Of Truth and Suicide

[This series of essays begins here]

Before tackling the question of Hester Jane’s love life, we need to take a detour back to Denton County, and from there to Cooke and Callahan, since we are now in a position to clear up a very important element of the first post in this series, re: Hester Jane Howard’s exact knowledge of her family history. As seen in the previous installment, it was in Denton County that G.W. Ervin had been investing quite some money in real estate and mineral rights. Fifty years down the road, these mineral rights resurfaced, in an episode full of ghosts and of lies revealed, and that would end with a suicide.

On September 1st, 1927, Alice Wynne died in Exeter, MO, aged 79. She was buried with her husband G.W. Ervin in Maplewood Cemetery, Barry County.

A few weeks earlier, on July 11, 1927, a woman named Marilda C. Mitchell, appeared before F. M. Savage, Cooke County Commissioner. Marilda, widow of David Lynn Mitchell, was actually Marilda Caroline Ervin, the first child born of George W. and Sarah Jane Ervin’s union.

Born 1850 in Tishomingo, Marilda had followed her parents to Hill County, where she had married David Lynn Mitchell on 06 December 1868, in  the small town of Aquila. The couple appear in the 1870 census in Hill County, next to the Ervins, but they soon left Texas for Arkansas (perhaps accompanying the Ervins there if there is any truth to their short out-of-state jaunt), then Tennessee, and eventually back to Texas after a few years. Marilda’s husband died in 1898 in Cooke County, and she would remain in that area of Texas until her death.

Ten children had been born to G.W. and Sarah Jane Ervin. Three of those had died young. Then, in 1899, Robert T. Ervin, the promising banker from Galveston, succumbed from a heart attack aged 32. Christina C. followed in 1907 and Georgia Alice in 1915. In the summer of 1927, only four of the ten remained alive, though William Vinson Ervin had been in bad health for quite some time, and would die on 07 November. Christopher C. Ervin was alive and well, but he was far from the family, having lived in Oklahoma for many years. The last two daughters were Marilda Caroline and Hester Jane.

It is difficult to say whether Hester and Marilda had kept in touch over the years, or even if they were close. But in the summer of 1927, they obviously acted in unison. A few weeks after Marilda paid a visit to the Cooke County Commissioner, Hester Jane Howard did the same thing in Cross Plains, on August 11, 1927, three weeks before Alice’s death.

Paul V. Harrell, Notary Public – who would later be one of Mrs. Howard’s pall-bearers, and the man suspected to have destroyed Robert E. Howard’s will in 1936 at Dr. Howard’s insistence – thus consigned the following declaration to paper:

Before me the undersigned authority on this day personally appeared Mrs. Hester Ervin Howard, known to me to be a trustworthy person who on being by me duly sworn upon her oath, states:

That Affiant was the daughter of G.W. Ervin and wife Sarah J. Ervin, both of whom are deceased; that she is the wife of I.M. Howard, that G.W. Ervin and wife Sarah J. Ervin were married about the year 1849; that there were born to them seven children from said marriage who were living at the time of the death of Mrs. Sarah J. Ervin [the deceased were John P. Ervin, David D. Ervin and Lizzie Ervin]; and that two other children were born to them without having married and without issue [actually, all of them had married and all had had children]; that Mrs. Sarah J. Ervin died before her husband and that her husband married again and only five children were born of said marriage and that G.W. Ervin the father of the affiant is now deceased; that G.W. Ervin and Sarah J. Ervin died intestate and that there was no administration upon the estate of either of them and no necessity for any.

[Follows here the list of acquisitions]

That said land was not sold during the marriage of the parents of Affiant but was sold after the death of Affiant’s mother and after G.W. Ervin’s marriage to the second wife; that Affiant understands that all the mineral rights in said land were reserved in G.W. Ervin and were not conveyed by said deed; that said minerals have never been conveyed but are still the property of the heirs of G.W. Ervin and his wife Sarah J. Ervin; that Affiant claims a 1/14 interest in said minerals inherited from her mother and a 1/24 interest inherited her deceased father.

Mrs. Hester E. Howard.

Denton Co Documents-03

Marilda Ervin’s claim was of a similar one, though not as well documented. In other words, the two sisters had decided to go after the mineral rights of their deceased father. I let everyone draw their own conclusions as to Hester and Marilda’s intentions, actions and timing. Their attempts to regain some rights didn’t meet any success, or were not pursued.

Ervin, Marilda - ObitThe health of the aging Marilda was apparently not good. Less than two years later, in the spring of 1929, she was admitted at St. Paul’s sanitarium in Dallas, where she was treated for involutional melancholia. On 14 July 1929, on the occasion of a brief return to her home, Marilda Ervin slit her throat in her bathroom. She died in the ambulance on her way to St. Paul’s. She was Robert E. Howard’s aunt. Her obit mentioned all her children and grandchildren, but only one sibling: Hester Jane Howard (as “Mrs. Esther Howard of Cross Plains”).

The one question that needed a definite answer in the first essay in this series was the extent to which Hester Jane Howard was familiar with her own family history. Had she given wrong information to her son and husband simply out of ignorance? Given the numerous contacts between family members, Hester’s frequent visits to relatives, and now the very detailed account she gave to Paul Harrell, the answer makes little doubt: Hester Jane Howard knew her family history perfectly well. And in trying to appear younger than she really was in the eyes of her husband, and maintaining that lie after her son was born, she had unwittingly given the latter a warped image of his family history. Howard chose not to see or acknowledge seeing the obvious, and this in turn, must have led him to wonder what was being kept from him, and why.

