Solomon Kane by Jeffrey JonesRobert E. Howard made it plain, in his stories of the somber Puritan adventurer and brilliant swordsman, that Kane had a streak of paranoia. He described Kane’s motivation to wander, seek adventure, and impose his own brand of justice as “a strange paranoid urge”. In the fragment “Hawk of Basti”, he ascribes that compulsion to both Kane and Jeremy Hawk. “Both of these men were born rovers and killers, curst with a paranoid driving urge that burned them like a quenchless fire and never gave them rest.”

It’s certainly true that Kane sees – and finds – wicked enemies everywhere. Unlike some fanatics, though, he does not look for witches and heretics who exist mainly in his fevered imagination. Kane’s enemies of God and man are real enough – merciless bandits and pirates, cruel barons, hideous predatory winged harpies, dead men walking to prey on the living.

In that respect, oddly enough, he’s more down-to-earth and mentally healthy than the average man of his time. A valuable book by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason In Tudor England – Politics and Paranoia, explores this aspect of the sixteenth century. Tudor mentalities had a cast very like that exemplified in our day by the conspiracy theorist. It was, to quote Smith, “the conviction that things are never as they appear to be – a greater and generally more sinister reality exists behind the scenes – prompting, manipulating, but always avoiding exposure to the footlights … the presence of evil.”

Shakespeare, raised in Tudor England, showed this attitude in a number of his plays. Before Henry V wars against France, he has to deal with three traitors at home (not just one) – Cambridge, Scroop of Masham, and Grey, who “Confirm’d conspiracy with fearful France; and by their hands this grace of kings must die, if hell and treason hold their promises … ”

The ultimate Tudor villain is probably Iago, trusted ensign of the honest (but thick) Othello. Playing the part of a loyal, true-blue fellow, he deceives not only Othello but everybody else, until the very end, when his appalled wife exposes him, and is murdered for her trouble. He doesn’t need a motive to betray and destroy; the one he mentions in his soliloquy isn’t particularly strong or convincing. (He’s heard a rumor that Othello has cuckolded him, but he doesn’t take it particularly seriously or seem to really believe it.) Iago is malicious and deceitful by nature; he takes delight in tormenting his fellow man.

Francis WalsinghamReal life in the Tudor milieu abounded in back-stabbing smilers with knives. It was especially characteristic of the climbers and rivals at court, desperate for patronage, willing to flatter, lie, dissemble and slander to gain it. Beware of false friends, fathers told their sons. Love no man; trust no man. Always look for their hidden purposes. They are bound to have some. Common aphorisms ran: “He that never trusteth is never deceived”, “It is better to suspect too soon than mislike too late”, and “Although all men promise to help you … they will be the first to strike you and to give you the overthrow.” Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, who should have known, wrote that “the number of evil-disposed in mind is greater than the number of sick in body.”

Almost more remarkable than the number of schemers and traitors was the self-destructive incompetence they showed. Reading the details of their plots, and the way they messed them up, you’d almost think they intended to get caught. One possible explanation, though it sounds facetious, is that they’d been driven crazy with impatience and frustration. For ambitious men who wanted to rise, in the Tudor milieu, there was only one way; to attach themselves to a powerful patron. Trying to attract such men’s notice meant hanging around, bowing and scraping, running messages, taking unlimited amounts of crap, having their hopes endlessly deferred and their expectations never met. Bitter and disappointed fellows were ripe for reckless treason. If they hadn’t been unscrupulous to begin, they were pretty sure to become so.

Gregory Botolf was a perfect example. Glib of tongue, more imaginative and quick-thinking than stable, he became chaplain to the English Deputy of Calais, Lord Lisle, in the reign of Henry VIII. Calais was England’s last possession in France, seething with intrigue, Catholic conservatives, Protestant reformers, and double agents. It was like a sixteenth-century Cold War Berlin. Gregory Botolf decided to sell out to Rome. For an advance payment of 200 crowns and a promise of more, he hatched a scheme for betraying Calais to the Catholic forces of the continent. When Calais was crowded with strangers at the time of the herring market, Botolf’s co-conspirators would open the gates and Botolf himself would assail the walls with five hundred men.

Nobody but a hyper-imaginative loon would have believed for a second he could overcome the Calais garrison and then hold the port with half a thousand men.

It was never tested, anyway. Philpot, one of the men in the plot, fell prey to patriotic conscience, and Botolf talked too freely while travelling to fix the final stages of the attempt. He also sent Philpot a letter, and gave it to a couple of English strangers who were going back to England by way of Calais, to deliver for him. A more stupid act for a man in his position would be hard to imagine. The English ambassador at Ghent opened the letter, and Philpot confessed out of guilt and fear, though which of those two disastrous turns of chance happened first isn’t clear. Everybody was arrested and interrogated, everybody talked, after which Botolf, Philpot and four others were hanged, drawn and quartered.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

RF Sign

In the spring of 1928 Robert E. Howard was asked to revise a western novel for his friend, R. Fowler Gafford. Readers of Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, will remember the incident between “Steve Costigan” (Howard’s point-of-view character) and “Lars Jensen” (Gafford). The title of the novel was West of the Rio Grande, which Howard changed to West of the Border in Post Oaks.

While waiting for Patrice to continue his series of blog posts, I thought I’d look into the illusive Mr. Gafford. Glenn Lord was quite interested in him; he no doubt hoped to obtain a copy of the revised novel. In 1995, he asked longtime Cross Plains’ resident and newspaper man Jack Scott what he knew. Scott’s July 30 reply didn’t help much:

I remember Fowler Gafford well. I do not know when and where he was born, but I would believe it was in Brown County, Texas, around the turn of the century. I was born in 1909 and he was several years older than I.
It is my best guess that Fowler is dead and that he may be buried in Cross Cut Cemetery. I will try to check that out. It has been my opinion that Fowler passed away prior to World War II, well ahead of the 1960 date when the Social Security administration began computerization of death benefits paid.

