Pigeons  from... 


Entire Contents © 2002 Patrice Louinet. "School Days in Red River County" is © Don Kirk and is used with permission.

- Introduction
- From Wichita Falls to Bagwell?
- Arrival in Bagwell
- School in Bagwell
- "Aunt" Mary Bohannon
- Conclusion

  Welcome to the fourth installment of "Dwelling in Dark Valley", offering yet another investigation of a biographical nature. This time I have concentrated on one of the most obscure phase of Robert E. Howard's life, when his family was staying in Bagwell.
    It is not very surprising that the Howards' stay in the community of Bagwell, Red River County, Texas, has attracted little attention. Bagwell was only one of the many successive homes of the young Robert Howard, just before the family definitely settled in the “Central West Texas” (as Howard had it) section of the country: Cross Cut (in January 1915), Burkett (late 1917 or 1918), and eventually Cross Plains (October 1919).
    Of biographical interest, the “Robert E. Howard” entry of the Who's Who Among North American Writers, (reproduced in The Last Celt, p. 63), indicates that it was in Bagwell that young Howard first attended school. Of literary interest, one of Howard's most famous tales, “Pigeons from Hell”, owes a good portion of its plot and atmosphere to one of the horror stories that Mary Bohannon - of Bagwell - told the young Howard. And this is about it. No wonder that this particular phase of the Texan's life has not drawn much attention. 

   Having recently completed a series of genealogical researches on Howard's ancestry (see “Dwelling in Dark Valley” #3), and without any real hope of finding anything, I spent some time surfing the US GenWeb site for Red River County. I was rather surprised to find traces of a Bohannon family in the 1900 census, black people that lived very, very close to where the Howards would be staying a few years afterwards. I immediately sent a query to the site coordinator, who in turn had Mrs. Sharon Stephens Black contact me. It turned out that this very gracious lady had a lot of important information pertaining to Mary Bohannon of course, but also several documents that were particularly helpful to reconstruct young REH's days in Bagwell. Sharon went out of her way to furnish me with essential data and documents and, in the process, took an interest in Robert E. Howard. This collaboration led to the writing of an essay by Sharon (about which more later), and to the present essay. Needless to say, this article owes a lot to Sharon.


   The Bagwell material in Catherine and Lyon Sprague de Camp's biography of Howard - Dark Valley Destiny (1983) - occupies a scant four pages. It is also particularly misleading and manipulative.

   In 1912, the de Camps tell us, the Howards were probably staying in Oran, Palo Pinto County (p. 60). Then (p. 64): “The Howards’ next move was to a place near Wichita Falls”. This information, we learn from a footnote, is taken from Howard's letter to H.P. Lovecraft, February 1931 (DVD, p. 371). Which makes absolutely no mention of this. The only mentions of a stay in Wichita Falls in Howard's correspondence are found in two letters:

REH to H.P. Lovecraft, circa October 1930: “Why, by the time I was nine years old I'd lived [in several locations...], in the Wichita Falls country up next to Oklahoma; and in the piney woods of Red River over next to Arkansaw.”

REH to Wilfrid Blanch Talman, circa September 1931: “[U]ntil I was nearly nine years old I lived in various parts of the state […] in a cattle town on the Oklahoma line, near the old North Texas oil fields; in the piney woods of East Texas; finally in what later became the Central West Texas oil belt."

    Without entering details, there are evident discrepancies between the two lists; furthermore the Howards are not mentioned as staying in Palo Pinto County before moving to Wichita Falls or Bagwell in either. More: in Howard's short “An Autobiography”, written in 1921, just a few years after the actual events, we can read: “After a few trips, moves, and other adventures which I will pass over as I was too small to take much notice of them, I found myself at Seminole, Texas, just forty miles this side of the New Mexico border. This was prairie country extremely so. Water was scarce there; too scarce, so we moved to Bagwell, Texas, which is between Texarkana and Paris.” (Glenn Lord, (ed.), The Last Celt, 1976, p. 29.)
    There is quite a lot of confusing and contradictory material as to where exactly the Howards were living before Bagwell, but it seems more than likely that the stay in Wichita Falls was a very short one, perhaps even simply a visit to relatives.
    Indeed, the de Camps found “no record of Dr. Howard's medical registration in any of three nearby counties - Wichita, Clay, or Archer.” In fact, the only apparent proof that Robert Howard was once in Wichita Falls comes from the letter to Lovecraft mentioned above: “But of all lousy lands, the Wichita Falls country takes the cake to my mind. There the plains are of white alkali and the glare nearly blinds you. The climate is treacherous. You ride out in the morning in your shirt sleeves, admiring the dreamy slumber of the plains, with the birds singing in the one tree the county boasts, and the heat waves shimmering in the distance; you see a coyote loping along with his tongue hanging out in the heat – and then by noon, maybe, a blue blizzard comes howling over the prairie and freezes your gizzard.” (REH Selected Letters 1923-1930, p. 72)

