My Name Is Earl

At the end of my last post I went off on a tangent regarding Robert E. Howard’s cousin, Earl Lee Comer; he was the subject of my mania last summer and I “published” my findings in a REHupa ’zine. Since then, a few more nuggets of information have emerged, including a couple of interesting items from Glenn Lord’s collection of Howard’s typescripts. Anyway, let’s see what most people already know about Earl Lee before we get into that.

Most of us were introduced to Mr. Comer in the pages of L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, Dark Valley Destiny:

Robert Howard was thirteen years old when his family bought their home in Cross Plains. Although Robert had not outgrown the Burkett school system, which lacked high-school facilities, we surmise that Mrs. Howard’s nephew, Earl Lee Comer, who had come to live with them, had already reached high-school age. Very little is known about this nephew, except that he shared the Howards’ house for several years. Robert, in his later letters to Lovecraft, never once mentions the slightly older lad whose presence must have affected him in one way or another. Since the two boys shared the sleeping porch, ate at the same table, and even attended the same high school, it is indeed curious that no mention of him appears in the correspondence of either Robert or his father.

Queries to former teachers at the Cross Plains school and to others who lived in the neighborhood have revealed nothing. All we know is that after completing his high school courses, Lee Comer left Cross Plains to work for one of the oil companies in Dallas. Perhaps no one will ever know what Robert thought of this interloper in his home or what this orphaned youth thought of his thirteen-year-old cousin.

In later pages, discussing the family’s house in Cross Plains, de Camp adds the following: “Several years later, when Lee Comer moved out, the family’s sleeping arrangements were entirely rearranged.” And that’s all for DVD. De Camp’s use of “interloper” seems to be designed to put a negative spin on the whole arrangement, even though he had no information to that effect. The only mention of Comer that I’ve found in de Camp’s papers is from an October 10, 1977 letter from Lindsey Tyson:

There was one relative of the Howards that no one seems to remember much about. His name was Earl Lee Comer. Earl Lee was a nephew of Mrs. Howard’s, he came to live with the Howards while they were still in Burkett. He was an orphan.

Earl Lee left here in the early twenties, went to Dallas, and Bob told me went to work for the Mobile Oil Co. Earl Lee was I think four or five years older than Bob. He came back here to the funeral service and I talked to him for a few minutes before the services, but I did not get to ask some things I was interested in. I was one of the pall bearers, thought I would talk to him some more later, but he left as soon as the service was over and I have never seen him again.

Rusty Burke’s “Short Biography” does not mention Comer, but the most-recent biography, Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder, adds some more details:

Robert had to endure the first of many boarders. His cousin, Earl Lee Comer, was staying at the Howard house, most likely to work in the nearby oil fields. Robert was forced to share the sleeping porch with this older man, who came to them through Hester’s side of the family. Comer stayed for at least a year, presumably until the work ran out, and then moved on like the rest of the oil field folks. Robert never discussed his cousin to anyone.

Now why does everyone assume that Comer’s coming was a bad thing? Howard had to “endure” his cousin’s presence and was “forced” to share sleeping quarters? Finn takes it a step further in his discussion of bullying when he speculates: “Was his older cousin, Earl Lee Comer, a tormentor in addition to being an oil field roughneck? Nobody knows.” We’ll have more on Howard’s reaction to his cousin later, but first, let’s see what we can find out with some internet archeology.

The friends of Miss Alice Ervin, formerly a resident of Muskogee, and a sister of Mrs. J. O. Cobb, will be interested in learning that Miss Ervin was married on Wednesday of last week to Rev. J. Frank Comer, of St. Louis, Mo., at the home of the bride’s parents at Commerce, Mo. The many friends of Miss Ervin in Muskogee join the friends at her home in wishing the wedded couple all the peace, joy and contentment that life affords. — Muskogee Phoenix – March 12, 1896

Following their marriage, Rev. J. Frank Comer and Hester’s sister Alice vanish from the internet record. There is a “J. F. Comer” listed as a land owner in Richmond, Missouri, Ray County, in 1897. Looking at the map (below), there is a cemetery right next door. If Mr. Comer was a reverend, that could make sense, but this is the only mention I’ve found. They are not listed on the 1900 Census, so it’s a mystery what the couple did from 1896 to 1910, except that on July 13, 1898, Earl Lee was born in Saint Louis. We pick up the trail on April 23, 1910, where the now widowed “Alice G.” and her son were enumerated on the Census at Big Spring.  She is listed as a dress-maker. The pair probably moved to Big Spring following the death of Frank to be near Alice’s older brother, William Vinson Ervin.

In 1911, Earl Lee participated in Texas’s Troop No. 1, the so-called “oldest Boy Scout troop in Texas,” which began in Big Spring that year (“Scout Troop Completes 25 Years,” from the December 27, 1936 edition of the Big Spring Herald). The good times didn’t last long, though, as his mother died a few years later, July 14, 1915. With both of his parents now gone, and Uncle William already having several of his own children, Earl Lee ended up with his Aunt Hester in Cross Cut. He appears in “Cross Cut Items,” from the December 10, 1915 edition of the Cross Plains Review (thanks Rusty), where it is reported that he is part of the Cross Cut school’s basketball team. Earl was 17 years old; his cousin Robert was 9.