Mr. Scott didn’t get much right, and I told Glenn what I knew at his birthday party in 2010. I’ve learned a bit more since then.

Robert Fowler Gafford was born in Hopkins County, Texas, on June 27, 1891. The 1900 U.S. Census lists him and his rather large family—father, Jim Gafford (48 years); mother, Jane (42); paternal grandmother, Martha (78); Robert (8), and his seven brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 18 down to 7—in Hopkins County, which is right next door to Red River County, where Robert E. Howard would live more than ten years later. Jim Gafford was a farmer; his children were in school.

At the time of the 1910 Census, the Gaffords had returned to Howard country. They are listed in Cross Cut, in Brown County. Eighteen-year-old Robert F. had joined his father on the farm. In 1915, a new family arrived in Cross Cut with the last name of Howard. In Post Oaks, Howard tells us that “Steve had known him [Lars Jansen] years ago in a small country village, where Lars had lived with his family on a farm. [. . .] when Steve had first known him, he had been a wild, reckless, and hard living sort of a wastrel alternating his life on the farm with a kind of hobo existence.”

True to Howard’s description, by June 5, 1917, Gafford had flown the coop. His World War I registration card has him living in Goodnight, Texas (south of Dallas, in Navarro Co.) and working as an automobile mechanic. On the line that asks, “Do you claim exemption from draft?” Gafford wrote: “Crippled in leg.” The Registrar’s Report described Gafford as medium tall, of medium build, with brown hair and brown eyes—and “crippled in leg.”

RF Report

Howard, too, described Gafford in Post Oaks:

Lars was a grotesque and yet impressive figure. A giant of a man, a bone tuberculosis of his hip had maimed him for life and given him a curious lurching gait when he walked which seemed to throw his whole body out of alignment. He had a strong face, large featured and deeply lined as if chiseled out of solid rock with bold rough strokes. His small hard eyes sparkled and glinted with vivid life and the heavy penthouse brows above them, coupled with the swaying gait of his walk, lent him an almost gorilloid aspect. But above those brows rose the high forehead of a thinker.

Perhaps adding fuel to Howard’s “hobo” description of him, the 1920 U.S. Census records an “R. F. Gafford,” 28, boarder in the home of Nettie Mock, and working as an auto mechanic in Moorhead, Mississippi. Don’t know if this is our man or not, but the age and initials are correct.

From 1925 to 1928 we must rely on Post Oaks for more information on Gafford. While many of the events in the novel have turned out to be historically accurate, it must be remembered that Howard presented it as fiction, so the occurrences are certainly dramatized.

In early 1925, Steve Costigan says that Jansen “had moved to Lost Plains and was in a sort of sketchy real estate business,” but he “now aspired to culture and higher society.” That higher society was to be gained by writing. Later, Steve “heard Lars Jansen sold a story to a confessions magazine.” His mother doesn’t seem to approve of the older man, saying, “Yes, that’s what I heard. I hope you’re not thinking about taking up with him?” Of course, another writer in Cross Plains was probably more tempting than “Steve” could handle, so the two begin talking about their writings, despite “Lars Jansen [being] a rather strange and unusual figure.” But if Lars wanted to earn his living by writing, he had a problem:

 “All that holds me down,” said Lars, his eyes gleaming with the vehemence of his ardor, “is lack of education. You know, I never finished grammar school. I’ve never had any opportunity. But I know Life—I’ve lived Life to the guards. With all I’ve seen and done, I could write powerful stuff—if I just had the education. But after all, bad spelling and grammatical errors don’t matter so much—the first thing is to get the stuff across. After that, the rest comes naturally.”

After reading some of Gafford’s/Jansen’s work, Howard/Costigan “was amazed at two things—at the blind, latent force which groped in Lars’ work, and at Lars’ atrocious grammar. Many of the simplest words were misspelled and, as for style and diction, Lars had no knowledge whatever except for such as comes naturally to the embryonic author.” Despite this, “there was power there, struggling and halting, groping for life and expression, chained down by ignorance, stumbling over the stones of bad English.”

Around February 1928, after having several pieces rejected, Lars went to Steve:

“Say,” said he, “you know I wrote a novel, West of the Border, a story of the modern west. It’s been turned down by a couple of publishers, but it’s good. But I can’t seem to express myself as I’d like to. And I’m handicapped by my lack of grammar. If you’ll rewrite it for me, we will split it, fifty-fifty, all but the movie rights. I want the full dramatic rights.”

Steve agrees, but “could not interest himself in it, and he wrote on it only when he could drive himself to it.” He thought that the “plot was good, with some strong situations,” but knew that “his revision, while possibly better than Lars’ ungrammatical wanderings, was not of any classical order.” He completed the rewrite and gave the product to Jansen. That May, “Lars announced that West of the Border had been rejected by the publishing company to which they had submitted it.”

RF West

In Steve’s final rant in the novel, he says, “I don’t see no future for him [. . .] Lars will work on and on, and maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll sell his stuff to the confession magazines, but I doubt it. [. . .] Maybe Lars will be lucky and make a stake somehow in his business or some other business, and get educated and do like he wants to. I hope so anyway. But now he’s off on a new tack. There’s been a great revival meetin’ at Lost Plains and Lars got converted, and now he wants to preach.”

Farmer, mechanic, real estate agent, preacher—whatever Gafford was doing for income didn’t stop his writing altogether. The September 28, 1928 Cross Plains Review carried “The Price of Vengeance” by Gafford; on August 9, 1929, “Retribution of Vanity” appeared, and there may be other pieces buried in those pages.

In February 1929, Robert Howard told his friend Clyde Smith about an experience with Gafford:

Last night the Sunday School class had a party and I had to get drunk to rid myself of Fowler’s importunities to go. He said he figured on he and myself being the life of the party. Hokum. Strange what a difference a few snorts of white corn makes in people’s attitude toward you. After I had reached the point where I wanted to go, they didn’t want me.

