I sat in my vehicle and watched the tour group as they left the grave of Thomas Wolfe, curious to see where they were headed so I would not interfere with their tour. I watched as they headed in the direction of Zebulon Vance’s grave, so I decided to head in a different direction. After consulting the map of the cemetery, I headed toward the resting place of another author who rests in the grounds of Riverside Cemetery. Note: more about Thomas Wolfe can be found here: Thomas Wolfe
Initially I thought it would only take a couple minutes to make the trip. Instead, the short trip turned into a grand tour of Riverside Cemetery and – although it was not my intention – I believe I had the opportunity to drive on every roadway within its borders. Then I discovered a roadway that I had yet to be on. As I slowly came around the bend, I came upon the same group crossing the road near the sign pointing toward the grave of William Sydney Porter. Parking was extremely limited but I managed to find a place where I could get far enough off the road that a vehicle could pass.
I followed the set of steps up the bank and looked around for his grave. At the top of the steps, I wandered among the stones searching for Porter’s grave with no luck. From the dirt paths worn in the grass, I knew I was not the first to search the area for his grave. I cursed my luck and wondered why I could not find it.
Ready to give up, I decided to return to the roadway and start over. As I walked down the steps, I noticed something reflecting on a nearby grave to my left. A closer look revealed it was the sunlight reflecting off the blanket of coins on a stone – it was the stone marking the grave of William Sydney Porter, better known to the world by his pen name, O. Henry.
Note: Once I discovered Porter’s grave, I know why I, and obviously many others, had missed it. The arrow for his grave is at the base of the steps and it was only natural to think that Porter’s resting place was at the top of the steps. His grave is located just a couple steps off the roadway.
William Porter was born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 11, 1862 to Algernon and Mary Jane Porter. Note: It would not be until the late 1890s Porter changed the spelling of his middle name to Sydney with a “y” instead of an “i”.
Early in 1882, Porter left Greensboro and moved to Texas in an attempt to rid himself of a persistent cough. While in Texas, he married Athol Estes on July 1, 1887, much to the displeasure of Athol’s mother – the couple had one daughter, Margaret. Over the next several years, Porter worked a number of jobs, including a shepherd, pharmacist, and journalist.
One job Porter failed miserably at was banking and in 1894 he was charged with embezzlement. His father-in-law posted bail and on the day before the trial, Porter fled to Honduras with his family. Porter sent his wife and daughter back to Texas before beginning work on Cabbages and Kings. When Porter learned his wife was dying from tuberculosis, he returned to Austin and turned himself in. His father-in-law once again posted Porter’s bail so he could be with his dying wife. Porter was eventually convicted of embezzlement and was sentenced to five years in the Federal Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. Because he was a licensed pharmacist, he served his time in the hospital at the prison and was released after three years for good behavior.
It was during his time in prison that he adopted the pen name O. Henry, the name that first appeared on “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” In 1902, the year after his release, Porter moved to New York City and began his prolific writing career, producing a short story almost every week. His stories were – and still are – noted for their twists and turns and surprise endings, which captured the attention of his readers.
In 1907 Porter would remarry. This time it was to Sara Coleman, his childhood sweetheart with whom he reunited with during a visit to his home state. Always a heavy drinker, Porter’s career came to an end at the age of forty-seven, on June 5, 1910, due to cirrhosis of the liver mixed with complications of diabetes. His body was returned to Asheville and buried in the hills of Riverside Cemetery.
Most have been introduced to the writings of O. Henry through “The Gift of the Magi,” which has been a Christmas classic for generations, or “The Last Leaf,” which is about a dying girl who states she will die when the last leaf from the vine falls. “The Ransom of Red Chief,” “The Cop and The Anthem,” and “A Retrieved Reformation” are just a few of his popular works that have been part of films and television shows over the years. In “The Caballero’s Way,” the desperado and hero known as The Cisco Kid, was first introduced. The character would appear in numerous movies and have his own television show.
I finished paying my respects before leaving Porter’s grave, to visit a couple more graves before I would leave the cemetery – and Asheville – behind.
Note: I was asked about why coins are left on graves. There are many different reasons. From a sign of respect to honoring the dead; from recognizing the dues of those who served to paying the ferryman to allow the soul to cross over. I think my mother during our discussions about it may have been closer to the truth about the large amount of coins on Porter’s grave. The answer in this case comes from “The Gift of the Magi,” which opens with the following lines: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time.”