Archive for the 'Howard’s Texas' Category


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.


[For a peek at Dr. Howard’s movements before the 1900s, look here.]

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 no documents to testify where the Howards were from December 1904 to May 1905, but we can hazard a few guesses.

During that time, 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 a little time in Texarkana before being awarded his. [1]

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.” [2] 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.” [3]

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: 1905-10-19-peaster-items-weatherfordweeklyheraldp5

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: “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.” [4] 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.” [5] 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. [6] 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” [7]. 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.” [8]

weatherford-mineral-wells-northeastern-web[Map courtesy of Abandoned Rails]

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.



1: Handbook of Texas Online, D. Clayton Brown, “Medical Education,” accessed September 11, 2016,

2: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

3: De Camp, L. Sprague: “Notes from  interview with Mrs. Green and visit to Dark Valley with Mr. John Dean McClure,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

4: Louinet, Patrice: “The Long Road to Dark Valley—Introduction,” accessed September 11, 2016,

5: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

6: Handbook of Texas Online, Chris Cravens, “Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railway,” accessed September 11, 2016,

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?; ( accessed September 11, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Boyce Ditto Pub

tumblr_m0j3lyVE0P1qbxxuao1_500The Texas of Robert E. Howard was scarcely a generation removed from its frontier heritage.

In May 1934, as Howard’s tale of Conan and Belit, “Queen of the Black Coast,” was on the stands in Weird Tales, a Texas lawman ran down the notorious Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — Bonnie & Clyde. Frank Hamer tracked the outlaws down and led an ambush that riddled the couple with bullets on a Louisiana farm road.

Hamer was raised a Texas cowboy and got his start in law enforcement as a border-riding Texas Ranger on horseback. The big, powerful Ranger was involved in 52 gunfights as Texas rode bucking and kicking from the 19th into the 20th century.

There were quite a few men that stood with a boot in both centuries, who walked into the modern world with the carriage of a man of the frontier.

Bob Howard was proud to have made the acquaintance of one of these men.

“… in a little town on the plains I met a figure who links Texas with her wild old past,” he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft in 1930. “No less a personage than the great Norfleet, one of modern Texas’ three greatest gunmen — the other two being Tom Hickman and Manuel Gonzalles (sic.), captain and sergeant of the Rangers respectively.”

Tom Hickman and Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas were, indeed, first-rate gunmen. Hamer should have been on Howard’s list, too, but in 1930 his most famous exploit was yet to come. But who was “the great Norfleet”?

James Franklin Norfleet surely was a link with Texas’ wild old past. The son of a Comanche-fighting Texas Ranger, in his youth he had hunted the last buffalo herd in the Llano Estacado and then became a itinerate cowboy working the West Texas range.

Frank Norfleet was clean-living, hard-working and responsible, and in the 1890s he earned a position as foreman of the gigantic Spade Ranch owned by an absentee investor from Illinois named Isaac Ellwood — who would pioneer the manufacture of barbed wire.

In 1894, he met and married Mattie Eliza Hudgins, who moved with him out to the Spade. They had four children, only two of which survived to adulthood.

SpadeSaving his earnings as Spade foreman, Norfleet purchased land of his own, developed it, and raised cattle, mules, hogs, turkeys and a variety of crops. By the time he hit middle age, he was an independent rancher and had bootstrapped himself into considerable wealth.

And then he blew it.

On a trip to Dallas, Texas, to sell some mules, he fell prey to an elaborate con. A ring of five bunco artists set Norfleet up with a complicated combination of land sale and stock swindle, a con that is laid out in detail in Amy Reading’s delightful book “The Mark Inside.”

The con took Norfleet for $45,000, some of it borrowed from his brother-in-law. Worse yet, Norfleet had, in the midst of the con, also purchased land for $90,000 — debt he now had no hope of servicing. In present-day dollars, we’re looking at a cash loss of $560,000 and debt of over $1 million. Big problem.

Realizing what had befallen him, the rancher laid on his hotel-room bed with his mind reeling, a drumbeat pounding in his brain: “$45,000 gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.”

But, being of Texas frontier stock, Norfleet came through his dark night of the soul not in despair but with determination: He would track down the conmen and give them a short, sharp dose of frontier justice.

First he had to go back to the home ranch and break the catastrophic news to Mattie. Tough as Frank, she gave her blessing to his quest — with one proviso: She wanted him to bring the crooks to the courts for trial. “Any fool can kill,” she said.

Following thin leads and rumors, J. Frank Norfleet embarked on a continent-crossing quest that defies credulity. And there’s every likelihood that Norfleet stretched the blanket a bit in telling his tale in his later autobiography. What Texas cowboy can resist making a tale a little taller? But the bones of the story check out in the record.

He found two members of the conman ring in San Bernadino, California, in jail for another scam. He accompanied them back to Fort Worth for trial and saw them sentenced to 10 years in the pen. One of them slashed his own throat rather than serving the time.

furey mugshotsThe man Norfleet wanted most was the ringleader, a longtime con with the picturesque name of Joe Furey. To lure him out, Norfleet set himself up as a rube, a mark, chumming the waters for the circling sharks.

It was a risky ploy. Norfleet got picked out for a con by Furey’s compatriots in Florida, but they got wise to him and Frank had to pull one of his four pistols to escape.

He almost caught Furey in Glendale, California, but the conman bribed two crooked cops to make his escape.

Norfleet finally ran him down, back in Florida, where the Texas rancher and his son Pete confronted the conman with cocked pistols in a restaurant. They got him back to Texas for trial, despite efforts by Furey’s criminal compatriots to spring him.

Nary a shot was fired.

Norfleet was noted as a dead shot, and, as noted above, during his private detective quest he was known to carry as many as four pistols on his person. Every once in a while, he had to pull one as a persuader or to get out of a tight spot. But despite Howard’s assertion that he was one of the great modern Texas gunmen, Norfleet never engaged in a single shootout.

In his letter, Howard states that, “he is now a United States Marshal and his latest exploit was in Chicago where he killed two gangsters who had the drop on him.”

The pulpster had that wrong — though it’s an irresistible image.

Howard described Norfleet accurately: “He is a small, stocky man, about five feet four, I should judge, of late middle age, with a scrubby white mustache and cold light blue eyes, the pupils of which are like pin points. He is a very courteous and soft spoken gentleman and I could not help but notice, as I shook hands with him, that his hands are not of the type usually found in men who are quick with weapons — his hands being very short and blocky in shape. Nor did he have that quick, nervous grip in handshaking that I have noticed in killers. His nerves are in perfect control but in his quick movements he reminds one of a cat, and like all gunfighters, he keeps his hands in constant motion and never very far from his gun.”

norfleet-67The great Norfleet was not quite the warrior Howard imagined him to be, but he was remarkable enough. He built a whole second career out of conning the conmen, luring them, manipulating them and bringing them in for the courts to handle. And he became a bit of a celebrity along the way. He published two editions of an autobiography and Wallace Beery, who once played Pancho Villa, played the role of Norfleet in a radio show.

Norfleet never entirely recovered financially from his 1919 losses, but he lived a satisfying life and retired quietly to a small West Texas farm, where he lived until his death at 102 in 1967.

One likes to imagine him gone to the happy hunting grounds, where he is currently on the trail of a certain Nigerian prince who needs you to help him get some money out of the country…

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Texas, Weird Tales.

Charles Siringo

“Where did you get the Siringo book, and how much did it cost? If not too much, I think I’ll get a copy.”

– Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, April 1932

Many critics have drawn a straight line from the frontier hero to the detective hero, marking the transition from the wild frontier of the 19th Century to the urban jungle of the 20th Century. Charles Angelo Siringo lived the transition. A Texas trail driver, he became an operative for the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, putting his range savvy to use in pursuing, among many others, the cowboy outlaws of the Wild Bunch. As the wild days of free ranging horseback outlaws faded into history and legend, he shifted his attentions to infiltrating labor organizations that were embroiled in out-and-out warfare with mine owners across the West.

Charles_A_SiringoCharlie Siringo was born in Matagorda, Texas, in 1855, to an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian immigrant father. In other words, he was the quintessential 19th Century American. At age 15 he started working as a cowboy on local ranches, and in 1876 he hit the Old Chisolm Trail, driving 2,500 head of longhorn cattle to Kansas. He rode up the trail again in ’77.

He witnessed Clay Allison hoorawing Dodge City — and gave the lie to Wyatt Earp’s claim that Earp faced Allison down. According to Charlie, it was a couple of storekeepers who talked the mercurial, alcoholic Texan down.

Siringo signed on with an outfit in Dodge that penetrated the Texas panhandle, newly opened up with the demise of Quanah Parker’s final Comanche resistance. He was part of the contingent of cowboys who rode for the legendary LX Ranch. The LX was a target for rustlers, including Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Charlie knew the Kid and rode with a posse that tried unsuccessfully to hunt the young outlaw down.

Cowboying was a young single man’s game, and when Siringo married Mamie Lloyd in 1884, he hung up his spurs and opened a cigar store/oyster bar in Caldwell, Kansas. He didn’t like the staid work, staving off boredom by turning his memories into memoirs — “A Texas Cowboy — Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.” It’s a fine memoir, and it sold well, but Charlie Siringo wasn’t ready to consign himself to the quiet life of a storekeeper. A blind phrenologist had run his hands over his skull and told him he’d make a good detective — and that sounded right to Charlie. He migrated with his wife and daughter to Chicago, where he signed on with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the Eye that Never Sleeps.

Picture-6In the late 19th Century, there was no federal law enforcement. Those with a need for law enforcement investigation and action across state lines had to hire their own. The Pinkertons were the preeminent investigatory outfit in the country, despite a high-profile failure to bring the James-Younger Gang to heel.

Siringo became a kind of specialist — a Cowboy Detective. From Alaska to Mexico, he infiltrated gangs of robbers and rustlers, relying on range skills, nerve, bluff and a natural capacity for acting to keep himself alive and get the goods on the criminal element.

