Along the Way: O. Henry

ohenry

I sat in my vehicle until the group left. They were moving in the direction of the grave of Zebulon Vance, so I decided to head toward a different grave I wished to visit. After consulting the map of the cemetery, I had a good idea where I should go.

Initially I thought it would only take a couple minutes. Instead the short trip turned into a grand tour of Riverside Cemetery and, though it had not been 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. Nothing. I wandered around the stones at the top of the hill searching for Porter’s grave with no luck. From the dirt paths that had been worn in the grass, I knew I was not the first to look around for his grave. I cursed my luck softly and wondered why I could not find it.

I finally decided to return to the roadway and start over. Walking back down the steps I noticed something reflecting on a nearby grave. A closer look revealed it was the sunlight reflecting off the blanket of coins on a stone; the stone marked 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 his resting place was at the top of the steps. His grave is just a couple steps off the roadway.

William Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. Early in 1882, Porter moved to Texas in an attempt to rid himself of a persistent cough. While in Texas, he married Athol Estes and 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 that 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. 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 his childhood sweetheart with whom he reunited with during a visit to his home state. Porter’s career ended in 1910. Always a heavy drinker, Porter died on June 5, 1910, due to cirrhosis of the liver mixed with the 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. I was introduced to his works, not through his most famous work, but through one that is often overlooked. “The Last Leaf,” which is about a dying girl who states she will go 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. For those who love westerns, Porter introduced the world to the desperado, The Cisco Kid, in “The Caballero’s Way.”

I finished paying my respects before leaving Porter’s grave, 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….”

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