Some others of Hester Jane’s siblings would play a very important role in the years that separated her from the day she would meet Isaac Mordecai Howard. And it was though one of them, her brother William Vinson, that she would meet the first man she would fall in love with.

[Next installment here]

This entry filed under Hester Jane Ervin Howard, Howard Biography.

Of Railroads and Men

[This series of essays begins here]

George W. Ervin, his wife Sarah Jane and their seven children arrived in Texas in 1866, settling either immediately or rapidly in Hill County, where their eighth child, Robert T. would be born on 30 January 1867. In the four years that would elapse before Hester Jane’s birth, in July 1870, G.W. Ervin would lose his father, Robert Ervin (05 June 1800 – 19 September 1869) and one son, John P. Ervin (29 Dec 1856 – 11 Oct 1868). Since Robert Ervin died in Hill County, there are strong chances that G.W. and his father were living under the same roof. Jane Ervin, his mother, would remain with her son until her death, on 10 August 1887. George W. Ervin’s eldest daughter Marilda (born 13 Nov or Dec 1850) married John P. Mitchell on 6 December 1868, in Hill County, too.

At the time of the 1870 census, G.W. Ervin’s household was as follows:

G. W. Ervin, (born 09 Nov 1830, Rowan County, NC, declared himself as a farmer); Sarah Jane Ervin, (supposedly born 09 May 1832, TN, but unverified); Jane Ervin (née Tennison, G.W.’s mother, born 15 May 1806, Rowan Co, NC).

And the children:

Christina C. Ervin (born 24 Dec 1852, Tishomingo Co, MS), Christopher C. Ervin (born 26 Apr 1855, Tishomingo Co, MS), William Vinson Ervin (born 12 Jan 1860, Tishomingo Co, MS), Georgia Alice Ervin (born 17 May 1862, Tishomingo Co, MS), David D. Ervin (born 09 Feb 1865, Tishomingo Co, MS), Robert T. Ervin (born 30 Jan 1867, Hill Co, TX).

To which should be added Hester Jane Ervin (born 11 Jul 1870, but not mentioned on the census because it only covered those born on or before June 1st), probably named after her grandmothers (Martha) Esther (Mason) and Jane (Tennyson).

The Ervins in Shady Grove.It is unclear when exactly the Ervins left Hill County. A 1872 document mentions them in Shady Grove, Arkansas, but it is difficult to say whether they were arriving, leaving, or just visiting. Howard has his grandfather operating a store in Fayetteville in the late 70s, so maybe G.W. Ervin did manage a store for a while there, (but earlier than what Howard thought). At any rate, the family wouldn’t stay out of Texas for very long.

In late 1873 at the very latest, but probably quite earlier than that, G.W. Ervin relocated to Dallas. No longer a farmer, no longer operating a store (if he ever did), George W. had become a businessman. Everything that would happen to him during the next twelve years of his life would be connected, not to whippoorwills, but to the Dallas & Wichita Railroad.

The Dallas & Wichita Railroad had been formed in 1871 with the object of building a commuter line from Dallas to Lewisville, Denton County, but the Panic of 1873 shut it down before any real construction was done. It was given new life in the months that followed when J.W. Calder of Nevada bought its debts, and a new board of eight directors was elected on January 5, 1874. Several prominent men were among them: Calder himself, of course, but also John Calvin McCoy, and former Dallas Mayor Henry S. Ervay. George W. Ervin was one of those eight men.

George W. Ervin would remain on the board for the next several years, but it was only indirectly that his position would prove beneficial to him, as was probably his intention from the beginning. He had been engaged for some time in real estate (he appears as “real estate agent” in a 1875 Dallas directory, and several maps of an area of Dallas connected with the future railroad are captioned as “Ervin’s addition to the City of Dallas,” with sometimes a “GW” added in front of the name to identify the man). More than a railroad man, G.W. Ervin was a real estate dealer. A few weeks later, in May 1874 at the latest, another important connection was made when fellow director Henry S. Ervay helped a man named Marcellus Pointer sell some real estate belonging to G.W. Ervin. Marcellus Pointer would also soon become involved with the Dallas & Wichita Railroad, until 1878 that is, when Calder was murdered. Marcellus Pointer was one of three men accused of the murder, but he was acquitted, (this affair evidently caused the D&W RR, already not in so brilliant shape, to go definitely under.) But it was not for that reason that Marcellus Pointer would play an important role in G.W. Ervin’s future life. It was because of his niece.

As G.W. Ervin’s affairs were gaining momentum, his wife Sarah Jane died on June 2nd 1874, “after a lingering illness” (Dallas Daily Herald obit, 03 Jun 1874). She had given birth to a tenth child on April 6 or 16, a girl named Lizzie who would survive her mother by only one day. Hester Jane Ervin, not even 4, had just lost her mother.

Alice Wynne (1871)

Alice Wynne (1871)

Less than a year later, on April 14, 1875, G.W. Ervin took Alice Wynne for his second wife. Alice Wynne had recently arrived in Dallas from Mississippi, and was the daughter of Joel Echols Wynne and Martha Ann Pointer, sister to Marcellus Pointer. G.W. Ervin’s private and professional life were becoming intricately laced.

