The Long Road to Dark Valley — Part 4

The Man from Ferris

[This series of essays begins here]

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

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

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

[ …]

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

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

About the same story was repeated to Mason in 1981:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so the story went.

[Next installment here]