until their own place was built, “a little ways down the creek from the Green’s” and when it was time for Hester to give birth, “She went to Peaster, a much bigger town in those days, 1906, and some buggy ride away—a day’s journey—to have the child.” After Robert’s birth, the family returned to Dark Valley for a while, but “[t]hey moved away while Robert was a babe in arms—meaning anywhere from 1-2 years of age.” 
There are some problems with Green’s account. There is no record of the Howards buying any land in the vicinity of Dark Valley Creek; why build a home on property they did not own? Mrs. Green also, apparently, didn’t think it was relevant that it was Dr. Howard who recorded the birth of her daughter in 1907 (where he listed Graford on the Record of Birth); at least, it doesn’t show up in de Camp’s notes. Also, in Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp says, “During her pregnancy, Hessie was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors, but she never left her husband’s side. She traveled with Dr. Howard wherever he went” (pg. 32), information that must have come from Green, but how would she have known this when, shortly after receiving his diploma, Isaac Howard registered his credentials over in Parker County on May 12, 1905, and his name begins appearing on birth and death records that same month? Hester would only have been about one month pregnant at the time. And Peaster wasn’t the first place they went to in Parker County.
On May 23, 1905, Dr. I. M. Howard filed a “Report of Death” for a two-day-old child. The doctor’s address is listed as “Whitt.” The 1904 Polk’s directory lists three doctors in Whitt and sets the population at 430, same as the 1906 edition; none of the listed doctors is IMH.
Shortly after his arrival in Whitt, Dr. Howard appears to have partnered with one of those other doctors, J. D. Pickens, as their names appear together frequently on birth and death records in June and July. The last birth record filed by Pickens/Howard is dated July 19; all of these records list IMH’s address as Whitt. After that July 19 filing, the record goes quiet until August 16, 1905, when Dr. Howard was awarded a “Certificate of Registration” from the Texas Board of Pharmacy indicating that he had “given satisfactory evidence that he is a Qualified Pharmacist.” After that, he moved to Peaster.
From late September to just after Christmas 1905, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Peaster. Like Whitt, Peaster already had a doctor or two. In fact, besides J. A. Williams, the doctor who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth, there was also a Dr. J. M. Blackwell, with whom Dr. Howard planned to share office space, as reported in “Peaster Items,” from the Weatherford Weekly Herald for October 19, 1905:
All three doctors appear in the 1906 edition of Polk’s, which has the population of Peaster pegged at 240. (A July 8, 1921 article in the Cross Plains Review announced Blackwell’s arrival in the area and says that he “comes well recommended for his work. He is an old time friend of Dr. I. M. Howard of this place, and a former partner with him in the practice of medicine.”) All of which begs the question: Why was it Williams and not IMH’s partner, Blackwell, who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth? If you’ve read this far, you probably already know the story. The Howards celebrated REH’s birthday on January 22, 1906, but, probably due to a delay in filing, Williams reported the birth as January 24. He filed the document on February 1st.
The last known sighting of the Howards in Peaster is a notice from the February 19 column, “Peaster Pencilings,” which appeared in the February 22, 1906 edition of the Weatherford Weekly Herald: “Dr. Howard is boasting of the only boy baby of Peaster in 1906.” After that, the trail is cold until a May 31, 1906 “Report of Birth” places him back in Graford, which is probably only where he received mail, since he was no doubt living in Dark Valley at the time.
All of the above makes the following paragraph from Dark Valley Destiny a bit shaky:
Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 24, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, a village in Parker County, ten miles northwest of Weatherford and thirty-five miles due west of Fort Worth. The Howards at that time lived in Dark Valley, a community of some fifty souls in Palo Pinto County, near the Parker County border; but Dr. Howard had taken his wife to Peaster, a larger settlement in the adjacent county, as her confinement drew near. He wished, presumably, to insure adequate medical facilities for her lying-in, as well as the services of Dr. J. A. Williams, the physician who attended Mrs. Howard at the birth of her only child. [pg. 18]
Patrice Lounet pointed out the biggest problem with this a few years ago in his introduction to “The Long Road to Dark Valley” from the now defunct Two-Gun Raconteur Blog: “If Dr. Howard wanted to ‘ensure adequate medical facilities’ for his wife, Peaster would not have been his first choice, but more likely the much larger Weatherford. Or even halfway from there, Mineral Wells, where physicians would be numerous.”  But if not for medical attention, then why?
