The Tribulations of Bill Porter
by Charlie Eckhardt

He lived in Kerrville, San Antonio and later in Austin where he published The Rolling Stone. He embezzled money from a bank, hit out in Guatemala, invented The Cisco Kid, and became one of the most famous writers in the world.

ohenry.jpg (28312 bytes)William Sidney Porter was born in South Carolina in the early 1860’s. His father owned a drug store, and once the War was over and Bill was big enough, he worked in that drug store. While he was in his teens, Bill developed the great scourge of the 19th Century – consumption. The lung disease we know today as tuberculosis, is no longer the mass killer it was before about 1940, but it’s still with us. Prior to 1940, tuberculosis was a virtual death sentence with but one reprieve – move to a high, dry climate and pray a lot.

Bill Porter was sent to San Antonio, and a relative found him a job tending sheep in the hills near Kerrville. Kerrville has probably the best climate in what was, at the time, the accessible part of Texas for the treatment of tuberculosis. The state later established the Texas State Tubercular Sanitarium there. Bill’s lungs, not badly damages, recovered quickly. Shortly he came to San Antonio, where he worked for a time in a drugstore.

Bill Porter, like a lot of folks, had a monkey on his back – a compulsion to do something. The ‘something’ was to write – to create, to make stories. We don’t know when the writing bug bit Bill, but by the time he came to San Antone to stay he was thoroughly infected.

At the time New York was not yet the national publication monopoly that it would become in only a few more years. There were a lot of local publications – some locally circulated, some with state-wide, regional and even national circulation. Several of these publications – magazines and tabloids – were published in San Antonio, In addition, San Antonio’s two competing newspapers, The Light and the Express, published Sunday Supplement tabloids weekly, and their supplements carried fiction, much of which was locally written. Porter supplemented his meager drug store income by writing for these publications. Not all of the publications were preserved, and some of his earliest literary efforts have been lost.

Eventually Porter landed a job with the General Land Office, which required him to move to Austin. In Austin he met a young woman named Athol Estes – who, it happened, was consumptive herself. While consumption usually made men appear prematurely aged and gaunt, in its earlier stages it sometimes enhanced a woman’s natural beauty. From all reports, Athol Estes – at least by late 19th century standards – was absolutely gorgeous, and the fine-china pallor that tuberculosis added to her complexion made her all the more beautiful. Bill fell head over heels in love with the girl, and shortly they were married.

There was, of course, no Civil Service in Texas at the time – nor in the United States anywhere – and, as might be expected, all state jobs were political patronage, obtained and retained based on the political clout possessed by the employee or his family. It really didn’t matter how well someone did the job – and Bill Porter seems to have been fairly competent – if someone with political connections wanted a stat job, someone without clout got fired to make room. Bill Porter, newly-wed with a consumptive wife, found himself out of a job.

Bill quickly found a job as a teller in what is now the Austin National Bank, then known informally as ‘the Southern Bank’ or Major Littlefield’s bank’. Explanation: Major George Littlefield, Austin Resident, Confederate veteran, cattleman and philanthropist, started what is now the Austin National Bank. George Breckenridge, San Antonio resident, Union sympathizer, businessman and philanthropist, started what is now the American National Bank in Austin. For several generations Austinites banked by sympathies – ex-Confederates and their families at Major Littlefield’s bank; Yankee sympathizers, and those with no loyalty one way or another, at Breckenridge’s bank. Just for the record, the two Georges cordially despised one another’s innards.

At about the same time he went to work in the bank, Porter bought – pretty much for pennies – the assets of a failed tabloid called The Texas Iconoclast from its editor/publisher, William Cowper Brann. Porter lightened the tone of Brann’s polemic ridden publication and renamed it The Rolling Stone, from the old adage "A rolling stone gathers no moss." From all reports the magazine – it was a tabloid – was a mild success. Porter and a number of his friends with literary inclinations wrote humor, poetry, light essays and short stories for it. One of Porter’s best crafted short stories, a murder tale which he always claimed was based to some extent on fact, was published for the first time in The Rolling Stone. The story, entitled "Bexar Scrip #2692", is set in Austin’s old General Land Office building, and the spiral stone staircase in the building features prominently in the story.