He was no tigerish Howardian hero; he stood about five-foot-eight and was whipcord lean. He was, however, range toughened and as hardy as they come.

“He is as tough as a pine knot,” said William Pinkerton, heir to the detective dynasty. “I have never known a man of his size who can endure as much hardship as he does.”

Charlie’s wife died in 1890, leaving him a widower and single father of a young daughter. He remarried in 1896, but that marriage failed quickly and ended in divorce. Charlie Siringo did not domesticate well.

Driven to expand, the Pinkerton Agency opened an office in Denver, headed by the legendary James McParland, who made his bones by infiltrating and breaking up the Mollie Maguires, a secret organization of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Siringo would become McParland’s top operative.

charlie_Gem_ID-1899Infiltration of radical labor organizations was becoming a specialty of the Pinkerton Agency — along with violent strikebreaking. Charlie was sent up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to infiltrate miners whose strike against corporate mine owners was little short of low-intensity warfare. Union men and scabs were exchanging pot shots at each other on the forest-clad slopes around the mines, and union strikers dynamited a sluice, killing one man.

This kind of work suited Siringo just fine. He hated the kind of radicalism that was sweeping the nation, and Europe as well, in the late 19th Century He had no problem lying and deceiving in the cause of defeating rampant “anarchism.” The purpose of such infiltration was multifold: to build criminal cases against union leadership — if possible, for conspiracy to commit violence; and to provide intelligence to the Pinkertons’ mine-owner clients to keep them a move ahead in the chess match of labor warfare.

The Pinkertons weren’t above acting as agents provocateur, either. And the mere possibility of infiltration sowed distrust and paranoia among the miners.

As C. Leon Allison, Charlie hired on as a mucker in Finch’s Gem mine. He hung around in the local saloons and stood men to drinks — always an excellent way to make yourself popular. It wasn’t long before he was considered a right kind of fellow. He insinuated his way to the inside of the miners’ union and got elected recording secretary. He and his shift boss arranged for him to be “fired” from his mine job, which gave him plenty of time to gather intelligence and write reports.

Bad luck struck when a man named Black Jack Griffin, whom Siringo had known in Nevada, recognized him and called him out. Charlie did some fast talking that allayed suspicions, but only for the moment. When two miners were savagely beaten in town, the strikers’ mood turned ugly, and they turned on Siringo. He escaped buy hiding under a boardwalk.

A firefight broke out between strikers in the hills and scabs forted up at the mine’s mill. The scabs got the worst of it, and Siringo had to make a run for it, escaping into the pine forest.

charlie_cassidy7Eventually, infiltrating miners’ unions and chasing Wild Bunch Bandits wore ol’ Charlie out. He retired and wrote another memoir. The Pinkertons, whom he had served so well, did not like accounts of their doings that they did not control. They quashed the book, which Charlie ended up publishing as “A Cowboy Detective,” using a fake name for the agency and doctoring the facts to avoid the wrath of the Eye. He came to despise “Pinkertonism” just as much as he did anarchism.

In his retirement, he wrote a second cowboy memoir, titled “A Lone Star Cowboy,” and in 1928 condensed both cowboy books into “Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger” — the book that would wind up on Robert E. Howard’s shelf.

The late, great Howard scholar Steve Tompkins* cast a jaundiced eye on the cowboy detective, calling him “half centaur, half weasel, a cowboy, an agent provocateur, and the man who gave Pinkertons’ unsleeping orb a bad case of pinkeye…” whose work was devoted to “making the world safe for plutocracy.” And, indeed, there is something unsavory about Siringo’s kind of undercover work — winning men’s trust with the intent of betraying them, on behalf of rich men who valued their profits far more than they valued men’s lives.

Howard said that he did not much like detective fiction. Perhaps the tinge of sleaziness that attaches to it was the reason why. Surely Howard found “Riata and Spurs” a fine read. Given everything we know about the Texan’s sympathies, it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought much of Charlie Siringo’s detective work. He wasn’t a Howard kind of hero.

* “After The Gold Rush: From Whapeton to Poisonville” by Steve Tompkins — Vision, Gryphons, Nothing and the Night, A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association, Issue no. 3, Summer Solstice 2002

Be sure and check out Jim’s excellent Western themed blog, Frontier Partisans.

This entry filed under Howard's Texas, Tevis Clyde Smith.


The Sword-Lore of Robert E. Howard

Mighty-thewed mape-limbed, in the world-dawn haze
For I was a sword-smith in those old, gold days,
Early in the morning, how my sledge would clang!
Through the sapphire evening how the red sparks sprang!
How my hammer boomed on bronze hilt and shaft!
How the anvil clashed, and the forge, how it laughed.
Glowing through the dusk of the whispering night,
Beating up the morning with its rose-red light!
But Zeus! How I labored! And Jove! How I sweat!
And I grumbled o’er my anvil with a fume and a fret.
For I rose at the dawn and I labored like a slave
For nobles that cursed me for a fool and a knave;
Until late at night and to my hut I’d gone,
To rise again, to toil again with the coming of the dawn.

— Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL1.108)

There are no books specifically on swords, the history of weapons, fencing or military manuals in Bob Howard’s library, nor does he mention any in his letters or fiction. Most of the Texan’s knowledge of the history and development of weapons would appear to come from general history texts, and for all of his keen interest he seems to have had somewhat sketchy and patchwork technical knowledge. An essay, “The Sword” published in Howard’s amateur magazine The Golden Caliph (1923), collects many of his early thoughts on the subject, and begins with a brief statement on the development of the weapon:

The term “sword”, is about as general as the term “gun”. When one says “sword”, one may mean a rapier, a saber, a broad-sword, a cutlass, a scimetar [sic.], anything with a long blade and a hilt.

The sword has been man’s favorite weapon. I tis a natural production of evolution, combining dagger and spear. Man’s first cutting and thrusting weapon was, of course, the knife. Almost simultaneously came the spear. Man saw the disadvantage of a knife in fighting. He was forced to get too close to his enemy in order to use a dagger. And if the enemy had talons or even another knife, he found himself on equal footing with his antagonist. And mans natural inclination is to gain an advantage over his foe, whoever or whatever tha [sic.] foe might be. Thus, the spear. But the spear is a clumsy weapon at close-quarters and if the point is broken it becomes no more than a stick. Hence the idea of lenthening [sic.] the dagger into spear-lenth [sic.]. (LC 378)

Howard’s reasoning is basically correct, in that the dagger and spear preceded the creation of the sword, and the sword developed out of the dagger, though he misses both the general techniques of fighting with a spear and the technical developments in metal-working that led to the development of longer blades, with larger daggers eventually becoming short swords in the Bronze Age. That swords were once made of bronze and later of iron and steel, Howard was at least aware:

[…] Caesar found the Britons still using swords of copper and bronze. If, as some historians maintain, bronze using Gaels preceded and fled before Brythons wielding iron swords, it seems to me that the Britons should have opposed the Romans with weapons of the latter metal. (CL2.52)

He also seemed to be aware of the reputation of Toledo steel. (CL2.417) The form of a sword is a product of its historical context, with specific forms evolving as both technology and method of use change, and certain forms became associated with different cultures. This, Howard recognized very well:

There are almost as many kinds of swords as there are tribes of men.

One rule had held through the ages. The West has always used a straight, thrusting sword, and the East has always used a curved, slashing sword.

At least, the Orient has always used swords that would hack better than they would thrust. The swords have not always been curved.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Tauregs [sic.] use straight-bladed swords, supposedly having adopted them from the Crusaders. (LC 378)

spada2When parsed, Howard is essentially asserting that form follows function, with European swords primarily intended to thrust, while Asian swords were intended primarily to cut (although he points out the Tuareg takoba as an exception). This is not attested to historically—swords in all parts of the world, and in all periods, have seen different abilities to both cut and thrust, with some blades being more specialized in one aspect than another. What Howard recognized is that blades designed primarily for the thrust are straight, to put the power of the blow into the point, and in cases like the United States M1913 cavalry sword, are specialized to the point that cutting ability is compromised. Similarly, more curved blades are generally more specialized for cutting, such as the US M1860 cavalry saber, which concentrates the blow on the edge to bite and slice into the target, but is less effective at thrusting, since the force cannot travel in a straight line to the point. Howard would later expand on this idea in a letter to Lovecraft:

Speaking of the contrast between Nordic and Latin knifeplay: I don’t know whether the slashing habit is an Indian or a Spanish instinct. If Spanish, it may be a survival of Moorish influence. As of course you know, the Oriental nations favor curved blades, and generally slash instead of thrusting. The early Nordic warriors hacked too, but they used straight swords, depending on the weight of the blade and the force of the blow, whereas the Orientals curved the blade to gain the effect. But the early Greeks and the Romans understood the art of thrusting, as witness their short swords. And the rapier was created in the West. I am not prepared to say whether the Spaniards borrowed any ideas or weapons and their use from the Moors, but I will say that Mexican swords are generally more curved than those used by Americans. I noted this recently during a trip to the battlefield of Goliad where Fannin and his men were trapped by the Mexican army. I saw two sabers — a Mexican arm and an American — both of which were used in that battle. The Mexican sword was curved far more than the Texan weapon — in fact, it would be almost impossible to thrust effectively with it. Blade, hilt and guard were all made in one piece of steel, and I could hardly get my hand inside the guard to clutch the hilt; some grandee wielded it, no doubt, some proud don with blue blood and small aristocratic hands — well, I hope he got his before Fannin surrendered, and gasped his life out in the mud of Perdido with a Texas rifle-ball through him. (CL2.234-235, cf.217)

Museums such as the one at Goliad would have provided Howard with some of his best opportunities to see weapons with his own eyes, and to understand them in something of their original context. The comparison of Mexican and American sabers from the Goliad Campaign (1836) is fairly accurate; the Mexican officer’s saber of the army of Santa Anna was heavy curved, based on the then-fashionable “mameluke” style swords of Europe which flourished after the French invasion of Egypt, particularly in hussar (light cavalry) regiments, and were styled after the Mamluks scimitars (sometimes scimetar or simitar in older sources, Howard uses all three spellings).