In a 1977 interview with L. Sprague de Camp, Wallace Howard explained it this way: “The Howards are a moving people.”  And I can’t do much better than that. IMH seems to have been constantly on the look for greener pastures, and he never shied away from a dramatic move. Being a doctor himself, and having a partnership with another doctor (even though his partnerships never lasted for long), makes the “adequate medical facilities” argument seem a bit thin. I’m more inclined to believe that IMH saw an opportunity there that just didn’t pan out.
I’m fairly confident that one of the reasons IMH came to the Palo Pinto-Parker region in the first place was the railroad: “The Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern completed twenty-five miles from Weatherford to Mineral Wells in 1891. That year the company owned two locomotives and ninety cars. In 1895 it earned $15,561 in passenger revenue and $38,070 in freight revenue. The line was bought by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company in 1902,” the same year that IMH arrived.  And once the mainline was complete, the competition for spurs off of that line began, with rumors and speculation being reported in area newspapers every week; there was even some wild talk of turning the road into “a great transcontinental line” . Of course, nothing quite so grand happened; however, “Construction of an extension of the line to the city of Oran was completed in 1907, and on to Graford the following January.” 
It may have been these rumors and speculation that encouraged IMH to begin purchasing land in Palo Pinto County. On October 11, 1905, while living in Peaster, Dr. Howard purchased part of lot 1, block 7 in the town of Oran for $50. This must have been a simple investment since, as we have seen, after leaving Peaster the Howards settled in Dark Valley. IMH listed his residence as Graford on birth and death notices from May 31, 1906 until at least May 5, 1907. But he may have been planning a move even before then.
On January 19, 1907, he purchased Lot 6 in Block 54 of the town of Oran for $45. Then, on May 25, 1907, he spent $200 for lots 7 and 8 in Block 7. A few weeks later, June 14, 1907, IMH and wife Hester sold “the North East one fourth (1/4) of Block Seven (7)” for $300. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the Howards. Not long after that, if not before, the family was living in Oran. From August to December 20, 1907, IMH lists his address as Oran. The week before Christmas, he re-filed his credentials in Palo Pinto County to correct a transcription error in his initials from “S. M.” to the correct “I. M.” Two weeks later, he was in Big Spring, way over in Howard County. The West Texas adventure had begun.
7: “Doing Our Best,” The Daily Herald. (Weatherford, Tex.), Vol. 7, No. 218, Ed. 1 Monday, September 24, 1906.
8: The Weatherford, Mineral Wells, Northwestern Railroad Depot, photograph, 1990?; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth29853/: accessed September 11, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Boyce Ditto Public Library.
[By Rob Roehm. Originally published in Onion Tops #65, Aug. 2015. A revised version was posted Sept. 26, 2015, at twogunraconteur.com. The current version has been expanded to include information from Onion Tops #76, Dec. 2018.]
Despite an abundance of newspapers that are available online, there are still several collections that can only be accessed in the old-school fashion: ass-in-seat in front of a microfiche reader. [Update: The Lampasas Leader is now available online, here] As I prepared for Howard Days this year, I called around to the local libraries in the towns I was going to visit to see if they had any. Two libraries said they had what I was looking for, though when I actually showed up at the Mount Calm library, I learned that my phone contact had been mistaken. So, I wasn’t expecting much when I arrived at the second location: Lampasas.
Why Lampasas? Well, I’d already been there when researching Howard’s stay in the “old rock hotel” that was “as much fort as hotel” (REH to HPL, ca. May 1935; see my piece in The Cimmerian, vol. 5, no. 5, Oct. 2008), but that was before my slide into genealogy and minutia. In the same 1935 letter, Howard also says that Lampasas is “where my mother spent her girlhood.” And then there’s this, from his December 5, 1935 letter to HPL, “my grandfather had owned a sheep-ranch in the adjoining county of Lampasas in those days [post-Civil War].”
Add to the above the following bit from Howard’s family history, “The Wandering Years”:
A boom was on in Texas; cities were growing. The Colonel [Howard’s grandfather, G. W. Ervin] went into the real estate business [in Dallas], and was successful. But the low Trinity River lands were unhealthful, and, in 1884 [sic.], he moved again, this time southwestward to Lampasas, in the cattle country. Lampasas had been a frontier town in the early ’70s. It was still a cow town, as well, on account of its mineral springs, a health and pleasure resort, the foremost of its sort in the state, before the rise of Mineral Wells.
[. . .]