    Thus, knowing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING of the Howards’ stay in Wichita Falls, de Camp wrote that “the records show that Robert did not enter the first grade until he was eight, and he confirms this fact in his letters. It is probable that he had not recovered from his illness.” (p. 64). One wonders how records can “show that Robert did not enter first grade”... more importantly, it is during this absolutely non-documented stay in Wichita Falls that the de Camps posit that Howard was “ill” at that time (since he didn't attend school, he must have been ill…), and that he was perhaps mistreated by bullies. (For a thorough examination of those two points (childhood illness and bullies) see Rusty Burke's latest contribution).
    On these two invented premises, de Camp could then “safely” write/invent that “When a child, who is fearful to begin with, is placed in a situation like that in North Texas, he has no chance to adjust at all. And this was the tragedy of Howard’s life: time and time again, people or events made adjustment impossible for him.”

    In conclusion, having no knowledge as to when the Howards moved to Wichita Falls, when they left, or even if they lived there, having found no witness, no record and no trace of the Howards there, having, in short, invented a whole chapter of the Howards’ life, the de Camps could write:

“Aware of his son's misery and isolation, Dr. Howard, not surprisingly, accepted an offer to take over Dr. Steven's practice in Bagwell…. Although Bagwell has gone the way of most little railroad towns, in 1914 it was a thriving community.” (p. 66)


    The only thing we could credit the de Camps with, then, would be their finding the exact arrival date of the Howards in Bagwell: 1914. I must admit that, as familiar as I have become with the de Camps’ little tricks, it took me some time to understand that they were actually either ignorant or unsure as to the Howards’ arrival date in Bagwell. To the casual reader, the above passage implies that the Howards arrived in Bagwell in 1914; actually what it says is that Bagwell was a thriving community in 1914, not that the Howards arrived there in 1914…

    In fact, the Howards arrived in Bagwell in early 1913 at the latest: on April 30, 1913, Dr. Howard, of “Palo Pinto County” -- not “Wichita County” -- was granted the right to practice medicine by the District Court clerk of Red River County. 
    In Dark Valley Destiny, the de Camps mention that Dr. Howard accepted to take over Dr. "Steven's" practice. This information comes from an interview with Sam Buzbee, the only Bagwell person the de Camps interviewed for their book. But who was this Dr. Steven?
   Nobody by that name appears in the Red River County census for 1900. Two other candidates offer themselves. There was a "Dr. Reese Stevens" living near what would become the Howard house in Bagwell. Unfortunately nothing more is known about the man. A much likelier candidate is Dr. Willis Walter Stephens, also living in the same precinct at the time...
    The de Camps very probably got Dr. Steven/Stevens/Stephens' name from Sam Buzbee, their only informant of the area. Sam Buzbee lived all his life in the house he was born and was the neighbor of the Stephens. Furthermore, Sam Buzbee informed the de Camps that the Howards lived "in what was known as the old Baker house, just past the Church of Christ" (DVD, p. 66). In one of those extraordinary coincidences, it turned out that this Dr. Stephens was none other than the grand-uncle of Mrs. Sharon Stephens Black, the very lady with whom I had been exchanging e-mails about Bagwell. She writes: "My father (born 1904) often spoke of visiting his own grandfather, Dr. Stephens [Note: also a physician, PL], who lived in a house next door to the Buzbees. He would sit on the porch and point to the big oak tree where he used to play at his grandfather's house. This was just about a block north from the Church of Christ and a bit further north from the old Baker place". Very likely, then, Buzbee remembered that Dr. Howard was this man that had taken over Dr. Stephens' practice.
   There was only one question left: how did Dr. Howard learn that he would find work in Bagwell? The probable answer came from Dr. Howard's and Dr Stephens' past: the two physicians had attended the Gate City Medical School at Texarkana, Bowie County, in the early years of the century. (The school was closed in 1908 after it failed to meet the new standards of the Board of Medical Examiners; the dean, Dr. Decker, re-opened the school in Dallas, but it was closed again a few months later, when he was caught selling forged diplomas. For more information on the very interesting history of the Gate City Medical School, see the informative Medicine in Dallas 100 years ago and the Medical Education page of the Online Handbook of Texas.). 
    Isaac Mordecai Howard and Willis Walter Stephens attended the school between 1902 and 1905: Willis graduated in 1904 and IMH in 1905. It seems tempting to think that the two men - who had apparently much the same temperament - had occasion to share some classes together and develop a friendship. Dr. Stephens' father, himself a physician, left Bagwell in 1910 or 1911, and it's quite possible that Dr. Stephens thought of Isaac Howard to replace him when he found out there was too much work for him to handle alone. 


