Excerpt from “Hearts and Crosses” by O. Henry, aka, William Sydney Porter. [From Heart of the West, O. Henry’s collection of short stories set in
Baldy Woods reached for the bottle, and got it. Whenever Baldy went for anything he usually--but this is not Baldy's story. He poured out a third drink that was larger by a finger than the first and second. Baldy was in consultation; and the consultee is worthy of his hire.
"I'd be king if I was you," said Baldy, so positively that his holster creaked and his spurs rattled.
Webb Yeager pushed back his flat-brimmed Stetson, and made further disorder in his straw-coloured hair. The tonsorial recourse being without avail, he followed the liquid example of the more resourceful Baldy.
You don’t hear much about O. Henry any longer, unless you’re part of the Pun-Off Contest in
or you’re talented
and lucky enough to write a short story chosen for the O. Henry Prize. But that doesn’t make O. Henry any less of a
storyteller or any less hilarious than he always was. He
rivaled Mark Twain in both those areas and in the area of heavy drinking and
sadness too. Austin
William Sydney Porter wasn’t born in
. No sir, but Texas is the only place you will find a museum that
honors him and maybe that’s because Texas is where he was railroaded into federal prison. Texas
Will Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. He worked in a drug pharmacy in his youth and was well liked for his stories and cartoons. His health and his itch to roam brought him to Texas at age 20 to join his boyhood friends, Dick Hall and Lee “Red” Hall, on a ranch in La Salle County about 90 miles southwest of San Antonio. Red Hall was a renowned Texas Ranger, and he and Dick managed a ranch in
owned by investors in La Salle County . Red was under constant death threat and traveled a lot, covering
territory from the Philadelphia to the
Grande Red River hunting desperadoes. Will admired Red and anytime a Texas Ranger played a part in an O. Henry story, he was patterned after Red Hall.
On the ranch, Will Porter shared an 8’ x 35’ ranch house with Dick Lee and his wife. For two years, Will herded sheep, learned to lasso, break horses, and become fluent in Spanish.
When Dick Hall got hired to manage a ranch in
, Will quit the ranching life and moved to Williamson County , which was then a city of 10,000 people. He lived with Joe Harrell, another emigrant
from Austin and first worked in a tobacco store, then a
pharmacy. When Dick Hall was elected
Land Commissioner in 1887, he hired Will to work as a draftsman because of his
drawing skills. The capitol building was
still under construction, but Will immortalized the General Land Office
building (now the Greensboro ) in his stories. Capitol Visitors Center
That same year, Will Porter married Athol Estes. Their only child, Margaret Worth Porter, was born in 1889, and the four years he was working at the Land Office and living with his wife and daughter were the happiest of Will's life. During that period, he started a magazine called “The Rolling Stone,” which was in print less than two years.
In 1881, Dick Hall ran for governor and lost to Jim Hogg. His tenure complete, Hall left the Land Office and Will Porter took his ill-fated job with the Austin National Bank (located at the northwest corner of Sixth and Congress).
Will Porter worked at the bank for almost three years, and apparently, the bank was run on the honor system. While employees were out to lunch, customers felt free to enter the bank and help themselves to whatever money they needed, sometimes forgetting to leave a note. No one worried much about the inconsistencies in the books until there was a federal audit in 1894.
|Will at Austin National Bank|
Will’s accounts were short on a couple of days, but all his life he would protest any and all accusations of theft. His father-in-law offered to make up any discrepancies which made the bank happy, but a federal prosecutor decided to hound Will anyway. The first grand jury failed to indict, and Will moved his family to
where he had been offered a newspaper job. Houston
The federal government continued their investigation and issued another arrest for embezzlement in 1896. Will was summoned to
and on the train, out of nervousness and fear, he made a terrible
decision. He changed to a train heading
for Austin and from there he sailed to New Orleans . He wanted Athol and Margaret to
join him, but Athol became seriously ill and after six months, Will returned to
Honduras to sit at her deathbed. Austin
It’s a lot easier for a jury to find a person guilty if they have run away, and suffering from guilt and grief over the death of his wife, Will did nothing to defend himself. He was charged with embezzling on different three days:
Oct. 10, 1895 ($554.48), Nov. 12, 1894 ($299.60),
and Nov. 12, 1895 ($299.60). The charges were
combined on the indictment. Interesting to note is that
Will Porter left his employment with the bank in 1894 and was living and
working Houston by Nov. 1895. No matter,
he was found guilty and given the minimum sentence – five years in the federal
penitentiary in . The appellate court stated that
since the charges were combined and he was given the minimum sentence for one
charge only, that even if the false charge of Columbus, Ohio Nov. 12, 1895 was removed, he would still receive the five years.
It is a bit ironic that the US Courthouse at 601 Colorado Street in Austin where Will Porter was tried and convicted is now known as O. Henry Hall.
In prison, Will Porter became more prolific as a writer and sold a lot of stories, but he had to sell his stories under a pseudonym. He tried several before committing to O. Henry.
When he was released from prison, Will sought the anonymity of
. He lived at New York City 55 Irving Place (1/2 block from the NY home of Washington Irving), now torn down. And he lived at 28 West 26th Street, still standing.
William Sydney Porter, beloved as O. Henry, died in
of cirrhosis of the liver New York City June 5, 1910.
Along with a courthouse building,
honors this very funny, very prolific short story
writer with his only museum. Texas has an O. Henry Hotel. Greensboro has nothing to commemorate him, and I doubt there
is a plague in the New York federal prison in his honor. Ohio
The O. Henry Museum, located at
E. 5th Street,
Austin, Texas, is housed in the small Victorian house that Will Porter shared
with his wife and daughter. The house was actually moved to the spot where it
is now because the land was sold and benefactors wanted to save this period of
history. It’s a romantic place and they
hold special events at Christmas. And, each
year in May, the O. Henry Museum holds the Pun-Off World Championship.