My grandfather possessed the restlessness of the age. He loaned money, dealt some in cattle; he bought a sheep ranch, but, in the midst of a cattle country, with hired men running it, it was not a success. He wandered over into western New Mexico and worked a silver mine not far from the Arizona line.
That last part about the silver mine has never been verified (until now), but Howard also mentions it in a couple of letters: circa December 1930, to Lovecraft, “Colonel George Ervin came into Texas when it was wild and raw, and he went into New Mexico, too, long before it was a state, and worked a silver mine—and once he rode like a bat out of Hell for the Texas line with old Geronimo’s turbaned Apaches on his trail”; and again in a circa January 1933 letter to August Derleth: “Geronimo once stole a bunch of my grandfather’s horses, and chased him away from the silver mine he was working; chased him with the aid of a mob of his turbaned warriors, of course, that being a job that took a goodly gang of men, whether red or white.” Most of which sounds like family legend, but the Lampasas connection definitely required a visit, especially since the local librarian indicated that they had copies of the Lampasas Leader from the 1880s—only available on-site.
The Roehm party arrived Monday afternoon and got to work. We hit the courthouse first and found several land documents; then we headed over to the library. I gathered the available fiche and parked in front of the reader. I was there until closing time and continued the search when they opened the next morning. What follows is a summary of the Ervins’ time in that fair city [supplemented with information found recently online].
The earliest document I found is dated January 9, 1886, when Robert E. Howard’s mother, Hester Jane Ervin, would have been 15-years-old. On that day, her father, G. W. Ervin, “of the County of Lampasas,” purchased three lots in that “portion of the town of Lampasas known as the Lampasas Springs Company’s first addition to the town of Lampasas.” He appears to have purchased these lots outright for the tidy sum of “fifteen hundred dollars to us in hand paid”—there is no indication of any installment payments due at a later time. The Ervins had arrived.
The next document is another land purchase, dated May 31, 1886. This one appears to be an investment, with $1,500 as down payment, another $1,000 due on June 1, 1887, and “the further sum of six hundred and fifty dollars to be paid on the first day of May A.D. 1892,” not including interest. For this, Ervin picked up “an individual one half interest” in “part of a three league survey” that included a pile of lots in Lampasas.
Next up is a December 23, 1886 document in which Ervin and a partner, L. J. Amos, sell part of the May 31 purchase for $2,156, in installments. That same day, Ervin purchased two more lots in the Lampasas Springs Company’s addition from the said Amos for $1,000, “in hand paid.”
Next on the timeline is an obituary found online from the Galveston Daily News:
MRS. JANE ERVIN
LAMPASAS, Tex., August 11.—Mrs. Jane Ervin, the mother of G. W. Ervin, died here yesterday and was buried today. Mrs. Ervin was born in North Carolina eighty-one years ago, and has been a resident of Texas for twenty-eight years. She was an exemplary Christian and lived an honored and happy life.
On December 3, 1887, over in Temple, Texas, the Temple Daily Times (also found online) had the following item: “G. W. Ervin, of Lampasas is in the city.” What his business there was is a mystery. I guess I’ll have to go back to Temple at some point and have another look.
Another land document was filed in Lampasas on March 6, 1888. In this one, G. W. and wife Alice, “for and in consideration of an individual half interest in six hundred and forty acres of land” in Palo Pinto County, sell the two lots he had purchased from Amos on December 23, 1886.
The library’s collection of newspapers is full of holes, as far as dates are concerned, so there may have been notices concerning the Ervins before this November 24, 1888 item from the Lampasas Leader: “Col. G. W. Ervin left Monday on a business trip to Dallas, Denton and other points in North Texas.”
The Leader for December 29, 1888, confirms the mining claim:
The April 20, 1889, paper has more: “Col. G. W. Ervin left here Tuesday for Stein’s Pass, New Mexico, to look after his mining interests at that point.” The May 25, 1889 paper announced his return: “Col. Ervin returned Wednesday from Stein’s Pass, New Mexico, where he has been for the past six weeks looking after his mining interests and brings good reports of the mines.”
1889 is also the year that Ervin’s children begin appearing in Lampasas society, starting with Robert E. Howard’s future mother, Hester Ervin, in that same April 20 paper:
And again on May 25, this time with sister (Georgia) Alice Ervin:
The July 6, 1889 edition has more news: “Col. G. W. Ervin left here Thursday on a business trip to North Texas and will go on to Oklahoma before returning.” Several of Ervin’s children by his first wife lived or had lived in the Indian Territory at that time. The July 13 paper announces his return: “Col. Ervin returned Wednesday from Oklahoma and reports the boom in that country as about ‘busted.'”
