William Sidney Porter, alias O. Henry, is arguably the most famous human being to ever come out of Austin. Porter was not born in Austin, but he began his professional writing career here, as editor and ace reporter for The Rolling Stone, a short-lived weekly humorous paper.
In today's dazzling multimedia world, it's easy to diminish the stature of this short story writer (he was about 5' 6"). But in the days when dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and the 3 cent Sunday paper were the people's principal forms of passive entertainment, every reader in the country knew of O. Henry. Critics compared O. Henry to Edgar Allen Poe and Bret Hart, to Mark Twain and Dickens, to de Maupassant and Kipling. Collections of his 200+ short stories have sold in the tens of millions worldwide and were translated into over a dozen languages. He is the best known English-language writer in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union. There have been produced in the United States alone over 40 different radio and stage dramatizations, 130 movies, and 40 television adaptations of stories like "The Gift of the Magi," "A Retrieved Reformation," and "The Ransom of Red Chief." "The Caballero's Way," a story about a gallant young gunman called The Cisco Kid, has inspired a number of movies, including the "Cisco Kid" movies and TV series and most recently, the 1994 fizzler, The Cowboy Way.
As we mark the centennial of this distinguished word wrangler's career, it's appropriate to take an in-depth look at his formative, early years in south Texas and Austin. While O. Henry's reputation has suffered at the hands of revisionist critics for the last 50-odd years, even his detractors acknowledge him as a master of his niche. Some critics disparage him as rascist, which on occasion he was, but he was also a champion of the poor and oppressed of all races (including women) in many of his stories. Great or not quite so great, he was a very funny writer who had a lot to say about Austin and the rest of Texas, much of which reads relevant today.
It wasn't until the waning hours of O. Henry's short, prolific writing career that anybody had an inkling that the "Caliph of Bagdad-on-the-Subway" (New York City) was really Will Porter of little old Austin, Texas.
O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862. His father, Algernon, was a respected medical doctor; his mother, Mary Jane, was a witty college graduate. After Mary's death in 1865, Algernon gave up his practice to build perpetual motion machines, and relegated his children's care to his mother and his unmarried sister. Porter left school at 15 but continued to read prodigiously. He worked at Uncle W. C. Porter's drugstore, where he learned pill-rolling and soda jerking. By 1881, he was a licensed pharmacist.
Bored by his work and unhappy at home, Porter went to Texas with Dr. James Hall, who went to visit his four sons. Lee Hall, the eldest son, was a famous Texas Ranger and would serve as a model for many of the heros in O. Henry's western stories. Once in Texas, Porter decided to stay; he would live with Richard Hall, who helped brother Lee manage the sprawling Dull Brothers' cattle ranch in La Salle county.
If Porter anticipated high adventure living on the Texas frontier, he soon found range life to be as boring as the Dull Ranch's name. What it lacked in excitement, it made up for in primitiveness and isolation. Cotulla, the nearest town, was 40 miles away. In a letter he wrote to Mrs. Hall, who was back in North Carolina, Porter noted:
Catulla [sic] has grown wonderfully since you left; thirty or forty new houses have gone up and thirty or forty barrels of whiskey gone down. The bar-keeper is going to Europe on a tour next summer and is thinking of buying Mexico for his little boy to play with.
Porter also described to her Richard Hall's new house:
Dick has got his new house done, and it looks very comfortable and magnificent. It has a tobacco-barn-like grandeur about it that always strikes a stranger with awe and during a strong north wind the safest place about it is outside at the northern end.
Another time he wrote her:
Please send by express to this ranch 75 cooks and 200 washwomen, blind or wooden legged ones preferred. The climate has a tendency to make them walk off every two or three days, which must be overcome. Ed Brockman has quit the store and I think is going to work for Lee among the cows. Wears a red sash and swears so fluently that he has been mistaken often for a member of the Texas Legislature.
In your [next] letter be certain to refer as much as possible to the advantages of civilized life over the barbarous; you might mention the theatres you see there, the nice things you eat, warm fires, n------ to cook and bring in wood; a special reference to nice beefsteak would be advisable. You know our being reminded of these luxuries makes us contented and happy. When we hear of you people at home eating turkeys and mince pies and getting drunk Christmas and having a fine time generally we become more and more reconciled to this country and would not leave it for anything. I must close now as I must go and dress for the opera. Write soon.
