My long-overdue pilgrimage to Ground Zero of Sword-and-Sorcery Fantasy Fiction
Image 1 – Robert E. Howard circa 1934
While in junior high (middle) school in 1967, I first saw paperback books of some fantasy hero named Conan, by one Robert E. Howard (REH), with cover illustrations by Frank Frazetta. The example below is from REH’s novella The Scarlet Citadel.
Image 2 – Frank Frazetta Conan Cover Artwork
Reading a few of the Conan books that were available at the time, the first including The Scarlet Citadel with the ‘grabber’ cover as seen in Image 2, I was astonished at the content – extreme bloody violence, with ‘spicy’ scenes interspersed throughout. But these weren’t just lurid words haphazardly thrown together to titillate – there were actual plots and the writing and character development were superb. I had never before seen anything like this sword-and-sorcery, aka blood-and-thunder, aka heroic fantasy (used mostly herein) genre before and of course wanted to read more. What teenaged boy wouldn’t? But that would have to wait for some time.
Beginning in 1975, when I graduated college, I began seriously reading REH’s works, along with those of H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Robeson, and other of the ‘pulp’ authors of the 1930’s. I was interested, and not a little surprised, to learn that author Robert Ervin Howard was also a Texan, and had held court in Cross Plains, a small town in west central Texas, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He was also a fellow history buff and had once possessed about 300 reference books on world histories.
I’ve lived in Texas since 1960 and have come to appreciate the 500+ years of Texas history that are documented. Historical events like the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and historical places like the Alamo have always fascinated me and I have visited the locations of these and other events and places of historical interest up close and personal whenever possible. I’m also a sucker for roadside historical markers, of which Texas has an enormous number. So REH’s stock went up a great deal when I discovered that many of his works such as Shadow of the Vulture were also historically accurate. I simply had to know more about this man.
Twenty years before the Internet, one had to buy printed media to learn about REH and the book I found most informative was The Last Celt by Glenn Lord, who was also executor of the REH estate in the 1970’s. I found the book fascinating, especially the images of REH taken at the family home in Cross Plains. There was also a photo of the Howards’ home itself, dated 1969, and it was evident that it had been severely neglected for quite some time. Image 3 is a photo of the rear view (south side) of the former Howard home, probably taken at least 50 years ago. The room seen in the center is the sleeping porch, used by both Robert and his father, Isaac, during warm weather. Robert’s own room was to the right of the sleeping porch, largely obscured by the overgrown foliage at the corner on the east side. The neglect of house and property is quite evident, but the house had never been vacant for extended periods between 1940 and 1973. We can thank a series of irresponsible owners for all that.
My father came from a small town (Mineola) in northeast Texas, far removed from Cross Plains, and I marveled that such a talented and prolific author as REH could thrive in such an environment, as living conditions in Mineola were still somewhat primitive in the early 1960’s. In Depression-era rural Texas, libraries were few and far between, and I was amazed that REH could produce such varied, detailed, and engrossing works of heroic fantasy, humor, horror, boxing, and historically accurate fiction. How could he possibly have done all this, in such an isolated rural setting, during the Great Depression, and by age 30 at that? I would have to see for myself.
Image 3 – The Former Howard Home in Cross Plains, Looking NNE. Date Unknown
But, as too often happens, life gets in the way of life, and I never did visit Cross Plains as I had always meant to do. I have passed close by it at least a hundred times while traveling on I-20, but somehow I never took that short detour south.
As the years passed, I read REH’s works less and less frequently. I have never come close to reading everything that he had ever written, not even his Conan stories. Circa 2005, I read an expose in the Houston Chronicle about the old Howard home, stating that it had been restored, refurbished, and converted into the Robert E. Howard Museum. Accompanying the article was a photograph of Robert’s room, now recreated as it may have been at the time of his death, including an Underwood No. 5 typewriter, which was his weapon of choice when banging out as many as 30,000 words in a day. Sadly, it was said that this was not his own typewriter but merely one of the same make and model as he had used. Other furnishings and artifacts within the house/museum were said to be of the same period in the 1930’s, but most had never belonged to the Howard family.
Then the trail ran cold. Years went by with scarcely another thought about REH, until I began contributing to Neatorama. Looking for variety and untapped subject matter, I sought to post links to some of REH’s works that could be found online, as no one else ever does this kind of thing on that website. When I searched for usable links, I did find them, to be sure, but also found information concerning Project Pride, the Robert E. Howard Foundation, and the museum in Cross Plains. This was all taken as a Sign, so I added it to my bucket list and made plans to (finally!) go to Cross Plains in October 2019, this date being, as fate would have it, the centennial of the Howard family’s occupation of the house-now-turned-museum. Another Sign.
Who was Robert E. Howard?
In a nutshell, Robert E. Howard was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the ‘pulp’ magazine writers/authors of the 1920’s and 1930’s. ‘Pulp’ magazines were so-called because they were printed on cheap pulp paper, paper that was not intended to last for any length of time. That, plus wartime paper drives of the 1940’s, are the main reasons why original Weird Tales and other of the famous pulp magazines such as Doc Savage Magazine are today so rare and valuable.
Robert created far more characters, and more diverse characters, in multiple genres, than any of the other pulp writers, and his most famous character creation is Conan the Cimmerian, or, for the pop culturists among us, Conan the Barbarian.
Image 4 - A typical newsstand of the 1930’s, chock-full of pulp magazines and other period magazines on display. Hundreds of magazines of all sorts saw print during this pre-television era. Visible are some of the titles for which REH wrote, including Weird Tales and Top-Notch. Virtually all of the pulp magazines, and many others seen here, are extinct today. Popular Mechanics is a notable survivor.
If the only Conan stories you have ever read are those involving second-rate REH wannabees such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, or Marvel Comics, Heaven help you, then you’re probably in for a shock. No one did heroic fantasy like REH. No one. See for yourself.