If Tyson’s statement above is accurate, Comer went with the Howards when they moved to Burkett—but he was gone before they moved to Cross Plains. On May 25, 1918, he signed up for the U.S. Navy. After the war, the 1920 Census has an “Earl E. Comer” listed as a “Lodger” in Milwaukee, Ward 4, Wisconsin, of all places. Perhaps he was sent there as part of his enlistment. This appears to be our Earl as the Big Spring Herald reported the following on January 7, 1921:

Earl Lee Comer who recently returned from Milwaukee, Wis., where he had been to take a course in mechanical drawing, after spending the holidays with friends and relatives in this city left for Cross Plains where he will make his home.

What he did in Cross Plains is a mystery. One would suppose that he was put to work using the training he’d received in Wisconsin. Whatever he did, Earl’s second stay with the Howards didn’t last long. By Christmas 1923 he was living in Dallas, as reported in the Big Spring paper for December 28th: “Earl Comer was here from Dallas to spend Christmas with Dr. W. C. Barnett and family,” and again on May 9, 1924: “Earl Comer of Dallas was here this week for a visit with the family of Dr. W. C. Barnett.”

It is unclear what Earl was doing for a living at this time, but he seems to have landed a permanent position by the time the following item appeared in the Big Spring paper, September 10, 1926: “Earl Comer, en route from Los Angeles to Dallas, where he has accepted a position, visited friends in this city this week, leaving Thursday morning for Dallas.” What he was doing in LA is a mystery. [UPDATE: Looks like we know at least one thing he was doing, writing a letter to Weird Tales. Look here.]

The next Earl sighting is in Cross Plains. It appears that Earl enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday with the Howards in 1928: “E. L. Comer of Dallas, nephew of Dr. and Mrs. Howard, spent past weekend here” (Cross Plains Review, Nov. 30, 1928).

Also around 1928, apparently, we get a glimpse at how Robert Howard felt about his cousin. In March of that year, the first mailing of The Junto was circulated. Its editor, Booth Mooney, appears on a list of Howard’s friends and the cities they lived in: Truett Vinson, Clyde Smith, Booth Mooney—and “Earl Lee Comer, Dallas, Texas.” Another stray page has a list of three: “Truett Vinson / Clyde Smith / Earl Lee Comer.” Earl’s inclusion on these lists seems to indicate that Howard considered him as a friend; they may have even corresponded.

The 1930 Census has “Earl L. Comer” as a draftsman lodger in Dallas, Texas, and from there we lose sight of Earl until his appearance at the Howards’ funeral. Sometime before December 1938, Earl got married. He and his wife visited Big Spring a few times in 1938 and 1939. We know from his military record that he was divorced at the time of his death, and Earl’s trips to Big Spring in 1941 were taken alone, so perhaps the marriage was a brief one.

There is an Earl Comer being brought up on charges of child desertion in Rusk, Texas, in 1963; whether or not this Earl is our Earl, we’ll probably never know. The earliest mention of a Mrs. Earl Lee is December 1938. It seems odd that the couple would have a child young enough to be “deserted” in 1963. I’m guessing this was someone else.

The last definitive sighting of Earl is from the Galveston Daily News for Sept. 16, 1970:

Earl Lee Comer, 72, a retired Galveston draftsman, was found dead in his room at Moody House Tuesday. Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Brookside Memorial Park in Houston, the Rev. William C. Webb Jr. officiating. Cremation will follow under the director of J. Levy and Bro. Funeral Home of Galveston. Born in St. Louis, Mo., Comer worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Bureau of Mines prior to his retirement. No survivors were reported.

ADDENDUM: In response to some emails I’ve received, I thought I’d add the following comment to the post. This is in response to de Camp’s claim that “Robert, in his later letters to Lovecraft, never once mentions the slightly older lad whose presence must have affected him in one way or another.”

I think we can now explain why Howard doesn’t mention Earl in his correspondence: Earl was probably gone before Howard started writing letters, at least any that have survived. The first letter we have is dated June 8, 1923 and we know that Earl was living in Dallas before Christmas of that year. So we’ve got Earl living with the Howards in Cross Cut and maybe Burkett, a period that Howard doesn’t mention much in his correspondence, and then again from 1921 to some point before December 1923, when Howard was in high school—another period he doesn’t talk about much. But there *are* a few unnamed cousins in the correspondence. This one, in particular:

Another thing that discourages me, is the absolute unreliability of human senses. If a hunting hound’s nose fooled him as often as a human’s faculties betray him, the hound wouldn’t be worth a damn. The first time this fact was brought to my mind was when I was quite small, and hearing a cousin relate the details of a camping trip, on which one Boy Scout shot another through the heart with a .22 calibre target rifle. I was never a Boy Scout, but I understand that they are trained to be keen observers. Well, there were about twenty looking on, and no two of them told the same story in court. And each insisted that his version was the correct one, and stuck to it. And I understand that this is common among all witnesses.

Of course, this could be Howard hyperbole, but given the “quite small” comment, and the fact that Earl was a Boy Scout, could be . . . And here’s another:

One of the damndest falls I ever got in my life was on a frozen pool — or tank, as we call them in these parts. I was just a kid, and wrestling with my cousin who was much older and larger. Eventually our feet went from under us, and we both came down on my head.

Now that we know the real age difference, that sounds like it could be Earl, too. So maybe it’s not that Howard never talked about Earl, maybe it’s just that we didn’t know enough about Earl to find him in the letters. But again, we’ll never really know; these could just be coincidences.

More on Earl Lee here: An Earl Addendum

Still more: Another Earl Addendum

[Photo credits: Downtown Big Spring , Photograph, n.d.; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth50477/ : accessed July 08, 2012), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library , Abilene, Texas. Thanks to Damon Sasser for making the trip to the Houston National Cemetery and taking the picture of Earl’s headstone.]