    The “bullies” from Wichita Falls we already knew to have been invented by de Camp, but the question of Howard’s school-days can now be reformulated: Howard, by his own admission, didn't start school until 1914: "I didn't start to school until I was eight" (REH to H.P. Lovecraft, 06 March 1933). Why didn't he attend school before that, since the Howards settled in Bagwell in the spring of 1913? Could it be that young Robert was indeed ill, as de Camp states ?
    The answer is entirely different: Robert Howard didn't go to school before 1914 simply because school didn't start in Bagwell until you were eight. Howard turned eight in January 1914...
    I am much indebted to Don Kirk, of Sunnivale, Texas, for the following material. Not only did Don commit to paper his father's memories of school-days in the Bagwell school Howard attended, but he also kindly let me use the material for this publication. It is more than probable that Archie and Robert Howard knew each other at school: Archie (born 1901) left Bagwell in 1915. At any rate, here follows a description of school in Bagwell - and when it began - around 1910-1915, when Howard was attending:

"School Days in Red River County"
Memories of William Archie Kirk (1901- 1986)

    We walked to school in Bagwell which was about one mile.  A path was made through the woods to the T&P railroad. A style or steps led over the fence and we could cross the fence without using our hands as we carried school books and a dinner pail.  Mother would pack our school pails with sweet potatoes, butter, boiled eggs, fried sausage, jelly, etc. The iron rails of the track could be heard popping before a train could be seen at the top of the hill.  The train track had a trestle across the creek.  We had to stop, look and listen before starting to cross so we could reach the other end before the train came along. There was not State compulsory education but there was free tuition for every child beginning at eight years. When I started at Bagwell, Texas, the building had three rooms and three teachers.  There was usually one man teacher and two lady teachers. The man was necessary to whip the boys when they became unruly.  Some just went to school when they wanted to and did not pass tests. They were
retained in the same grade and there were some fourth and fifth graders that were 15 or 16 years old. They would play ball, wrestle and have a good time at recess. When I started in the first grade, there was a 21 year old man in the first grade and he had never been to school before. The teacher would read a text book and he would pronounce the words after her.  He loved to play ball, and other games and performed on a trapeze bar.  The boys and girls played separately. The boys would play ball, marbles, spin the top and leap frog. The girls played hop scotch, jump the rope, and whip crack. Sometimes the boys would play along with them.  That was played by lining up, holding hands and  running forward. The strong end would stop and pull back and the other end would gain speed, finally throwing the cracker loose. Sometimes two or three would go tumbling also. They persuaded my brother to be the cracker one time and he was thrown with such force that his collar bone was broken. He probably did not know it and did not complain about the pain because Dad had told us not to play whip crack. The bone healed back but left a knot on his collar bone the rest of his life. In some games, it was announced that the Loser would have to go through the paddling machine. The boys would line up with legs spread apart and when he crawled through, they would spank his bottom and sometimes they would use a board.

Picture below: the Bagwell school circa 1910-1914. There is a possibility that a young Robert E. Howard is among these pupils. (click on the picture for the full-size version)
Bagwell School Picture, ca. 1910-1914, © Don Kirk


    One of the Bagwell residents was to leave a very strong impression on the young Howard. Years later, in 1930, he wrote H.P. Lovecraft:

