T.B. or not T.B.?
[This series of essays begins here]
The encounter between Dr. Howard and Hester Jane Ervin happened this way, at least according to Dark Valley Destiny:
After her father’s death, Hester Jane must have felt particularly uprooted. The Exeter property had become the home of Alice Wynne Ervin and her children. As the only Martin among them, she was something of an outsider. She turned again toward Texas and her people there, moving to Mineral Wells to help care for some members of her own family who were suffering from tuberculosis.
Mineral Wells, like the Lampasas of an earlier decade, was something of a spa, and its waters from nearby mineral springs were considered especially salubrious. There in Mineral Wells, she met Dr. Howard […] and she and the doctor were married in 1904, a few months before Hester reached the age of thirty-four.
Long and frequent dislocations, such as Hester Jane had experienced, do not make for happy wives or relaxed mothers. Thus, it must have been a strained and uncertain if beautiful bride whom Dr. I.M. Howard took to wife.
That account is based on two sources: first, Howard’s own “Wandering Years” essay, in which we read: “Returning to Texas, she met Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard, while living in Mineral Wells, in Palo Pinto County, and they were married in the early part of 1904,” and secondly, a 1964 letter from Wynne Ervin to Glenn Lord, in which he explains he was one of the relatives living with Hester Jane in Mineral Wells.
This account has remained unchallenged for nearly thirty years, and the more recent Howard biographies have all followed the de Camps’ version. As we are about to see, the only portion worth salvaging in the de Camps’ version is the paragraph they took from “The Wandering Years”…
On 03 January 1906, C. E. “Ted” Thomas died in Phoenix, AZ. He was aged 26 and the cause of his death was tuberculosis. “Ted” Thomas was a son of Christina Thomas, nee Ervin (and sister of Hester Jane), and he had gone west in the hope of getting better, to no avail. The only reason he is mentioned in this article is because out of the dozens and dozens of Ervin ancestors I have tracked down in the course of my research, he is the only one who died from tuberculosis. Given the very nature and prevalence of the disease in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is of course probable that some other family members had contracted it, but never in a severe form. There is no mention whatsoever of tuberculosis in any of the records pertaining to these people. The reason for that is simple: questioned on the subject, Terry Baker, a direct descendant of GW Ervin and an Ervin family historian himself, is adamant: “Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, has never been part of the family that I know of.”
Still, we know that Hester was in “Mineral Wells to help care for some members of her own family who were suffering from tuberculosis.”
Or do we?
Hester Jane Ervin did spend several months in Mineral Wells with her half-brother Wynne Ervin. The latter wrote Glenn Lord about it in 1964: “I lived with [Hester] and another half sister about 8 months in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1902.” (The other half-sister was either Christina (who had recently separated from her husband), or Georgia Alice). But at no moment does Wynne Ervin mention tuberculosis, being sick or staying in Mineral Wells for treatment. He was simply staying there for a few months with his half-sisters. Wynne Ervin goes on: “[After Mineral Wells] I went to Texarkana in August of 1902 and then to St Louis, MO in December of that year and to Oklahoma City in 1904” (Wynne Ervin to Glenn Lord, 05 April 1964, unpublished). All too normal things for a Ervin child, after all…
It’s not difficult to understand who jumped at the conclusion that Wynne Ervin had tuberculosis. Since Wynne was in Mineral Wells, he must have been there for the hot baths and treatments. And since Hester Jane had tuberculosis, too, and that she stayed with Wynne for several months, it follows that Hester Jane was looking after him. And since that made two Ervins with tuberculosis, it evidently also followed that all Ervins perforce had tuberculosis. And, just like that, Lyon Sprague de Camp retroactively infected all the Ervins with tuberculosis, a disease not one of them had actually ever suffered from.
The de Camps very logically decided to contaminate Hester’s mother first, presumably so that she could spread the disease to her descendants (and “help” the readers digest the notion): “More probably it was tuberculosis that proved to be the curse of the Ervins. […] [Sarah Jane Martin] was not merely sick; she was plain worn out” (Dark Valley Destiny, p. 25). The truth is, the de Camps didn’t know if she was “plain worn out” or not, didn’t know if she had tuberculosis (had in fact nothing to show that any of the Ervins ever suffered from tuberculosis), didn’t know anything as to her health or state of mind. They didn’t know in what city and even what state she died; they didn’t know if she was sick. They had no way of knowing if her death was caused by her recent pregnancy. The only thing they had was a date of death from a Family Bible. They simply made up everything else, launching their epidemics of tuberculosis at the same time.