At the time of the 1930 Census, Fowler (age 38) had working at yet another profession: insurance salesman. That summer, he made a bid for a little respectability, as reported in the Abilene Morning News for July 31, 1930:


Complete returns in Callahan County on the democratic primary of last Saturday show the following in contested races:
[. . .]
TAX ASSESSOR—E. M. Smith 1,624; W. R. Thompson 1,061; R. Fowler Gafford 107.

Following his resounding electoral defeat, Gafford put his hobo shoes on again and headed west. The 1932 El Paso City Directory lists “Gafford, Fowler R.” as “Watchmn Troy Steam Lndry” with a room at 1431 Texas Street. He would live the rest of his life in that west Texas town, and it appears he kept in touch with his younger friend in Cross Plains. One letter from Robert E. Howard to Gafford survives. It is dated May 20, 1934, and was probably unsent. In it, Howard explains why he’s not interested in helping Gafford start a “writer’s school” (see Collected Letters, Vol. 3).

Sometime between 1933 and 1935 Gafford changed jobs again. The 1935 El Paso City Directory lists Gafford as a clerk at Tri-State Motor Co., living in a home at 1405 E Yandell Blvd. The 1940 U.S. Census has Gafford with yet another job, bookkeeping in T.R.C. office, and a wife, Clara L. His 1942 Draft registration lists his work as “Surplus Commodity Commissary,” whatever that is. Following the war, Gafford made the papers in relation to yet another occupation:


The Texas secretary of state today refused to issue organizer’s cards to 11 representatives of two unions which a state investigation found were “Communist dominated.”
Secretary of State Howard A. Carney yesterday cancelled all cards which had been issued to representatives of the Distributive, Processing and Office Workers of America and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.
[. . .]
Cards held by [. . .] Robert Fowler Gafford of the IUMMSW [. . .] were cancelled.
[El Paso Herald Post – Dec. 30, 1953. The same article, under the headline “Organizer Cards Refused To Red-Dominated Unions,” appeared in The Brownsville Herald, same date, other papers as well.]

And that’s where the trail ends. Robert Fowler Gafford died on October 24, 1957, at his home in El Paso. He is buried at Restlawn Memorial Park, El Paso Co., Texas.

This entry filed under Howard Biography.

In a letter written to Novalyne Price on February 14, 1936, Howard displays a certain playfulness with her throughout. I suspect it was a way from escaping the reality of his mother’s health. While Hester still had some good days, overall her health was deteriorating. Toward the end of the letter, Howard makes the following remarks about Valentine’s Day:

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

I had never heard of Howard’s definition of Valentine’s Day as he described it to Novalyne – he may have been pulling her leg – or perhaps read that particular version of its origin somewhere. Nonetheless, there are historical facts to back up some of it.

First, though highly speculative, is the notion that Valentine’s name was originally “Galantine,” signifying “gallant,” a word with more obvious associations with courtship, as well as chivalrous knights. The shift in consonant to “v” is explained as the way medieval French peasants pronounced the letter “g.” For those familiar with French cuisine, galantine is also an elaborate entrée consisting of de-boned stuffed meat, usually poultry or fish, which is poached, served cold, and coated with aspic.

Additionally, there are several popular versions of how Valentine’s Day came to be. One is it started in the time of the Roman Empire, during the third-century. This is the version that shows some of its roots in Howard’s definition.

In ancient Rome, February 14 was a holiday to pay tribute to Juno, who was the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses. She was also known as the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15, began the Feast of Lupercalia.

During those times, young boys and girls lived separate lives. But on the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the girls’ names were written on slips of paper and placed into a large jar. Then each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would be partners for the duration of the festival. In some cases, the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often they would fall in love and  later marry.

This was the era of the rule of Emperor Claudius II and Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. And Claudius the Cruel, as he was known, was having a hard time getting soldiers to join his legions.

The Holy Emperor, it seems, determined that married men were unwilling to join the military, wanting to be with their wives and children in their homes instead of fighting and dying to keep the barbarian hordes at bay, hang on to lands the army had conquered and expand the Roman Empire even further.

So the Emperor decreed that no single man could become engaged to be married and outright outlawed marriage in the Roman Empire. The domestic union and home life was not for young and able-bodied Roman males who he felt they should pledge their allegiance to him, not their wives and families.

Saint ValentineEnter a Roman Catholic priest named Valentine who was loving and kind-hearted and openly defied the Emperor’s demand. He secretly married many a young couple in dim candlelight inside damp basements and dusty wine cellars.

Pope Felix I also disapproved of Claudius’ law and decreed that a change be made to reinstitute marriage, but the Emperor was having none of that. This was the early days of the Catholic Church and it was struggling to gain a foothold and secretly converting those who worshiped the Pagan Gods to Christianity.

Soon Claudius discovered Valentine’s unlawful and clandestine activities and took action. He first tried to convert him to Roman paganism, but to no avail. According to legend, Valentine was imprisoned and put to death by beheading on the vespers of the Feast of Lupercalia, on February 14, 270 A.D.

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor the martyred priest. Eventually, that date became the date for couples to exchange love messages and St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

Of course, Novalyne was not destined to be Howard’s Valentine in February of 1936, just four months before his death. He had pushed her away and into the arms of his best friend, Truett Vinson the previous year. But it is clear he and Novalyne remained close friends to the very end of his life.

This entry filed under Novalyne Price Ellis.

It’s fitting to round off this series with a post of one of REH’s most memorable and redoubtable characters. And about the funniest. Like the dog Slasher in “Beyond the Black River,” this is a character with four feet. Yes, it’s Cap’n Kidd. Panthers and wolf packs flee from this wandering cayuse with their tails tucked under, whimpering.