Porter was a good shot and learned his way around the business end of a cow, so he was accepted by cowboys, but he generally steered clear of roundups, branding and anything else with a passing resemblance to work. Once a week, Porter rode 14 miles to Fort Ewell for the mail, and he occasionally substituted as cook. There were occasional dances at Cotulla and Frio Town. Otherwise, entertainment was what you made of it; fortunately Porter could play guitar and sing, tell funny stories, and draw funny sketches. O. Henry characterized his life on the ranch in "The Last of the Troubadors;" the protagonist, Sam Galloway, was O. Henry himself:
... Sam Galloway's repertoire comprised about fifty funny stories and between thirty and fifty songs. He by no means stopped there. He could talk through twenty cigarettes on any topic that you brought up. And he never sat up when he could lie down; and never stood when he could sit. I am strongly disposed to linger with him, for I am drawing a portrait as well as a blunt pencil and a tattered thesaurus will allow.
I wish you could have seen him: he was small and tough and inactive beyond the power of imagination to conceive. He wore an ultramarine-blue woolen shirt laced down the front with a pearl-gray, exaggerated sort of shoestring, indestructible brown duck clothes, inevitable high-heeled boots with Mexican spurs, and a Mexican straw sombrero.
On a cool, canvas-covered cot in the shade of the hackberry trees Sam Galloway passed the greater part of his time. There he rolled his brown paper cigarettes, read such tedious literature as the ranch afforded, and added to his repertoire of improvisations that he played so expertly on his guitar ... Sam would lie on his cot thinking what a happy world he lived in, and how kind it is to the ones whose mission in life it is to give entertainment and pleasure. Here he had food and lodging as good as he had ever longed for; absolute immunity from care or exertion or strife; and endless welcome, and a host whose delight at the sixteenth rendition of a song or a story was as keen as at its initial giving ...
The Dull Ranch was so big that it took 60 or 70 men, divided into several crews, to fence it in. One time, Lee Hall asked Porter to ride down to the fencing camps and run the commissary tent for a week or so while the regular man, Ed Brockman, went to San Antonio. Times being what they were, Porter accepted, and later related his experiences to Mrs. Hall:
Well, I went down some six or seven miles from the ranch. On arriving, I counted at the commissary tent nine n------, sixteen Mexicans, seven hounds, twenty-one six-shooters, four desperados, three shotguns, and a barrel of molasses. Inside there were a good many sacks of corn, flour, meal, sugar, beans, coffee, and potatoes, a big box of bacon, some boots, shoes, clothes, saddles, rifles, tobacco, and some more hounds. The work was to issue the stores to the contractors as they sent for them, and was light and easy to do. Out at the rear of the tent they had started a graveyard of men who had either kicked one of the hounds or prophesied a norther. When night came, the gentleman whose good fortune it was to be dispensing the stores gathered up his saddle-blankets, four old corn sacks, an oil coat and a sheep skin, made all the room he could in the tent by shifting and arranging the bacon, meal, etc., gave a sad look at the dogs that immediately filled the vacuum, and went and slept outdoors. The few days I was there I was treated more as a guest than one doomed to labor. Had an offer to gamble from the n----- cook, and was allowed as an especial favor to drive up the nice, pretty horses and give them some corn. And the kind of accommodating old tramps and cowboys that constitute the outfit would drop in and board, and sleep and smoke, and cuss and gamble, and lie and brag, and do everything in their power to make the time pass pleasantly and profitably--to themselves. I enjoyed the thing very much, and one evening when I saw Brockman roll up to the camp, I was very sorry, and went off very early next morning in order to escape the heartbreaking sorrow of parting and leave-taking with the layout.
When the Halls liquidated their holdings in 1884, Porter caught the train to Austin. On the eve of his departure, Porter wrote to a friend in North Carolina about the cat's-claw-and-cactus country he was about to forsake.
... I have almost forgotten what a regular old, gum-chewing, ice cream-destroying, opera ticket vortex, ivory-clawing girl looks like. Last summer a very fair specimen of this kind ranged over about Fort Snell, and I used to ride over twice a week on mail days and chew the end of my riding whip while she "Stood on the Bridge" and "Gathered up Shells on the Sea Shore" and wore the "Golden Slippers." But she has vamoosed, and my ideas on the subject are again growing thin.
