Monday, April 1, 2013

Capitol Visitor's Center: The Story of O. Henry

William Sidney Porter, the man behind the pen name of O Henry, was born in North Carolina in 1862.  He was a licensed pharmacist when he came to Texas as a young man in 1882.  He was also an avid reader, a bookkeeper, a musician and singer, and had a talent for drawing.

He met his future wife, Athol Estes, on the Capitol grounds during the festivities which marked the placement of the cornerstone of the new Capitol building on March 2, 1885.  She had been selected by her classmates to place souvenirs in the cornerstone, and in that collection she included a locket of her hair.  They married in 1887, although she had already been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Porter worked at the General Land Office (GLO), on the Capitol grounds, from 1887-1891as a draftsman.  Some of his stories bear themes from the days of his work here: Georgia's Ruling and Buried Treasure.  In particular, note the circular staircase and the third floor (unlighted) attic which were instrumental in one of his fictitious stories involving a murder.

The GLO was a place where land sharks could come to search for records with errors and exploit them for financial gain and speculation.  This was both a legal and profitable business.  Porter himself found a sliver of unclaimed land and was able to buy and sell it for profit.

When his job terminated at the GLO, he worked from 1891-1894 at the First National Bank of Austin.   He left to move to Houston and to pursue his writing. Sadly, his wife died in 1897 of tuberculosis, leaving him to care for their daughter Margaret.

Porter's employment at the bank now came under fire.  He was convicted of embezzlement in 1898, and was forced to serve about 3 years in prison as a prison pharmacist.  The head prison guard who befriended him was named Orrin Henry at the Ohio State Federal Penitentiary.  His sentence was reduced and he was released early.

Porter reunited with his daughter Margaret, moved to NYC and began his prolific period of writing prose.  He wrote 300 stories there.  He achieved international fame during his lifetime and is credited with defining the literary art form of the short story.

He never wrote a story that wasn't eventually published, and he claimed to have never rewritten a story.  He was typically paid half in advance for a writing assignment, and often would have to be hounded by his editors when they became desperate to have him write the second half of the story.  

He died at age 47 in 1910.  He was penniless.

Capitol Visitor's Center
112 E 11th St, Austin, TX
(512) 305-8400 ‎ ·