Breckinridge Elkins, the stallion’s human counterpart, was an obstreperous brawler himself. His whims and Cap’n Kidd’s were well matched. A fair example of his social interactions can be found in this passage:

If Joel Braxton hadn’t drawed a knife whilst I was beating his head agen a spruce log, I reckon I wouldn’t of had that quarrel with Glory McGraw … Pap’s always said the Braxtons was no-account folks, and I allow he’s right … I let go of [Joel’s] ears and taken the knife away from him and throwed it into a blackjack thicket, and throwed him after it. They warn’t no use in him belly-aching like he done just because they happened to be a tree in his way. I dunno how he expects to get throwed into a blackjack thicket without getting some hide knocked off.

Breck possessed remarkable diplomatic skills as well. After promising Glory to be tactful and meek when he confronts her father over the wedding arrangements, he enters the McGraw cabin and finds a dude with very hard eyes bargaining for Glory’s hand. He reacts as follows:

I come here to tell you the weddin’s off! Glory ain’t goin’ to marry Mister Wilkinson. She’s goin’ to marry me, and anybody which comes between us had better be able to rassle cougars and whup grizzlies bare-handed!

Wilkinson makes the mistake of telling Breck to get lost or suffer. Breck replies courteously, “Open the ball whenever you feels lucky, you stripe-bellied polecat!” Wilkinson draws, and so does Breck, shooting the gun out of Wilkinson’s hand “along with one of his fingers before he could pull his trigger.”

A free-for-all with Glory’s father and three brothers follows. After witnessing the ruction, Wilkinson becomes discouraged. When a distraught Glory (upset by the damage to her kin) shrieks that she’ll go with him and marry him right away, Wilkinson bleats:

I advises you to marry that young grizzly there, for the sake of public safety, if nothin’ else! Marry you when HE wants you? No, thank you! I’m leavin’ a valuable finger as a sooverneer of my sojourn, but I figger it’s a cheap price! After watchin’ that human tornado in action, I calculate a finger ain’t nothin’ to bother about! Adios! If I ever come within a hundred miles of Bear Creek again it’ll be because I’ve gone plumb loco!

Well, Glory is annoyed with Breck for almost murdering her entire family bare-handed and scaring away a suitor (although she didn’t really want him). She tells him off. Breck heads for the horizon vowing to come back wearing store-bought shirts and riding a real horse instead of the jug-headed mule Alexander, just to show Glory what she’s rejected. Searching for such a steed is the way he first hears of Cap’n Kidd.

By now, comparisons of Breck with the legendary superhuman Texan Pecos Bill should be evident. Bill was raised by a pack of coyotes and used to howl at the moon with them. His girlfriend was Slewfoot Sue and his horse was a murderous outlaw named Widow Maker. He tamed a forty-foot rattlesnake and used it for a lariat. Compare that with Breck Elkins’s lasso.

I’d made it myself, especial, and used it to rope them bulls and also cougars and grizzlies which infests the Humbolts. It was made out of buffalo hide, ninety foot long and half again as thick and heavy as the average lariat, and the honda was a half-pound chunk of iron beat into shape with a sledge hammer.

It’s possible that the stories of Pecos Bill aren’t genuine, blown-in-the-glass Texas folklore. Edward O’Reilly wrote them for The Century Magazine in 1917. They were reprinted as The Saga of Pecos Bill in 1923. O’Reilly claimed they were part of an oral tradition created by cowboys during the westward expansion, but that’s doubtful. It’s probably as spurious as James MacPherson’s “Ossianic Cycle” which he claimed (lying his head off) were genuine ancient Irish epic poetry by Ossian himself. He didn’t do badly with his literary fraud. Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson were among those who admired it!

Nevertheless, Bill’s “Widow Maker” and Elkins’s “Cap’n Kidd” are alike in obvious ways. Wild Bill Donovan, “which name is heard with fear and tremblin’ from Powder River to the Rio Grande”, informs Breck that Cap’n Kidd is “a pinto, the biggest, meanest hoss in the world. When he comes into a country all other varmints takes to the tall timber.” He adds that “Cap’n Kidd was a big pirate long time ago. This here hoss is like him in lots of ways, particularly in regard to morals.” The huge paint stallion, also according to Donovan, is “so mean he ain’t never got him a herd of his own. He takes mares away from other stallions, and then drifts on alone just for pure cussedness.”

There’s a comparable equine fury in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel. Robert E. Howard was familiar with the novel and its companion, The White Company. In one of his letters he referred to the Lakota warrior Rain-In-The-Face, who came to Little Big Horn determined to cut out the heart of General George Custer’s brother Tom, (who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor twice) for tossing Rain-in-the-Face into the slammer. REH felt a certain sympathy with the grim red man. “Like Samkin Aylward, I warm to a man with a bitter drop in him,” he observed.

Samkin Aylward is one of the main characters in Doyle’s medieval novels, a roughneck archer. He becomes Nigel’s henchman after backing him (against dire odds) in a quarrel with the monks of Waverley Abbey. Nigel is borrowed from the historical Sir Nele Loring, a founder member of the Order of the Garter. The fictional Nigel, while brave, honorable, resourceful and chivalrous, is out of date even in the fourteenth century, brainwashed by his grandmother with tales of noble knight-errantry in a time that never really was. She’s also an arrogant grande dame with definite ideas about keeping commoners in their place. Like Breckinridge, Nigel isn’t the brightest light on the Christmas tree. Courage, a high spirit and battle prowess – yes. Hard common sense – not so much.

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This entry filed under Howard's Favorite Authors, Howard's Fiction.

The Dark Man, vol. 7 no. 1

After a few delays, the December 2012 issue of The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies is finally available to order. You can now order an e-version of the zine in addition to the hard copy version, as editor Mark Hall recently explained on the REH Inner Circle group:

Okay, TDM enters the 21st century today. If you want an edition that can be read on most e-Readers, you can now buy TDM Vol. 7, No. 1 (the new issue) at [this] link.