If you see anybody about to start to Texas to live, especially to this part, if you will take up your scalpyouler and sever the jugular vein, cut out the brachiopod artery and hamstring him, after he knows what you have done for him he will rise and call you blessed. This country is a silent but eloquent refutation of Bob Ingersoll's [Ingersoll was a famous orator and anti-Christian lecturer] theory; a man here gets prematurely insane, melancholy and unreliable and finally dies, in his boots, while in a good old land like Greensboro a man can die, as they do every day, with all the benefits of the clergy.
W. S. PORTER
Once in Austin, Porter made his home with the Joe Harrell family, who also hailed from Greensboro. They accepted him like family. Porter quickly cottoned to life in Austin and blossomed into one of the town's leading socialites.
Porter joined the Hill City Quartette. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was the shortest of the group and sang basso profundo. He worked briefly as a drugstore clerk, then quit in a fit of ennui. Porter was looking for an easier touch, as evidenced in a San Jacinto Day 1885 letter to his friend Dave Harrell, who had moved to Colorado:
Was interviewed yesterday by Gen'l Smith, Clay's father. He wants Jim S. and me to represent a manufactory in Jeff. City: Convict labor. Says parties in Galveston and Houston are making good thing of it. Have taken him up. Hope to be at work soon. Glad by jingo! Shake. What'll you have? Claret and sugar? Better come home. Colorado no good.
Other than an occasional shift as relief clerk in the Harrell family cigar store, Porter did little else in the way of work during his first 2 years in Austin. That was okay with the Harrells, evidently. They continued to indulge him with room and board and even offered to send him to New York to study art.
An old Austin friend described young Porter:
... He had a keen sense of humor, and there were two distinct methods of address which were characteristic with him--his business address and his friendly address. As a business man,his face was calm, almost expressionless; his demeanor was steady, even calculated. He always worked for a high class of employers, was never wanting for a postion, and was prompt, accurate, talented, and very efficient; but the minute he was out of business--that was all gone. He always approached a friend with a merry twinkle in his eye and an expression which said: "Come on, boys, we are going to have a lot of fun," and we usually did.
Being a fine penman, a good accountant, well educated, and with good address, it was an easy matter for him to make a living without working every day and Sunday, too, and most of the evenings besides. While W. S. P. would not have admitted it for the world, I think he really wanted a little more time for love-making. So during the time of our association, he went to work at eight in the morning and quit at four. He always had sufficient money for what he needed; if he had any more, no one knew it. He was very fond of going fishing, but he let you do the fishing after he went. He loved to go hunting, but he let you kill the birds, and somehow I always thought that on these trips he got something out of the occasion that he enjoyed all by himself; they were not occasions which invited the introduction of sentiment, yet I believe his enjoyment of them was purely sentimental. He loved the mountains and the plains; he loved to hear the birds sing and the brooks babble, and all these things, but he did not talk to the boys about it.
He was accomplished in all the arts of a society man; had a good bass voice and sang well; was a good dancer and skater; played an interesting game of cards, and was preeminently an entertainer. There were no wall flowers to Porter, and the girl who went with him never lacked for attention.
I asked him one day why he never read fiction. His reply was: "That it was all tame compared with the romance in his own life," which was really true.
He made no religious professions; he never talked infidelity nor scepticism; he had such a reverence for other people's views that he never entered into religious discussions; and personally he seemed rather indifferent to the subject, though in no wise opposed to it. He rarely ever missed church, and the Hill City Quartette were nearly always to be found in either the Baptist or the St. David's Episcopal Church choirs, though he usually attended church on Sunday evenings at the Presbyterian Church and sang in their choir ...
Porter wrote to a friend about the Quartette's antics in 1885:
... Our serenading party has developed new and alarming modes of torture for our helpless and sleeping victims. Last Thursday night we loaded up a small organ on a hack and with our other usual instruments made an assault upon the quiet air of midnight that made the atmosphere turn pale.
After going the rounds we were halted on the Avenue by Fritz Hartkopf and ordered into his salon (Hartkopf owned the popular Club House Saloon). We went in, carrying the organ, etc. A large crowd of bums immediately gathered, prominent among which were to be seen Percy James, Theodore Hillyer, Charlie Hicks, and after partaking freely of lemonade we wended our way down, and were duly halted and treated in the same manner by other hospitable gentlemen.
