Today in History: O. Henry released from prison in 1901

July 24th, 2013

Unbeknownst to the public until after his death, famed short story writer O. Henry actually began his prolific writing career while serving a sentence for embezzlement at the State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. On July 24, 1901, the author, born William Sydney Porter, was released on account of good behavior two years ahead of schedule.

The details of O. Henry’s conviction are murky, but the embezzlement charge stems from his time working at the First National Bank of Austin, Texas, from which he resigned in December 1894. O. Henry was summoned to return to Austin and stand trial for embezzling $554.58 from the bank, including a charge that he implausibly embezzled funds nearly a year after he left the bank. Instead of standing trial, O. Henry chose to take a train to New Orleans, all the while vehemently proclaiming his innocence. O. Henry traveled to South America for several years, only returning to Austin to care for his ill wife in 1897, when he turned himself in to the police. In 1898, O. Henry was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, despite the foreman of the Grand Jury and the foreman of the trial jury reporting that they regretted their decision to convict him. 

While incarcerated, O. Henry published his very first serious literary works and developed famous characters including Jimmie Valentine, the hero of “A Retrieved Reformation,” according to the New York Times:

From there he sent out many short stories to the magazines, or rather to a friend in New Orleans who forwarded them to the editors. He had only two stories rejected while he was in prison, and out of the first eight stories that he sent to Ainslee’s Magazine, seven were immediately accepted.

For a classic example of O. Henry’s humorous writing style and trademark surprise endings, read “The Fourth in Salvador,” a story of American patriotism while living abroad.

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