hundred five years after his death, William Sydney Porter – far better
known to the world simply as O. Henry – is still making money off
To explain how a dead man continues to profit from his literary efforts,
it will be necessary to cover some back story before reaching the
sort of “twist at the end” denouement that Porter perfected in many
of his 600 or so short stories.
Born in Greensboro, NC in 1862, Porter -- via Texas, Ohio (federal
prison), Pittsburg (where he started writing full time) and New York
(where he became a noted writer), returned to North Carolina in 1907
at the peak of his career. But the country boy no longer felt comfortable
in the country.
Porter came to Texas in 1882 at the suggestion of a family friend,
one of whose sons, former Texas Ranger Capt. Lee Hall, managed a ranch
in La Salle County. The young Southerner lived on the ranch for two
years before moving to Austin
to work as a draftsman in the General Land Office and later as a teller
at the Austin National Bank. During that time, he published a humor
sheet called “The Rolling
Stone,” which he liked to joke gathered neither moss nor money.
While working at the bank, depending on what story you choose to buy,
Porter either took the rap for someone else’s embezzlement or – beset
by money troubles and alcoholism – he really did dip into the till.
A federal jury believed the latter, and he did three years as a federal
contract prisoner in the Ohio State Prison in Columbus.
Apparently hoping to avoid all that inconvenience in the first place,
he had skipped to Central America following his indictment. But he
was enough of a straight-up guy to come back to Texas to face the
music when he received word that his beloved wife Athol was dying
O. Henry did not remarry until 1907. His met his future bride through
the early 20th century style of online dating, running an ad in several
New York newspapers seeking “an attractive but unconventional lady.”
With Miss Sara Lindsay Coleman of Weaverville, NC, he got both.
She responded to his ad and they began an epistolary romance. Up against
a writer like O. Henry, she didn’t stand a chance. His way with words
ended in their marriage.
The happy couple moved to Weaverville, a community just north of Asheville,
a resort town on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. Alas,
O. Henry did not stay happy, at least not with his native state. Too
accustomed to big city life (read a vast universe of places to drink)
and ready access to his editors and cronies, O. Henry returned to
the Big Apple. Mrs. Porter stayed behind.
Famously telling his nurse to open the shades because he did not want
to “go home in the dark,” O. Henry died on June 5, 1910 of cirrhosis
of the liver, complications from diabetes and an enlarged heart. His
widow had him shipped back to Asheville for burial on the slope of
a hill in Riverside Cemetery.
The house in Weaverville they had lived in when he was in town burned
in 1933, but she built a second place and stayed there the rest of
her long life. She died in 1959 at 91. Later, her family donated some
of the furniture she and O. Henry had shared to the Weaverville Public
Library. One of those items is a round wooden table where O. Henry
would write while in town.
That piece, which has two small plaques attached to it, may be viewed
at the library on Saturdays or by appointment, but O. Henry’s final
resting place can be visited at any time during daylight hours.
He lies beneath a simple, gray granite marker, his own colorful story
reduced on stone to a terseness he never would have settled for on
the printed page. No matter his status as one of the world’s great
short story writers, all there is to be read on his tombstone is “William
Sydney Porter 1862-1910.”
Recently visiting O. Henry’s grave for the first time, I found that
somewhat weathered marker covered with a scattering of coins and one
dollar bill weighted down by other coins. Turns out, at some point
no one in Asheville seems to remember, a clever O. Henry fan left
$1.87 on the writer’s grave and now it is a tradition.
It’s from one of his most timeless tales, “The Gift of the Magi.”
Likely inspired by the money woes he experienced while in Austin,
in O. Henry’s well-known Christmas story a loving husband sells his
cherished gold watch for $1.87 to buy a fine comb for his wife’s beautiful
long hair. Unknown to him, his loving lady cuts much of her hair and
sells it to buy her husband a chain for his watch.
Standing at his grave on a humid late afternoon not long after a thunderstorm
had rumbled through, I dug into my pockets and added six quarters,
two dimes, three nickels and two cents to O. Henry’s non-interest
bearing savings “account.” A writer deserves recompense for his work.
© Mike Cox
- July 30, 2015 Column
Columns | People
| Texas History
| Texas Towns | Texas
by Mike Cox - Order Here