July 24th, 1901 – Author O. Henry Released from Jail!

Today-In-History

American author O. Henry was released from prison in Columbus, Ohio on July 24th, 1901 after serving three years for embezzlement from a bank.

O Henry

O.Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter who began working at the First National Bank of Austin in 1891 as a teller and bookkeeper at the same salary he had made at the GLO. The bank was operated informally and Porter was apparently careless in keeping his books and may have embezzled funds. In 1894, he was accused by the bank of embezzlement and lost his job but was not indicted.

William_Sydney_Porter_as_young_man_in_AustinWhile he was in Houston, federal auditors audited the First National Bank of Austin and found the embezzlement shortages that led to his firing. A federal indictment followed and he was arrested on charges of embezzlement. Porter’s father-in-law posted bail to keep him out of jail. He was due to stand trial on July 7th, 1896, but the day before, as he was changing trains to get to the courthouse, an impulse hit him. He fled, first to New Orleans and later to Honduras, with which the United States had no extradition treaty at that time.

In Honduras, William became friends with Al Jennings, a notorious train robber, who later wrote a book about their friendship. He holed up in a Trujillo hotel for several months, where he wrote Cabbages and Kings, in which he coined the term “banana republic” to describe the country, a phrase subsequently used widely to describe a small, unstable tropical nation in Latin America with a narrowly focused, agrarian economy. Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to Austin to live with Athol’s parents. Unfortunately, Athol became too ill to meet Porter in Honduras as he had planned. When he learned that his wife was dying, Porter returned to Austin in February 1897 and surrendered to the court, pending an appeal. Once again, Porter’s father-in-law posted bail so that he could stay with Athol and Margaret.

William_Sydney_Porter_by_doubledayAthol Estes Porter died from tuberculosis (then known as consumption) on July 25th, 1897. Porter had little to say in his own defense, and was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898, sentenced to five years in prison, and imprisoned on March 25th, 1898 at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. Porter was a licensed pharmacist and was able to work in the prison hospital as the night druggist. He was given his own room in the hospital wing, and there is no record that he actually spent time in the cell block of the prison. He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms while he was in prison, but was becoming best known as “O. Henry”, a pseudonym that first appeared over the story “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking” in the December 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers so that they had no idea that the writer was imprisoned.

Porter was released on July 24th, 1901 for good behavior after serving three years. He reunited with his daughter Margaret, now age 11, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol’s parents had moved after Porter’s conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison—just that he had been away on business.


 

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