In the meantime Athol’s disease was progressing and she desperately needed treatment which neither her husband nor her family could afford. Bill began to embezzle funds from the bank, which – at least according to one who had reason to know — he bet on horse races in the hope of a big win that would allow him to replace the embezzled money before he was caught and take Athol to a healthier climate for treatment. Unfortunately, Bill was a very poor judge of horseflesh. All the horses he bet on tended to chase other horses.

At length the bank’s cashier, Wesley H. Lyons, found irregularities in Porter’s accounts. An Audit was ordered and Bill was found to have embezzled abut $975. That doesn’t sound like much today, but in those days gold sold for $10 per ounce. The total embezzlement, in today’s dollars, was something over $33,000.

An Austin Grand Jury indicted Porter for the crime of embezzlement. He immediately fled the US for Central America, where he hid – mostly in Guatemala – for about a year. Athol’s health deteriorated drastically during the year, and her family sent him word that she was dying. Bill Porter returned to Austin to be with his wife in her final hours.

Upon his return her was arrested, tried convicted and sentenced to prison on the embezzlement charge. Because he had already fled the country once, it was deemed advisable to put him someplace he couldn’t run away from. The Ohio State Penitentiary had the reputation of being almost escape-proof – General John Hunt Morgan, CSA, and several of his officers put the ‘almost’ in front of ‘escape-proof’ in 1864 – so he was sent there.

Bill Porter was apparently a model prisoner – quiet, unobtrusive, observant and not belligerent. He had a cell mate at one time who was exactly the opposite – an Oklahoma braggart named Al Jennings. Jennings had a big mouth, and he filled Bill’s ears with entirely imaginary stories about his ‘mote outlaw career’ on the Texas border while the law in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado and New Mexico Territory searched high and low for him. Jennings’ actual ‘outlaw career’ lasted a vast four months, during which time he manages – as a part of a gang – to rob one train and one post office, burglarize a store, steal a wagon and a team of horses from a couple of Cherokee kids, and get in possibly the longest – and least fatal – gunfight in the annals of the American West. Whether or not Bill believed these windies remains to be proved, but he listened and remembered. he later took those stories, changed the central character’s name to the Cisco Kid, and published them.

In prison Porter also became acquainted with an older, kindly guard whose surname was Henry, and whose employment records indicated that he used the initial ‘O’ rather than a first name. It was from that kindly guard that William Sidney Porter took the pseudonym by which he is known the world over – O. Henry.

Following his release from prison Bill went to New York, where he rapidly became one of the best and most prolific writers of short fiction in the history of the short story as a literary form. In almost 500 known stories – how many Porter short stories were published and lost in those ‘little’ magazines and tabloids in San Antonio and Austin no one knows – he established himself as the master chronicler of ordinary people and, to some extent, the inventory of the sympathetic criminal as a central character in a story. Besides inventing the Cisco Kid – with Al Jennings’ help – he also created, in a story called "A Retrieved Reformation", the character of Jimmy Valentine, the safecracker who goes straight and then risks his freedom to rescue a child, in the so doing added the expression "he’s a regular Jimmy Valentine" to the American vernacular, meaning an expert safecracker. His story "The Gift of the Magi" is a Christmas classic, and "The Ransom of Red Chief" a classic of the ‘incorrigible kid’ genre. He became known for a distinguishing characteristic – an ironic twist at the end of the story that gives it a surprise – yet not inappropriate ending. To this day, a story with a surprise ending is know as ‘an o-henry’ among writers and editors.