Shortly after his marriage, G.W. Ervin decided to relocate in Lewisville, Denton County, where he would buy and sell land and lots over the next few years. He moved there in the second half of 1875, evidently capitalizing on the railroad company in the hope of making a fortune when the train would eventually make it to Lewisville, but he was also thinking beyond that, or rather below:

We had the pleasure of meeting in our office yesterday, Colonel G.W. Ervin, of Denton County. Colonel E. has an immense coal deposit on his lands, and of course awaits the advent of the Dallas and Wichita with great interest. (The Dallas Daily Herald, 22 May 1877)

The present indications are that there will be most enough in Denton County to fatten every hog in the state… G.W. Erwin writes to the Monitor from Lewisville, Denton County, as follows: “I am making good progress developing my mineral deposits, and the indications prove more favorable daily. Good miners and experts pronounced the indication for coal, lead and copper as fine as they ever saw. The surface shows iron, then comes slate, thin layers of cannel coal, which burns well, then lead, silver and copper. Oil indications are pronounced as good as in the famous Pennsylvania oil region, and our shaft is now 36 feet deep and progressing well. (The Galveston Daily News, 16 April 1878)

There is much talk here of the mineral resources of Col. Ervin, of the Lewisville hotel. It is believed that capitalists could come here and make millions out of them. (The Dallas Daily Herald, 18 August 1880)

The 1880 census does indeed indicate “keeps hotel” as GW’s profession, but this was evidently not his primary source of income, far from it. The ex-farmer from Mississippi was now making serious money.

The Ervin house in Lampasas

The stately Ervin house in Lampasas

By the time he relocated to Lampasas, sometime between late 1885 and 1887, Alice had given G.W. Ervin three new children: Coralie (1876), Jessie Florence (1880) and Annie (1882). Two more, the last ones, would be born soon: Winton (1886) and Lulu (1887). Of the children born of Sarah Jane, only William Vinson, Georgia Alice, Robert T. Ervin, and Hester Jane remained, raised by Alice, probably helped by G.W.’s mother. G.W. Ervin eventually moved to Exeter, Missouri, in 1890, where he would spend the last ten years of his life, dying there on 21 May 1900.

The Exeter house, with three Ervin daughters and an unknown male.

The Exeter house, with three Ervin daughters and an unknown male.

G.W. and Sarah Jane’s second child, Christina C. had married a Dr. Lou Thomas. The couple left Texas and moved to Indian Territory around 1884, settling near Fishertown, close to Muskogee. One of their first visitors there was her brother William Vinson Ervin, who wanted to become a physician (before he opted for journalism). G.W. Ervin very likely followed, though the newspaper entry inexplicably has him as “Dr. Phillips from Dallas,” though his identity is obvious. Dr. Lou Thomas died sometime between 1885 and 1891. On June 16, 1892, Christina married John Oliver Cobb, a prominent merchant of Muskogee, a wedding which was, according to the local newspaper, “somewhat a surprise to their friends, though it was not wholly unexpected.” The newlyweds spent some time traveling during their honeymoon, spending some time in Arkansas, and at the Ervins in Missouri.

Hester's autographIt was there that Hester Jane met Christina’s husband for the first time. Coralie, GW Ervin and Alice Wynne’s eldest daughter, kept an autograph book, and Christina and JO Cobb wrote a few words in it on 22 August 1892. On the same day, Hester Jane did the same, quoting Shakespeare: “Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Famous lines from Macbeth that Hester’s son would put to good use when he would write the Solomon Kane story “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” 37 years later.

In December, it was Hester’s turn to pay her sister a visit in Muskogee, where Christina had “been quite sick with la grippe.” Hester caught sick in turn and was stuck at her sister’s home for a few weeks at least. (For more on C.C. Ervin and Dr. Lou Thomas, see Rob Roehm’s “Ervins in Oklahoma“)

Years later, Howard would write: “My mother was not content in Missouri, and she spent much of her time in Texas, with various relatives. Incidentally, she spent most of the year of 1894 in Muskogee, in the old Indian Territory. An older sister had married a cowman who lived there, and my mother stayed with them.”

It is difficult to say whether Hester did stay a year at her sister’s, but Cobb, a wealthy merchant, was anything but a “cowman.” Howard also wrote: “My mother used to live in Oklahoma […] You can’t fool her about Indians. But she didn’t know any of these strong, silent, noble savages. Those she knew were dirty, thieving rascals who came around at night, stealing, burning, murdering. She saw terrible things when she was a girl. She saw white people tortured and murdered. She knew of young girls being kidnapped by Indians.”

Hester Jane seems to have been genuinely frightened by Indians, but if what we can reconstruct of her stay in Muskogee is any indication, she was much more a witness of courtroom battles than anything else: John Oliver Cobb went all the way to the Supreme Court to prove that his first wife was part-Cherokee (so he could himself become a Cherokee citizen by marriage, and hence set up a very profitable business in Indian Territory). The legal battle between him and the Cherokees lasted for years. In the meantime Cobb’s first wife had died and he had remarried with Christina, Hester Jane’s sister.

From left to right: Wynne Ervin, probably Sally Wynne, Lulu Ervin, Hester Jane, unknown, Coralie Ervin.

From left to right: Wynne Ervin, probably Sally Wynne, Lulu Ervin, Hester Jane Ervin, unknown, Coralie Ervin, ca 1894 or 1895.

Hester may have spent the full year 1894 with her sister, or she could have been alternating her stays in Missouri with visits to her siblings, which seems to sum up what she did from 1892 to 1903. She was obviously enjoying a life that must have been as pleasant as it was financially comfortable: her father was a rich man; Cobb was a rich merchant, William Vinson was becoming a successful journalist, her brother Robert T. Ervin was a promising banker who had married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men of Galveston…

And what was bound to happen probably happened during one of those visits. Hester Jane Ervin fell in love.

