As we finish our tour of the O. Henry museum in Austin, our tale now turns to embezzlement, prison and the birth of “O. Henry.”
You may recall from our previous post that Will Porter (aka O. Henry) was a colorful character who had a series of jobs while living in Texas, including work at a bank.
Banking regulations were probably more casual back then, and Will was probably not the best bookkeeper, so he came under suspicion for embezzlement and skipped town to New Orleans.
We are giving just a very brief sketch of the embezzlement story, and many websites I’ve read debate Will’s guilt, suggesting that a technicality or the lax bank policies may be to blame. And, if you’ve ever visited an historic home, you know that many guides are very attached to “their people,” glossing over any negative character flaws or “bad behavior.”
So when it came to Will Porter’s embezzlement charges, I thought our tour guide might suggest that our friend Will was framed or that he accidentally misappropriated funds. But when I questioned whether Will was really guilty, our guide said casually, “Oh yeah, we think he probably did it.” Such a refreshing reply!
With his wife was dying of TB, Will returned to Texas where he was arrested and sent to prison in Ohio. While there, he started selling his short stories to New York magazines as a way to support his daughter Margaret, who also developed TB. (That family could not catch a break – Will’s mother died of TB when he was three-years-old).
While serving three years in the Ohio pen, Will picked up the pen name O. Henry. I asked our guide where the name came from, and he said that no one knows for sure. Some speculate the name came from a cat or possibly a prison guard. (Just FYI, the Oh Henry! candy bar debuted in 1920, ten years after Will Porter’s death, and the candy bar’s name likely does not relate to the writer nor to baseball great Hank Aaron).
After prison, O. Henry moved to New York where he found success as a short story writer, publishing hundreds of stories in his lifetime. His stories are known for clever plot twists involving irony and witty puns (The “Annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships” take places every year at the O. Henry museum).
However, O. Henry’s final chapter does not have much of a twist. His final years were filled with financial troubles, illness and alcoholism. He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47.
I enjoyed learning about O. Henry on this Nerd Trip to his former home in Austin, and the visit inspired me to read some of his short stories.
If you are interested in visiting other O. Henry-related locations, there’s a house in San Antonio and several sites in Greensboro, North Carolina, his birthplace. There’s even a hotel there named for him. We’ll need to add these to the Nerd Trips “to-do” list.
Next post: A Bonus Nerd Trip to the house next door to the O. Henry museum. A house with a connection to one of the biggest events in Texas history! Also, click here to read about our visit to the O.Henry World Championship Pun-Off.