Image 5 - The Last of REH’s Conan Stories That Saw Print in His Lifetime
Cover Art by Margaret Brundage
This article is not intended to be a biography of Robert E. Howard. It is more of a travelogue with relevant information about the Howard family. Links for several biographies are found in the ‘SELECT RESOURCES’ section at the end. Suffice to say that REH was a true visionary, blessed with a peerless imagination and great natural writing and poetical talent and abilities, but cursed with a dysfunctional family, the particulars of which, combined with the poor economic circumstances prevalent during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and an assortment of personal issues and personal tragedies, drove him to commit suicide at just shy of 30-1/2 years of age.
Robert was unlike anyone else in Cross Plains. He didn’t ‘work’ for a living as the townsfolk thought he should, was antisocial, and possessed of unusual mannerisms and eccentric behavior that made many people wary. Some avoided him altogether, although those who did not have described him as a pleasant enough fellow. As he once wrote to a fellow author, “People around here think I’m crazy as hell”. Yet, fifty years after his death, Cross Plains finally embraced her wayward son and no parent could be prouder. Project Pride, a Cross Plains social organization dedicated to promoting the town and its noteworthy history, created Howard Days in celebration and honor of their favorite son. From the first, small group of enthusiasts in 1986, the annual Howard Days gathering each June on the weekend closest to the 11th, sponsored by Project Pride, the Robert E. Howard Foundation, and the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, has grown to attract people from all over the USA and the world. As it turns out, REH has quite the following in France today.
Robert’s father, Isaac, was an old-time country doctor who thrived in rural and small-town settings. He bounced his wife, Hester, and Robert all over Texas (Robert was born in Peaster, Texas, near Fort Worth, in January 1906) before coming to settle in Cross Plains, where the Howards moved into the house-now-turned-museum in October 1919. Hester, who suffered from tuberculosis, was ill for most of her adult life and Robert was very close to her, being an only child. As shall be seen, this relationship did not end well for either of them, or for Isaac.
Cross Plains today is a typical small Texas town, population of around 1000, located 325 miles NW of Houston and 130 miles WSW of Fort Worth. It lies close to I-20, on its south side, as can be seen on the following map in Image 6.
Image 6 – Google Map of Central Texas with Cross Plains/REH Museum Indicated
During the oil booms of the Roaring Twenties, population in Cross Plains often exceeded 10,000, but during the dark days of the Threadbare Thirties, population dwindled to around 1700, still significantly higher than what it is today.
Image 7 - Cross Plains Welcome Sign ©WTM
Here at last! There can be no doubt as to the identity of the town’s favorite son. This sign is alongside Hwy. 36, on the east side of Cross Plains.
Image 8 – REH Museum, General View, Looking SSE Across Hwy. 36 ©WTM
Here at last II! All roads in this area were unpaved in 1936. Originally, the Howard home was not so isolated, but all of the other homes on the block were demolished.
Image 9 – Typical Abandoned House in Central Texas ©WTM
This fine specimen is located in Aspermont, Texas, a small rural town about 110 miles NW of Cross Plains. Sadly, houses such as this one have become a common sight in many other small rural towns all over Texas and the South; people move away for one reason or another, or simply die, and the house then cannot find a buyer, ending up abandoned and in extreme disrepair. This is what happened to the other houses that would have once been visible in Images 8 and 10, including the Howards’, as seen in Image 3. Project Pride eventually bought the entire block, houses and all, and demolished all of the derelict houses, as seen in Image 10.
Image 10 – Google Satellite View of the REH Museum Property. North is at top.
The structure to the lower right of the museum is a pavilion built by Project Pride, to be used for Howard Days and other REH-related functions. The ‘T’ shape of the original Howard house is evident in this image, its roof being defined by the dark grey area. The house was initially a one-bedroom house, constructed with plans (or maybe a kit) obtained through a magazine circa 1910, and the Howards bought it from the original owner in 1919. At the time of his suicide in 1936, Robert’s car was parallel parked in the approximate location just north of the topmost car seen at left.
South of the REH Museum property there is today a large vacant area. In the 1930’s, there were several other homes located on this now-vacant plot, as seen at Image 19. Note: The ‘bowtie’ seen in this image is a product of Google Satellite View.
The Howards’ neighbors to the east, the Butlers, frequently complained about the noise Robert made when he bellowed his stories out loud while typing them. Since Robert’s room was due west of the Butlers’ house, his room’s windows (and those of the Butlers) were open for at least 7-8 months of the year due to the Texas heat, and he often worked long into the night, the Butlers’ complaints were probably valid. In 1994, a tornado struck Cross Plains, which is well within Tornado Alley, destroying the Butler house and damaging others in the immediate vicinity. The REH Museum roof was deshingled. Note: Since then, the REH Museum has narrowly escaped damage from other tornadoes and the terrible grass fires of 2005-2006.
Image 11 –Plan View of the Howard House and Property in June 1936
Redrawn by Bill Cavalier from the original by Catherine de Camp
1) South is at top, instead of the usual North-at-top.
2) The Butlers were the neighbors directly to the east of the Howards.
3) ‘Merriman’ is actually spelled ‘Merryman’. Refer to Gravesite 7 at the end.
4) The west side fence was not a picket fence and was probably not as long as indicated. See Images 17 - 19.
5) The south side of the property also had a picket fence. See Image 22.
6) The dog Patch(es) was allegedly buried about due east of the sleeping porch, some distance north of where indicated here. See Images 22 - 24.
Image 12 – REH Museum, North Side, Looking South ©WTM
The north side of the Howards’ house was the side best photographed in their time. All structure seen here looks much as it did when the Howards lived here, although today the landscaping is vastly different. Refer to Image 20. One notable difference is the lack of a visible picket fence, which has been moved further to the north than had been the original and is thus out of sight here. The plaque stating ‘DOCTOR HOWARD RESIDENCE’ is a facsimile of the original as seen in Image 20. The double windows to the right are those of the living room; the single window at left is that of Hester’s bedroom.
