July 24, 2013

A model prisoner, willing, obedient, faithful

William Sidney Porter was released from the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus [pictured] on July 24, 1901. Found guilty of embezzlement from the bank where he was employed in Austin, Texas, Porter had been sentenced to five years but served only three and a three months. While incarcerated, he turned to his pen to earn a little income as a writer in support of his daughter; in doing so, he chose the pseudonym O. Henry.

Friends and admirers maintained that Porter was innocent throughout the trial; Porter himself offered little one way or another. "I never had so non-communicative a client," recalled one of his lawyers. "He would tell me nothing." His reticence may have been in part due to the recent death of his wife. He had fled the country and moved to Honduras to avoid facing charges but her illness drew him back. She died almost exactly four years before his release. His release was expedited in part because of his willingness to serve as a pharmacist at the prison, earning him much respect for his hard work and commitment to his duties.

Immediately after his sentencing, Porter assured his mother-in-law that he was not guilty "of wrongdoing in that bank matter." He and others believed he should have been acquitted (though it is difficult to explain why he fled the country as an innocent man). "I naturally am crushed by the result [of the verdict]," he wrote, but he said he cared little for public opinion but wish "I would have a few of my friends still believe that there is some good in me." One employee of the prison noted that Porter did not speak of his conviction and seemed "weighed down by his imprisonment" but that he was "a model prisoner, willing, obedient, faithful."

Some of the stories by "O. Henry" were inspired by conversations with inmates and employees of the prison, allegedly including "The Ethics of Pig." In that story, later part of the collection The Gentle Grafter, the narrator Jefferson Peters chats with a man who makes his living by scamming rich people out of their money. In an innocent town called Mount Nebo, which he describes as being like the Garden of Eden, though no one had known "that Adam had been dispossessed," he sees his opportunity. The town was free of crime and immortality — with the exception of a man named Rufe Tatum, a man convicted of manslaughter who was set to be released that day. Peters sees a potential partner in crime in the man (who is best known as a hog thief) but Tatum forgets his role in their money-making plan and instead steals a pig from a circus. When Peters sees an ad for a reward for the stolen pig, he buys it off Tatum for $800. When he goes to turn in the pig, however, he learns the ad is a fake and Tatum has run off with his money. "So there, you see," said Jefferson Peters, in conclusion, "how hard it is ever to find a fair-minded and honest business-partner."


  1. Being a lifelong O.Henry admirer and a Texas writer, I don't know how it is that I didn't know he had roots in the state. I think he's greatly underrated. The stories have concision and often rely on luminous images. It's hard to find a competitor for "The Gift of the Magi."

  2. Shelley, glad to have informed you of O. Henry's Texas connection! And I agree: Every time I grab one of his stories, I'm always impressed. "The Gift of the Magi" is definitely among the best but I have yet to be disappointed by any of them.