Later that month, as reported on July 27, 1889, some of Ervin’s grown sons were in town and attended a social with their younger sisters:
And there are other appearances throughout the year. But business also continued. A Mr. Amos, who is listed as being from Oklahoma City, sold G. W. Ervin more land in Lampasas on December 7, 1889.
A month later—January 16, 1890—G. W. sells a bunch of land for $2,000, “in hand paid by my wife Alice Ervin, the same having been paid out of the separate estate of my said wife received by her from her father.” Said father, Joel Echols Wynn, had died on January 1, 1885, in Arkansas. I’ve got a copy of his will around here somewhere.
That fall, it appears that G. W. had had enough of Lampasas. On October 20, 1890, he sold his original land purchase to a lady from Ohio for the sum of $2,500, to be paid in installments. Here ends the Lampasas paper trail, but I wasn’t quite finished with this mine business. After all, I had to drive through New Mexico to get home.
But before the road trip home, I did a little digging online and found an article in the El Paso Times that had somehow escaped my frequent searches. Dated July 17, 1888, it provided a helpful date for the upcoming courthouse dig:
With all of this information in hand, the Roehm party stopped in Lordsburg, New Mexico, on the return trip. We visited the site of Stein’s Pass (now a ghost town called, simply, Steins) and the courthouse, where the following document was discovered.
I have been unable to confirm the “chased by Geronimo” claim.
[by Rob Roehm. Originally published Jan. 17, 2013, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]
As a child I crossed the South Plains, not in a covered wagon indeed, but in a buggy, in what was about the last big colonization movement in Texas—the settlement of the Great Plains. (I did go down the Nueces in a covered wagon.) I also saw the beginning of the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
After reading the above, from Howard’s newly rediscovered letter to Dime Sports, I got to wondering about a few things. The “South Plains” comment refers to Howard’s time in Gaines County—Seminole, to be precise—in 1908, but the other items are pretty vague. What else did Howard have to say about the Nueces River (pictured above)? The only other mention of the river comes from his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:
But the old Texas is gone or is going fast. All the plains are fenced in, where in my childhood I’ve ridden for a hundred miles without seeing a foot of barbed wire. I can’t remember when I’ve heard a coyote. And one of my earliest memories is being lulled to sleep in a covered wagon camped on the Nueces River, by the howling of wolves.
When they built Crystal City twenty years ago in Zavalla county, some forty miles from the Mexican Border, the wolves came howling to the edge of the clearings. The woods were full of wildcats, panthers and javelinas, the lakes were full of fish and alligators. I was back there a couple of years ago and was slightly depressed at the signs of civilization which disfigured the whole country.
Looking at the map that heads this post, it’s pretty clear that anyone going “down the Nueces” would probably stop at Crystal City for supplies and/or human contact. So, if we can figure out when the Howards were in town, we can conclude when they went down the river.
In an undated letter to an unknown recipient, Howard says of Crystal City (seen above) that it’s “a fair-sized town now and growing all the time. I lived there when the first store went up during its earliest boom.” No help with the date there, but in the letter to Clyde Smith that I recently tacked a “circa June 1928” date on, Howard says that he “was here twenty years ago when there was only one store in Crystal City—just beginning to build.” This comment would put his earliest trip to Crystal City in 1908, if I dated the letter correctly. Of course, he could easily be rounding the “twenty years ago” comment up or down. It’s fairly common for people to say “twenty years” when the actual number is nineteen or twenty-one. But there’s still another reference, this one from Howard’s circa August 1931 letter to Lovecraft:
I remember, very faintly, the fall of a meteorite in South Texas, many years ago. I was about four years old at the time, and was at the house of an uncle, in a little town about forty miles from the Mexican Border; a town which had recently sprung up like a mushroom from the wilderness and was still pretty tough. I remember waking suddenly and sitting up in bed, seeing everything bathed in a weird blue light, and hearing a terrific detonation. My uncle—an Indian—had enemies of desperate character, and in the excitement it was thought they had dynamited the house.