It’s notable that Howard was able to distinguish “blade, hilt, and guard”—the basic elements of the sword—although he was almost certainly incorrect that they were “all made in one piece of steel,” the guard and knucklebow of the Mexican officer’s saber is of one piece and connects with the pommel, and could have been made of steel, so might have given the Texan that impression. Howard expands on the parts of the sword in discussing European weapons:

The West has always been partial to straight-swords. Witness the Roman swords, the broad-sword and the rapier. Even the Scottish claymore, which was probably used more for cutting and hacking than any other Western sword, was straight. It was double-edged, with a heavy guard and, contrary to public notions, did not have a basket hilt.

The cutlass, a rather clumsy weapon, was broad-bladed and curved, and of late years the nation of the West have adopted a slightly curved sabre for cavalry use. It is straight enough to thrust with, but it is self-evident that a curved weapon is better for cavalry use. (LC 378)

The ancient Roman gladius is usually depicted as primarily a stabbing weapon, which was relatively short (50-60 cm/19.5-23.5 in) with a long tapering point, and used very effectively with a shield in tight formation. It gave way in the 1st century AD to the spatha, which was longer and with a shorter point, more specialized for slashing and cutting; Howard is apparently thinking of the gladius.

The term broad-sword has been applied to many styles of blade, but in this context appears to refer to wide-bladed, double-edged swords which developed in the Middle Ages, the “knightly sword” with its crossguard and pommel, straight and tapering to a point.

The rapier is a specialized dueling weapon that developed in the 1400s, and the blade became longer and narrower (and thus, more suitable for thrusting) as it developed, with a more elaborate guard and hilt. Howard would go on to say of the rapier:

For duels and many fights, the rapier was the most effective weapon ever invented, a sword with a long, slim blade, sometimes with no edge at all, sometimes with one, two, three, or even four edges. But in battles, where the fighting is hand to hand, the rapier yeilds [sic.] place to the broad-sword or scimetar [sic.]. (LC 378-379)

The “one, two, three, or even four edges” refers to both the sharpening of the blade and its cross-section (i.e. if you slice a blade in half, the shape of the blade section thus revealed). Single-edged and double-edged blades are fairly self-explanatory, as a typical sword is a bar sharpened on one or both sides. “Three” and “four” edges refers to blades of a very different cross-section—triangular and diamond-shaped, respectively. Such blades are difficult to sharpen, and more often than not remain unsharpened; they are characteristic of thrusting weapons, since being unable to cut effectively, they encourage the user to thrust, and offer considerable stiffness and strength to prevent the sword from bowing if it encounters an obstacle. It is interesting that Howard knew about such blades, but not that they were not usually sharpened.

cccc2z3kkembgpcavwiwThe Scottish claymore (from claidheamh mor) of the 1500s was initially a double-edged broadsword of the type described by Howard, but eventually developed an elaborate and distinctive basket hilt, which begat the “public notions” he mentions.

The term cutlass refers to a variety of different weapons adopted specifically for naval use; initially European militaries used the same weapons as land-based armies, but at the close quarters and with the rigging of wooden sailing ships, around the 18th century nations began to adopt and standardize on one-handed short swords, often single-edged and developing a bowl-guard and a slight curve. Howard’s image of the cutlass might have been fixed by the final cutlass adopted by the U.S. Navy, the Model 1917, which had a distinct clipped point.

The sabre or saber is a curved sword, usually single-edged, typically designated for cavalry use. Cavalry were still in use in the early 20th century, although the cavalry charge as a tactic largely died out during World War I. Howard’s comments on the suitability of a curved saber as opposed to a straight thrusting sword for cavalry are enlightening in showing his general ignorance of modern (and largely final) developments in cavalry swords. The final combat issue sword of the U.S. Army was the Model 1913 Cavalry Sword (designed by Lt. George S. Patton), and was a specialized thrusting weapon—or, as E. Hoffmann Price would put it “a blundering straight bladed thing for thrusting, pike-wise, not for sabre-slashing.” (CLIMH 313) The Patton sword (and similar dedicated thrusting cavalry swords, like the Spanish M1907 and the British P1908) helped transfer the momentum of horse and rider into the thrust, but were not primarily designed for melee or cutting.

On non-European swords, Howard appears to rely more heavily on history and fiction:

For the last century, the East, excepting the Mongols, has used rather light, curved weapons, often with basket-hilts, with one-hand-hilts. But in past ages many Orientals used heavy, cumbersome swords, two handed and double edged, often without a point.

Plutarch remarks that Artaxerzes ordered his Persian armies to discard their heavy, cumbersome weapons and adopt the Roman short-sword.

I quote Harold Lamb, in “The Three Palladins”, “Mukuli Khan’s sword was a two-handed affair, a hundred pounds in weight.”

To this day the Mongols cling to the two handed sword of their ancestors, more so than any other tribe in Asia. (LC 379)

Howard’s sweeping comments on the arsenal east—all two sentences of it—of course gives little to work with, except to show that he was, in 1922-1923, aware that Asia had different types of swords, but didn’t have many specifics to offer. The “heavy, cumbersome swords, two-handed and double-edged, often without point” however might refer to something like the Chinese dadao, a two-handed, single-edged blade designed primarily for chopping (and, indeed, is infamous for its use in executions), or the Indian khanda, which varied considerably but often had a rounded point and was double- or single-edged, and many had a pommel-spike believed to be used for two-handed strikes. Either of these might have featured in the kind of adventure-fiction Howard read.

Howard’s reference to Plutarch provides a good basis for the kind of historical work he might reference in shaping his knowledge of swords and their use. The actual incident that Howard refers to from Plutarch’s Lives was not Artaxerxes but Mithridates:

Mithridates, boastful and pompous at the outset, like most of the Sophists, had first opposed the Romans with forces which were really unsubstantial, though brilliant and ostentatious to look upon. With these he had made a ridiculous fiasco and learned a salutary lesson. When therefore, he thought to go to war the second time, he organized his forces into a genuinely effective armament. He did away with Barbarous hordes from every clime, and all their discordant and threatening cries; he provided no more armour inlaid with gold and set with precious stones, for he saw that these made rich booty for the victors, but gave no strength whatever to their wearers; instead, he had swords forged in the Roman fashion, and heavy shields welded […] (Lives)

Harold Lamb, meanwhile, is very much the type of writer-historian that Howard was drawn to for details on Asian and Crusader weapons. “The Three Palladins” was such a tale, originally published as a three-part serial in Adventure magazine from July-August 1923, and focused on the Mongols—which may go some way to explaining Howard’s enthusiasm for Mongol weaponry in his short essay, and without doubt was his primary source for his thoughts regarding their weapons and usage. (cf. CL1.31)

KyberElsewhere in his letters, poetry, and fiction, Robert E. Howard makes reference to a few other specific types of blade, many of which are discussed by Barbara Bartlett in “Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector and His Poetry.” For example, the glaive, which appears in “The Ballad of King Geraint” is an archaic word for “sword,” referring to a broad-sword, although it eventually became the specific name for a type of polearm. The references to hangers, tulwars, Khyber knives (CL1.7, 14), Rajput and Mongol swords and the like can be attributed to Howard’s continued reading and weapons. A particular example is “The Iron Terror,” where El Borak is quizzed about a collection of weapons from around the world, in addition to the regular rapier, tulwar, and Bowie knife a cheray, parang-parang, misericorde, anlace, schiavona, Maharati gauntlet-sword, and “a samurai sword of old Japan.”

Perhaps more interesting, given Howard’s position as an early innovator of “Sword & Sorcery,” mythical and magic swords are largely absent from much of his work. King Arthur’s Excalibur, the French Durendal, and the Irish Caladbolg don’t merit mention, nor Lord Dunsany’s eponymous mystic blade from “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth,” although it’s not sure Howard ever read this story. However, Howard did refer to enchanted blades in some of his fiction and poetry. The most famous such weapon is in the Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”:

[“]Hold out your sword.”

Wondering, Conan did so, and on the great blade, close to the heavy silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol that glowed like white fire in the shadows. And on the instant crypt, tomb and ancient vanished, and Conan, bewildered, sprang from his couch in the great golden-domed chamber. And as he stood, bewildered at the strangeness of his dream, he realized that he was gripping his sword in his hand. And his hair prickled at the nape of his neck, for on the broad blade was carven a symbol – the outline of a phoenix. (CCC 18-19)

The idea of a magic sigil carved or marked on a sword also appeared in an untitled poem: “And ancient sword hilts carved with scroll and rune” (CL1.281), and in “The Madness of Cormac” he wrote:

Draw your sword, the grey sword, the sword of Fin, the fey sword,
Carved with a nameless rune. (CL3.501)

The only other magical blades in Howard’s corpus appear in “The Black Stone,” where Howard wrote: “ancient steel blessed in old times by Muhammad, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young.” (CS 135) and in “The Devil in Iron,” where a “curious dagger with a jeweled pommel, a shagreen-bound hilt, and a broad, crescent blade.” which was forged from a meteor, and against which the magic of the demon Khosatral Khel is powerless.

Lorange_1889_TabIAlthough it’s not quite clear where exactly Howard got his ideas for magic swords, he was working within fairly established traditions. Inscriptions on the blade or hilt of swords are attested to in the historical and archaeological record, particularly the medieval +VLFBERHT+ swords of. Likewise, meteorites were known as a source of iron since antiquity, and the concept of “starmetal” blades were not unknown. Howard also largely avoided the use of “fantasy” weapons, like the triple-bitted axe which featured so prominently in the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film; the only weapon he “invented” was the three-bladed dagger of “Three-Bladed Doom,” which has its historical analogues such as the main-gauche, and the “scissor” style of katar, so while it might be ahistorical isn’t improbable.