The Howards’ porch originally had no handrail, this being added for the safety and convenience of elderly museum visitors. Comparing this image to Image 20 more closely, one also finds that the front door of today, which is not the original door, seems to have been moved to the right of its original location, replacing what appears to have been a window. And, of course, the National Register of Historic Places plaque visible at left is a most recent addition.
Image 13 – National Register of Historic Places Plaque ©WTM
You won’t find one of these at any of L. Sprague de Camp’s former homes.
Image 14 - REH Museum, East Side, Looking West ©WTM
The east side view looks much different than it did when the Howards lived here. There was no A/C condenser or electrical conduit visible then, and everything seen behind and to the left of the bush did not exist. The double window on the right marks Hester’s bedroom, and the first window to the left of that double window marks Robert’s bedroom. All remaining windows mark the bedroom that was added on later to replace the sleeping porch. Today this room is the museum’s gift shop.
As per Images 11 and 22, there was once a picket fence along the full east side of the property. Today this east side fence extends only a short distance south from the front fence before terminating. The chimney seen, which once serviced a fireplace in what became Hester’s bedroom, is a dummy, the fireplace having been obviated by central heat installed by Isaac as part of his extensive post-purchase modifications.
Image 15 - REH Museum, South Side, Looking North ©WTM
I had intended to match this photograph as closely as possible to Image 3, but as much as this side of the house has changed, there was really no point in doing so. The sleeping porch and its back door are gone, and the new bedroom added on in 1973 by a subsequent owner has obscured Robert’s room. The back door, small covered porch, and sidewalk seen are also new. Of historical interest is the triple window seen on the new bedroom outside wall. Originally, this triple window was installed in the outside (south) wall of Robert’s bedroom and was moved from that location to this one during renovation. A new triple window was installed in Robert’s bedroom, but since it is no longer an outside window, pastoral decals were installed for privacy, as seen in Image 26. See item 4 for Image 11. The single window at left is the sole window of the sole bathroom in the museum.
What appears to be a rock garden in the right foreground is actually decorative cover over the Howards’ former root cellar. An archaeological dig in this root cellar was recently conducted in hopes of discovering some unknown Howard family artifacts, but, as is the case practically everywhere else on the premises insofar as the Howards’ original property is concerned, subsequent owners (there have been at least three) have dashed that hope too. Such little as was found in the root cellar and deemed to have once belonged to the Howards is now on display within the museum. There was nothing found that was particularly revelatory.
Image 16 - REH Museum, West Side, Looking East ©WTM
The west side view has changed little since the Howards’ time, other than the landscaping. The picket fence seen is at odds with the original fence as seen at this location in Image 19.
Left to right we see the windows of the living room, dining room, and the kitchen. At far right, the large blank area is the outside wall of the bathroom. There is no window here since the Howards, per Image 11, had a gun rack at the rear of the bathroom. The bathroom has a single window on the south side; refer to Image 15.
Those innocent-looking kitchen windows are discussed in more detail at Image 34.
Very few Howard family photographs of the west side of their house are known to exist; practically the only specimen ever seen is that found in Image 19.
Image 17 - REH Museum Property, West Side of Front Yard, Looking West ©WTM
There exist numerous photographs of Robert, with and without his friends, which show a hedge in the background, as seen in Image 18.
Image 18 – Robert E. Howard Acting Out a Character with Knife and Gun
Arlene Stephenson, my museum tour guide, told me that the area on the west side of the front yard, as seen at Image 17, is the location where this hedge had once been located. There are no known Howard family photographs that prove so conclusively, but there seems to be no other location on the property where this hedge could have been, as photographs of these other locations show no trace of such a hedge. The far left side of Image 3 does seem to corroborate the proposed west side location.
Image 19 – Robert and his Dog, Patch(es), West Side, Looking ESE, circa 1925
This is a rare photograph, circa 1925, of the west side of the Howards’ house. Sadly, it is of poor quality and low resolution, but it does offer some valuable information. The two windows seen are the kitchen windows, and the large blank area to their far right is the outside (west) wall of the bathroom. We can see that there is a fence, but it is not a picket fence as was found on the north side, per Image 20, and on the east side and at least part of the south side, as per Image 22. Why this was so is unknown, but it is just another inaccuracy to be contended with for Image 11.
More importantly, this photo shows that there was no hedge at this section of the west yard, and that someone at the kitchen window would certainly have had a clear view of Robert’s parked car on the morning of June 11, as per Image 34. I speculate that the hedge that must have been on the north end of the west side of the yard, as per Images 17 and 18, took the place of a fence, picket or otherwise, for some short distance south, at which point the fence visible in Image 19 began.
At the far right of Image 19, a neighbor’s house to the south can be seen.
Image 20 - REH and his Dog, Patch(es)
Image 21 – WTM ©WTM, October 2019
A major disappointment on my part here. I had hoped to exactly emulate Image 20, taken in 1925, but it quickly became apparent that the picket fence of today is much further from the house than it was in 1925. Asking about this, I was told that Project Pride simply needed more room in the yard for Howard Days and other functions and so they installed the replica picket fence a more suitable distance away from the house. Today, this fence is only about eight feet from Highway 36. See Image 8.
The Howards appear to have liked their landscaping on the excessive side. Note in Image 20 that a mass of foliage is obscuring the majority of the front porch, almost completely hiding the front door, and that growth of some sort appears on most corners and around many windows, as typified in Image 20. The large mass of foliage seen at the left side of Image 3 can be attributed to lack of maintenance over many years, but something had to be there in the first place to grow into that mass.