Not with Isaac Mordecai Howard.


With special thanks to my partner-in-Ervin-research Terry Baker, who supplied me with some information on the Dallas & Wichita Railroad and all the photos on this page.

[Next installment here]

This entry filed under Hester Jane Ervin Howard, Howard Biography.

A Question of Age

For Hester Jane Ervin, the road that led to Dark Valley (see Introduction to the series of articles here) began before her birth, in Hill County, TX, where her father, George W. Ervin, Robert E. Howard’s maternal grandfather, settled in 1866, at the end of the Secession War, leaving Tishomingo County, Mississippi, his home since 1839, 1841 or 1842, depending on the sources. The six feet one, gray-eyed “Colonel” Ervin (or Erwin) as he was nicknamed, had married Sarah Jane Martin (daughter of, probably, Thomas and Martha Esther [née Mason] Martin [both abt. 1798, SC – after 1865, TX]).

Robert and Jane Ervin, G.W.’s parents, had sold their land in Tishomingo in 1851, eventually settling in Texas in 1859, which may explain G.W. Ervin’s decision to move to the Lone Star State.

GW Ervin POWHoward had a profound admiration for his grandfather’s exploits, a Confederate veteran (and, briefly, P.O.W., see photo on the left), a man who “rode for four years with Bedford Forrest,” “was accounted the strongest man in his regiment and one of the strongest men in Forrest’s command. He could cleave a man from shoulder to waist with a single stroke of his saber,” [he] “loaned money, dealt some in cattle; he bought a sheep ranch, but, in the midst of a cattle country, with hired men running it, it was not a success. He wandered over into western New Mexico and worked a silver mine not far from the Arizona line” where “old chief Geronimo once stole a bunch of [his] horses.” We have no reason to doubt any of these anecdotes, probably handed down the family (and perhaps exaggerated in the (re)telling(s),) with the exception of the New Mexico epîsode which smacks of the spurious and is quite likely an invention, given G.W. Ervin’s chronology (detailed in the next installment). But for a man as interested in genealogy as he was, Howard’s inability to present the correct chronology of his grandfather’s days in Texas with any accuracy is more than surprising. To Howard Phillips Lovecraft, he thus gave this highly melodramatic – and entirely imaginary – account of George W. Ervin’s departure from Dallas, in a ca. December 1930 letter:

Colonel Ervin once owned a great deal of property in what is now a very prosperous section of Dallas, and might have grown with the town, but for the whippoorwills. They almost drove him crazy with their incessant calling, and though he was a kindly man with beasts and birds, and killed men with less remorse than he killed animals, in a fit of passion one night, he shot three whippoorwills; it was flying in the face of tradition and he quickly regretted it, but the damage was done. According to legend, you know, human life must pay for the blood of a whippoorwill, and soon the Colonel’s family began to die, at the average of one a year, exactly as the old black people prophesied. He stuck it out five years and then, with five of his big family dead, he gave it up.

His account in the semi-genealogical essay “The Wandering Years” (1933) is much more down-to-earth, but here again, there are several errors and almost nothing is correct in terms of chronology:

In 1866 [G.W. Ervin] came to Hill County, Texas. […. ] He was a planter, not a cattle man. […] He prospered on his broad rich lands. Children were born to him and his wife. There, in 1876, just three years after the last Comanche raid in Central Texas, my mother, Hester Jane Ervin, was born. But my grandfather, though he prospered, was restless, like most men of his time. He sold some of his land, gave the rest to settlers to build a town upon it. And with his family he moved on. He halted at Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the late ’70s, and opened a store. […] Colonel Ervin throve in his merchant adventure, but he did not stay there long. 1880 saw him back in Texas, on a farm in Denton County, which lies just north of Ft. Worth, and south of Red River. Thence he moved to Dallas. A boom town was on in Texas; cities were growing. The Colonel went into the real estate business, and was successful. But the low Trinity River land were unhealthful, and in 1884, he moved again, this time southwestward to Lampasas, in the cattle country.

The chronology of G.W. Ervin’s life in Texas as recounted by Howard is such a hopeless jumble that one can’t even begin to see how he could be so wrong, the more so with his mother living under the same roof as he. Unless she was the reason for this hopeless jumble…

George W. Ervin

George W. Ervin (unconfirmed)

The discovery that Hester Jane Ervin was a full six years older than her son believed her to be is one of most important elements unearthed by the de Camps in the course of their research for Dark Valley Destiny:

Mrs. Howard could not have been born in 1876 [as indicated in “The Wandering Years”] because by that time her mother had been dead for two years. Her husband must have consciously entered into the deception about her age, because Mrs. Howard’s death certificate, based on information supplied by Dr. Howard, records her birth date as July 11, 1874. Even this modification is incorrect. Hester Jane’s mother died of complications attendant upon the birth of her last child, Lizzie Ervin, on June 2, 1874. Mrs. Howard’s tombstone, however, carries the correct date, 1870. [pgs. 22-23]

Unfortunately, this was also the element they chose as a keystone to their biography:

This discrepancy in ages seems such a small, inconsequential thing that it is hardly worth mentioning except for Mrs. Howard’s attitude about it. Mrs. Howard was older than Dr. Howard, who was born in 1871. In those last months of her life, when she confided in this age difference to Miss Merryman, her nurse, Mrs. Howard’s admission was in the nature of a confession. Since in those days a wife was ideally five years younger than her husband, Mrs. Howard and her husband invented the polite fiction that led their son Robert wrongly to believe in this difference between his parents’ age. […]

