By: Brad Dison
When Mary Porter was in her final year of high school, she wrote an essay entitled “The Influence of Misfortune Upon the Gifted.” She had no way of knowing how well that title fit the life of her son, William Sydney Porter. In 1882, twenty-year-old William Sidney Porter decided to relocate from Greensboro, North Carolina to rural Texas to alleviate his persistent coughing. While in Texas, William worked as a laborer on a sheep ranch, as a surveyor, as a newspaper writer and cartoonist at the Houston Post, and finally, in 1891, as a paying and receiving teller for the First National Bank of Austin. During his tenure at the bank, William worked part time on a humorous weekly newspaper of his own creation called The Rolling Stone.
It was while he was working for the First National Bank of Austin that misfortune struck. In 1894, William’s boss accused him of embezzling $1,100.00. William defended himself as well as he could, but the bank’s accounting ledgers were rarely balanced due to its “loose methods.” He explained that he had been a loyal employee of the bank for four years. There was nothing William could say that would save his job. After being fired, William worked on The Rolling Stone full time. He was lucky not to be prosecuted.
In 1895, William moved with his family to Houston to work at the Houston Post after The Rolling Stone failed to turn a profit. William’s luck ran out when the First National Bank of Austin was audited. After reviewing the bank’s ledgers, the federal auditor found evidence of embezzlement. William’s ex-boss told the auditor that William had been fired for embezzling money. William was indicted on the embezzlement charge and arrested in Houston. William’s father posted bail and William was released. His trial was set for July 7, 1896.
On the day before his trial was to begin, after much discussion with his wife, William fled to New Orleans then took a ship to Honduras. At the time, Honduras had no extradition treaty with the United States. William’s wife, Athol, and daughter, Margaret, were to join William in Honduras at a later date. Misfortune struck William again when his wife contracted Tuberculosis. Despite being a fugitive, William quickly returned to Austin to be with his wife. William’s wife, 29-year-old Athol Estes Porter, died on July 25, 1897.
While grieving over the loss of his wife, William stood trial for embezzlement. He tried to persuade anyone who would listen that he was innocent, but on February 17, 1898, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He began serving his prison sentence at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio the following month. It must be noted that William’s predecessor in the job had a nervous breakdown and his successor tried to commit suicide. The First National Bank of Austin, the loosely-run bank in which William was convicted of embezzling money, eventually failed.
William was able to turn the misfortune of prison into a fortunate situation. One newspaper reporter claimed, “The prison term, to a man of Porter’s sensitive temperament and culture—he was of the best blood of Virginia and North Carolina—was crushing, yet it revived and stimulated his genius.” For the entirety of his prison term, William wrote short stories with fervor. He knew no one would publish stories sent from a convicted criminal in the penitentiary, so William enlisted the help of a friend. Each time he completed a story, William mailed it to his friend. Upon receiving it, his friend discarded the prison envelope, addressed a new envelope to William’s publisher, and the publisher was none the wiser. To ensure that no one learned that the stories were written by a convict, William chose a pen name that he had used on occasion.
William’s stories became wildly popular. Newspapers proclaimed after his death that his “name and fame…is secure in American literature. He was one American writer who was touched with the fire of genius. After Poe, he was the greatest American master of the short story, and in depicting American life he excelled Poe and was equal to Mark Twain.” William entered prison “a man chastened by misfortune.” He emerged as an American icon, a man “whose genius had been stimulated and inspired.” William Sydney Porter became famous for stories such as “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and “The Caballero’s Way” in which he introduced his most famous character, Cisco Kid. His pen name was … O. Henry.
1. Austin American-Statesman, August 1, 1897. P.3.
2. The Chattanooga News, November 3, 1916, p.4.