We were called in at several places while wit and champagne, Rhine wine, etc., flowed in a most joyous and hilarious manner. It was one of the most recherche and per diem affairs ever known in the city. Nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of the hour, except a trifling incident that might be construed as malapropos and post-meridian by the hypercritical. Mr. Charles Sims on attempting to introduce Mr. Charles Hicks and your humble servant to young ladies, where we had been invited inside, forgot our names and required to be informed on the subject before proceeding.
W. S. P.
Porter would go great lengths to impress the apples of his eye, as his friend recalled.
In the great railroad strike at Fort Worth, Texas, the Governor called out the State Militia, and the company to which we belonged was sent, but as we were permitted a choice in the matter, Porter and I chose not to go. In a little while a girl he was in love with went to Waco on a visit. Porter moped around disconsolate for a few days, and suddenly said to me: "I believe I'll take a visit at the Government's expense." With him to think was to act. A telegram was sent to Fort Worth: "Capt. Blank, Fort Worth, Texas. Squad of volunteers Company Blank, under my command, tender you their services if needed. Reply." "Come next train," Captain Blank commanded. Upon reaching the depot no orders for transportation of squad had been received. Porter actually held up the train until he could telegraph and get transportation for his little squad, because the girl had been notified that he would be in Waco on a certain train. She afterward said that when the train pulled into Waco he was sitting on the engine pilot with a gun across his lap and a distant glance at her was all he got, but he had had his adventure and was fully repaid.
This adventure is only one of thousands of such incidents that commonly occurred in his life. He lived in an atmosphere of adventure that was the product of his own imagination. He was an inveterate story-teller, seemingly purely from the pleasure of it, but he never told a vulgar joke. He told a great many stories in the first person. We were often puzzled to know whether they were real or imaginary, and when we made inquiry his stock reply was: "Never question the validity of a joke."
He went on to relate another tale of impromptu adventure.
One night at the Lampasas Military Encampment of Texas Volunteer Guards, the Quartette, with others, had leave of absence to attend the big ball at the Park Hotel, with orders to report at 12:00 sharp. Somehow, with girls and gaiety and music and balmy Southern breezes and cooing voices, time flies, and before any of us had thought to look at a watch it was five minutes past twelve and we were in trouble. We had all gathered near the doorway looking toward Camp when we saw the Corporal of the guard approaching the building to arrest us. Of course, what follows could never have happened in a camp of tried veterans, but Porter knew the human animal as few people do. He got a friend with an unlimited leave of absence to meet the Corporal's squad at another door and suggest to them that they should not carry the guns in among the ladies. So the squad stacked their guns on the outside and went into the other door to arrest us. Up to this point Porter had worked the thing without taking us into his confidence. As soon as the guns were stacked he beckoned us to follow and we did not stop for explanation. We knew where Porter led there would adventure, if not success. He took command; we unstacked the arms of the Corporal's squad; all our boys who did not carry guns were marched as under arrest. Now none of us knew the countersign, and our success in getting by the sentry was a matter of pure grit. As we approached the sentry we were crossing a narrow plank bridge in single file, at the end of which the sentry threw up his gun and Porter marched us right straight up to that gun until the front man was marking time with the point of the gun right against his stomach. Porter just said to the sentry, "Squad under arrest. Stand aside!" The whole thing was done with such courage, decision, and audacity that the sentry never noticed that we had not given the countersign, but stepped aside and let us pass. A few yards into the camp we stacked our guns and sneaked into our tents. When the real corporal and squad came back to camp and told his story the sentry refused to accept it and had the whole squad placed in the guardhouse for the night. When the boys began to whisper the joke to their comrades in their tents, the disturbance became so great that the Corporal's Guard came down to ascertain the cause of the disturbance, but on looking into the tent found only tired soldier boys snoring as though they had been drugged. There was quite a time at the courtmartial next morning, at which the Corporal and his body were given extra duty for their inglorious behavior on the previous night, but no one ever knew our connection with the story.
In the fall of 1886, Porter went to work as a clerk at the Maddox and Anderson real estate firm. In January 1887, he joined the General Land Office as a draftsman, at the behest of Richard Hall, the newly elected state Land Commissioner. Love had prompted Porter to become a diligent worker, his love for Athol Estes, whose stepfather, Peter Roach, was a prosperous Pecan Street grocer/restaurateur. The glib Porter caught Athol's eye, but her mother viewed Porter as "too Sporty." She preferred his rival, the more stolid Lee Zimpelmann, son of a wealthy German family.