Hester Jane Howard’s tuberculosis – and subsequent death from complications of – is one of those givens to anyone studying Howard’s life. It is an evident truth, just like Howard spending most of his life in Cross Plains. But when we realize there was no tuberculosis at all in the Ervin family and that all the examples found in Dark Valley Destiny (and taken up by later biographers) are de campian fabrications, it becomes obvious that the “evidence” we have for Hester Jane’s tuberculosis will have to be re-examined. Certainly she exhibited many of the usual symptoms of the disease as she grew older. Howard, for instance, described the night sweats and the attacks of pleurisy, and of course her death certificate indicates tuberculosis as the cause of death. Still there were people who thought she was suffering from something else:
Mrs. Merryman nursed Mrs. Howard during the last weeks of her life. Here’s what she had to say about Hester’s condition. The interviewer is Jane Griffin, who worked with the de Camps:
Mrs. M: Yes, she was [a sickly woman.]
JWG: What was wrong with her?
Mrs. M: I never did know.
JWG: Said tuberculosis on her death certificate.
Mrs. M: I know she went to that – went to that tuberculosis hospital, but I never did believe…
The conversation gets interrupted here, but the meaning is clear: Mrs. Merryman didn’t think Hester Jane had tuberculosis. On Robert Howard’s 1930 medical file, on the form about his parents, we can read the following: “Mother / age: 54 / rheumatism, stomach trouble, no cancer or tb.” (Of course we now know that any such information coming from Hester Jane should be taken with a grain of salt.) In 1978, a doctor who had had access to Hester Jane’s 1935 medical file after her surgery wrote that he “would not be surprised if her death was a result of complications following her surgery and she eventually died of sepsis, rather than T.B. or cancer as is thought to be the case.” Which, if averred, would move Hester Jane’s tuberculosis from primary to contributory cause of death, at best.
As should be now evident, the question of when/if Hester Jane’s tuberculosis declared itself is something that definitely needs to be addressed again, without any de Campian interference, this time…
Following her stay at Mrs. McCarson in 1899, we find Hester Jane living in Abilene, TX, at the time of the 1900 census, sharing an apartment with her sister Christina and Christina’s daughter Lucile. Christina and John Oliver Cobb were now estranged (Cobb, still living in Oklahoma, indicated that he was a widower on that census). Hester spent the first eight months of 1902 with Wynne Ervin and either Christina or Georgia Alice in Mineral Wells. She would soon meet Isaac Mordecai Howard, though we don’t know anything about the exact moment and how they met. That biographical chapter of their life is one that remains to be researched and written.
The image of Hester Jane Ervin that emerges from this re-examination of her early years is one that doesn’t have a lot to do with the way she has usually been depicted. Gone is the “strained and uncertain bride,” the woman who had suffered from the various “dislocations,” who didn’t get along with her brothers and sisters. Gone is the Florence Nightingale-like image of a Hester Jane who, instead of trying to find a husband, sacrifices her time to alleviate the pains of her siblings afflicted from the same disease that would later claim her life. This Hester Jane Ervin never existed, save perhaps in the de Camps’ imagination.
The real Hester Jane Ervin grew in a world of affluence, surrounded by men of power. Her father was rather wealthy. Among her siblings and in-laws, she had newspapermen, rich merchants, a banker. She had never worked a single day in her life and spent her time alternating stays in her Exeter home and visits to relatives, most of the time in rather large towns. She got along with her family, was there for the great occasions but also when a sister needed her help. Her everyday life was not about taking care of sick relatives, though, but enjoying the company of refined and well-off people. She was a lover of drama and poetry. The first man she fell in love with was a newspaper publisher promised to a brilliant future. She also apparently made no mystery of the importance of money and social status to her eyes, and the life she led between 1890 and 1903 reflected that perfectly.
In 1902, as Hester Jane Ervin was spending time with her siblings in fashionable Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto County, Isaac Mordecai Howard arrived in Palo Pinto County, too, settling in Graford, population 19. He had spent some time in a tiny village in Oklahoma, with a favorite sister whose husband was serving five years in the penitentiary for stealing three mules. He had no money and no diploma.
He apparently had other qualities.