Texas is another country...

Texas is another country...I have driven into Texas from all four directions and can affirm that after crossing that imaginary state line you just know you are in Texas . The world becomes wide open space, the sky feels higher, you can stretch out and rest a spell.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

O. HENRY

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 Texas.]
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 Austin 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.

William Sydney Porter wasn’t born in Texas.  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. 

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 La Salle County owned by investors in Philadelphia.  Red was under constant death threat and traveled a lot, covering territory from the Rio Grande to the 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 Williamson County, Will quit the ranching life and moved to Austin, which was then a city of 10,000 people.  He lived with Joe Harrell, another emigrant from Greensboro 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 Capitol Visitors Center) in his stories. 

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 Houston where he had been offered a newspaper job.
The federal government continued their investigation and issued another arrest for embezzlement in 1896.  Will was summoned to Austin and on the train, out of nervousness and fear, he made a terrible decision.  He changed to a train heading for New Orleans and from there he sailed to Honduras.  He wanted Athol and Margaret to join him, but Athol became seriously ill and after six months, Will returned to Austin to sit at her deathbed.
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 Columbus, Ohio.  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 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 New York City.  He lived at 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 New York City of cirrhosis of the liver June 5, 1910.
Along with a courthouse building, Texas honors this very funny, very prolific short story writer with his only museum.  Greensboro has an O. Henry Hotel.  New York has nothing to commemorate him, and I doubt there is a plague in the Ohio federal prison in his honor. 

The O. Henry Museum, located at 409 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.


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