True to his flair for adventure, Porter turned rustler. On July 1, 1887, he picked up Athol and a marriage license, and they eloped to the Reverend Richmond Smoot's house on West 6th, where in his front parlor Smoot reluctantly committed wedlock. Once married, they sought refuge in the home of Charles Anderson (of Maddox and Anderson real estate), who had to mollify the raging Mrs. Roach when she came for her daughter, 'round midnight.
Despite its rocky start, the marriage blossomed. The lively Athol shared Porter's zest for life and encouraged him to write. Porter soon won the affection and support of his reluctant in-laws. Then came 1888. Athol gave birth to a boy, Anson, who lived only a few hours. The birth of their second child, Margaret, in 1889, nearly killed her. The tuberculosis that had killed her father also began to consume Athol.
Athol and Margaret were absent for long spells, visiting relatives in Tennessee or on recuperative vacations. Porter was left to his own evening amusements, which often included lager and dice, and folks not so nice. During his work days at the Land Office, he digested the juicy inside details about a fishy era in Texas history just concluded, the age of the land-sharks, which he later described in "Georgia's Ruling."
... It should not be supposed that all who were termed "land-sharks" deserved the name. Many of them were reputable men of good business character. Some of them could walk into the most august councils of state and say: "Gentlemen, we would like to have this, and that, and matters go thus." But, next to a three years' drought and the boll-worm, the Actual Settler hated the land-shark. The land-shark haunted the Land Office, where all the land records were kept, and hunted "vacancies"--that is, tracts of unappropriated public domain, generally invisible upon the official maps, but actually existing "upon the ground." The law entitled any one possessing certain State scrip to file by virtue of same upon any land not previously legally appropriated. Most of the scrip was now in the hands of the land-sharks. Thus, at the cost of a few hundred dollars, they often secured lands worth as many thousands. Naturally, the search for "vacancies" was lively.
But often--very often--the land they thus secured, though legally "unappropriated," would be occupied by happy and contented settlers, who had labored for years to build up their homes, only to discover that their titles were worthless, and to receive peremptory notice to quit. Thus came about the bitter and not unjustifiable hatred felt by the toiling settlers toward the shrewd and seldom merciful speculators who so often turned them forth destitute and homeless from their fruitless labors. The history of the state teems with their antagonism. Mr. Land-shark seldom showed his face on "locations" from which he should have to eject the unfortunate victims of a monstrously tangled land system, but let his emissaries do the work. There was lead in every cabin, moulded into balls for him; many of his brothers had enriched the grass with their blood. The fault of it all lay far back.
When the state was young, she felt the need of attracting newcomers, and of rewarding those pioneers already within her borders. Year after year she issued land scrip--Headrights, Bounties, Veteran donations, Confederates; and to railroads, irrigation companies, colonies, and tillers of the soil galore. All required of the grantee was that he or it should have the scrip properly surveyed upon the public domain by the county or district surveyor, and the land thus appropriated became the property of him or it, or his or its heirs and assigns, forever.
In those days--and here is where the trouble began--the state's domain was practically inexhaustible, and the old surveyors, with princely--yes, even Western American--liberality, gave good measure and overflowing. Often the jovial man of metes and bounds would dispense altogether with the tripod and chain. Mounted on a pony that could cover something near a "vara" at a step, with a pocket compass to direct his course, he would trot out a survey by counting the beat of his pony's hoofs, mark his corners, and write out his field notes with the complacency produced by an act of duty well performed. Sometimes--and who could blame the surveyor?--when the pony was "feeling his oats," he might step a little higher and farther, and in that case the beneficiary of the scrip might get a thousand or two more acres in his survey than the scrip called for. But look at the boundless leagues the state had to spare! However, no one ever had to complain of the pony under-stepping. Nearly every old survey in the state contained an excess of land.
In later years, when the state became more populous, and land values increased, this careless work entailed incalculable trouble, endless litigation, a period of riotous land-grabbing, and no little bloodshed. The land-sharks voraciously attacked these excesses in the old surveys, and filed upon such portions with new scrip as unappropriated public domain. Wherever the identifications of the old tracts were vague, and the corners were not to be clearly established, the Land Office would recognize the newer locations as valid, and issue title to the locators. Here was the greatest hardship to be found. These old surveys, taken from the pick of the land, were already nearly all occupied by unsuspecting and peaceful settlers, and thus their titles were demolished, and the choice was placed before them either to buy their land over at a double price or to vacate it, with their families and personal belongings, immediately ...
