Sick Days Essay
Ever since writing those Yellow Jacket posts (here and here), the exact date of Robert E. Howard’s bout with the measles and absence from school has intrigued me. I don’t know why. A surviving medical record says only, “Measles, 21,” indicating that Howard had the disease when he was 21 years old, sometime between January and December 1927. Not too helpful. So I decided to lay out all the pieces of information at my disposal in chronological order, plugging in other relevant information where it seemed to fit best. Maybe that would yield a definitive result.
The first mention of measles in the Howard record comes, of course, from his mom. Hester Howard’s January 4, 1927 letter to Bob states, “There are some cases of measles in Brownwood, and if you begin to feel bad, ache or feverish or anything, go to Dr. Fowler, Bailey or Snyder, or any of these men, & let them go over you to see what your trouble is. Try to be sensible about yourself & keep fit.” Like many young people, Howard appears to have done the exact opposite of what his mother wanted.
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Howard’s friend and roommate at the time, Lindsey Tyson (below), related the measles event to L. Sprague de Camp in an October 10, 1977 letter:
While I am on this Main Street place [the pair’s boarding house] I would like to tell about one thing that amused me. While we were there an epidemic of measles got started; the Powells we were living with had a baby girl who got the disease. The Howards heard about the epidemic and came to take Bob home as he had never had the measles. Bob said this time I damn sure will have this stuff; he did not want to go. He went into a bathroom that the little girl had been using, picked up a glass that the child had probably been using, drank out of it, rubbed a towel over his face that he thought she had probably been using; well, he sure did have the measles, missed school for some time, but came out without any bad effects.
Howard tells a condensed version of the story in his semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs: “The measles hit Redwood [Brownwood] and Steve [REH] was struck down, taking the disease from the Powers’ [Powells’] baby who died.” Since the source of the disease for Howard appears to have been the Powell baby, any information regarding her sickness might prove useful.
The first mention of the Powells’ daughter that I’ve been able to find is in the February 12, 1927 edition of the Brownwood Bulletin—just a quick note in its “Little Items of Local Interest” column: “Nelda June Powell, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. O. L. Powell, is quite sick at the family home, 1214 Main Avenue.” Being “quite sick,” she probably picked up the illness somewhat earlier than the February 12 date of publication.
Another “Little Item” on March 1 pins down the date a bit: “The condition of Miss Nelda June Powell, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. O. L. Powell, 1214 Main Avenue, who has been seriously ill for the past four weeks, is reported more serious today.” If the child had been “seriously ill” for four weeks, that means she had been sick since at least the beginning of February, and possibly not so sick as early as late January, the same month Howard’s mom was warning him about the measles. Time for a little medical research.
According to eMedTV, the measles has an eight to ten day incubation period when the afflicted are not contagious, further: “A person is mildly contagious when he or she first experiences symptoms, and is most contagious about four days before the onset of the measles rash. Some risk of measles transmission lasts until about four days after the rash starts.” And, despite Howard’s drinking out of the Powell baby’s glass and using her towel, he probably didn’t catch the sickness that way: “The virus is rapidly inactivated by heat, light, acidic pH, ether, and trypsin (an enzyme). It has a short survival time (under 2 hours) in the air, or on objects and surfaces.”
So, if the Powell baby’s infectious period began with her symptoms, and the Brownwood Bulletin reported that she had been “seriously ill” since the beginning of February, it seems likely that Howard picked up the virus late in January, possibly early in February. He would then go through his own eight to ten day incubation period and start exhibiting symptoms in mid to late February.
In its “Mortuary” section, the Brownwood Bulletin had one last mention of Nelda June Powell:
Nelda June Powell, sixteen months old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. O. L. Powell of 1214 Main, died at the family home Monday night. Little Nelda June came to bless the home Nov. 3, 1925, and since that time has been a bundle of sunshine to the hearts of her fond parents. Many of the friends and neighbors who had learned to love little Nelda June in her short life on earth will join with the parents in mourning the untimely death of the baby.
The funeral services for little Nelda June were held at three o’clock this afternoon at the Church of Christ and were conducted by Rev. U. R. Forrest, pastor of the church. Immediately following the services in the church the little body will be laid to rest in Greenleaf.
Pall bearers for the funeral services this afternoon are J. Claude Smith, Harvey Jones, O. P. Latta, and Bruce M. Francis.
Post Oaks describes what happened after Howard contracted the disease:
Steve [REH] went back to Lost Plains [Cross Plains] and had as bad a case as any man ever had and lived. He found difficulty in “breaking out” and finally succeeded, after filling his hide with prescription whiskey. He missed some two months of school and spoke as follows of Gower-Penn [Howard Payne]:
“—and when I says to the bursar, I says, ‘I’m goin’ home to have the measles and likely won’t be back for a couple of weeks, do I get a refund on the money that I paid just the other day as tuition for the new term?’ ‘Oh no,’ says she, ‘we don’t refund money for just a few weeks.’ ‘But maybe I’ll be out for months,’ I says, and she says, ‘Oh no, we don’t refund money for just a few months.’ ‘Then will you extend the tuition over into the spring term?’ ‘Oh no,’ says she, ‘we don’t do such as that.’”
So, what records are available from Howard Payne? According to their catalogue, the winter term at HP ended with the term examinations on February 26, 1927. The spring term began on March 1st. There are no grades recorded for either of these terms on Howard’s transcripts. This makes sense. If, as it appears, Howard missed the end of the winter term and the beginning of the spring term, there wouldn’t be any grades; however, his claim to have paid tuition on the winter term “just the other day” is problematic. That term began on November 29, 1926. Of course, the Commercial School may have run a bit differently than the main campus.
Further evidence of Howard’s absence comes from the Yellow Jacket, the school’s newspaper. After a string of Howard yarns, it published “Cupid Vs. Pollux” in the February 10th edition; no stories after that date carry Howard’s byline, though two—“From Tea to Tee” (March 17) and “The Reformation: A Dream” (April 21)—are possibly his. Patrice Louinet is confident that “Tea” is not Howard’s. If that is the case, there are no Howard contributions from February 10 to April 21, which would confirm his alter-ego’s statement that he “missed some two months of school.”
There are a couple of pieces of information that place Howard in Cross Plains, rather than Brownwood, during the month of March. The first is a letter to Robert W. Gordon, who ran the Adventure section “Old Songs That Men Have Sung”; Howard had been sending Gordon old song lyrics for a while. The March 17, 1927, letter with “Cross Plains, Texas” at the head, includes the following personal information: “This time I have an excuse for not having answered your very welcome letter sooner. Measles! Can you feature a grown man being put into retirement for two months by measles?” March 17 was a Thursday in 1927.
The second piece of information comes from Post Oaks:
Steve [REH], as soon as he was convalescent, wrote many rhymes, all of which were rejected. He heard nothing from either Sebastian [Truett Vinson] or Clive [Clyde Smith] until he returned to Redwood [Brownwood].
“Oh yes,” said Sebastian as they walked along the street, “I was intending to tell you—Clive’s married and vanished.”
According to documents unearthed by Charlotte Laughlin in 1979, Tevis Clyde Smith married Echla Laxson (at left) on March 17, 1927—the same day that Howard was in Cross Plains writing a letter to Robert W. Gordon.
And there you have it. It appears that Howard contracted the measles in late January or early February of 1927. His parents came to take him home and he missed school from mid-February through at least late March, and possibly the entire spring term, for which he received no grades and which ended on May 24.