The description of the town here matches Howard’s description of Crystal City above, and his “about four” comment indicates that he was there in 1909 or 1910. We also know who that uncle was: William Oscar McClung, the husband of Doc Howard’s sister, Willie. In L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, he says that “Fanny McClung Adamson [Willie’s daughter] remembers that ‘Uncle Cue,’ as his nieces and nephews called Isaac Howard, was a frequent visitor to Crystal City.” However, in the interview transcript housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Adamson says, “The only time I ever met him [Doc Howard] and knew him, I was sick.” She then describes an episode of chicken pox she had while living at Crystal City with her parents, adding that “We must have moved there in 1908 and it was either 1909 or 1910 when [Doctor Howard] was there.” I’ll leave the frequency of his visits alone for now, but it seems pretty clear that the Howards were in Crystal City sometime in the 1909-10 range. Let’s see if we can narrow that down a bit.
Doctor Howard registered in Seminole on February 3, 1908, and then in Bronte, over in Coke County, on September 14, 1908. His next appearance on paper is his signature on a January 19, 1909 birth record from Bronte. He’s there until at least August 27, 1909, when he signs his last birth record for the county and drops off the radar until November 20, 1909, when he filed for record in San Antonio. He didn’t stay in Bexar County long because in January 1910 he sent a note to the Journal of the Texas State Medical Association changing his address from Bronte to Poteet and filed for record in Atascosa County, post office address Poteet. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Mrs. W. P. Searcy, November 7, 1936, Dr. Howard says, “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” Robert Howard turned four in January 1910. So, the question is: What were the Howards doing in the fall of 1909? I’m guessing they were going “down the Nueces” and visiting in Crystal City.
Have another look at the map above. About 150 miles due north of Barksdale, off the map, is a little town in Coke County called Bronte. I speculate that when the Howards left there in the late summer or early fall of 1909, they traveled south and went down the Nueces River in a covered wagon to Crystal City. After visiting the McClungs in the fall of 1909, they continued following the river as it meandered east toward Corpus Christi. After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County,  where Dr. Howard registered on November 20, 1909 [and] where de Camp says Doctor Howard registered on January 8, 1910. The doctor’s letter mentioned above says that the Howards spent “the spring months [of 1910] in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” After that, they appear to have traveled to Palo Pinto County, far to the north, where they were recorded on the U. S. Census, which was enumerated on May 16, 1910. Again, this is speculation; however, if this isn’t when the river trip occurred, there wasn’t much time left in 1910 for another. On December 20, 1910, the McClungs sold their land in Crystal City (below), practically an entire city block, and headed off to Arkansas.
[This article was edited on October 14, 2021 to change a sentence in the final paragraph from “After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County, where de Camp says Doctor Howard registered on January 8, 1910” to “After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County, where Dr. Howard registered on November 20, 1909.”]
Beginning a series of footnotes for Robert E. Howard’s letters. Most are far too obscure for publication.
Toward the end of 1928, Harold Preece, one of Robert E. Howard’s correspondents, was complaining about a nose problem. In his ca. December 1928 letter, Howard responded:
Hate to hear about your nose. What is that—sinus trouble, or septum or what? It must be Hell. Be careful about it.
Little details like this stick in my brain for some reason so, when I stumbled on the following passage from “The Spirit of Old” by Harold Preece, I immediately made the connection:
Within a month [of meeting Hildon V. Collins, a member of The Junto, in Waco] necessity forced me to undergo an operation upon my nose. Hildon went with me to the doctor’s office on the day of the operation. He conducted me back to the hotel and sat up all night with me. In a few days I was able to go to my home in Austin and recuperate. Hildon assisted me in getting my baggage to the station, seeing also that I was comfortably seated on the train. All this kindness to a youth he had known a short time [. . .]”
So the timeline for Preece’s nose trouble goes like this:
On July 13, 1928, Robert E. Howard and Harold Preece attended a prize fight together in Fort Worth, Texas (see “Dula Due to Be Champion” in Collected Letters vol. 1). That August, Howard wrote to Preece in Waco: “Glad you enjoyed our reunion at Fort Worth. I sure as Hell did. Yes, I’d have liked to have been with Truett, Hildon and yourself at Waco.”
“The Spirit of Old” appears in the December 1928 issue of The Lone Indian, a “tribe paper” put out by a member of the Lone Scouts of America, an organization to which both Preece and Collins belonged (Clyde Smith, Truett Vinson, and possibly Robert Howard as well). In the article, Preece explains when he first met Collins:
Two months previous to the time of this writing, I came to Waco, Texas, to fill an assignment made by the concern by which I am employed [the city directory crew]. Shortly after arriving, I became acquainted with Hildon V. Collins, LSB, who joined the LSA in 1926. We became quite intimate friends.