As regards African-legend sources, I well remember the tales I listened to and shivered at, when a child in the "piney woods" of East Texas, where Red River marks the Arkansaw and Texas boundaries. There were quite a number of old slave darkies still living then. The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon, who was nearly white – about one sixteenth negro, I should say. Mistreatment of slaves is, and has been somewhat exaggerated, but old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals, and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sickens [sic] me to this day when I think of them. [...] And Aunt Mary told how one day, when the black people were in the fields, a hot wind swept over them and they knew that "ol' Misses Bohannon" was dead. Returning to the manor house they found that it was so and the slaves danced and shouted with joy. Aunt Mary said that when a good spirit passes, a breath of cool air follows; but when an evil spirit goes by a blast from the open doors of Hell follows it. She told many tales, one which particularly made my hair rise; it occurred in her youth. A young girl going to the river for water, met, in the dimness of dusk, an old man, long dead, who carried his severed head in one hand. This, said Aunt Mary, occurred on the plantation of her master, and she herself saw the girl come screaming through the dusk, to be whipped for throwing away the water-buckets in her flight. Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men – usually negroes – are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district – usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless [sic] sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe. This motif appears over and over in negro-lore. [...] But through most of the stories I heard in my childhood, the dark, brooding old plantation house loomed as a horrific back-ground and the human or semi-human horror, with its severed head was woven in the fiber of the myths. (REH to HPL, ca September 1930, in Robert E. Howard Selected Letters 1923-1930. The framework for "Pigeons from Hell", perhaps Howard's best horror story, is clearly derived from this account.)
    Mary Bohannon was not a figment of Howard's imagination. Thanks to the efforts of Sharon Black, everything that is likely to be known about Mary has been made into an essay, "Mary Bohannon of Bagwell, Red River Co., Texas", just published in vol XIX, Spring 2002, of the Red River County Genealogical Society Quarterly. This particular essay has several Howard mentions and quotes which will of course interest the Howard scholar and collector. it's also a very fine essay in its own right. (Copies are available from the Red River County Texas Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 516, Clarksville, TX 75426. The price is $3.75 with postage paid in the U.S.A. Add $4.00 for postage outside the U.S.A). 
    Briefly, Mary Bohannon was born in slavery in Kentucky between 1825 and 1836 (she gave different birth dates in almost all census records). Henry C. Bohannon and his wife Pauline had moved to Red River County in the 1850ies. It was there that Pauline died in 1861. If we are to trust Howard's account, she was the "fiend from Hell". Henry died two years later and Mary became the property of his son-in-law. After the Secession War, the white Bohannons all left Red River County, but Mary chose to remain, adopting her former master's name. 
    By 1900, Mary was living very close to Arabella Davis' house. Arabella was another Bagwell resident that had impressed Howard:
And there was one Arabella Davis, I remember, whom I used to see, when a child, going placidly about town collecting washing
- I mean when I was a kid, not Arabella. She was a black philosopher, if there was ever one. Her little grand-daughter tagged after her, everywhere she went, carrying Arabella's pipe, matches and tobacco with as much pomposity as a courtier ever carried the train of a queen. Arabella was born in slavery, but her memories were of a later date. She often told of her conversion, when the spirit of the Lord was so strong upon her that she went for ten days and nights without eating or sleeping. She went into a trance, she said, and for days the fiends of Hell pursued her
through the black mountains and the red mountains. For four days she hung in the cobwebs on the gates of Hell, and the hounds of Hell bayed at her. Is that not a splendid sweep of imagination? And the strangest part is, it was so true and realistic to her, that she would have been amazed had anyone questioned her veracity. (REH to HPL, ca September 1930. Arabella was a mulatto and was born in the 1860ies. The grand-daughter Howard alludes to was likely Ruby, born 1906 or 1907.)
    In 1907, Mary Bohannon sold her house and was listed as living with the family of Lottie Hite Dennis in both the 1910 and 1920 census. Thus, when Howard mentions her as "the cook", it is possible - probable ? - that she was not the Howards' cook, but simply that this was her job.
    Mary Bohannon died on February 27, 1921.


    In January 1915, the Howards left Bagwell for reasons unclear. The elder Dr. Stephens was back in Red River County by 1917 at the latest, and his return, if earlier than that, may have been a sufficient reason for Isaac Howard to move elsewhere. Robert Howard had no pleasant memories of Bagwell: "It rained for weeks at a time; rained until the ground turned green; rained until fish swam around in the roads. I went to my first school there. After awhile, I developed a bad case of nasal catarrh. The swampy country was bad for it, so we went to central west Texas." ("An Autobiography"). Perhaps the climate was indeed the cause for the move, perhaps not. At any rate, the Howards settled in Cross Cut early in 1915.
    It has been stated that Robert E. Howard was prone to invent or exaggerate stories. In the case of Bagwell, one is struck by the closeness between what Howard reported in his writings and the actual events; at least, what we can reconstruct of Mary Bohannon, Arabella Davis, school experiences and the climate. 
   The only really surprising element comes from the length of that stay, which contradicts the idea that Robert Howard's family never stayed very long in the same area before they settled in the Coleman/Callahan/Brown Counties section of the country. The Howards had stayed at least twenty-one months in Bagwell, perhaps more. Quite a long time for a Howard who always wrote that his family was always on the move. When we add to this that the Howards probably never lived in the Wichita Falls area, we begin to wonder if we can really trust Howard when he gives so many locations where his family lived when he was young. 
    One final point: it was during the Bagwell days that Howard developped a taste for strange stories: Mary Bohannon and Arabella Davis told such tales, of course, but also Howard's paternal grand-mother Eliza. It was in 1915 or 1916, Howard told Lovecraft -- that is to say just as he had left Bagwell -- that he wrote his first story... "