Porter could also look out the northeast window down to Oakwood Cemetery where his son was buried, as the Commissioner of the Land Office often did in "Georgia's Ruling":
The Land Office capped the summit of a bold hill. The eyes of the Commissioner passed over the roofs of many houses set in a packing of deep green, the whole checkered by strips of blinding white streets. The horizon, where his gaze was focussed, swelled to a fair wooded eminence flecked with faint dots of shining white. There was a cemetery, where lay many who were forgotten, and a few who had not lived in vain. And one lay there occupying very small space, whose childish heart had been large enough to desire, while near its last beats, good to others.
Richard Hall chose to run for governor in 1890. He lost. When Hall left the Land Office in January 1891, Porter went too. The new Commissioner hired his own friends and hangers-on. With the help of friends Porter landed a job as teller at George Washington Brackenridge's First National Bank of Austin, despite his total lack of banking experience.
But when it came to making a living, Porter preferred the witty stroke of a pen to stroking greenbacks. Inspired by the international success of Alex Sweet's Texas Siftings, an eight-page humorous weekly begun in Austin in 1881, Porter launched his own humor magzine. In March 1894, he acquired a printing press, a partner, and a moniker: The Rolling Stone: Out for the Moss, which was what they hoped they'd soon be rolling in. After doing his day time at the bank, Porter set to filling The Rolling Stone's eight weekly pages with a burlesque of satire, sketches, squibs, and stories regarding local persons and events.
Dixie Daniels worked with Porter on The Rolling Stone and described the experience, years later:
Porter was one of the most versatile men I had ever met. He was a fine singer, could write remarkably clever stuff under all circumstances, and was a good hand at sketching. And he was the best mimic I ever saw in my life. He was one of the genuine democrats that you hear about more often than you meet. Night after night, after we would shut up shop, he would call to me to come along and 'go bumming.' That was his favorite expression for the night-time prowling in which we indulged. We would wander through streets and alleys, meeting with some of the worst specimens of down-and-outers it has ever been my privilege to see at close range. I've seen the most ragged specimen of a bum hold up Porter, who would always do anything he could for the man. His one great failing was his inability to say "No" to a man.
He never cared for the so-called "higher classes" but watched the people on the streets and in the shops and cafes, getting his ideas from them night after night. I think that it was in this way he was able to picture the average man with such marvellous fidelity.
The Rolling Stone met with unusual success at the start, and we had in our files letters from men like Bill Nye and John Kendrick Bangs praising us for the quality of the sheet. We were doing nicely, geting the paper out every Saturday--approximately--and blowing the gross receipts every night. Then we began to strike snags. One of our features was a series of cuts with humorous underlines of verse. One of the cuts was the rear view of a fat German professor (probably modeled after Professor George Herzog, of Herzog's Orchestra), leading an orchestra, beating the air wildly with his baton. Underneath the cut Porter had written the following verse:
With his baton the professor beats the bars,
'Tis also said he beats them when he treats.
But it made that German gentleman see stars
When the bouncer got the cue to bar the beats.
For some reason or other that issue alienated every German in Austin from The Rolling Stone, and cost us more than we were able to figure out in subscriptions and advertisements.
We got out one feature of the paper that used to meet with pretty general approval. It was a page gotten up in imitation of a backwoods country paper, and we christened it The Plunkville Patriot. That idea has been carried out since then in a dozen different forms, like The Hogwallow Kentuckian, and The Bingville Bugle, to give two of the prominent examples. Porter and I used to work on this part of the paper nights and Sundays. I would set the type for it, as there was a system to all of the typographical errors that we made, and I couldn't trust anyone else to set it up as we wanted it.
Porter used to think up some right amusing features for this part of the paper. I remember that about when we had on hand a lot of cuts of Gilmore, of Gilmore's Band, which played at the dedication of the State capitol at Austin. We would run these cuts of Gilmore for any one, from Li Hung Chang to Governor Hogg.