If tribe papers came out the month before the date on their covers, we can assume that the “time of this writing” is sometime in October or November, which places the time that Preece first met Collins around August. But in a letter from Waco, Texas, dated Thursday, July 26, 1928, Preece told Tevis Clyde Smith: “I wish you could have been with Truett, Hildon, and myself, the early part of the week. We had a prolonged and interesting session, and nothing was too sacred for the gamut of conversation.” That would place the meeting early in the week of July 23, 1928.
So, putting it all together, Preece and Howard attend a boxing match in July. A week and a half later, Preece meets Hildon V. Collins for the first time, somewhere around July 23. “Within a month,” Preece has an operation on his nose with Collins taking him to the doctor’s office and then seeing him to the train station to recuperate in Austin, this would be in late August or September. And we can do a bit better than that.
As luck would have it, Preece was a stickler for starting his letters with dates and places. His September 15 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith is from Waco. The September 30 letter is from Capital Station in Austin and begins, “Back home again. It is my intention to attend the State University for the spring term. I think that I can stand Austin for the next nine months, provided I am going to school.” So I’m betting that the operation happened between September 15 and 30.
All of which would end up like this in a footnote:
Hate to hear about your nose. 1
1 Preece had an operation on his nose at Waco in September.
[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted September 9, 2007 at thecimmerian.com.]
The fans who participated in the bus tour at Howard Days 2007 received a special treat. Not only did they get to hear some great stories by the tour guide, long-time Cross Plains resident Don Clark, they also heard some great color-commentary by Alton McCowen (above at right) and Norris Chambers (at left), a man who actually knew the Howards. Those of us who were seated near the front of the bus even got to eavesdrop while these three chatted between tour stops. The trio seemed to know everything about the local area and quickly assimilated each other’s knowledge. One would say, “Did you know so-and-so?” and all the relevant details would follow from one of the others. “Didn’t so-and-so live there?” and so on.
As we passed the little-used dirt roads in the Cross Cut vicinity, Mr. Chambers said, “Boy, I went down that lane a lot.” And another conversation ensued. I tried my best to stay out of their chat, but couldn’t resist a few questions. Alton McCowen told me that he knew someone who had helped build the road from Cross Plains to Brownwood, and that he’d been paid .56 cents an hour for his work. Mr. Chambers piped in, “They built this big road after the war. It wasn’t paved then, and was awful muddy.”
At the bridge into Burkett, the bus stopped. Under the bridge is the Pecan Bayou—covered with shrubs and trees, all green from the heavy spring rains. Don Clark told us all that there used to be carnivals and dances in the Bayou. “After the fair stopped coming,” he said, “there was a lot of parkin’ and sparkin’ down there.”
At one of the stops—a no-foolin’ Texas ranch, complete with Longhorns—I cornered Misters Chambers and McCowen for a longer conversation, while the rest of the crowd went to get a close-up look at the steers. Mr. Chambers told me that Doc Howard wasn’t the best driver around: “Once we were driving to Brownwood and he’s got the car stuck in 2nd gear. I told him, ‘You might want to put it in high.’” He also told me about taking Robert’s Chevy “down to get the bullet hole fixed” after the suicide, and that Doc Howard used that car for a good while after.
Mr. McCowen answered my questions about Cross Plains, telling me where the movie theater was located (“Next to the tax office by the library”) and that there was no radio station in town; the closest was in Brownwood.
While not the best of drivers, Mr. Chambers had no doubts about Doc Howard’s medical skills. He told me about a minor car accident that he was involved in, saying that one of the girls passed out. He took her straight to Doc Howard to get “patched up.”
About this time, Mr. Chambers’ wife ambled up and listened as her husband said, “When we were first married, we lived with my folks in Cross Cut. Doc Howard would come by sometimes.”
This brought a chuckle from his wife who said that Doc Howard was always hungry. When he came calling, “We had to start the fire in the old stove and cook things—from scratch!” When she didn’t feel like cooking, she told me, she’d just whip up some scrambled eggs.
We started to discuss Dark Valley Destiny as the rest of the crowd returned. Mr. Chambers remembered talking with de Camp and that “He said he would give us a copy, but he never did. We had to buy one.” And then the tour was back on the road and I had to content myself with eavesdropping once again.