History

Does Legendary Writer O. Henry Deserve a Pardon?

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The legendary writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry, came to Texas for his health in 1882. By the late 1890s, he was a wanted man, on the run in South America. How Porter went from bank teller to outlaw to literary giant is a tale worthy of one of his own classic stories.

O. Henry, or William Sydney Porter, in his 30s.
O. Henry, or William Sydney Porter, in his 30s.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A 20-year-old Porter came to West Texas from North Carolina, seeking relief from a persistent cough. While working on a sheep ranch in La Salle County as a shepherd and cook, Porter found renewed health. Two years later, Porter moved to Austin, where he worked at the Harrell Cigar Store in the Driskill Hotel. At that time, he also lived with the Harrell family. As legend has it, he chose his pen name, O. Henry, thanks to the family cat. Whenever Porter wanted to pet Henry the cat, he’d call out “Oh, Henry.” Porter’s experiences in Texas also influenced many of his short stories.

It was in Austin that Porter fell in love. He met Athol Estes, the daughter of a wealthy family, on March 2, 1885, while attending the laying of the cornerstone for the Texas State Capitol. The couple eventually eloped together. Their daughter, Margaret, was born in 1889. The family’s residence at 409 E. Fifth St. now serves as the O. Henry Museum.

O. Henry Museum, Austin, Texas.
O. Henry Museum, Austin, Texas.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The trouble began when Porter started his new job as a teller and bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin. The bank’s operations were conducted on an informal basis, and Porter made the fateful mistake of mismanaging the books. The bank accused Porter of embezzling and fired him. Rather than an intentional criminal act, Porter had likely committed an honest—though careless—blunder. It would soon come back to haunt him.

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