Such landscaping was not uncommon in that age before HVAC and wall and attic insulation. Keeping direct sunlight off of outside walls and the roof as much as possible was vital to one’s comfort during warm and hot weather, and the west side hedge probably served as both a windbreak and a dustbreak. On at least one occasion, Robert wrote of a terrific dust storm that he had just experienced while at home. Having lived for years in West Texas, I can vouch as to how severe the wind and dust can be in the early spring. In March, the sky often turns the color of salmon and it frequently rains mud. All this and baseball-sized hail and tornadoes too!
Image 22 - The Three Musketeers, circa 1927; Robert E. Howard, at left, and Friends Truett Vinson, center, and Tevis Clyde Smith, at right. Looking East
The General Area where Robert’s dog, Patch(es), was
Allegedly Buried circa 1928
It’s a twofer! This site is on the east side of the house, near the rear of the lot in the SE corner of the yard, about due east of where the sleeping porch used to be.
Image 23 – Memorial Marker for Robert’s Dog, Patch(es)
Robert never knew, and didn’t want to know, the exact spot where his dog had been buried, but he was told it was somewhere in the general vicinity of the mesquite tree visible in Image 22. His parents had that entire area of the yard harrowed to hide all traces of the burial from him. Refer to Image 11 and its accompanying commentary.
There remains today some confusion as to the actual name of Robert’s dog. ‘Patch’ makes more sense than ‘Patches’, but ‘Patches’ appears quite frequently, as seen in Image 11. I don’t know which of the two names is correct, but I’m pretty sure that the “HOWARD’S” on the plaque shown in Image 23 really should be “ROBERT’S”.
Image 24 - The Same View as for Image 22, as seen in October 2019 ©WTM
This is the largest and oldest mesquite tree I have ever seen; it must be at least a century old. Quite the survivor, this specimen, and just think of what all this tree has witnessed on this property over the last hundred years. Behind the tree and to the right is the Project Pride pavilion seen in Image 10. Excepting this ancient mesquite tree, all other trees on the property appear to be too young to have existed when the Howards lived here. Some of the old trees may have been destroyed by a tornado.
Note that the picket fence seen in Image 22 was not duplicated exactly during the restoration of the property, as there is now no back fence as seen in Image 22, and the east side fence does not extend as far south as it originally did as seen in Image 22. The neighboring building seen in the background behind Robert in Image 22 is the Butlers’ house, which was destroyed by a tornado in 1994. At the base of the tree in Image 24 is the memorial marker for Patch(es) seen in Image 23.
Image 25 – Robert E. Howard’s Bedroom/Workroom ©WTM
Here at last III! If only these walls could talk. This was Robert’s bedroom during cold weather and his workroom year-round. Through the window at left is his mother’s bedroom. The three windows on the right, not the original windows, now look into the museum’s gift shop through pastoral decals.
This room is actually quite small for a man as big as Robert was, being no larger than many a walk-in closet (and the room has no closet of its own). The narrative for Image 10 states that the Howards’ house was originally a one-bedroom house. Robert’s bedroom and the sleeping porch were added on by conversion of the existing back porch after the Howards took possession of the property in 1919.
The wall to the left used to be the outside (south) wall of the house, and in Robert’s time, the wall on the right was the outside wall. Then, the room was well lit by the triple-window to the south and the single window to the east. Today it is dimly lit since the bedroom added on by a subsequent owner is now to the south of Robert’s room and blocks much of the sunlight. Refer to the narrative for Image 15.
What is seen here is just the best guess as to how the room looked and was arranged when the Howards lived here, as per the narrative of Image 11. All furnishings and knickknacks are of the same period but most are not original Howard family possessions. The most conspicuous exception is noted for Image 26.
Image 26 – Robert E. Howard’s Work Space ©WTM
This is it! – Ground Zero of the sword-and-sorcery genre, the hallowed area where Conan, King Kull, Solomon Kane, El Borak, Bran Mak Morn, Breckinridge Elkins, Steve Costigan, and all of his many other heroic fantasy and fictional characters were born. I can easily imagine Robert sitting at his worktable in this location, pounding out his ‘yarns’ on his typewriter as he voiced them out loud, often so loud that the neighbors complained. Since a considerable amount of the material that he wrote was ‘spicy’, I have to wonder if he yelled that out loud too, since his mother was usually in the next room, with an open window in between.
The only item seen here that belonged to Robert is the knickknack in the Plexiglas case on the right front corner of the table, which is a carved kneeling camel that is probably representative of his interest in the ‘desert’ stories of Conan and El Borak.
However, the whereabouts of Robert’s original worktable are known; Isaac either gave or sold the table to a local family, which still possesses it, although, sadly, they shortened the legs to make it suitable for use as a coffee table. Once the current owner of the table passes away, the family has promised to give the table back to the museum, which has plans to restore it to its original condition and substitute it for the facsimile table now occupying its former position in Robert’s room.
It has been rumored that Robert’s original typewriter is now in the possession of someone in California, but that is mere rumor; its whereabouts remain unknown.
Image 27 – Hester Howard’s Bedroom ©WTM
It was in this room that Robert’s mother, Hester, died on June 12, 1936. Note the proximity to Robert’s room, on the other side of what was originally the south outside wall, on the right side. And that window probably stayed open year-round, so there was not a lot of privacy for Robert since his mother was often in bed, resting.
What is seen here is just the best guess as to how the room looked and was arranged when the Howards lived here. The only original item of note is a trunk that once belonged to Isaac, which is located beneath the window to the right. All other furnishings and knickknacks are of the same period but they are not original Howard family possessions.
Originally, this room contained a fireplace, for which the chimney is still visible in most of the exterior photographs, e.g., Image 15.