It is in the ePub format which a heck of a lot of devices can use (not the Kindle I am told, but others; you may need to download an app from Adobe).

The ePub edition sells for $4.50. The print copy will sell for $7.50 (and will probably be on sale the end of next week after the proof comes in and is reviewed).

Also, we are starting to put sold-out issues on line for free. The first one being made available is TDM Vol. 3, No. 2. You can download it from [here]

Contents of the new issue include:

  • Prefatory Remarks by Mark E. Hall
  • “The Writer’s Style: Sound and Syntax in Howard’s Sentences” by David C. Smith
  • “I and I Liberate Zimbabwe: Motifs of Africa and Freedom in Howard’s ‘The Grisly Horror’” by Patrick R. Burger
  • “Robert E. Howard and the Lone Scouts” by Rob Roehm
  • Plus severals reviews by Charles Hoffman and Charles Gramich.

UPDATE 02/08/2013: The print edition is now available.

Who said lightning never strikes twice? From the same source that gave us the three unknown pictures of REH the pirate comes this never-seen-before photo of Hester Jane Howard, with Patch, Bob Howard’s beloved dog.


Text on the back of the pic reads: “Mrs. I.M. Howard / Mother of Robert E / Author of Conan / novels, Cross Plains / Tex, with dog “Patch” / accross [sic] front grandad’s house / around 1923-24″

As synchronicity would have it, it is a perfect transition from my series of posts on Hester Jane to those on Isaac Howard, beginning in a day or two.

This entry filed under Hester Jane Ervin Howard.

1935 map

During the second week of January, my dad and I hit the road for South Texas. There were at least two reasons for this trip: 1) for some strange reason, I want to go to every place that Robert E. Howard mentions having gone to, and 2) Doctor Howard appears to have had a bit of a fascination with the lower Rio Grande Valley; perhaps there are buried documents in the region that could shed some light on the Howards’ movements. This second reason meant that we would have to stop at quite a few county seats, and we only had a week. We left early on Saturday morning and spent the night at a Best Western hotel in Las Cruces, New Mexico (a place Howard visited). After driving all day on Sunday, we got to do a little exploring before the sun went down. Our first stop was Eagle Pass, Texas (below).

2013 01-06 Eagle Pass 012

In his circa June 1928 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard says that he “didn’t see such a hell of a lot of Eagle Pass but I saw Piedras Negras,” which is the Mexican town just over the border. As much as I would have liked to see that town, my wife had instructed me before I left: “No going to Mexico!” Given what’s been going on south of the border, I heeded her advice. Eagle Pass is much the same as most border towns I’ve visited in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. From Eagle Pass we headed east to Carrizo Springs, the county seat of Dimmit County, and spent the night at a newly-built Best Western.

In the morning, we took a little jaunt south, to Catarina, which Howard said in the same letter mentioned above “is overrated all to hell.” In another letter, undated to unknown recipient, he says, “Four years ago the site of Catarina was a wilderness of greasewood and mesquite. Now it’s booming like hell—and may slump as quick.” As the photo below shows, Howard nailed that one; however, there is quite a bit of oil activity in the area and Catarina may rise again.

2013 01-07 003

From Catarina we backtracked north and spent some time going over documents in the Carrizo Springs courthouse. The 1910 U.S. Census has Doctor Howard’s sister, Willie Howard McClung, living in Dimmit County. We found no trace, but at our next stop, just a bit further north in Crystal City (county seat of Zavala Co.), we found the document that I reported on last time. After making our copies and checking out the area once owned by the McClungs, we continued east to Jourdanton, the county seat of Atascosa County, just south of Poteet.

In January 1910, Doctor Howard registered his credentials in Bexar County, the county north of Atascosa, and listed his address as Poteet. Registered in Bexar but living in Atascosa, perhaps there would be a trace of Doc Howard in the latter county. Nope. We found no trace, again, and we weren’t going to Bexar’s county seat, San Antonio. Why not? Allow me to explain.

After several years of visiting county seats in Texas, my dad and I have come up with something we call Roehm’s Axiom: The larger the county seat, the less helpful it will be. Last year, Hill County, Limestone County, Montague, Clay, Gaines were all extremely helpful, even if most had little or no useful information, but when we got to Wichita Falls, the red tape was up. Jourdanton is a ’tweener, small enough that they try to be helpful, but large enough that they are a tad too protective of their records. San Antonio would be a nightmare. So, after leaving the county seat, we went up and had a look at Poteet. The genealogy library was closed, so after lunch we headed south to George West (below).

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In his circa August 1931 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard lists a few places he’d gone to, including San Angelo, Sonora, Junction, and Kerrville:

I went on to San Antonio, seventy miles to the south, then continuing south to George West, about a hundred miles from San Antonio — turned east again there to Beeville, and back home by way of Goliad, Victoria, Gonzales, Austin and Brownwood. It wasn’t really much of a trip, as it extended only over about a thousand miles altogether and I was gone only a week.

So, we also went to George West, had a look at the old downtown, and then went east to Beeville (Bee County), where we spent the night at a Best Western. Also had some fine Scotch eggs at the local Irish pub. In the morning, we hit the courthouse. Nothing. Then we drove over to Goliad, county seat of Goliad, and found nothing in the county documents. Having previously visited the other towns on Howard’s list, from Goliad we went south to Rockport, a little beach community on the Gulf. In his circa October 1931 letter to Lovecraft, Howard says, “I remember a night I spent at Rockport, a little port not very far from Corpus Christi. I stayed in a big rambling hotel close to the water’s edge.” So we toured the old town and looked for “rambling” hotels.