Perhaps more interesting in the discussion of the dagger which was the bane of Kohsatral Khel is its jewelled pommel and sharkskin-covered hilt, which suggests a weapon of status—and as with magic swords, jewelled blades with hilts and guards of precious metal are relatively scarce in his fiction. The vast majority of swords in Howard’s fiction, as in his life, were practical weapons of war, not meant merely for ornament or ceremony, but to be used. Where weapons do appear that are decorated with jewels or precious metals, or are described as works of great artistry, they are still practical weapons, not mere displays of wealth. For example, in the unfinished “The Land of Mystery,” Howard writes:

The blade was long, straight and slim with two edges and of fine blue steel, on the surface of which were engraved faint lines of what seemed to be writing. There was a gold-inlaid steel guard and the hilt was of silver worked and inlaid with gold. Small stones that were undoubtedly diamonds and rubies were set in the hilt and a large one formed the pommel. On one side of the hilt was a small gold plate and on it was carved a lion with the most consummate skill. Tiny rubies were set for the lion’s eyes. (EEB 151)

“Bluing” was a technique where a steel object is treated to obtain a blue-black finish, either by reheating or via a chemical process; the resulting iron oxide layer lends a distinctive appearance to the metal and helps protect against corrosion, and was sometimes applied to more expensive sword blades, even into the modern period, as well as firearms, where Howard is most likely to have been familiar with it. Note how he describes the weapon: it’s shape, it’s cutting edges, the details of blade, guard, hilt, and pommel. These details show how Howard could apply his knowledge of weapons, when he chose to elaborate on them.

“And bronze for a warrior where the broadswords sing!
“Golden hafted, brazen shafted, ho! A kingly sword!
“Fit for a knight to make a stand with such brand in his hand
“Gainst a horde!
“Then ho and ho again! for the anvils roar!
“For the clamor of the hammer and the metal-workers lore!
“A helmet for a chief and a cuirass for a lord!
“For a king’s own hand, a golden hilted sword!
—Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL.108-109)

Cover painting for Conan the Barbarian #20 by Barry Windsor Smith

Read Part 1, Part 3


July 1933 (later draft)

A much longer draft of the same letter; a comparison shows that Howard decided to remove a significant number of paragraphs before writing the final letter—probably to soften a few polemics, as well as polishing several anecdotes.

Text unique to the draft will be colored red, while text unique to the final letter will be colored blue. Formatting (paragraph breaks, etc.) have been freely distorted to more clearly show were sections of text match up most closely.

3Draft 13Draft 23Draft 3

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This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Texas.


However, we saw the town, and it’s worth seeing alright, especially to anyone not familiar with Spanish style architecture. It’s much like towns I have visited in old Mexico, with the exception that it is much cleaner and neater. In cleanliness it compares with any town I ever saw. The native population is, of course, predominantly Mexican. Or as they call them out there, Spanish-Americans. You or I would be Anglo-Americans according to their way of putting it. Spanish-American, hell. A Mexican is a Mexican to me, wherever I find him, and I don’t consider it necessary for me to hang any prefix on the term “American” when referring to myself.

– Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, July 1935 (AMTF2.872; CL3.352-353)

The summer of 1935 saw Robert E. Howard and his friend Truett Vinson driving through New Mexico, and in his lengthy letter to Lovecraft describing the journey, he took especial interest in the difference exhibited by the Hispanic populations in New Mexico, Old Mexico, and Texas:

The town itself is interesting enough in a conventional sort of way, and I may have said, much resembles the towns of Old Mexico, but is cleaner, and more law-abiding. It doesn’t have, for instance, or at least we didn’t see any of those dives so popular in Mexican border towns, where naked prostitutes of both sexes and various Latin races first dance before the customers, then copulate with each other, and then indulge in various revolting perversions for the entertainment of the crowd, which is generally made up of tourists.

The State seems predominantly Catholic and Mexican. We went into the capitol and I made a point of counting the Mexican names among the legislators. The legislature wasn’t in session at the moment, but each man’s name was fastened to his desk on a placard. The majority were Mexican. Chavez, Otero, Bacca, Roybal, especially Chavez, are the names which appear most frequently in the population. There seem to be as many Chavez’s in New Mexico as there are Gonzaleses in South Texas. I might also add that the State capitol looks about as big as a good-sized Texas county-courthouse. Speaking in general, the Mexican population of New Mexico seems much further advanced, more prosperous and better educated than the Mexican population of Texas and Oklahoma. There are plenty of school-houses, and the Mexicans we saw seemed quicker, more intelligent in general than those in my own State. I admit it seemed strange to me to see Mexicans being treated on the same footing as white people. You can certainly tell the difference in the bearing of Mexicans, Indians, negroes and other dark races the instant you cross the Texas line. Texas, whatever its virtues or faults, is a white man’s state, and that fact is reflected in the manner of the non-white races. They know their place. (AMTF2.875; CL3.356-357)

This examination of a new Hispanic population prompted Lovecraft to ask questions and offer his own experiences of different Hispanic groups he had encountered in Florida:

Your observations on New Mexico as a whole are extremely interesting—revealing an environment in some respects absolutely unique. I suppose that nowhere else in the United States is the Spanish-speaking element so numerous. In Florida a great many of the St. Augustine families linger on—Sanchez, Ponce, Segui, Usina, etc.—but they are without exception English-speaking…although still Catholic in religion. In the end, the New Mexican Spanish-speakers will probably be Anglicised—such being the general trend whenever a foreign region is incorporated into the continuous fabric of an Anglo-Saxon land. It was so in Florida—and has proved so with the French in Louisiana. […] Puerto Rico stays Spanish partly from such patriotic resistance and partly because its unsettled territorial status and West Indian insularity hinder the natural. By the way—is New Mexico legally bi-lingual as Quebec is—so that legal notices, official signs, etc. have to be in both English and Spanish[?] […] Regarding the Spanish-speaking population of New Mexico—isn’t it a fact that the better elements of it are really different from the low-grade ¾ Indian peon stock usually known as Mexican? I had an idea that the high-grade population of the Spanish Southwest—N. M.—Arizona—California—was pretty surely European in blood, and that in New Mexico it has survived without much change. That would surely create an element vastly different from the greasy peon stock—a group of solid middle-class Spaniards well-born and well-descended, and just as racially Aryan, though in a Latin way, as we are. Such a population could hardly mix much with the typical Mexicans. As you know—the newly appointed U.S. Senator from N.M. is a Chavez. Am I wrong in this impression? I’ll admit that I haven’t any specific documentary evidence to back it up—but I merely picked up the notion somehow. I may remark that the Spanish of St. Augustine come most emphatically under this head. They are all pure European white—no mixture of any sort having affected them. They are now, of course, freely intermarrying with the Anglo-Americans—have been, indeed, since the advent of U.S. rule in 1819. Florida is as much a white man’s state as Texas—with a rigid colour-line against niggers, and with the tribal, swamp-dwelling Seminoles utterly separate—but the ancient Genevors and Garcias and Menendez’s of St. Augustine are so proudly and obviously pure white that no one begrudges them a place on the right side of the line. This perfect equality does not, however, hold good for their fellow-Spaniards from Cuba, who are beginning to immigrate into southern Florida. Except in Key West, which was always half-Cuban, the Spaniard from the West Indies occupies about the same place that the omnipresent Italian occupies in the north. He uses the white man’s compartments in stations, coaches, etc., but is definitely regarded as a foreigner. The Cuban negro and mulatto, of course, is segregated with other blacks. Just now Miami is worried about its growing Cuban colony. It used to be extremely Anglo-Saxon; but as Cuba gets more turbulent and Key West gets more poverty-stricken, more and more Cubans flock to the South Florida metropolis. Tampa has an enormous Cuban quarter (very quaint—I’ve explored it) called Ybor City. (AMTF2.888-889)

Lovecraft was more prone than Howard to use the somewhat outdated terms mestizo and mulatto (and even more archaic terms like quadroon in some letters), and neither word appears in any of his surviving letters, though mulatto appears in Howard’s unfinished tales “The Last War” and “The Hand of Obeah.” For that matter, Howard only uses the term “colored” once in his letters, in an early epistle to Lovecraft (AMTF1.44; CL2.76), though that would have been a popular and accepted term during the 1930s to refer to any and all persons not considered “white.” The distinction, in terms of the Hispanic populations of Florida and the Southwest, at least as far as Lovecraft saw it, was in terms of assimilation: he held the belief that white Europeans of different nationalities could, by denying their own culture and accepting American culture, be assimilated as Americans. The “Anglicisation” of the Spanish families in St. Augustine, in adopting English and American customs, was seen by Lovecraft of proof of this belief. Howard replied:

You are probably right in assuming that the Latin population of New Mexico will eventually be Anglicized. But it will be a slow process, for migration into the State is comparatively sparse, and probably more than balanced by the drift of Latins from Mexico. To the best of my knowledge New Mexico is legally bi-lingual, though all the highway signs I remember seeing were in English. As for that matter, you could say the same for San Antonio, as far [as] the store signs are concerned. You ask concerning the different classes of Latin New Mexicans. Of course, I wasn’t there long enough, and didn’t see enough of New Mexican society to make any positive statements about conditions. But the higher class New Mexicans are undoubtedly of a purer and superior stock than the ordinary peons—more Spanish blood and less Indians. But I doubt (though I can’t swear to it) if the upper classes in New Mexico are as purely Spanish as those of Florida. It must be remembered that New Mexico was colonized, not directly from Spain, but from Old Mexico, where an intermingling with Aztec strains had already been going on for some years; that for many years New Mexico was an isolated region with little chance of contact with other European colonies; and that the region’s native Indians were peaceful and semi-civilized, offering no great barrier to the mixing of their race with the conquerors. I have an idea that the Spaniards of early New Mexico mixed a great deal more with the Indians than did those of Florida. However, there is probably a strong Anglo-Saxon strain in many of the better families, for in the early days of American rule, a good many Americans settled there, first as traders and trappers, later as soldiers and cattlemen, and married Mexican women. By the way, the first European colony in Texas, Ysleta, was settled by people from Santa Fe, fleeing an Indian revolt in 1680. (AMTF2.900-901; CL3.381-382)