It is important to note that this deception is but one of the many small fictions maintained by the family, which, taken together, gave young Robert a distorted view of reality. In this case it was a small distortion of little importance, easy to maintain because of Robert’s isolation from the Missouri branch of the family; but the effect of such untruths, if they are accepted as fact, is the same as that of a delusion. Given Mrs. Howard’s assumed birth date, the details of the family history did not add up. Robert’s only choice was that of a person bound to a delusional system: he adjusted the facts to square with his belief that his mother was five years younger than her husband. [pgs. 22-24]

While the de Camps’ discovery was a capital one, they blew it out of all proportions to back up their theory of a “delusional system,” clearly adjusting the “facts” to fit their preconceived ideas, even when there was no fact at all…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Man is greatly molded by his surroundings. I believe, for instance, that the gloominess in my own nature can be partly traced to the surroundings of a locality in which I spent part of my baby-hood. It was a long, narrow valley, lonesome and isolated, up in the Palo Pinto hill country. It was very sparsely settled and its name, Dark Valley, was highly descriptive. So high were the ridges, so thick and tall the oak trees that it was shadowy even in the daytime, and at night it was as dark as a pine forest – and nothing is darker in this world. The creatures of the night whispered and called to one another, faint night-winds murmured through the leaves and now and then among the slightly waving branches could be glimpsed the gleam of a distant star. Surely, the silence, the brooding loneliness, the shadowy mysticism of that lonesome valley entered in some part into my vague-forming nature. At the mouth of the valley stood a deserted and decaying cabin in which a cold-blooded and midnight murder had taken place; owls called weirdly about its ruins in the moonlight, and bats flitted about it in the twilight.

Howard was apparently sincere when he wrote the above in an October 1930 letter to HP Lovecraft. He expressed similar feelings in a poem titled “The Dweller in Dark Valley,” which concludes: “I go no more to Dark Valley which is the Gate of Hell.” In my “Hyborian Genesis” (in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Del Rey, 2003), I make the case that Conan’s gloomy homeland Cimmeria and Howard’s Dark Valley were closely linked in the author’s mind. In short, there is no denying the psychological importance of Dark Valley in Howard’s psyche.

This probably explains why Catherine and Lyon Sprague de Camp chose the place as the title for their much-maligned biography of Howard: Dark Valley Destiny. Born in so sinister and haunted a region, Howard’s life could only be tragic, its dark conclusion foretold from the very place where he was born. Here are the opening lines of the De Camp’s first chapter of Howard’s life:

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 ensure adequate medical facilities for her lying-in, as well as the services of Dr. J. A. Williams, the physician who attended Mrs. Howard on the birth of her only child. [p. 18]

Not being a Texan, and not even an American, I have long been in the habit of getting a map when discussing anything pertaining to Howard and his family, and his/their various moves/visits/etc. Which gives us this:

Peaster-Dark Valley

There is of course no question that Dark Valley was a very small community, and thus that it would have been wise on the part of Dr. Howard to find a larger place for his wife to give birth. But a mere look at the map above shows that Peaster makes absolutely no sense here. The de Camps probably sensed they were on shaky ground, timidly implying that Dr. Williams was perhaps a close colleague/friend of Dr. Howard, which he wasn’t: he was simply one of the physicians of Peaster. 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.

And since we know for a fact that Howard was born in Peaster, the only – startling – conclusion that suggests itself is that Dr. Howard didn’t bring his wife from Dark Valley to Peaster simply because the Howards didn’t live in Dark Valley in the first place…

Go to Part 1


As a child I crossed the South Plains, not in a covered wagon indeed, but in a buggy, in what was about the last big colonization movement in Texas—the settlement of the Great Plains. (I did go down the Nueces in a covered wagon.) I also saw the beginning of the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

After reading the above, from Howard’s newly rediscovered letter to Dime Sports, I got to wondering about a few things. The “South Plains” comment refers to Howard’s time in Gaines County—Seminole, to be precise—in 1908, but the other items are pretty vague. What else did Howard have to say about the Nueces River (pictured above)? The only other mention of the river comes from his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

But the old Texas is gone or is going fast. All the plains are fenced in, where in my childhood I’ve ridden for a hundred miles without seeing a foot of barbed wire. I can’t remember when I’ve heard a coyote. And one of my earliest memories is being lulled to sleep in a covered wagon camped on the Nueces River, by the howling of wolves.

When they built Crystal City twenty years ago in Zavalla county, some forty miles from the Mexican Border, the wolves came howling to the edge of the clearings. The woods were full of wildcats, panthers and javelinas, the lakes were full of fish and alligators. I was back there a couple of years ago and was slightly depressed at the signs of civilization which disfigured the whole country.

Looking at the map that heads this post, it’s pretty clear that anyone going “down the Nueces” would probably stop at Crystal City for supplies and/or human contact. So, if we can figure out when the Howards were in town, we can conclude when they went down the river.

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In an undated letter to an unknown recipient, Howard says of Crystal City (seen above) that it’s “a fair-sized town now and growing all the time. I lived there when the first store went up during its earliest boom.” No help with the date there, but in the letter to Clyde Smith that I recently tacked a “circa June 1928” date on, Howard says that he “was here twenty years ago when there was only one store in Crystal City—just beginning to build.” This comment would put his earliest trip to Crystal City in 1908, if I dated the letter correctly. Of course, he could easily be rounding the “twenty years ago” comment up or down. It’s fairly common for people to say “twenty years” when the actual number is nineteen or twenty-one. But there’s still another reference, this one from Howard’s circa August 1931 letter to Lovecraft:

I remember, very faintly, the fall of a meteorite in South Texas, many years ago. I was about four years old at the time, and was at the house of an uncle, in a little town about forty miles from the Mexican Border; a town which had recently sprung up like a mushroom from the wilderness and was still pretty tough. I remember waking suddenly and sitting up in bed, seeing everything bathed in a weird blue light, and hearing a terrific detonation. My uncle—an Indian—had enemies of desperate character, and in the excitement it was thought they had dynamited the house.