The Populist Party was coming in for all sorts of publicity at this time, and the famous "Sockless" Simpson, of Kansas, was running for Congress. Porter worked out a series of "Tictocq, the Great French Detective," in burlesque of "Lecoq," and in one story, I remember, had a deep-laid conspiracy to locate a pair of socks in Simpson's luggage, thus discrediting him with his political following.
Among The Rolling Stone's favorite targets were the Germans of Austin. He tweaked them with barbs like
"Who was the author of the line, 'Breathes there a man with soul so dead'? This was written by a visitor to the State Saengerfest in 1892 while conversing with a member who had just eaten a large slice of limburger cheese."
"A German can risk everything that honor, right, and duty calls for. He can stand everything, but he cannot stand thirst."
He dedicated one issue of The Rolling Stone to on-the-spot coverage of the State Saengerfest in Galveston, which among other things revealed Porter's fine ear for dialect:
"Dose Austin vellers vot come mit der Musical Union are vine vellers. Not anywhere haf I seen a Cherman who can stand up mit dem und drink so much peer und haf it but on der schlate."
In the face of The Rolling Stone's mounting bills, Porter's fingers evidently began to stick to some of the bills he handled at the bank. He altered the books as he went along, with the idea of readjusting them later when he repaid the money. A December audit revealed the shortages in his books. His father-in-law and others agreed to make up most of the shortage ($5000) and the bank was content to let the matter slide, but not the federal bank examiner. Embezzlement charges against him would be examined by the grand jury in July 1895.
Without a job, the Porters lived off of the Roaches' generosity and whatever other crumbs of income that Will's occasionally published squibs brought. He tried to keep The Rolling Stonealive by a variety of subterfuges, including a hunt for buried treasure in Pease Park with Dixie and Vic Daniels (See Pease Park and Buried Treasure), but it faded from view at the end of April 1895. Shortly before "suspending" publication, Porter wrote "An Apology" to what remained of his readership:
The person who sweeps the office, translates letters from foreign countries, deciphers communications from graduates of business colleges, and does most of the writing for this paper, has been confined for the past two weeks to the under side of a large red quilt, with a joint caucus of la grippe and measles.
We have missed two issues of The Rolling Stone, and are now slightly convalescent, for which we desire to apologize and express our regrets.
Everybody's term of subscription will be extended long enough to cover all missed issues, and we hope soon to report that the goose remains suspended at a favorable altitude. People who have tried to run a funny paper and entertain a congregation of large piebald measles at the same time will understand something of the tact, finesse, and hot sassafras tea required to do so. We expect to get out the paper regularly from this time on, but are forced to be very careful, as improper treatment and deleterious after-effects of measles, combined with the high price of paper and presswork, have been known to cause a relapse. Any one not getting their paper regularly will please come down and see about it, bringing with them a ham or any little delicacy relished by invalids.
In July, the grand jury no-billed Porter's case and his trouble seemed to melt away like ice in the July sun. He accepted an offer to edit a humorous weekly in Washington D.C., but had to turn it down when Athol's health worsened. She was feeling better when the Houston Post called, and so they moved to the Bayou City, where he quickly became one of the Post's most popular writers. But the federal government persisted in its prosecution of Porter. He was arrested in Houston in February 1896 and taken back to Austin. Out on bail posted by father-in-law Roach, he returned to Houston to care for bedridden Athol and prepare for his July trial. On the day he was to go to Austin for trial, he switched direction at the train station and fled instead to New Orleans, where he hid out for several weeks, before jumping a banana boat to Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the United States. It was a decision that would haunt him the rest of his life. Later he would say, "I am like Lord Jim, because we both made one fatal mistake at the supreme crisis of our lives, a mistake from which we could not recover."
While he cooled his heels and thirst for several months in Tegucigalpa, absorbing experiences that would later manifest themselves in a number of stories that were combined in a 1904 anthology, Cabbages and Kings, tuberculosis consumed his wife in Austin. When it was clear that she was dying, Porter returned to Austin, in January 1897. Because of Athol's condition, the court granted him a new bond and a trial continuance until after Athol's death.
Back in their $4-a-month cottage at 308 E. 4th, Porter's chief pursuit was to take care of his fading Athol, who was, in turn, trying to kindle her husband's slumbering genius before death snatched her away. The Porters were so poor that they couldn't afford to buy Valentine cards, so Porter drew what they needed. One card went to Margaret's playmate next door, little Arthur Raatz.