Since Hester and Isaac didn’t get along very well and really didn’t care much for one another, it is probable that Isaac slept in the sleeping porch year-round and seldom, if ever, in this room. Refer to the narratives for Images 11 and 31.
Image 28 – Robert’s Cleopatra Bust ©WTM
One of the surprisingly numerous original Howard family possessions that were recovered for display in the museum, although Robert would have been thirteen when the Howards were in New Orleans, not fourteen. The Howards were evidently in New Orleans during the time that the crimes of The Axeman of New Orleans were taking place in 1919, just prior to their possession of the house in Cross Plains. See more here.
Image 29 – The Howards’ Bathroom, Part I ©WTM
Did REH sit here? Probably not; a subsequent owner extensively remodeled and rearranged this bathroom from the time that the Howards lived here and that is an unusual location for a toilet in what was once a very large bathroom for so small a house. The original bathroom was at least twice this size; the wall behind the lavatory was added to partition the room in two, with the other half behind the wall now serving as a kitchen closet/pantry. Refer to Images 11 and 30. Unfortunately, there is no detail or documentation as to how the Howards’ bathroom was arranged.
Per Image 11, the Howards’ bathroom once had a gun rack at the back of it. Well, this is Texas, y’know. Pro Tip: Don’t store your guns in the bathroom; there’s way too much humidity therein for blued steel.
This remodeled bathroom presents a bit of a mystery. Since there is now no room for a bathtub in this part of the formerly large bathroom, was there just a shower? Even so, the only place for a shower stall would seem to be to the left, and it could not have been much more than a minimal size shower stall at that.
One certainly can’t tell from just this one room, but a hallmark of home construction in the early twentieth century appears to be a near-total lack of closet space. The only major room, so far as I could tell, that had a closet was Hester’s bedroom, and it was none too large at that. Robert’s bedroom had no closet and there was probably not one in the sleeping porch or in this bathroom. Where did people then keep their dress clothes, seasonal clothing, and other belongings? Since both Robert and Isaac had trunks, I’d guess those things were stored in their trunks, folded, and with mothballs. Linens and other bathroom supplies and necessities were probably kept out in the open, folded up on or in a bathroom vanity cabinet.
Image 30 – The Howards’ Bathroom, Part II ©WTM
This is the other half of the original bathroom, the back half as discussed for Image 29, now a kitchen closet/pantry. The Howards’ gun rack would have been on the west wall, in the space now occupied by the cupboard and shelving on the right.
Today a kitchen closet or pantry is a household essential, which is why a subsequent owner of the property partitioned the bathroom to allow conversion to this ‘new’ room. As to where the Howards must have stored their ordinary daily foodstuffs, I’d guess that several of their kitchen cabinets must have been dedicated to that purpose. The house my parents bought in Fort Worth in 1960, built circa 1954, was only about 1600 square feet, with about the same size kitchen as seen in Image 33 and no pantry or closet. It did have ample cabinets, which is where canned goods and such were kept. Bread was kept in a drawer. Produce not refrigerated was kept in an under counter cabinet. The Howards must have done much the same, and they did have a root cellar for additional storage of root vegetables and home canning. Refer to Images 15 and 33.
Image 31 – The Howards’ Living Room ©WTM
Per Image 11, this room is at the front (north) end of the house. What is seen here is just the best guess as to how the room looked and was arranged when the Howards lived here. All furnishings and knickknacks are of the same period but the furniture and most of the knickknacks are not original Howard family possessions.
Once Hester became seriously ill, Isaac converted this room into a medical office so he could see patients without having to leave Hester alone for long stretches as he had habitually done during Robert’s youth. This sounds like real loving dedication and sacrifice on a husband’s part, but the truth is that Hester and Isaac really didn’t love one another. Their ongoing quarrels, frequently loud arguments, resulting hard feelings, and the stony silence that would have followed obviously had an adverse effect on Robert and no doubt contributed somewhat to his eventual decision to commit suicide. On a lighter note, this room was rented out as a bedroom to as many as three boarders during the oil booms. And this in a house with but one bathroom.
Out of sight off to the right is a bookcase containing some of Robert’s history and reference books, which are on loan from Howard Payne University Library, to which Isaac donated them after Robert’s death. Their spines all have card catalogue numbers, as these had been placed out with all other of the books in the library. It’s a bit of a spine-tingler for a Howard Purist like me to see those books in the museum (home again!) and realize that they are some of the books that Robert consulted when writing his fictional pieces on the Crusades and other historical events.
Image 32 – The Howards’ Dining Room ©WTM
Refer to Image 11 for the plan view of this area.
The dining room is located south of the living room and north of the kitchen, which can be seen through the open door. The door is probably not the original door. This is a relatively small dining room, given the outsized nature of the original bathroom and kitchen.
What is seen here is just the best guess as to how the room looked and was arranged when the Howards lived here. All furnishings and knickknacks are of the same period but the furniture and most of the knickknacks are not original Howard family possessions.
The Cleopatra bust mentioned for Image 28 resides out of sight on the chest of drawers to the left.
Thousands of meals were eaten by the Howards in this room, probably a good many of them in awkward silence.
Image 33 – The Howards’ Kitchen ©WTM
Okay, the Howards’ kitchen probably looked nothing like this at all. They had a real icebox instead of a refrigerator, and it is a safe bet that a subsequent owner had long since replaced the cabinetry and flooring during a badly needed kitchen remodel. The kitchen windows do have a place in REH lore, as seen in Image 34.
The door seen at left was not there in the Howards’ time. It was added after the adjacent bathroom was partitioned as described for Image 29 and leads to the kitchen closet/pantry seen in Image 30.
Also inside the kitchen, visible at the far left, are display cases containing relevant Howard family knickknacks and bric-a-brac. Like the original bathroom, this is a really large kitchen for so small a house. Refer to Image 11 for the plan view of this room.