The description of the town here matches Howard’s description of Crystal City above, and his “about four” comment indicates that he was there in 1909 or 1910. We also know who that uncle was: William Oscar McClung, the husband of Doc Howard’s sister, Willie. In L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, he says that “Fanny McClung Adamson [Willie’s daughter] remembers that ‘Uncle Cue,’ as his nieces and nephews called Isaac Howard, was a frequent visitor to Crystal City.” However, in the interview transcript housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Adamson says, “The only time I ever met him [Doc Howard] and knew him, I was sick.” She then describes an episode of chicken pox she had while living at Crystal City with her parents, adding that “We must have moved there in 1908 and it was either 1909 or 1910 when [Doctor Howard] was there.” I’ll leave the frequency of his visits alone for now, but it seems pretty clear that the Howards were in Crystal City sometime in the 1909-10 range. Let’s see if we can narrow that down a bit.

According to Jane W. Griffin, Doctor Howard registered in Seminole on September 14, 1908 [UPDATE: According to a Bexar County document, Dr. Howard registered in Bronte, Coke County, on that date, not Gaines County], and had been practicing in the area since at least February of that year. His next appearance on paper is his signature on a January 19, 1909 birth record from Bronte, over in Coke County. He’s in Bronte until at least August 27, 1909, when he signs his last birth record for the county and drops off the record until January 1910, when he sent a change of address to the Journal of the Texas State Medical Association from Bronte to Poteet and  filed for record in Atascosa County, post office address Poteet. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Mrs. W. P. Searcy, November 7, 1936, Dr. Howard says, “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” Robert Howard turned four in January 1910. So, the question is: What were the Howards doing in the fall of 1909? I’m guessing they were going “down the Nueces” and visiting in Crystal City.

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Have another look at the map above. About 150 miles due north of Barksdale, off the map, is a little town in Coke County called Bronte. I speculate that when the Howards left there in the late summer or early fall of 1909, they traveled south and went down the Nueces River in a covered wagon to Crystal City. After visiting the McClungs in the fall of 1909, they continued following the river as it meandered east toward Corpus Christi. After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County, where de Camp says Doctor Howard registered on January 8, 1910. The doctor’s letter mentioned above says that the Howards spent “the spring months [of 1910] in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” After that, they appear to have traveled to Palo Pinto County, far to the north, where they were recorded on the U. S. Census, which was enumerated on May 16, 1910. Again, this is speculation; however, if this isn’t when the river trip occurred, there wasn’t much time left in 1910 for another. On December 20, 1910, the McClungs sold their land in Crystal City (below), practically an entire city block, and headed off to Arkansas.

1910 McClung

As described in the previous installment of this series, the fiercely independent and often predatory Cossacks were a thorn in the side of a good many rulers, from Poland to Russia to the Turkish Empire. Being fighters without equal, though, they were useful to have on one’s side in wartime. The trouble was getting them to accept any discipline but that of their own leaders.

When the Livonian War broke out in 1558, with Russia facing off against Poland-Lithuania and various other foes including Sweden, the Voivode of Kiev and the Major of Cherkasy both recruited Cossacks into their armies. Registered, official Cossack subjects of Poland-Lithuania were created for the first time in 1572 by King Sigismund II. They were the only Cossack military formations recognized by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Among the earliest reforms of Cossack units was that attempted by Stephen Bathory, King of Poland (closely related to the notoriously sadistic Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory). The Cossacks were waging war as they pleased against Moldavia, Wallachia and other provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Stephen Bathory had made an expedient treaty with the Ottoman Sultan, so he sent a representative to look into the Cossack raids and ordered all local officials to co-operate fully with him. A particularly wild Zaporizhian leader, Ivan Pidkova, had recently overthrown the Hospadar of Moldavia, a puppet of the Sultan’s.

The nickname Pidkova means “horseshoe”. It was said that he would ride his stallions until their horseshoes broke. The surviving portrait of him matches the legendary Cossack image, with a tough aggressive expression, scalp-lock and flowing moustaches. He was possibly the first hetman of Ukrainian Cossacks to have been elected by overwhelming vote of the entire Zaporizhian Sich. His territory was close to Moldavia, and he claimed to belong by blood to the Moldavian ruling family. Thus he assumed the right to buy into their family quarrels. He had chased the Hospadar of Moldavia from his throne and he resisted the Turkish reaction successfully – for a time. Turkish forces, with the help of their ally Stephen Bathory, defeated him and took him captive at last. He was beheaded in Lviv, where a memorial to him exists today, featuring his fierce bust and a horse-shoe below it.

Yes, REH could have written a story about Ivan.

The Don Cossack community had arisen at least as early as the Zaporizhians, on the vast steppes around the lower reaches of the river. They too originated among outlaws and runaway serfs. Cossacks of Ryazan were defending Russia against the Golden Horde as early as the mid-fifteenth century.

REH’s poem “A Song of the Don Cossacks” might be referring to those very events.