In a following letter, discussing the ethics and moralities of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (with its parallels to the European conquest of the Americas), Lovecraft perhaps unknowingly tied in this notion of assimilation and cultural autonomy—the idea that different national cultures, which were in part dependent on race, should maintain themselves apart without mixing—with Howard’s old fantasy of the conquest of Mexico:

As a whole, Mexico has enough of an established Hispanic civilisation to win it a place in the instinctively favoured category, but that is not true of all its parts. When at various times the U.S. took sections of its southern neighbour, these sections were among the least settled and civilised—hence the gradual Americanisation. But if we were to conquer the entire country in some future war, it seems certain that the intensively developed central area containing the capital would be granted a cultural autonomy like that enjoyed by Puerto Rico. (AMTF2.930)

It is perhaps fitting that in this letter, which is essentially the last word on the subject in Howard and Lovecraft’s correspondence due to Robert E. Howard’s suicide soon after, Lovecraft for the first and only time in these letters uses the word “Hispanic” to describe the peoples they had been discussing, off and on, since 1930.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5


Torbett Sanatorium in Marlin, Texas

Tuberculosis Operations

On December 5, 1935, REH wrote to H. P. Lovecraft about his mother’s condition:

About the middle of November my mother’s health became so poor we took her to the Torbett Sanatorium in Marlin, Texas, where more than a gallon of fluid was drawn off her pleura. She stayed at Marlin two weeks. (Roehm REH Letters 3-388)

Just a few months later, in another letter to HPL, dated February 11, 1936, REH again discusses his mother’s illness and her trips to the hospital.

After our return from Marlin we stayed at home for about two weeks, and then my mother’s pleura filled again, and we took her to a hospital in San Angelo, 105 miles southwest of Cross Plains… Her condition is very bad and she requires frequent aspirations, which are painful, weakening and dangerous. (Roehm REH Letters 3-415)

The difficulties of removing fluid from the pleura is confirmed when Novalyne asks REH if the operation on his mother was successful.

He shook his head. “She’s suffered so much…and she has tried to keep it from interfering with my life. She’s very brave.” (Price Ellis 194)

From the descriptions given by REH in his letters, the types of operations that Hester underwent were the painful aspirations and perhaps the Artificial Pneumothorax (Lung Collapse Therapy) which by the mid-1930s had become a more popular solution for pulmonary TB. And, if the symptoms of tuberculosis were difficult to read, some of the procedures performed on TB patients are straight out of one of REH’s horror stories.


The aspirator, a needle and pump-syringe device for drawing off fluid or gas by suction, was also popular. According to a sarcastic observer in the Medical Record, “The aspirator replaced the stethoscope as the medical novelty of the day.” (Ott 26) With aspiration, physicians cautiously began to explore treatments actually inside body cavities. The limitation of thoracentesis (a procedure to remove fluid from the space between the lining of the outside of the lungs—pleura—and the wall of the chest) was that it was directed at the secondary effects of already established disease processes. Thoracentesis was not preventive; it was a fix but not a cure. There were interesting ethical debates about when and how often to aspirate the chest…By the 1890s advocates of thoracentesis generally agreed that in cases of empyema (inflammation with pus) one should aspirate as early as possible…(Ott 66)

Artificial Pneumothorax (Lung Collapse Therapy)

This procedure was based on the work of Robert Koch whose research concluded that the “tubercle bacillus was a strict aerobe: it could survive but not grow and multiply without a generous supply of oxygen. Operations were aimed at resting the affected lung or lungs by reducing the patient’s ability to take a full breath” (Ryan 28):

Because the two pleural sacs enclosing the two lungs do not communicate with each other, one whole lung can be collapsed, without affecting the other, by repeatedly injecting air into the potential cavity between the lungs and the chest wall. (Dormandy 250) This was the oldest and most common of the operations. Some patients promptly felt better, lost their fever and coughed less and the tubercle bacilli disappeared from their sputum. No longer a hazard, the patient could recover at home or return to work. The lung was kept in semi-collapsed position by weekly or biweekly refills. This procedure was not for patients with scar tissue that prevented the collapse. Complications included infection, coughing up blood, and even sudden death. (Bates 286) The rationale for this operation is that if rest benefited the patient, it would also benefit the lung. (Ott 95)

The Artificial Pneumothorax procedure required weekly or biweekly refills and hospitals equipped to do this were quite a distance away. However, Hester could have undergone these treatments during one of her hospital or sanitarium stays.

In the letters above, REH mentions taking his mother to Marlin for aspirations and then when she needed another in two weeks, they took her to San Angelo where she stayed for six weeks.

If she was receiving the Artificial Pneumothorax procedure, this would have been the routine Hester endured. Patients were given morphine the night before.

[T]heir chest was pierced under local anesthesia, usually Novocain. In Hungary, Arpad Toth, the consumptive poet who had the treatment in the early 1930s wrote that though the needle prick in the skin did not hurt and the morphine had in any case induced a happily drowsy state, the needle entering the pleura felt like being kicked by a mule: “There was a crunch, a stab and a prayer, O God, let me die quickly. The real pain began a few hours later (after the anesthetic had worn off and the operator had departed.) It was sharp and unresponsive to drugs and kept patients awake. (Dormandy 261)

And if the pain and suffering from one of these treatments wasn’t enough, according to REH’s letters Hester had several aspirations done over a period of two or more weeks.

Although aspirations became a common procedure for TB, they weren’t without risks

The technique was both dangerous and painful. Many things could go wrong including perforation of the lung, stomach, heart or liver, or in the case of an accidental puncture of the pulmonary vein, instant death. The procedure could be frightening as well as exhausting for a patient. Some had adverse reactions such as horrible pain, fever and hallucinations (Ott 97-98).…By the turn of the century, putting a needle into the chest under local anesthesia to aspirate an effusion or pus from the pleural cavity had become well established as a useful and sometimes even life-saving procedure but the intervention was not without risk. The main difficulty lay in distinguishing the location of the pleural cavity. This was done by tapping on the chest to find the pleural cavity or the areas in the lung where the breath was absent. (Dormandy 205)

By 1921 good x-ray machines were available to make the location of the pleural cavity more accurate; however, not many tuberculosis centers or doctor offices had access to x-ray facilities.

In 1949, Gosta Birath of Sweden wrote one of the last comprehensive reviews of the Collapse Theory: “The pneumothorax needle was the most dangerous weapon ever placed in the hands of a physician.” (Dormandy 351) By the 1930’s, artificial pneumothoraces were being performed, often in incompetent operations in tens of thousands of unsuitable cases and the results were predictably dismal.”  It might be thought that the patients or their families would rebel, but the opposite was true. Almost anything active was better than just waiting and hoping. (352)

And survival of these procedures and the disappearance of symptoms did not mean the tuberculosis was cured.

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The people saw upon his wrists the scars of the racks of Spain.

– Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”

One of the unique aspects of the correspondence between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft is their relative openness and closeness of views—or at least prejudices—on race. None of Lovecraft’s other correspondents quite shared his prejudices, and indeed for many of them, such as J. Vernon Shea and James F. Morton, Lovecraft was forced to express and defend his views on race in some detail. If Howard ever had a comparable experience, the letters have not survived; indeed his views on race, while agreeing with Lovecraft in general prejudice, are much less developed, as Howard lacked the need to justify his beliefs to anyone else. With other correspondents who did not share their prejudices, both men generally curbed their speech, though they did not shy away from the subject if it was raised (and, indeed, sometimes raised it themselves). Somewhat ironically, this means that while both Howard and Lovecraft had little to disagree with each other on the topic of race, they were thus both more open to its discussion—or perhaps simply more unguarded in their conversation.

repatriationOne of these areas of mutual interest involved the Spanish-descended population of the United States, both their persons and their contributions to the local culture and architecture. The Spanish diaspora was both of historical and anthropological interest to Lovecraft and Howard, involving as it did the early European colonization of the Americas, particularly the Southwest; immigration and the continuing interaction with neighboring Hispanic countries such as Mexico and Cuba were also of immediate interest for both men. Through their correspondence, we can gain insight both into their views regarding Spanish immigrants, Mexicans, etc. and the use and depiction of such persons as characters, which both Howard and Lovecraft made use of in their fiction.

In large part, Lovecraft and Howard’s views with regard to Hispanics were shaped by their different experiences. H. P. Lovecraft, on the East Coast, was primarily familiar with Spanish immigrants in New England, as well as Puerto Ricans in urban New York City and Cubans in South Florida (AMTF1.212), including a visit to the ethnic enclave of Ybor City in Tampa (AMTF2.889); his experience of older Spanish influence was largely limited to visits to St. Augustine and New Orleans, the former of which he took as a confirmation on his views regarding cultural assimilation (AMTF1.76-77; cf. SL4.250-254). Robert E. Howard, by contrast, spent his whole life in the Southwest, primarily Texas with trips to neighboring Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and across the border to Mexican towns like Piedras Niegras and Matamoros, where he interacted primarily with Mexicans and Spanish-Americans. This mutual interest but different focus can be seen somewhat in some of the fiction that both men wrote before they began their correspondence in 1930.

For Lovecraft, this fiction can be roughly divided between the fiction set in his New England milieu and that set in the Southwest. Something of an edge case is “The Very Old Folk” (1927), a dream-narrative of Lovecraft’s which is set in Roman Hispania, incorporated into Frank Belknap Long’s novella “The Horror from the Hills” (1931), and recalling one of Lovecraft’s most unusual comments to Howard: “The conquest of Spain, too, would have thrilled me—how inspiring to have been with Scipio under the walls of stubborn Numantia!” (AMTF1.211; SL3.413) Though Lovecraft’s affinity for Rome would eventually help spur the momentous argument on barbarism versus civilization between him and Howard.