In his circa December 1932 letter to Lovecraft, Howard mentions a couple of other places on the Gulf:

It’s too bad sea-food affects you so adversely, particularly since you live in sea-port town. I fear you would suffer on the Corpus Christi waterfront; what with the rotting fish and shrimp along the beach, the fishing boats full of finny things, and the shacks where bait is sold in large quantities, the odor has occasionally nauseated even me, and I am even less susceptible to such things than the average. A ship ought to be able to make that port in a thick fog with no port-lights showing, by simply following the smell! The smell along the wharfs of Galveston, Aransas and Rockport is none too sweet, but that of Corpus Christi surpasses them all put together.

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T.B. or not T.B.?

[This series of essays begins here]

The encounter between Dr. Howard and Hester Jane Ervin happened this way, at least according to Dark Valley Destiny:

After her father’s death, Hester Jane must have felt particularly uprooted. The Exeter property had become the home of Alice Wynne Ervin and her children. As the only Martin among them, she was something of an outsider. She turned again toward Texas and her people there, moving to Mineral Wells to help care for some members of her own family who were suffering from tuberculosis.

Mineral Wells, like the Lampasas of an earlier decade, was something of a spa, and its waters from nearby mineral springs were considered especially salubrious. There in Mineral Wells, she met Dr. Howard […] and she and the doctor were married in 1904, a few months before Hester reached the age of thirty-four.

Long and frequent dislocations, such as Hester Jane had experienced, do not make for happy wives or relaxed mothers. Thus, it must have been a strained and uncertain if beautiful bride whom Dr. I.M. Howard took to wife.

That account is based on two sources: first, Howard’s own “Wandering Years” essay, in which we read: “Returning to Texas, she met Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard, while living in Mineral Wells, in Palo Pinto County, and they were married in the early part of 1904,” and secondly, a 1964 letter from Wynne Ervin to Glenn Lord, in which he explains he was one of the relatives living with Hester Jane in Mineral Wells.

This account has remained unchallenged for nearly thirty years, and the more recent Howard biographies have all followed the de Camps’ version. As we are about to see, the only portion worth salvaging in the de Camps’ version is the paragraph they took from “The Wandering Years”…


On 03 January 1906, C. E. “Ted” Thomas died in Phoenix, AZ. He was aged 26 and the cause of his death was tuberculosis. “Ted” Thomas was a son of Christina Thomas, née Ervin (and sister of Hester Jane), and he had gone west in the hope of getting better, to no avail. The only reason he is mentioned in this article is because out of the dozens and dozens of Ervin ancestors I have tracked down in the course of my research, he is the only one who died from tuberculosis. Given the very nature and prevalence of the disease in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is of course probable that some other family members had contracted it, but never in a severe form. There is no mention whatsoever of tuberculosis in any of the records pertaining to these people. The reason for that is simple: questioned on the subject, Terry Baker, a direct descendant of GW Ervin and an Ervin family historian himself, is adamant: “Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, has never been part of the family that I know of.”

Still, we know that Hester was in “Mineral Wells to help care for some members of her own family who were suffering from tuberculosis.”

Or do we?

Hester Jane Ervin did spend several months in Mineral Wells with her half-brother Wynne Ervin. The latter wrote Glenn Lord about it in 1964: “I lived with [Hester] and another half sister about 8 months in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1902.” (The other half-sister was either Christina (who had recently separated from her husband), or Georgia Alice). But at no moment does Wynne Ervin mention tuberculosis, being sick or staying in Mineral Wells for treatment. He was simply staying there for a few months with his half-sisters. Wynne Ervin goes on: “[After Mineral Wells] I went to Texarkana in August of 1902 and then to St Louis, MO in December of that year and to Oklahoma City in 1904” (Wynne Ervin to Glenn Lord, 05 April 1964, unpublished). All too normal things for a Ervin child, after all…

It’s not difficult to understand who jumped at the conclusion that Wynne Ervin had tuberculosis. Since Wynne was in Mineral Wells, he must have been there for the hot baths and treatments. And since Hester Jane had tuberculosis, too, and that she stayed with Wynne for several months, it follows that Hester Jane was looking after him. And since that made two Ervins with tuberculosis, it evidently also followed that all Ervins perforce had tuberculosis. And, just like that, Lyon Sprague de Camp retroactively infected all the Ervins with tuberculosis, a disease not one of them had actually ever suffered from.

The de Camps very logically decided to contaminate Hester’s mother first, presumably so that she could spread the disease to her descendants (and “help” the readers digest the notion): “More probably it was tuberculosis that proved to be the curse of the Ervins. […] [Sarah Jane Martin] was not merely sick; she was plain worn out” (Dark Valley Destiny, p. 25). The truth is, the de Camps didn’t know if she was “plain worn out” or not, didn’t know if she had tuberculosis (had in fact nothing to show that any of the Ervins ever suffered from tuberculosis), didn’t know anything as to her health or state of mind. They didn’t know in what city and even what state she died; they didn’t know if she was sick. They had no way of knowing if her death was caused by her recent pregnancy. The only thing they had was a date of death from a Family Bible. They simply made up everything else, launching their epidemics of tuberculosis at the same time.

Hester Jane Howard’s tuberculosis – and subsequent death from complications of – is one of those givens to anyone studying Howard’s life. It is an evident truth, just like Howard spending most of his life in Cross Plains. But when we realize there was no tuberculosis at all in the Ervin family and that all the examples found in Dark Valley Destiny (and taken up by later biographers) are de campian fabrications, it becomes obvious that the “evidence” we have for Hester Jane’s tuberculosis will have to be re-examined. Certainly she exhibited many of the usual symptoms of the disease as she grew older. Howard, for instance, described the night sweats and the attacks of pleurisy, and of course her death certificate indicates tuberculosis as the cause of death. Still there were people who thought she was suffering from something else:

Mrs. Merryman nursed Mrs. Howard during the last weeks of her life. Here’s what she had to say about Hester’s condition. The interviewer is Jane Griffin, who worked with the de Camps:

Mrs. M: Yes, she was [a sickly woman.]

JWG: What was wrong with her?

Mrs. M: I never did know.

JWG: Said tuberculosis on her death certificate.