Porter set stories in every place he’d ever lived. "The Halberdier of the Little Rhineschloss" is set in what is today the Little Rhine Restaurant in San Antonio, and another story – certainly one of his lesser efforts – concerns a group of flesh eating vampires who inhabit what is now La Villita, who make chili from the flesh of nubile young women and so live forever. As it ends, the ‘hero’ Sam Tansey – possibly a play on words, since the term ‘pansy’ in the 19th century meant a cowardly or ineffective man – discovers the horror part of the story as all a dream, and when the girl of his dreams comes to the boarding house where both live, ‘accidentally’ turns off the gaslight leaving both of them in the dark in the parlor, and ‘accidentally’ falls into his arms, he’s too scared even to kiss her.

Others are set in the Texas hills northwest of San Antonio. Some are set in Central America. Some are set in a sort of generic ‘Rube country’ which may be anywhere from Georgia to Colorado. Still others are set in New York, and an entire series of stories, usually collected as The Four Million, a reference to the fact that in the early 1900s New York had four million inhabitants, is set there. Only a very few O. Henry stories are set in Austin, and none were set there after he left. Still, "Bexar Scrip #2692", which is set there, is considered one of his finest early stories.

Though Porter’s Austin experience was not a happy one, Austin seems to have adopted O. Henry as its own. The old Estes home is preserved as The O. Henry Museum. The ‘Athol", scratched into a window glass on the house with a pin or pocketknife, is believed to have been put there by Porter himself, and has been carefully preserved.

Nearly 40 years ago a tumbledown shack from deep east Austin was ‘identified’ in some way as "The O. Henry Honeymoon Cottage" and was slated for preservation, but was deliberately burned by vandals before it could be restored. In 1953, when Austin expanded its number of high schools from one to three and its junior highs from four to eight, the junior high build on then then-exclusive west side was name O. Henry. Predictably, the school’s weekly newspaper was called The Rolling Stone.

For some reason, certain people in Austin have had a great deal of trouble accepting the proven fact that Bill Porter – O. Henry – was actually an embezzler. Austin attorney Truman O’Quinn Sr. spent years – and a small fortune – trying to ‘prove’ that someone other than Porter embezzled the money for Major Littlefield’s bank. This, over the years, infuriated a number of people whose ancestors or relatives O’Quinn implied might have been the actual embezzler. Not the least of those was my own, who let O’Quinn know in no uncertain terms how little his implication that Wesley H. Lyons, the bank’s cashier – and Dad’s well-loved Uncle Wesley – might have been the embezzler himself, or might have been covering for the actual embezzler for a share in the stolen money, as appreciation. Dad wasn’t overly fond of his aunt – his mother’s sister, Mrs. Frances Rust Lane Lyons – and had no use whatever for his two cousins from that union, but he loved his Uncle Wesley. Since the family knew very well that Mr. Lyons died broke and left his family impoverished, we were fully aware that Uncle Wesley wasn’t involved in embezzlement.

O. Henry’s known stories have been collected and re-published, both as The Complete Works of O. Henry, and in compilations of groups of related stories, such as The Four Million and The Gentle Grafter. Less than a half-dozen stories, all early ones, have an identifiable Austin setting. There are numerous humorous poems and essays from The Rolling Stone which are identifiable to Austin, including a poem concerning the proliferation of street vendor tamales which implied that they are made of , among other things, "puppydog and kittycat’, but of Austin-set short stories there are very few.

One of the very few Austin-set short stories is the previously-mentioned "Bexar Scrip #2692". Unlike most O. Henry stories, it is neither humorous nor loaded with 19th century bathos, and it is one of the few O. Henry stories that doesn’t have the trademark surprise ending. It is also just about the only O. Henry story in which you can visit the almost-unaltered setting. It is set, almost in its entirely, within the Old Texas General Land Office building, which is located on the southeast corner of the Capital grounds in Austin. The building was copied, almost entirely, from an 11th century Rhein Castle in Germany. Inside – now closed but still visible – is a spiral stone staircase. Visit the historic old building after reading "Bexar Scrip #2692" – and then peer up the darkened staircase down which the murderer dragged his victims’ still bleeding body. For the record, the burial site described in the story is behind the present Louis Shanks Furniture Company on Lamar Boulevard, just south of 10th Street, on the banks of Shoal Creek.