On Arthur's valentine, Porter sketched Arthur, his mom, and his dad. In the drawing, Arthur is much bigger than his dad, who appears as frowning little gnome. Mrs. Raatz, who wields a giant pair of scissors, is fitting Mr. Raatz for a much larger pair of hand-me-down pants. A story accompanied the sketch:
Mr. Raats was a little old man with cottony hair and a reddish nose. He had a tiny little boy named Arthur. But they called him Tom because it wasn't his name. Mr. Raats made Tom work every day while he himself only smoked his pipe and read the newspapers. Tom worked so hard that he grew so fast that he became so much larger than his father that one day Mrs. Raats got a pair of Tom's old trousers and cut them down to fit Mr. Raats.
The picture shows Tom's glee and the sad face of Mr. Raats, who seems to feel sadly his sad fate. Let all parents take warning and not make their children work when they should be playing.
But Athol thought Will had played enough; it was time for him work toward his destiny. And so she encouraged him as long as she had breath. She died on July 25, unshaken in her belief of Porter's innocence and confident of his eventual success, and was buried next to their infant son Anson in Oakwood Cemetery. Will and Margaret moved in with the Roaches, who continued to encourage his writing efforts. In December, he sold his first story to a national magazine ("The Miracle of Lava Canyon" to McClure's for $10), the first of more than 250 short stories to come.
Porter's trial began in February 1898 in the old federal building that now bears his pen name (O. Henry Hall, 601 Colorado, downtown). Despite his protestations of innocence, Porter was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 5 years in the Ohio Federal Penetentiary; 3 years with good behavior. In April 1898 he left Austin forever to become Prisoner Number 30664. In prison, he became the night druggist and a professional writer. Beginning with "Georgia's Ruling" in 1900, at least a dozen of his stories were published under various pseudonyms before his release in the spring of 1901. He wrote many more letters to daughter Margaret, who remained with the Roaches. She didn't know that her papa was in prison, just that he was away. In the face of brutal prison life, his letters to her were witty and cheerful.
February 14, 1900.
It has been quite a long time since I heard from you. I got a letter from you in the last century, and a letter once every hundred years is not very often. I have been waiting from day to day, putting off writing to you, as I have been expecting to have something to send you, but it hasn't come yet, and I thought I would write anyhow.
I hope your watch runs all right. When you write again be sure and look at it and tell me what time it is, so I won't have to get up and look at the clock.
With much love,
Upon his release from prison, Porter went to live with the Roaches and Margaret, who had moved from Austin to Pittsburgh. He began to write prodigiously and spend prodigiously, on whiskey, poker, expensive clothes, and Margaret. After 3 years of prison drab, he refused to wear less than the best. It was part of his personal reinvention, along with his move to teeming New York City in 1902. He was determined to kill and bury the persona of William Sidney Porter forever. A year later, he was one of the most famous writers in New York City, yet no one knew who he was, or what he looked like. In between bursts of writing for America's most famous magazines, he wandered the streets of New York City as he had in Austin, meeting the people who would later figure in his tales.
Despite the personal anonymity he enjoyed among the New York masses, he still lived with "the horrible fear that some ex-con will come up and say to me 'Hello, Bill; when did you get out of the O.P. [ed. note: Ohio Peneteniary]?'"
Out of that fear, he refused to have his picture taken until shortly before his death. Only then did he acknowledge his true identity. His death came on June 5, 1910, at age 49, caused by diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver, which in turn were the consequences of his two-bottles-a-day drinking habit. Secretive to the end, when the attendant at Polyclinic Hospital asked the incoming, dying Porter what his name was, he supposedly replied, "Call me Dennis. My name will be Dennis in the morning."
He was conscious until the end, and his last recorded words were, "Turn up the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark." Despite O. Henry's fame, he died owing thousands of dollars. His funeral service in New York was attended by a few literary folk, and then he was shipped to Asheville, North Carolina, for burial. In a touch of irony that he would have enjoyed, his funeral service had to be rushed along to make way for a wedding that had been scheduled for the same hour.
Athol and Anson are still interred in Austin's Oakwood Cemetery, next to Peter and Martha Roach, who both lived to ripe old ages. They had returned to Austin in the 1920s to live out their final years.
To complete my tribute to O. Henry, please follow these links.