CoolAir565The New England stories, “The Terrible Old Man” (1920), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), “Cool Air” (1926), “The Strange High House in the Mist” (1926), and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927) are concerned only very slightly with Hispanic characters to any degree, focusing primarily on either historical references to Spain’s colonial empire and maritime activities (such as the Terrible Old Man paying “for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago”) and more especially with recent Spanish immigrants to the United States, who are portrayed as lower-class and/or criminal. Manual Silva of “The Terrible Old Man” is a robber and “not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions”; the landlady Mrs. Herrero of “Cool Air” is described as “slatternly, almost bearded” and her lodgers as “Spaniards a little above the coarsest and crudest grade”; Captain Manuel Arruda of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” a gentleman of honor, yet also a smuggler of Egyptian mummies. The distinction here is not simply immigrant status but also of class, as exemplified by the exaggerated Spanish-inflected English of Mrs. Herrero, designed by Lovecraft to reproduce and parody the speech of a non-native English speaker:

“Doctair Muñoz,” she cried as she rushed upstairs ahead of me, “he have speel hees chemicals. He ees too seeck for doctair heemself—seecker and seecker all the time—but he weel not have no othair for help. He ees vairy queer in hees seeckness—all day he take funnee-smelling baths, and he cannot get excite or warm. All hees own housework he do—hees leetle room are full of bottles and machines, and he do not work as doctair. But he was great once—my fathair in Barcelona have hear of heem—and only joost now he feex a arm of the plumber that get hurt of sudden. He nevair go out, only on roof, and my boy Esteban he breeng heem hees food and laundry and mediceens and chemicals. My Gawd, the sal-ammoniac that man use for keep heem cool!”

The educated and refined Doctor Muñoz of “Cool Air” is a notable exception to this trend, and despite being an immigrant to the United States he is held in high regard by the nameless protagonist for his high intellect, education, and cleanliness:

The figure before me was short but exquisitely proportioned, and clad in somewhat formal dress of perfect cut and fit. A high-bred face of masterful though not arrogant expression was adorned by a short iron-grey full beard, and an old-fashioned pince-nez shielded the full, dark eyes and surmounted an aquiline nose which gave a Moorish touch to a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian. Thick, well-trimmed hair that argued the punctual calls of a barber was parted gracefully above a high forehead; and the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding.

DDD323275827f011c8079759c88bf701Genetics was as yet primitive in the 1920s and 30s, as DNA as a vector for inheritance had not yet been discovered, and Lovecraft’s views on inheritance reflect that misunderstanding; much of his discussion of race in his letters use terms like “stock” and “breeding” taken directly from domestication of animals, and used in the same way. The idea that class differences—not just intelligence and physiognomy, but intangible properties like morality, aesthetic sensibility, and propensity for criminal activity—were an expression of inheritable traits was fairly common, and various “races” were assigned this or that trait based on stereotypes. Here in particular, you can see in Lovecraft’s reference to “Celtiberian” that he is implying a closer relation to the Anglo-Celtic peoples of the British Isles—whom Lovecraft identified himself with—than for the other Hispanic characters.

Lovecraft’s tales of the Southwest up to 1930 include “The Transition of Juan Romero” (1919); two of his ghost-written tales for Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig” (1928) and “The Mound” (1930); and two revisions for Adolphe de Castro, “The Electric Executioner” (1928) and “The Last Test” (1928). De Castro original stories, “The Automatic Executioner” and “Clarendon’s Last Test” or “A Sacrifice for Science,” betray the older prejudices of the 1890s, some of which is retained in Lovecraft’s revisions, but much was added or changed by Lovecraft, and in the case of “The Last Test” many of the original portrayals of Mexicans was excised to make room for Surama and the associated sub-plot.

Most of these tales betray at least a passing interest in Mesoamerican mythology and anthropology, and incorporate some of Lovecraft’s more familiar weird themes, of primitive survivals and shadowy ancient horrors. Still, Lovecraft’s conflation of class and race find expression, such as in description of the eponymous Juan Romero:

One of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first commanded attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation, being vastly unlike those of the average “Greaser” or Piute of the locality. It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend. But save for his face, Romero was not in any way suggestive of nobility. Ignorant and dirty, he was at home amongst the other brown-skinned Mexicans; having come (so I was afterward told) from the very lowest sort of surroundings. He had been found as a child in a crude mountain hut, the only survivor of an epidemic which had stalked lethally by. Near the hut, close to a rather unusual rock fissure, had lain two skeletons, newly picked by vultures, and presumably forming the sole remains of his parents. No one recalled their identity, and they were soon forgotten by the many. Indeed, the crumbling of the adobe hut and the closing of the rock fissure by a subsequent avalanche had helped to efface even the scene from recollection. Reared by a Mexican cattle-thief who had given him his name, Juan differed little from his fellows.

Again, the “low-class” characters—Mexicans in this case, rather than Spanish immigrants—are described a “unkempt” and “dirty,” ignorant, and inherently criminal (“cattle-thief”); Lovecraft would use very similar language when describing low-class characters of every race, from the rural white poor of “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Lurking Fear” to the teeming multinational immigrants of “The Horror at Red Hook.” In both “The Transition of Juan Romero” and “The Electric Executioner,” Mexicans are described as “peons,” a term that would later crop up in Lovecraft and Howard’s letters, expressly denoting the low status of Mexicans in Lovecraft’s fiction. Even among Mexicans, Lovecraft found room for further distinctions in terms of class, for example in “The Last Test” he described “the lower Mexican element whose lack of sanitation was a standing invitation to disease of every kind,” and the perhaps curious distinction from “The Electric Executioner”:

I hate greasers, but I like Mexicans! A puzzle? Listen to me, young fellow—you don’t think Mexico is really Spanish, do you? God, if you knew the tribes I know!

Mexican-american-discriminationThe slur “greaser” to refer to Mexicans was common during the era, but the distinction that Lovecraft makes here—and one which Howard would echo later—is the social as well as genetic distinction between Mexican nationality, class, and race as it stood in the early 20th century. As with Juan Romero, Lovecraft finds a greater interest in the unmixed Native Americans (“Mexicans”) and unmixed Europeans (“Whites”), than to multiracial peoples of the same nationality, and this conforms to Lovecraft’s general conception that mixing of race and cultures led to biological and cultural degeneration.

Language is a general marker for Lovecraft’s prejudices in this regard. In “The Transition of Juan Romero” the protagonist remarks:

Our conversation was necessarily limited. He knew but a few words of English, while I found my Oxonian Spanish was something quite different from the patois of the peon of New Spain.

And later in the same story:

And frightened as I was, I yet retained enough of perception to note that his speech, when articulate, was not of any sort known to me. Harsh but impressive polysyllables had replaced the customary mixture of bad Spanish and worse English, and of these only the oft repeated cry “Huitzilopotchli” seemed in the least familiar. Later I definitely placed that word in the works of a great historian—and shuddered when the association came to me.

A sentiment also expressed in “The Electric Executioner”:

They heard the same old names—Mictlanteuctli, Tonatiuh-Metzli, Cthulhutl, Ya-R’lyeh, and all the rest—but the queer thing was that some English words were mixed with them. Real white man’s English, and no greaser patter.

The distinction of “bad” Spanish, or degrading Mexican Spanish as a “patois” and “patter” displays the linguistic bias, subtly reaffirming the depiction of the character as ill-educated, but also tarring Mexicans in general as being different—and thus lower class—than their Castilian-speaking counterparts in Iberia, or the English-speaking “White” Americans. This linguistic bias, albeit applied to one of the original Spanish conquistadors instead of their American descendants, can also be seen in “The Mound”:

Almost immediately, however, the unrolling of one end shewed that the manuscript was in Spanish—albeit the formal, pompous Spanish of a long-departed day. In the golden sunset light I looked at the heading and the opening paragraph, trying to decipher the wretched and ill-punctuated script of the vanished writer.

ZealiaBishop“The Mound,” written based on a very brief story-seed provided by Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, is the longest narrative of a Spanish character in Lovecraft’s corpus, and Pánfilo de Zamacona is one of the most curious of Lovecraft’s protagonists, an adventurer and associate of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, far removed from his typical academics and antiquarians, though still a polyglot and well-educated by the standards of his time. Zamacona’s narrative uses the legendry of surrounding the Spanish conquest—Coronado’s search for Cíbola, and Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth—and the Aztec/Mayan mythology of Quezalcoatl and Kukulcan (identified with Yig both in “The Mound” and “The Curse of Yig”) as a framing device to explore the idea of an advanced precursor race to the Native Americans (in a descent worthy of, and possibly inspired by, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels or A. Merritt’s “The Moon-Pool”). This was in keeping with the theory, somewhat antiquated but still prevalent in Lovecraft and Howard’s day, that “the Mound Builders” were a race distinct from contemporary Native Americans.

Robert E. Howard also referenced the Spanish and Hispanics in his fiction prior to his correspondence with Lovecraft. For the most part, the nature of the references and depictions in Howard’s stories depends on the genre he was writing in: whole practically all of Lovecraft’s fiction belongs to the weird genre, Howard wrote for the sports, mystery or detective, spicy, western, historical and oriental pulps as well, and even tried his hand at confessionals. So it should come as no surprise that in writing Orientales set in Afghanistan or China, there are few references to Hispanic characters, while his Western tales, set primarily in Texas and surrounding states, deal with Mexican and Spanish-American characters fairly extensively.