The Howards were known to have done home canning; they had a root cellar for storage as described for Image 15, and, in the 1930’s, Isaac was often paid for his medical services in meat, eggs, and produce. Robert also made home-brew beer at one time. Both activities must have taken place in this kitchen, as well as the household laundry. Besides writing, Robert also did the housework, laundry, and cooking, and probably even the shopping, while his mother was bedridden and his father was working, and so he must have spent considerable time in this kitchen.
Image 34 – View from the Howards’ North Kitchen Window, October 2019 ©WTM
It was through one of the kitchen windows, on the morning of June 11, 1936, that the cook employed by Isaac Howard during Hester’s final stage of illness observed Robert slumped over the steering wheel of his car parked on the street after she heard the gunshot. The car seen is in my best-estimated location and the probable orientation of Robert’s car that fateful morning. Robert had then been awake for over thirty-six hours and had just returned home from the post office (which seems to have been open for business earlier than nowadays), so I suspect that he simply parked his car as shown, rather than take the time and trouble to execute a U-turn as would have been normal and customary for parking on this side of the street. The house seen across the street is another survivor from the Howards’ time.
As seen in Image 11, the Howards did have a garage, but it appears to have been a one-car garage, as was common for working-class households even into the 1960’s, and Isaac would have laid claim to that for his own vehicle. Given that all roads in this area were unpaved in the 1930’s, things must have been pretty messy for Isaac and Robert in foul weather. The house certainly had no ‘mud’ room as is found in new homes today, and so the sleeping porch must have also gotten distressingly messy during foul weather, as they would both have used the back door for entry. It’s a good thing that males are hard-wired to not be bothered by dirty floors.
Image 16 gives the reverse view of Image 34, and Image 35 gives more detail as to the site upon which Robert’s car was parked that fateful morning of June 11.
Image 35 - The Fatal Spot ©WTM
During the morning of June 11, 1936, medical personnel attending to Robert’s terminally ill mother, Hester, pronounced that she would never recover from the tuberculosis-induced coma in which she lay. When Robert learned of this, he left the house around 8am, went to his car parked on the west side street (refer to Images 11 and 34), got inside, took a .380ACP pistol from the glove compartment, put it to his head just above his right ear, and pulled the trigger. He died eight hours later. Hester died around 10pm on June 12. Isaac died in 1944, a blind and lonely old man.
Image 36 – Outside of the Old Sleeping Porch (Enlargement of Section of Image 3)
On the right side of this outside room, the exterior doorframe (in white) is visible and its screen door is open, also looking to be off of its hinges. It was through this door that Robert went to his car during the morning of June 11, 1936, after learning that there was no hope for his mother’s recovery, and his father and another doctor in attendance carried him back through this same door and placed him on his bed in the sleeping porch after he had shot himself. Robert died in this room at around 4 pm. As seen in Image 15, the sleeping porch no longer exists due to extensive modifications made by a subsequent owner of the property (Floyd Carter) in 1973. The section of roofing immediately to the right of the roof of the sleeping porch is the roof of Robert’s added-on bedroom. Refer to Images 3, 11, and 15.
Image 37 – Interior Location of the Former Sleeping Porch ©WTM
Unrecognizable from its original state as seen in Images 11 and 36, this is what the interior of the former sleeping porch area looks like today. The new back door was added in 1973; the N-S location of the original back door is seen as the doorway into the bedroom that was added on, now the museum’s gift shop, to the south of Robert’s bedroom. However, the E-W location of this former back doorway was moved some distance to the right (west) so as to maximize floor space in the new bedroom. Thus the remaining sleeping porch space west of this interior wall became just a normal size hallway. Robert’s bed in the old sleeping porch was probably located east of Isaac’s, close to the original back door, since Isaac, in his sixties, must have made frequent nocturnal visits to the bathroom just west of the sleeping porch. If so, then the location of Robert’s bed, where he died the afternoon of June 11, is in the field of view here, most probably just inside of the museum’s gift shop.
Robert left no formal suicide note, although his intentions had become pretty obvious during May and early June of 1936. What he did leave is the following much-debated typed note, found inside of his wallet at the time of his death. It was NOT found in his typewriter as legend has it.
All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.
Image 38 – Inventory and Appraisement of the REH Estate, June 1936
Robert died with less than $3000 in tangible assets (about $50,000 in 2019 dollars), as he had lost considerable money in two Depression bank failures and in helping his father with his mother’s medical bills during the months preceding his death. Weird Tales was also in arrears to Robert for over $1000 in back payments in June 1936. The various heirs to his literary estate, as well as assorted interlopers such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, have all made much more money off of Robert’s literary works than he ever did. Due to the frequent turnover of ownership of the rights to Robert’s works among the numerous successive heirs to his estate, and some ensuing legal squabbles, many of his works have since been allowed to enter the public domain due to simple abandonment - nonrenewal of copyright.
Ever the practical man, even during family tragedies, Isaac had Robert’s car, a 1935 Chevrolet sedan, cleaned of blood and brain tissue and the bullet impact damage to the driver’s side window repaired. He then drove the car himself until 1940, at which time ill health forced him to sell car and household (the Howard home was put up for sale but never sold during Isaac’s remaining lifetime) and move to the nearby town of Ranger, where he was taken in by the sympathetic family of a doctor (Pere M. Kuykendall) with whom he had once worked. In gratitude, Isaac left his estate, which by then included Robert’s estate, to this other doctor. And that is how the REH estate and rights to his many literary works ended up in the hands and control of people to whom Robert was not related, and indeed had never known, such as the execrable L. Sprague de Camp and his accomplice, Lin Carter, who usurped and polluted the Conan stories and character almost beyond recognition.
Image 39 - 1935 Standard Chevrolet Sedan, similar to the car that Robert owned in June 1936, Lars-Göran Lindgren, Wikimedia Commons
The sedan model shown has 4 doors, but 2-door models were available and it is not known which model Robert owned. Robert’s car was probably black, as seen here.