Mrs. M: I know she went to that – went to that tuberculosis hospital, but I never did believe…

The conversation gets interrupted here, but the meaning is clear: Mrs. Merryman didn’t think Hester Jane had tuberculosis. On Robert Howard’s 1930 medical file, on the form about his parents, we can read the following: “Mother / age: 54 / rheumatism, stomach trouble, no cancer or tb.” (Of course we now know that any such information coming from Hester Jane should be taken with a grain of salt.) In 1978, a doctor who had had access to Hester Jane’s 1935 medical file after her surgery wrote that he “would not be surprised if her death was a result of complications following her surgery and she eventually died of sepsis, rather than T.B. or cancer as is thought to be the case.” Which, if averred, would move Hester Jane’s tuberculosis from primary to contributory cause of death, at best.

As should be now evident, the question of when/if Hester Jane’s tuberculosis declared itself is something that definitely needs to be addressed again, without any de Campian interference, this time…


Following her stay at Mrs. McCarson in 1899, we find Hester Jane living in Abilene, TX, at the time of the 1900 census, sharing an apartment with her sister Christina and Christina’s daughter Lucile. Christina and John Oliver Cobb were now estranged (Cobb, still living in Oklahoma, indicated that he was a widower on that census). Hester spent the first eight months of 1902 with Wynne Ervin and either Christina or Georgia Alice in Mineral Wells. She would soon meet Isaac Mordecai Howard, though we don’t know anything about the exact moment and how they met. That biographical chapter of their life is one that remains to be researched and written.


The image of Hester Jane Ervin that emerges from this re-examination of her early years is one that doesn’t have a lot to do with the way she has usually been depicted. Gone is the “strained and uncertain bride,” the woman who had suffered from the various “dislocations,” who didn’t get along with her brothers and sisters. Gone is the Florence Nightingale-like image of a Hester Jane who, instead of trying to find a husband, sacrifices her time to alleviate the pains of her siblings afflicted from the same disease that would later claim her life. This Hester Jane Ervin never existed, save perhaps in the de Camps’ imagination.

The real Hester Jane Ervin grew in a world of affluence, surrounded by men of power. Her father was rather wealthy. Among her siblings and in-laws, she had newspapermen, rich merchants, a banker. She had never worked a single day in her life and spent her time alternating stays in her Exeter home and visits to relatives, most of the time in rather large towns. She got along with her family, was there for the great occasions but also when a sister needed her help. Her everyday life was not about taking care of sick relatives, though, but enjoying the company of refined and well-off people. She was a lover of drama and poetry. The first man she fell in love with was a newspaper publisher promised to a brilliant future. She also apparently made no mystery of the importance of money and social status to her eyes, and the life she led between 1890 and 1903 reflected that perfectly.

In 1902, as Hester Jane Ervin was spending time with her siblings in fashionable Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto County, Isaac Mordecai Howard arrived in Palo Pinto County, too, settling in Graford, population 19. He had spent some time in a tiny village in Oklahoma, with a favorite sister whose husband was serving five years in the penitentiary for stealing three mules. He had no money and no diploma.

He apparently had other qualities.


Special thanks to Barbara Barrett for her comments and suggestions.

The Man from Ferris

[This series of essays begins here]

In early 1915, Isaac M. Howard, his wife Hester Jane and their son Robert E. settled in the small town of Cross Cut, Brown County, TX. Annie Newton Davis, born 1891, was one of their neighbors there. She became a close friend of the family and especially of Dr. Howard. In 1978 she was interviewed by the de Camps in the course of their research for what would become Dark Valley Destiny and, more than two years later, by Richard Mason (21 January 1981 interview, now part of the “Southwest Collection” at Texas Tech, Lubbock, Texas).

Among the various interesting passages of the de Camp interview was this one:

But this thing, what I didn’t want to publicize, is that Mrs. Howard was in love with a  friend – had been – a young man. And she expected to marry him. But this dashing young doctor came along, and she hurriedly married him. Then the rest of her life, she lived in disappointment. […] Well, and then she was down in Goldthwaite part of the time. […] There was nothing to do after her disappointment. She had this child.

[ …]

[Hester] was… treated [Isaac Howard] fairly well, if the collections were coming in all right […] I have been with Dr. Howard and Mrs. Howard and I know they were desperately unhappy. […] Her being in love with someone else and then married this dashing, young doctor. And then after she married him, she wouldn’t divorce him, but she lived with him. She treated him fair, but he knew and they all knew that her heart was some place else. […] She didn’t mind letting you know that this other fellow […] became prosperous, and made more money than the doctor. And here she’s married to this poor country doctor […] and the other man was making lots of money and what a mistake she’d made. (Interview with Lyon and Catherine Sprague de Camp, 18 Oct 1978)

Asked about the man’s name, Mrs. Davis told the de Camps: “The only name I can recall is ‘Ezell’ (surname) [De Camp’s transcription] but I can not vouch for that.”

About the same story was repeated to Mason in 1981:

I think […] from his side of the story and some from hers that she […] was in love with a young fellow, a very promising young fellow, but then this young attractive doctor came along and she married him. She never got over that. Through all her life she was bitter because Dr. Howard didn’t make enough money. And as he said, Hester – he called her Hess – was much easier to get along with when the collections were good.”

But how could Hester Jane know that her former suitor was making more money than her husband? Was she still in touch with the man, years after she had married Isaac Howard? Mrs. Davis is clearly implying that such was the case, when she mentions Hester Jane’s visits to Goldthwaite.

A name, a social status, the fact that Hester Howard somehow kept in touch with her former suitor. As many elements that would go a long way to give serious credence to Mrs. Davis’ declarations, IF it were possible to find a man that would fit this exact description and particulars.