WeirdTales-1926-04“A Twentieth Century Rip Van Winkle” (1920) and “The Last War” (unfinished, date unknown) both concern visions of the future where the United States annexes Mexico, echoing a sentiment to Lovecraft that Howard expressed in a December 1930 letter as “that dream of a Southwest empire from Blanca Peak to Panama makes my mouth water” (CL2.127) and the old Southern dream of a tropical empire in Central and South America.

“In the Forest of Villefére” (1925) and “Wolfshead” (1926), two of Howard’s early sales to Weird Tales, contain both contain Spaniards—or characters that claim to be Spaniards, a fine point of historical ambiguity that Howard would develop in some of his later discussion of Hispanics; owing to the vast area and multiracial make-up of the Spanish diaspora, the mere affection of Spanish dress or name need not be indicative of a character’s racial identity. For example in “Apparition of the Prize-Ring” (1929):

This was “Mankiller Gomez,” and he was all that his name implies. Gomez was his ring name, given him by the Spaniard who discovered him and brought him to America. He was a full-blooded Senegalese from the West Coast of Africa.

Compare this sentiment with Lovecraft’s Juan Romero, and you catch a glimpse of the convoluted prejudices that affected race and identity politics with regards to Hispanics in the United States in the 1920s—both characters are given names associated with a primarily “white” European nation and culture, but are both not “white,” but very distinctly not a part of the European-descended population.

Despite the weird element, as with the later “Red Shadows” (1928) and “The Skull in the Stars” (1929), these are also tales of historical adventure, and the inclusion of Spanish ships, swords, and the like are elements of the setting rather than significant in to the plot, and this rather presages his approach to much of his historical and adventure fiction; Spanish and Hispanic characters being generally (but not always) absent from tales set in exotic locations such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

FightStories-1929-07“Apparition of the Prize Ring” (1929), “The Pit of the Serpent” (1929), and “Winner Take All” (1930) are all boxing stories, and both “Apparition” and “Winner” have a colorful Spanish or Hispanic opponent for the Caucasian protagonist to duel with. For “Apparition” this is Mankiller Gomez, while for “Winner” this is Panther Cortez, whom Howard described as “a mixed breed—Spanish, French, Malay and heck knows what else, but all devil.” For all that these characters were antagonists, Howard liked to play up serious contenders as antiheroes as much as villains, attributing them with skill and character enough to give his protagonists like Sailor Steve Costigan at least enough trouble to chew on for a page or three. It’s notable too that Howard gave Cortez the weakness of being sensitive to his multiracial status, boiling over with anger when accused of being a “Porchugeeze half-caste!”

“The Pit of the Serpent” concerns a pair of itinerant sailors fighting over the charms of a Spanish woman, Raquel La Costa. Like Lovecraft, Howard was prone to let his non-native English speakers deliver their dialogue in a parody of their native accents (and, to be fair, he was just as likely to let his rural or ill-educated white protagonists peculiar accents come through in their dialogue), however by bizarre choice in this story Raquel’s dialogue has a characteristically French turn of speech:

“Zut,” said she, tapping us with her fan. “Zut! What is theese? Am I a common girl to be so insult’ by two great tramps who make fight over me in public? Bah! Eef you wanta fight, go out in ze woods or some place where no one make scandal, and wham each other all you want. May ze best man win! I will not be fight over in public, no sir!”

Howard, who had a tendency to re-use names in different stories, would also use the name “La Costa” to refer to a Frenchman in “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” (date unknown) and a character of no stated nationality in “Red Shadows”; “Raquel,” would later be used as name for a half-Irish, half-Spanish female pirate in “She-Devil” (1936) and the sequel “Ship in Mutiny” (1936). So it’s not clear if he made a mistake or whether it was a deliberate aesthetic choice. In the end she does choose “Don Jose y Balsa Santa Maria Gonzales” over either of the two sailors vying for her favors.

This then, is where H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard stood with regard to Spanish and Hispanic characters in their fiction when they began their correspondence in 1930.

Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


Hester Jane Ervin Howard with Robert’s dog Patch outside the Howard home in Cross Plains, Texas, ca. 1924.

1. The Shadow of Tuberculosis

Hester Jane Ervin Howard’s death certificate states she died of tuberculosis on June 12, 1936. A puzzling diagnosis and difficult to understand when TB is never referred to in any of the letters written by either her son, Robert E. Howard or her husband, Dr. Isaac M. Howard.

To understand why it is not mentioned by REH and his father, it’s essential to know about tuberculosis, its history, causes, symptoms, pain and suffering and especially the stigma and fear that surrounded it.

A Short History of TB

The girl sits propped up on pillows. Her face has become almost transparent. She turns towards the window. Cold winter sunlight streams in. Faint dashes hint rather than depict her eyes; yet the wistful gaze is miraculously caught. Her orange hair glows against the white linen of the bedclothes. A green curtain billows into the room. Next to her the mother’s head is sunk on her chest, hardly more than a shadow. It is the image of inexpressible grief…This is the picture of Sophie Munch, aged fourteen…a few months before her death from tuberculosis. [Two years later Munch’s mother also succumbed to the same disease.] Painted by her brother Edvard, it is one of the graven images of what was for millions a personal experience. (Dormandy Introduction)


A Sick Child by Edvard Munch, who also painted The Scream

A thousand million people died of tuberculosis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Ryan 3) Nor was it a new disease. Paleontological records tell us symptoms of tuberculosis appeared in a Neolithic grave near Heidelberg dated at 5,000 BC during the Stone Age, as well as in the spines of Egyptian mummies. (4) The disease was already established in mainland Europe by 2,500-1,500 BC and it is likely it came to England about a thousand years later. (6) TB even predates Columbus in the new world where it has shown up in the skeletons of Native Americans and Peruvian mummies as well as in the bones found in countries around the world, including Japan. (8) In fact, “Dr. John Stanford, who has spent his life studying TB, believes that the tuberculosis germ is very ancient, and may well have fought for its survival in the primeval mud of the earth at the very beginnings of time.” (Ryan 6)

Tuberculosis was called by many names: phthisis, consumption, wasting disease, weakness of the lungs, graveyard cough. (Dormandy 22) During the late nineteenth century there was a growing fear the disease might destroy European civilization. (Ryan 8)

It is a remarkably enduring disease. Once it arrives in a community, it stays. (6) By mid-seventeenth century, one in five deaths was due to consumption, which is an older and rather more descriptive name for the pulmonary form of TB. As a result, it became known as the “White Plague of Europe.” (7) Although the death rate had been declining since the 1840’s in the year 1900, the world’s death rate from tuberculosis was about seven million people a year with fifty million more openly infected and at least half the world population had come into contact with it. (Ryan 8)

There were popular misconceptions about tuberculosis, even as late as the 1970s and 80s. According to L. Sprague de Camp, a Robert E. Howard biographer and author of Dark Valley Destiny,

Tuberculosis is a strange disease. Relatively rare today, in 1900 it was second only to pneumonia as a major cause of death. Whenever people move about a lot, whenever there is crowding, unhygienic living conditions, poverty, or privation, tuberculosis becomes epidemic. (de Camp 32)

De Camp’s statement that TB was second to pneumonia as a cause of death is incorrect. In the early 1900s, it was the primary cause in the USA for many years. (CDC “Leading Causes of Death”) He was also wrong that it was an epidemic.

Unlike most epidemic diseases, TB did not sweep through a city or region and then disappear for several years. TB was endemic – it was a debilitating constitutional illness to which people succumbed slowly over a period of years, infecting and being re-infected, leaving the afflicted compelled to stop work, enter hospitals or sanitariums, and lie and dissemble for self protection. (Ott 6)


Above is a depiction of TB statistics in Kentucky during WWII. Below are two examples of the Christmas Seals campaign for fighting TB. Both of these were probably familiar to the Howards in Cross Plains.


1924 Christmas Seals Campaign



Christmas Seals Campaign, ca. 1935

Tuberculosis Infection

Dr. Frank Ryan in The Forgotten Plague: How the Battle Against Tuberculosis was Won and Lost, explains how the body reacts to TB and how some survived while others did not.

We are infected by the germ that causes tuberculosis in two ways, either by inhaling it in the air we breathe, or by swallowing it food or drink. Inhalation is the commonest way in which it gets into our bodies, taking in bacteria which are suspended in dried dust or in tiny droplets. If a tiny colony on a culture plate contains in excess of a billion tuberculosis germs, consider the numbers of germs flung into the air by the single cough of an infected patient. Unlike AIDS, which is spread only by sexual penetration or by intravenous injection of blood products, tuberculosis is contracted simply by the act of breathing. Everybody is therefore susceptible. (Ryan 17-18)

But it is the pulmonary form of the disease which is by far the commonest and it was in this form that tuberculosis blighted the lives of billions of people. What happens is basically simple if dreadful. The bacteria inhaled in water droplets settle in the periphery of the lung and grow very slowly until they form a small local collection, like a cheesy boil. From this boil, the continuing infection spills over into nearby small airways and forms more of these tiny boils. It was the appearance of these small cheesy collections (like little tubers) which, in the early nineteenth century gave rise to the modern name, the disease in which you find tubercles in the lung or tuberculosis. This replaced the much older and more descriptive name, consumption…From this primary infection in the lungs, several things may happen. (Ryan 19)

In many, the first infection is fought off by the body. The white cells mop up the bacteria and the abscess is walled off from the rest of the lung by a fibrous shell. But our white cells have difficulty disposing of these ingested bacteria. That waxy shell can be as impervious to the digesting chemicals of our white cells as it is to acid, and tuberculosis has the horrifying ability to eat our white cells themselves from the inside and to grow and multiply while actually within the cells. In order to contain the disease, our body decides to accept stalemate and just wall it off. If we succeed, we lull ourselves into a false sense of security: we tell ourselves that we are cured. But tuberculosis remains alive within the fibrous shell and can burst out into life-threatening virulence at any time in the infected person’s subsequent life. (Ryan 19-20)

Where tuberculosis is common, most of the population will encounter germs when they are children. Yet here we discover another of its mysteries: the majority wall it off when it is still just a spot on the lungs and they never know they were infected. But if the body fails to contain it, which is the case in about ten percent of people, the disease continues to invade the lung tissue about it. (Ryan 21)

How tuberculosis infects the body is shown in the following chart:


Tuberculosis Symptoms

A cough that refuses to go away; perhaps a sudden agonizing pain on breathing that marks the beginning of pleurisy; exhaustion, an unrelievable breathlessness, the appearance of bright red arterial blood in the persistent foul sputum. In others, death arrives in one fell moment; for example when an abscess in the lung or intestine erodes into a major artery. (Ryan 22)

Tuberculosis patients lost weight, were overwhelmingly tired, at times felt overwhelmingly irrational and exuberantly gay, and were anemic. (Dormandy 220)

Tuberculosis could not only be transmitted to another person, it could easily infect other parts of the body. It wasn’t a simple disease that affected everyone in the same way. Almost no organ or tissue in the body was immune.