One of the main reasons that Robert wanted to move to Brownwood was that Cross Plains did not have a public library and Brownwood did. Brownwood was also a larger town, with a lake and a university, and some of his best friends lived there. Cross Plains did eventually get a public library, as seen at Image 40, but that did not occur until 1979, 43 years after Robert’s death. They do possess some, but by no means all, of Robert’s original manuscripts, and even then they keep only copies (which can be purchased) on the premises; the originals are stored in a bank vault.
Image 40 - Cross Plains Public Library ©WTM
Image 41 – Copy of a Page of an Original Unpublished Conan Manuscript ©WTM
I looked over many of these copied pages while in the library and they pretty much all looked the same – no obvious corrections. Robert had become an accomplished typist by his early twenties and typed as fast and as well as many a female secretary of the time did. He had taken business classes at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, to which many of his books and papers were donated posthumously, and was going to become a bookkeeper in Cross Plains had he failed as a writer.
Image 42 – Higginbotham Brothers’ Store ©WTM
Higginbotham Brothers General Store has been a Cross Plains institution since 1915. The Howards were known to have shopped here.
Image 43 – Downtown Cross Plains circa 1940
Cross Plains High School, Post Office, and First Baptist Church
I had hoped to get photos of these three buildings but was doomed to failure. While these buildings do exist today, they are not the same buildings and are not even in the same locations as they were when the Howards lived in Cross Plains. I had also hoped to find a 1930’s City Directory or phone book in the Cross Plains Public Library to learn their original locations, but, alas, there was none, and an internet search also proved fruitless. Given the small size of Cross Plains and Depression-era economics, there may not have ever been a City Directory for the 1920’s -1930’s, although they are available online for towns such as Brownwood and Abilene.
Robert was known to have walked to the post office and downtown Cross Plains before he owned a car, and I had wanted to get a photograph of the building where practically everything he had ever written for sale had been mailed off. One of the librarians in the Cross Plains Public Library did tell me that the original post office had actually been located out of town, west of the Howard house on Highway 36. She indicated that the building still existed in some capacity and had been used as a hospital once the post office was moved to its current location. I searched Highway 36 until about a mile west of the REH Museum, thinking that would have been the maximum walking distance acceptable to the public, and did not find any likely candidate. I’ll try again in June of 2020 when I return for Howard Days.
Author and REH biographer Mark Finn states that the funerals for both Robert and Hester (not including the cemetery plot, Robert’s funeral alone cost $360) were held in the First Baptist Church of Cross Plains, although a handout at the museum, which is a reproduction of the funeral notice from the Cross Plains Review in June 1936, states that the funerals were held at the Baptist Tabernacle. It is unclear if these two churches are one and the same, for there is today only a First Baptist Church, and without a City Directory, there is no real way of telling 83+ years later. But the same librarian told me that the First Baptist Church had been moved to a new building, still extant, and that the old First Baptist Church building had then become a Presbyterian church. I saw this church before learning all this, and it certainly looks old enough to have been the original First Baptist Church. I’ll look into this issue further next June.
Had Robert not committed suicide, one wonders what he then would have done with his life. At the time of Robert’s death, WWII was only 5-? years away, and he would have still been of draft age in December of 1941. Of course, like so many young men did in the early 1940’s, he may well have enlisted, or tried to, which does not necessarily mean that he would have seen combat in either case. Probably, with his experience and expertise, and given his age and heart condition (he took digitalis to control an irregular heartbeat), he would have been utilized in some capacity where writing and research abilities were required, perhaps in Army Intelligence.
If not, then major changes to his lifestyle would have become necessary in any event. WWII killed off some of the pulp magazines on which he had been making his living, and those that did survive, Weird Tales being among them, were unreliable markets as payment was low and slow. All of the familiar old pulp magazines had ceased publication by 1954, as the general public’s media interests had by then turned away from heroic fantasy, boxing, occult horror, and detective stories to atomic-era science fiction, romance, and - television. The appearance of cheap paperback books in the 1950’s further diminished the shrinking market for traditional magazines and more of them ceased publication as a result. Many others and I have often speculated that Robert would thus have been forced to mature as a writer, abandoning heroic fantasy altogether as he had once threatened to do shortly before his death, and begun turning out historical novels on Texas and other subjects that he loved. He had written as he had in the 1920’s and 1930’s simply because he was paid about a penny a word by the pulp magazines and thus quantity, not quality, was his top priority as a professional writer during the Depression era. Had he, like J.R.R. Tolkien, been able to afford to write at his leisure, I think he would have produced incomparable works of historical fiction. Lord only knows what all Robert could and would – and should - have written in his later years.
Using Isaac Howard’s life span as a guide, one could reasonably expect that Robert might otherwise have lived to at least the same age, 73. That would mean that he would have lived at least until circa 1980 and would thus have seen the resurrection of Conan and other of his pulp magazine works during the 60’s and 70’s. That would also have meant that control of much of his literary estate would probably never have been passed on to the likes of L. Sprague de Camp. How sad for Robert – and for all of the many Howard Purists worldwide. Fortunately for Robert, he would then have still passed away before seeing the release of the mediocre 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, and its horrendous sequel. Seeing those films, with an all-but-incoherent blonde Austrian bodybuilder starring as Conan the Cimmerian would have probably killed him, if nothing else had gotten to him before then. However, Robert would then have lived to see the ’freely adapted’ versions of his Conan stories in Marvel Comics, which first appeared in 1970, assuming that he would ever have allowed all that to happen in the first place.
