On this day in 1898 William S. Porter went to prison for embezzlement, coming out three years later as “O. Henry.” Porter had published several stories prior to his prison term — in time away from being a pharmacist, cowboy, journalist, bank teller, cartoonist, fugitive, etc. — but the fourteen written behind bars represented a new style and quality, and began his rise to popularity. Porter hoped a pseudonym would keep the disgrace of his criminal record from his young daughter, who was told that he was away on business.
Why Porter settled on “O. Henry” is variously explained: as a drugstore clerk in his teens, Porter would have known of the famous French pharmacist, Etienne-Ossian Henry, whose name appeared in the drug dispensary guide as O. Henry; he took the name from one of his prison guards, Orrin Henry; while courting a young lady he called a stray cat over with “Oh Henry!” and then later wrote about the incident, signing the unpublished piece “O. Henry”; as a ranch hand in his early twenties, he knew the cowboy song “Root, Hog, or Die” and, looking back, perhaps found it apt: “Along came my true lover about twelve o’clock / Saying Henry, O Henry, what sentence have you got?”
Prison gave Porter not only the time to write but the chance to associate with many characters who had stories to tell. He was so popular and well connected in the prison hierarchy that he and bank robber Al Jennings were able to run a secret Sunday dinner club, with roast beef, wine, and place cards. But Porter was a man who liked to sprinkle a little perfume on his handkerchief, and keep some gentlemanly distance; for his release in 1901 he somehow finagled a good suit, a new derby, and pigskin gloves.
Within two years he was established in New York City, writing a story a week for the New York World and living in the nomadic, alcoholic style that would kill him within seven years, aged forty-seven. There were some 300 stories in all, many drawn from Porter’s wandering about New York, his “Baghdad-on-the-Subway,” where “at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.