Gray light glances
Along our lances –
Both of us sons of our Volga mother.
Kites shall feast when ranks burst asunder
And the roar of the red tide hurls us under.
When the white steel glints and the red blood spurts –
Death in the camps and death in the yurts.
When the crimson shadows of twilight fall
We shall be feasts for the white jackal.
Wolf-lover, wolf-brother,
We be sons of the self-same mother,
Though between us flows a red-stained tide.
Horse and man,
Ride we far,
You for the Khan,
I for the Czar,
Wolf-lover, Tartar-brother, ride!

In Ivan the Terrible’s reign, the legendary Don Cossack warrior Yermak Timofeyevich headed an expedition to conquer Siberia. Historians are divided as to whether Yermak led his Cossacks eastward as a hireling of the great merchant family, the Stroganovs, or whether it was his own idea and they grabbed credit in Russia afterwards. Still, he set out in 1582 with about eight hundred and fifty men. Their journey was epic. They navigated down rivers in high-sided boats, crossed the Ural Mountains on foot, then took the capital of the Sibir Khanate without losing a man of their own forces. Yermak gained the allegiance of the Ostyak tribe and subdued others through 1584, though his army had been reduced to 300 men by that time. His achievements ended when he was drowned in his armor during an ambush, attempting to gain supplies to feed his starving men. He hadn’t completed the conquest of Siberia, but he had removed the last great obstacle and made an impressive beginning.

Another famous Cossack leader was Bohdan Khmelnitsky. When he inherited his father’s estates, the Polish king confirmed his rights to them and everything should have gone smoothly. However, a bunch of lawless magnates forced him out, seizing his lands. The Polish king found it expedient to ignore their actions, for all Khmelnitsky’s protests.

Bohdan raised a revolt among the Cossack regiments and the Zaporizhians, in 1647. The rebels demanded that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth restore the Cossacks’ ancient rights and curtail the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine. Khmelnitsky met an army under Stefan Potocki in May, 1648, and handed the Poles a crushing defeat, swiftly followed by another Cossack victory at Korsun. He persuaded many “registered” Cossacks to switch sides, and even turned the Crimean Khanate into an ally. At Christmas, 1648, he entered Kiev in triumph.

Lack of international support and his own failing health brought Khmelnitsky down in the end. In mid-1656 a cerebral hemorrhage left him paralyzed. Only days afterwards he died. His revolt was the subject of one of Poland’s most popular novels ever – With Fire and Sword, by Sienkiwicz (1884). It was published in English translation in Boston in 1904.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction, Howard's Poetry.

Shortly after Howard’s death, Dr. Howard had himself appointed Temporary Administrator of his son’s estate since Howard allegedly died intestate (without a will); much as been written about a missing will. Howard biographers L. Sprague de Camp and Mark Finn have addressed the issue, along with other Howard scholars. In a nutshell, it appears Howard left a typewritten will leaving everything to his friend Lindsey Tyson. While going though his late son’s papers, Dr Howard found the will and destroyed it.

One of the duties of an Administrator of a deceased person’s estate is to file with the court a document that lists that person’s assets. Dr. Howard did that on June 16, 1936 when he petitioned the probate court in Callahan County to be appointed Temporary Administrator. That document appears on this page. (Hat tip to Rusty Burke for the document scans.)

As shown below, the bulk of Howard’s estate was cash and savings. What caught my eye was most of his money was in the Post Office in Brownwood. This was news to me since I didn’t know the Post Office was in the banking business; so I did a little research.

Back in Howard’s day, banks were suspect  for a safe place to put your hard earned money – the Great Depression saw to that, with some 9,000 banks nationwide going under during the 1930s.

Unlike banks at the time, the United States Postal Savings System (“USPSS”) was federally insured. The USPSS was administered by the US Post Office Department, which is known today as the USPS (United States Postal Service). The savings program started in 1911 and ended in 1967. It was originally founded to encourage immigrants to get the cash out of their mattresses and into a banking institution. Participants were allowed to keep up to $2,500 with the USPSS. The depositors were told their money was backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.”

However, beginning in January of 1934, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) provided insurance to private banks. Initially, deposits were insured up to $2,500; over the years that has increased to $250,000. Obviously the creation to FDIC was a blow the Postal Savings System since it made banks as safe as the USPSS. But folks still used it – perhaps having more faith in a 159 year-old institution in lieu of some newfangled government insurance program.

The USPSS issued certificates in a number of denominations, depending on the amounts deposited. The Postal Savings System paid 2 percent interest per year on deposits. There is a nice little write-up on the USPSS here if you’d like to read more about the program.

Since the Cross Plains Post Office was too small for the USPSS, Howard used the one in Brownwood. It is also interesting to note he kept cash in Brownwood’s First National Bank instead of a bank in Cross Plains. Perhaps he did not want some gossipy bank teller telling anyone his business. I imagine he kept some cash on hand for walking around money and minor emergencies, such as car repairs.

One more item of interest: starting in 1921, participants in the USPSS were fingerprinted. This was done for identification and to aid with detecting any fraudulent activity. So, while his fingerprint card was likely destroyed decades ago, at one point in his life Howard was fingerprinted!

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On the way home and I thought I’d put up one more “on the road” post. Robert E. Howard doesn’t have much to say about Rio Grande City and Roma, both in Starr County, but he did go there. Of Rio Grande City, he told Tevis Clyde Smith that the “Architecture and everything is Mexican. It’s just like being in Old Mexico” (REH to TCS, circa February 1932). Here’s a shot of the old downtown:

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And here’s an old building in Roma:

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I’ll digest the meager information we found and get a wrap-up post up next week.