TB starting in one area of the body could be transmitted to other areas. Once the TB patients began coughing up the TB bacteria, they became contagious and had to be isolated from other non-tubercular persons. As the germ was coughed up, it often lodged in the throat, causing TB laryngitis, which in its last stages reduced speech to a hoarse, agonizing whisper…If the TB germ was swallowed, it could cause overwhelming nausea, almost impossible to alleviate. The patient’s breath often became foul smelling. Abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea would be added to the already suffering patient…If the infected material went in the opposite direction, it could impinge on the pleura and start TB pleurisy. This was one of the most feared complications. Not only coughing but the taking of every breath became painful…Disturbed nights turned into nightmares: no pain-killer, not even laudanum or later, morphine, could entirely cope with the pain. The spread of the disease in this way could lead to the dreaded tuberculosis meningitis. (Dormandy 221)

One of the most lethal complications occurs when pus spills into the blood stream and quickly spreads to every organ in the body. Or, it spreads from the lungs or bowel and causes great pain and suffering elsewhere. In the skin and soft tissues it causes disfiguring sores and abscesses; in the internal organs such as the bladder and kidneys it causes an agonizing inflammation…In bones it settles into a protracted and gnawing destructive cavitation and the pus eventually finds its way through the soft tissue to the skin. Tuberculosis has the capacity to infect every internal organ from liver to brain, from the fingertips to the delicate structures of our eyes. (Ryan 23)

Even today, without effective treatment, sixty percent of sufferers will be dead within five years of the onset, their bodies wasted to skeletal proportions, their minds lucidly aware of the life that is being taken from them [emphasis mine]. (Ryan 23-4)

A look at the various types of tuberculosis and how they infect the body.


According to Dormandy, pulmonary tuberculosis was the most common form. (22) The Medical Dictionary definition states:

[P]ulmonary tuberculosis is TB that affects the lungs. Its initial symptoms are easily confused with those of other diseases. An infected person may at first feel vaguely unwell or develop a cough blamed on smoking or a cold. A small amount of greenish or yellow sputum may be coughed up when the person gets up in the morning. In time, more sputum is produced that is streaked with blood. Persons with pulmonary TB do not run a high fever but they often have a low-grade one. They may wake up at night drenched with cold sweat when the fever breaks. The patient often loses interest in food and may lose weight. Chest pain is sometimes present. If the infection allows air to escape from the lungs into the chest cavity (pneumothorax) or if fluid collects in the plural space (pleural effusion) the patient may have difficulty breathing.

The symptoms for pulmonary TB according to The White Death also included “A harsh cough, hoarseness or loss of control of the voice, an audible wheezing, shortness of breath on exertion and coughing up of blood.”… Dormandy then adds “In 80 percent of the cases this form of tuberculosis was fatal in five to fifteen years[emphasis mine]. (22)

Hester Jane Ervin Howard’s Symptoms

REH’s letters do not indicate any symptoms of wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing up of blood. However, comparing the excerpts from his letters describing his mother’s symptoms against those of tuberculosis, the list is impressive.

Night sweats. On May 13, 1936, REH wrote to H. P. Lovecraft:

She started sweating in January and it’s just the last few days that there has been any appreciable lessening of it. Many a night she had to be changed six or seven times, and that many times a day—sometimes more. Woman after woman we hired and they quit, either worn out by their work, or unwilling to do it, though my father and I did most of it. (Roehm REH Letters 3-460)

Pleurisy—one of the most feared complications was mentioned earlier in the same letter.

She seemed to be improving a little when she had an attack of acute pleurisy on her right side, which until then hadn’t been affected. My father handled that, and she was definitely on the mend, although the sweats never ceased, when in the early part of April we had the worst dust storm I ever saw in my life, and she developed pneumonia.” (3-459)

Also present was the characteristic weight loss.

She is very weak and weighs only 109 pounds—150 pounds is her normal weight and very few kinds of food agree with her; (3-459)

The signature cough was mentioned in the December 5, 1935 letter to HPL.

My parents and I went to Amarillo in the latter part of July. None of us had ever been to that city, and I wanted to see if the high altitude, 4500 feet, might help a persistent cough that had been bothering my mother. (3-382)

From these descriptions plus the aspiration treatments she underwent, (Part 2 “Tuberculosis Operations”) it is probable Hester Jane Ervin Howard contracted pulmonary tuberculosis—a type of TB that “was chronic and even intermittent, with seemingly miraculous remissions and startling improvements followed by terrible relapses.” (Dormandy 22)

The bacterial cause of tuberculosis was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882 who found that it grew and divided much slower than normal bacteria. (Ryan 16) Koch had shown that the tubercle bacillus was a strict aerobe: it could survive but not grow and multiply without a generous supply of oxygen. (Dormandy 221)

After Koch’s discovery the “diagnosis now depended on the presence of the tubercule bacillus in the sputum, not the hollowness of the cough or the loss of weight.” (Rothman 17)

Hester’s diagnosis would have been confirmed by medical tests. No records of any such tests have been discovered. The only written confirmation of her diagnosis is in her death certificate (See right hand column about half way down.) It reads: “chronic ulcerative tuberculosis anemia”


Note: that the term “senility” on her death certificate was used in that era to designate old age rather than lucidity. It appeared often on death certificates of elder persons.

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Fantasy fan Alvin Earl Perry, who  exchanged several letters with Howard in early 1935, wrote a biographical piece on Two-Gun Bob for the July 1935 issue of Fantasy Magazine. Perry seems to have gleaned the majority of his article from facts provided by Howard himself. Here is the text of that biographical sketch:


by Alvin Earl Perry

Conan! Solomon Kane! King Kull! These names mean action-adventure-romance-to thousands of fantasy fans thruout America; they are the heroes of adult fairy tales (rather gory ones it must be admitted) penned by he who is perhaps the greatest “actionist” writing fantasy today-Robert E. Howard!

This much-read author is a Texan. He was born January 22nd, 1906, in the small village of Peaster, some forty-five miles west of Fort Worth, and still resides in the Lone Star State, tho farther west.

At the age of fifteen, the future creator of Conan began writing with the intention of devoting his life to it; but it wasn’t until the fall of 1924, while attending Howard Payne College at Brownwood, that he made a sale. The tale was “Spear and Fang,” bought by Weird Tales for the princely sum of $16. It was very short and dealt with the imagined prehistoric struggles of the Neanderthal men and the Cro-Magnons.

Physically, Mr. Howard is a remarkable man. He stands almost six feet, is a decided brunette but for his blue eyes, rather heavily built, has a 45 inch chest, is 17 inches about the neck and perhaps 37 at the belt. And, he says “no one ever accused me of being handsome.” He admires E. Hoffman Price immensely, calling him “a talented writer and a splendid gentleman.”

Jack London is this Texan’s favorite writer; and he prefers tequila to brandy, beef to pork, and he likes his eggs fried hard. Jack Benny and Gracie Allen are his idols, while Lionel Barrymore and Edna May Oliver hold his attentions in the movies. His sole ambition is to be a successful author, and he enjoyed writing “The Shadow Kingdom” better than any other tale.

Tho he claims to have led an ordinary life, when it is realized that he has been everywhere of interest in the vast Southwest, plus a large portion of Old Mexico and has witnessed the settlement of the Plains country, the development of the Rio Grande territory, and the Central West Texas oil booms, one easily sees the modesty of the statement.

As to his fictional characters, we’ll let Mr. Howard speak for himself. He says: “The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of ‘The Daughter of Erlik Khan’ (Top-Notch), etc. I don’t remember his genesis. He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old. The next was Bran Mak Born, the Pictish king (‘The Kings of the Night,’ etc. Weird Tales) He was the result of my discovery of the existence of the Pictish race, when reading some historical works in a public library in New Orleans at the age of thirteen. Physically he bore a striking resemblance to El Borak. Solomon Kane (‘Red Shadows,’ etc., Weird Tales) I created when I was in high school, at the age of about sixteen, but, like the others I have mentioned, several years passed before I put him on paper. He was probably the result of an admiration for a certain type of cold, steely-nerved duellist that existed in the sixteenth century. King Kull differed from these others in that he was put on paper the moment he was created, whereas they existed in my mind years before I tried to put them in stories. In fact, he first appeared as only a minor character in a story that was never accepted. At least, he was intended to be a minor character, but I had not gone far before he was dominating the yarn. Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures. It was much the same, tho to a lesser extent, with Sailor Steve Costigan (Fight Story Magazine, Action Stories, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, etc.), Kid Allison (Sport Stories) and Breckinridge Elkins (Action Stories.)

The distinctive style of writing developed by Mr. Howard-swashbuckling, raw, magnificently bloody – is utterly off the trail and has proven consistently popular with Weird Tales readers. Those who have never perused one of his Conan yarns, should do so; they will never regret it.

The issue also featured an impressionistic linoleum cut of REH by author and artist Duane W. Rimel.


Photo courtesy of Patrice Louinet.