And while proving the case remains an impossibility for the simple reason that everything hinges on Mrs. Davis’ recollections, we nevertheless have a very, very strong candidate in the person of Mr. Frank Ezzell…

Hester Jane probably made contact with the Ezzell family in late 1891 or 1892. On December 8, 1891, her younger brother William Vinson married Ida Ezzell in Coke County. She was the daughter of Samuel R. Ezzell (1834-1910), a preacher and newspaper publisher. Relocating to Ferris, Ellis County, William V. launched his own career as a publisher, buying the local newspaper, the Ferris Sentinel, in 1893. He sold his share in 1898 to move to Big Spring, Howard County, where he began publication of the Big Spring Enterprise. He would remain a newspaperman until his death in 1927.

It was of course through her brother that Hester made the acquaintance of the other Ezzell siblings. One of them, Lesta Ezzell, had become Mrs. J. T. McCarson at the end of 1898. The sumptuous wedding was covered by the Ferris Wheel (ex–Sentinel) in detail, and William V. Ervin and his wife were among the guests, as could be expected. A few weeks later, on May 13, 1899, the Ferris Wheel ran the following: “Miss Hester Ervin of Exeter, MO, is the guest of Mrs. J.T. McCarson.”

1899-05-13 - Ferris Wheel - HJE

Hester Jane Ervin (who was thus still living in her father’s house in Exeter), had become acquainted with Lesta, and the two women apparently liked each other a lot: Hester Jane would remain a guest of the McCarsons for quite a number of weeks: “Miss Hester Ervin who has been visiting Mrs. J. T. McCarson, left for Abilene Thursday to visit her sister. She was accompanied to Dallas by Mrs. McCarson.” (The Ferris Wheel, 24 Jun 1899). This is very much the Hester Jane of the 1890s we are now used to seeing: an independent woman, spending her time between her father’s house in Missouri and visits to various relatives and friends.

1899-06-24 - Ferris Wheel - HJE

Mrs J. T. McCarson, aka Lesta Ezzell, would remain a close friend until Hester Howard’s death, though it is of course difficult to estimate the frequency with which the two women saw or wrote each other. By 1935 at the latest, the McCarsons had relocated to Brownwood, quite close to the Howards. When the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection was set up, among the books donated was Louis Paul’s The Pumpkin Coach (New York, The Literary Guild, 1935), inscribed as follows: “This little book is dedicated | in kind memory of our | deceased friend Robert E. | Howard. | Mr. & Mrs. J.T. McCarson | Brownwood, Texas.”

The man who was probably Hester’s suitor, Frank Ezzell, brother to Ida Ervin and Lesta McCarson, was born 30 April 1870. He was thus exactly the same age as Hester Jane. Probably wanting to walk in his father’s footsteps, he had decided to go for journalism, and had found work in 1893 as an employee of his brother-in-law, William Vinson, when the latter had bought the Ferris Sentinel. It was Frank Ezzell who, some time later, had had the idea to change the name of the newspaper to the Ferris Wheel, and it was he again who had bought the paper from William Vinson (see “The Story of Ferris”). No wonder then that Lesta’s wedding was covered so lavishly in the local paper: her own brother was editing and publishing it.

ferris ferris2

On the 1900 census, Frank Ezzell is found living at the house of his sister Lesta, in Ferris, in the very house Hester Jane had spent six weeks in the year before. It is of course tempting to think that this is where and when a romance could have developed.

Frank Ezzell would never marry and he would die in 1947.

He was everything Annie Newton Davis described him to be, except that he was not from Goldthwaite: young, ambitious, successful, an eligible bachelor. His name was indeed Ezzell, and thanks to the family connection, there were many occasions for Hester to meet the man, to cultivate a relationship and, later, after Hester had married Isaac Mordecai, as many occasions to receive news about him. If Hester Jane truly regretted marrying a “poor country doctor” and spent her life regretting her decision, it mustn’t have been pleasant to live with such a constant reminder. Frank Ezzell had disappeared from the surface of Hester Jane’s life only.

And it was while Hester Jane was spending some time in Mineral Wells, where she was looking after a relative suffering from tuberculosis, “the curse of the Ervins,” that Isaac Mordecai Howard entered her life.

Or so the story went.

[Next installment here]


Today is the 107th anniversary Howard’s birth. While there was no formal celebration in Cross Plains as in recent years, each fan remembers REH in his or her on way on this day — many read their favorite Howard story while enjoying an adult beverage. But no matter how you do it, the main thing is to remember the man and his writing.

Howard didn’t specifically mention his birthday too often in his letters, but in a letter to Argosy All-Story Weekly in the Spring 1929 (published in the July 20, 1929 issue) Howard writes a little about himself:

I was born in Texas about twenty-three years ago and have spent most of that time in various parts of my native State. My family has been prone to follow booms, and I have lived in oil boom towns, land boom towns, railroad boom towns, and have seen life in some of its crudest and most elemental forms.

I spent a great deal of my earlier childhood on a ranch, and in the way of occupation have done a great many things, such as riding the range, packing a surveyor’s rod, working on farms, and in law offices, writing up oil field news for various Texas and Oklahoma papers, and working in a drug store.

I have always had two main hobbies, boxing and reading, and as I grew out of boyhood the latter crystallized into a desire to write. Circumstances kept me out of the ring, which is probably a good thing for my health in general, but my desire to write materialized—to an extent anyway!

I have been selling stories since the age of eighteen and I am unusually proud and glad to have placed “Crowd Horror” with this magazine, for I have been a reader of Argosy for years—since before the combining of Argosy with All-Story. I suppose I have every Argosy I ever bought, for I have a stack of back numbers about four feet high.

Sincerely yours.

Robert E. Howard

Of course, on another biographical note, Patrice is in the middle of his trip down the road to Dark Valley, which will debunk the de Camp myth that REH lived there when he was a newborn. So while we all wait for Patrice’s next chapter, let’s take some time to remember Two-Gun Bob and wish him a Happy Birthday!

Art credit: REH Tribute by John Buscema