This entry filed under Howard's Texas, Howard's Travels.


Well, the APRS didn’t pick us up while we were cruising around Corpus Christi and most of the way down south, but as soon as we hit Edinburg, the hits started flying. We ended up in Rio Grande City, and looks like we;ll be going dark again as we head north.

One of the nicer stops down here was Weslaco. I’ll close with a picture from the 1920s and one of my shots from yesterday.

1920s Weslaco

2013 Weslaco

This entry filed under Howard's Texas, Howard's Travels.

The men were a strange picturesque band – tall and lean, most of them, as men become who spend their lives in the saddle. Indeed, they seemed not entirely at home on the water. They were burnt dark by the sun; beardless, their moustaches drooped below their chins; their heads were shaven except for a long scalp-lock on the ridge of the skull … there was something of the eagle about them all – something wild and untamable, from the fundamental tie-ribs of life.

Robert E. Howard, “The Road of the Eagles”


If there’s a person who does not find the word stirring and evocative, he (or she) is unlikely to be a Howard fan. Outlaw horsemen of a fierce, independent nature, with their own rules and communities, they thumbed their noses at Tsar and Sultan alike. Their notable leaders included the dashing Lithuanian princeling Dimitri Vishnevetsky, the roaring rebel Bogdan Khmelnitsky, and the explorer and conqueror of Siberia, Yermak Timofeyevich. Harold Lamb treated Cossacks in fiction to good effect. His stories influenced Robert E. Howard.

The mighty Conan, at one stage in his career, led Cossacks in the prehistoric Hyborian world. They were called kozaki by the Turanians there, (a word almost identical to the Polish kazaki.) These wild outlaws sprang from the same sources and situations as the Cossacks of our known history.

On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and the borders of the easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past half-century, formed originally of fleeing criminals, broken men, escaped slaves, and deserting soldiers. They were men of many crimes and countries, some born on the steppes, some fleeing from the kingdoms in the West. They were called kozak, which means wastrel.

Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron”

In our world it meant something like “free men”. These Hyborian kozaki are a thorn in the side of the Turanian monarch, as the sixteenth-century Cossacks were a plague to the Ottomans. They are, in the words of the harassed Turanian satrap in “The Devil in Iron”, robbers of the steppes, with their main territory around the “Zaporoska” River. REH took the name from the sixteenth-century Cossacks of the Zaporizhian Sech, on the lower Dneiper in the Ukraine, a no-man’s land between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The other main Cossack community of the time was that of the Don Cossacks. They also roamed in disputed, lawless territory, in their case between the Russian state and the Tartar tribes. Many were part Tartar themselves.

They first emerged in the fourteenth to fifteenth century, a melding of runaway serfs, disgruntled soldiers, fugitive criminals and other riff-raff. They formed an organized, disciplined community, as unlikely as that sounds from the raw material. As REH describes it in “The Road of the Eagles”:

It was the only real democracy that ever existed on earth; a democracy where there was no class distinction save that of personal prowess and courage. To the Saporoska Sjetsch came men of all lands and races, leaving their pasts behind, to merge into the new race that was there being evolved. They took new names, entered into new lives.

They lived by fishing, hunting and herding when they were not raiding, but they eschewed farming. Too many of them had been serfs originally, bound to the land. Sowing and tending crops, then reaping them, forced folk to stay in one place and made them vulnerable to the exactions of tyrants. The Cossacks had been there and done that.

Their horsemanship was astounding. They regarded their horses as companions in battle, not mere animals, and they trained themselves as exactingly as their steeds. They practiced an art called jighitova, or stunt riding, which was a fighting technique as well as equestrian art. Leaning far out of the saddle and shooting – accurately – under his horse’s belly at full gallop was a simple performance to a Cossack. Vaulting into the saddle, riding full-out while standing on the horse’s back, or vaulting over the horse and snatching objects from the ground before vaulting back, were also considered basic. They required great strength, which Cossack boys developed by holding heavy stones between their knees for hours.

A favorite Cossack trick to play on the enemy was lurching backwards as though shot, with the “dead” man’s feet apparently stuck in his stirrups. When enemies pursued the “dead” man on his “runaway” horse, they would unexpectedly find themselves shot by the “corpse” or having their heads cut from their shoulders. A trick that even Cossacks viewed as somewhat difficult and dangerous was diving under a racing horses’ belly and coming up into the saddle on the other side. However, they performed that one as well – and no doubt broke their necks sometimes.

The stamina of men and horses alike was amazing. They could cover seventy or eighty miles in a day with ease, more at need. On campaign they raided swiftly, hitting and disappearing like Mongols or Comanches. Don Cossacks were not the least of the troubles faced by Napoleon’s army as it invaded Russia. He supposedly said that if he had Cossacks in his Grand Army he could conquer China as well as Europe.

Don and Zaporizhian Cossacks were the earliest Cossack communities. Others developed later, in other regions – Volga Cossacks, Terek Cossacks, Siberians and Kubans. (But that’s for next post.) The Zaporizhians were associated with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – at the time an immense state which rivaled Russia. The notion of recruiting Cossack bands for border service was first officially promoted at the State Council of Lithuania (then a Grand Duchy) in 1524. The idea was shelved due to lack of funds for carrying it out. At a later council (1533) it was raised again by the Major of Cherkasy, who argued forcibly that forts along the Dneiper in the Ukraine, with two thousand soldiers and several hundred cavalrymen at least, were necessary to check Tartar raids. Again, nothing came of it, though the proposal was sound and the measure necessary.

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