Unknown Friends of Lovecraft–1: Chester Alwyn Mowry

UNKNOWN FRIENDS OF LOVECRAFT:

1—CHESTER ALWYN MOWRY

by Randy Everts

Lewis Judson Boss (1898-1982)

Chester with mother and aunt

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was not quite the hermit that the invert August Derleth wanted to portray him, more in his image than in reality. Many of the persons who met Lovecraft that I have spoken with tell me about his humor, his kindness, his erudition, his sociability. When he attended his first National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston in 1921, Lovecraft appeared as “one sent from Providence” and after speaking extemporaneously in front of the large assembled crowd, he was judged as good a speaker as the historian of the organization, Truman J. Spencer. At this convention, he also had his palm read, answered a psychological questionnaire, and also rode several of the rides (rollercoaster he loved the best) that astounded some of his contemporaries. He also, E. Hoffmann Price told me, loved to ride in his car nicknamed “Juggernaut” and went up in an airplane on a $5 ride on Coney Island.

Many friends and acquaintances of Lovecraft were not aware of the existence of the others in various groups as Lovecraft kept them apart: his writer friends in one group, his Amateur Press Association friends in another, and his childhood friends in a separate group. In this latter group, his Providence Amateur Astronomy friends and his Providence Detective Agency friends are rarely mentioned. One of his longtime friends in the former group was Chester Alwyn Mowry, scion of a rather interesting family and descendant of Roger Williams (which would have endeared him to Lovecraft), the founder of Rhode Island.

Lewis Judson Boss (1898-1982) who was also a member of the various astronomy groups in the 1930s (but who never met Lovecraft) told me that his friend Chester Mowry often spoke of walking at night with Lovecraft on his nocturnal rambles to various parts of Providence. He also told me that Mowry mentioned to him that Lovecraft showed him the churches in northern Providence that he used for the composite of the Church of Starry Wisdom. Since it appears that the tale “The Haunter of the Dark” was written in November of 1935, one can presume that Lovecraft had known Mowry for a long, long time.

Mowry’s great-niece sent me some information about her relative who died before she was born, Chester Alwyn Mowry was a direct descendant of Roger Williams, through Roger Mowry, a Quaker of course, but who did not hesitate to run a Public House, which may have contributed to his domestic downfall. Mowry’s parents, Albert Randall Mowry and Philena (Angell) Mowry lived in Smithfield, Rhode Island where their oldest child, Harold Conrad Mowry was born in 1891. Smithfield was the birth place of the next two children: Angell Tourtellot Mowry (1892-1938) and Maude Estelle Mowry (who died 6 days after she was born in 1894) and Chester Alwyn Mowry who was born after Philena removed to Scituate, R.I. Albert and Philena were divorced when the children were all young, most likely due to his alcoholism and he remained in Smithfield, R.I. The family of Harold C. Mowry reports that Harold had taken the pledge never to touch alcohol and likely Chester A. Mowry was a teetotaler as well, another facet of his personality that would endear him to Howard Lovecraft. Philena took the children to live with her parents in North Scituate where Chester was born on 23 March 1898. She is listed there in the 1900 Census with only Chester at her father Nehemiah Angell’s house with 4 children born and only 3 living and in the 1910 Census as a farmer with her widowed 79-year-old mother Phoebe Angell and two male children, Angell Mowry and Chester Mowry. In the 1915 Census she is listed at her own house with all 3 sons, living on her own income on Danielson Pike. My informant’s family history says that she raised the boys mostly at her parents’ home (by 1915 her mother Phoebe was living with her) where she taught school, sold Larkin Products (not the modern metal clamp and pipe products) and worked at various other jobs to keep their heads above water.

The family history relates that the house in North Scituate where the boys were raised “…was a bit strange. There had evidently been a family rift at some point along the line, so the house was divided in two, but there was only one common front door. My grandmother’s half (Philena’s) had no electricity or running water and she insisted that she didn’t want any of those new-fangled things, but the other side of the house was completely modern. I have always felt that my grandmother’s side had much more character. Also, on my grandmother’s half there was an outbuilding, always referred to as ‘the shop,’ which was a grand place to while away the time. There was a second story, called the shop chamber, where there was a bed, millions of books and magazines, and all sorts of collections like butterflies, rocks, etc., amassed by my uncle Chester, and by my father [Chester’s brother Harold], too. The first floor of the shop consisted of a woodshed and another room which seemed to be a workshop of some kind. There were 60 acres of land on my grandmother’s half, no longer farm land but many highbush blueberries. About a half mile back of the house is a family burying ground [where] my grandmother and Chester are buried, along with assorted family members… Angell, the oldest son, was epileptic, and spent his final days in a mental institution because in those days there was no where else for an epileptic. It was pretty sad for him. My grandmother took me to visit him once. Chester, the youngest, worked in the Post Office in Pawtucket, R.I., and he looked after my grandmother, coming back to North Scituate a couple [of[ times a week. He never married. I don’t know whether he was just disinterested in women or whether he was just never in a financial position to support a wife. He died of a heart attack shortly after I was married.”

Before he died, Chester Alwyn Mowry attended four years of high school in Scituate and was also a school teacher (1918), listed on the WWI Register as “tall, blue eyes, light brown hair.” By the 1920s, Chester was a member of the Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island whose headquarters were the Seagrave Observatory in Scituate. Mowry was also a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers and in 1925 published an article in POPULAR ASTRONOMY with Lewis Judson Boss entitled “The Seagrave Observatory Eclipse Expedition” wherein he and Boss were invited to New Haven, Connecticut to observe the 24 January 1925 solar eclipse and take various measurements and where Mowry used his photographic skills (his great-niece recalls seeing a photo of crashing waves on rocks that “terrified” her that Chester had taken) to take pictures of the eclipse. The Seagrave Observatory (familiar to Lovecraft) is still today on Peep Toad Road in North Scituate, R.I. and on 05 May 1932 the Amateur Society was incorporated at Brown University’s Ladd Observatory (also familiar to Lovecraft) and took the name “Skyscrapers, Inc.” Lovecraft wrote: “Last night I had an interesting view of Peltier’s comet through the 12″ telescope of Ladd Observatory (of Brown U) a mile north of here. I used to haunt this observatory 30 years ago—the director and his two assistants (all dead now—save one asst. now at Wesleyan U. in Middletown, Conn.) being infinitely tolerant of a pompous juvenile ass with grandiose astronomical ambitions! The present object showed a small disc with hazy, fan-like tail. I could have seen it through my own small telescope were the northern sky less cut off from the neighbourhood of 66. The first comet I ever observed was Borelli’s—in Aug. 1903. I saw Halley’s in 1910—but missed the bright one earlier in that year by being flat in bed with a hellish case of measles!” (to Robert H. Barlow, 23 July 1936). The year he wrote Barlow, the society was renamed “The Skyscrapers’ Amateur Astronomy Society of Rhode Island. At the end of that year, Chester A. Mowry is listed as a member and he is also listed as a deceased member of the 34th meeting of the Variable Star Observers in October of 1945.

Chester Alwyn Mowry was clocking in to work on 12 January 1945 at the Pawtucket Post Office when he suffered a heart attack and “dropped dead” right there as a friend of his told me. The exact same age as his friend Howard Phillips Lovecraft.