Near the end of his life, John M. Browning, the greatest gun inventor who has ever lived (and, who, ironically, had invented the pistol that Robert used in his suicide), sat for an interview and was asked how it was that he had been so prolific and so wildly successful at inventing firearms and peripherals when so many other gun inventors had simply been one-and-out. Browning, who during his lifetime had invented 128 different firearms of all sorts, ranging from single-shot rifles to various automatic weapons and cannons for the military, gave a candid response. In his opinion, he said, the Time and Place for just such a person as he had come together, and he had simply happened along. He had done all of what he did in the small rural town of Ogden, Utah, between 1876 and 1926, enduring conditions even more unlikely for producing genius than those that Robert E. Howard had experienced.
And so, to answer my own question as to ‘how’ REH could have done all that he did, as seen early in this narrative, I think that the Time and Place for an author and poet such as Robert E. Howard had likewise come together, and he just ‘happened along’ as had John M. Browning five decades earlier. Had Isaac Howard settled elsewhere, or relocated his family to Brownwood, as both Hester and Robert had wanted him to in the early 1920’s, or to nearby Abilene, or Fort Worth (my hometown), or anyplace else in Texas, there may well have been no Robert E. Howard as we know him today.
When actor Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame died in 1969, a memorial service was held in his honor in London’s St. Paul's Covent Garden Church. A commemorative plaque was afterwards placed inside the church, containing a quotation from Andrew Marvell's Horatian ode, "Upon Cromwell's Return From Ireland". It reads:
He Nothing Common Did or MeanA fitting epitaph for one of Karloff’s stature, it also applies equally well to Robert E. Howard, for, surely, we shall not see his like again either. Requiescat In Pace.
Upon That Memorable Scene
We Shall Not See His Like Again
Here at last IV! Robert is buried alongside his parents in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas, 35 miles SSE of Cross Plains. No article on his life and times in Cross Plains would be complete without a photograph of their gravesite. Robert’s grave once had a footstone marked ‘R.E.H.’ but it has long since gone missing.
Image 44 – the Howard Family Graves and Headstone ©WTM
Robert’s Weird Tales contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price had once planned to meet at this gravesite to say goodbye to their professional comrade and friend but they never made it; Lovecraft had his own health and financial problems and died of cancer within a year of Robert’s death. But had they done so, their plans had been to read an ode that Lovecraft would have composed for the occasion and pour a libation of Chinese brandy on Robert’s grave. Since this never happened, I took it upon myself to do the next best thing, and used two cans of Shiner Bock Beer in lieu of brandy. Robert had been a beer-drinker and so would undoubtedly have preferred a good dark beer to brandy in the infernal Texas summer heat anyway.
There has been much speculation as to why Robert and Hester were buried in nearby Brownwood and not Cross Plains, which has its own cemetery. For many years it had been thought that Robert had bought the family plot but author Mark Finn states that it was Isaac who did so. If that is indeed the case, then the question as to ‘why’ can probably best be answered by the following explanation. Both Robert and Hester had for years wished to move from Cross Plains to Brownwood but Isaac steadfastly refused to do so. And so, if he had decided that they couldn’t be there in life, the next best thing to do was to ensure that they would both be there in death.
I had decided to visit ‘nearby’ Fort McKavett (110 miles away) before heading home, but there were complications. Fort McKavett was an army fort used during the Indian Wars of the 19th century, and it lies in ruins today within a Texas state park. It has a place in REH lore, as he visited it in July 1933 and had the following photograph taken, Image 45. At the time, Robert wrote, “I like this snap”, as standing there amid the ruins made him feel like a Visigoth sacking Rome. The folks of Project Pride see to every detail, and they provide directions and GPS coordinates to the very spot, as also seen below in Image 46 (photo courtesy of Rob Roehm), but because the ruins have deteriorated so much since 1933, I decided that there was really no point in traveling that distance just to take a picture of what now is essentially an unrecognizable location. I’m sure that Robert would have agreed.
Image 45 - REH at Ft. McKavett, July 1933
Image 46 - Same Site Today
GPS Coordinates - North Latitude: 30.82614 by West Longitude: 100.10821
Special thanks to Arlene Stephenson, Bill Cavalier, the other fine folks of Project Pride, the Cross Plains Public Library, and Cross Plains, Texas, for their cooperation and contributions to this travelogue article.
ROBERT E. HOWARD MUSEUM
A ROBERT E. HOWARD PICTORIAL HISTORY
REH PUBLIC DOMAIN WORKS
ONLINE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN COMICS
MOVIE – The Whole Wide World
1. Robert Ervin Howard, Author and Poet
2. Novalyne Price Ellis, Robert’s only known girlfriend
3. Tevis Clyde Smith Jr., Robert’s best friend in Brownwood
4. Dr. Pere Moran Kuykendall, doctor who took in Isaac Howard in 1940
5. Lindsey Wilson Tyson, Robert’s friend to whom he had wanted to leave his literary estate in his will and owner of the pistol that Robert used in his suicide.
6. Dave Tucker Lee, close friend of Robert’s in Cross Plains
7. Kate Bell Merryman, nurse hired by Isaac Howard for his wife, Hester
8. Dr. John Robert Dill, physician friend of Isaac Howard’s who was present during Robert’s suicide and helped Isaac carry Robert back into the house afterwards
9. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, fellow contributor to Weird Tales, horrormeister, and renowned correspondent of Robert’s
10. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales to whom Robert submitted his Conan ‘yarns’ and other weird fantasy
11. Clark Ashton Smith, the third of the ‘Three Musketeers’ of Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft
12. Seabury Grandin Quinn, Sr., Robert’s greatest rival in Weird Tales -
13. Hugh Doak Rankin, pen-and-ink artist who did interior artwork for Robert’s Conan stories in Weird Tales
14. Frank Frazetta, artist renowned for his fantasy illustrations, especially those concerning Robert E. Howard’s Conan
15. L. Sprague de Camp, Usurper and Polluter of REH’s Conan character