Sydney Porter was not born in Austin, nor did he grow up here (that honor goes to North Carolina), but he moved to Austin in his early twenties and this city was the place where he first pursued an interest in writing. He lived here for over a decade and, in addition to submitting his writing to magazines and newspapers, even started his own short-lived weekly newspaper where he could publish his humorous short stories.
His family moved to Houston in 1895, but not long after that Porter was charged with maaaybe having embezzled funds at the Austin bank where he’d worked.
He fled Texas briefly, first to New Orleans and then to Honduras, but returned to the family home in Austin just seven months later to be with his wife as she lay dying of tuberculosis. Following her death, he surrendered himself to the court, was found guilty, and sentenced to five years imprisonment in Ohio. He continued to have stories published under multiple pseudonyms, but prison was the place where he first used the name ‘O. Henry’.
His good behavior earned him a release from prison after just three years, and he reunited with his daughter at her grandparents’ home in Pennsylvania. He eventually settled in New York, where he wrote and published his best known works. He never did return to live in Texas.
And now in downtown Austin, a home that was briefly occupied by this very prolific author has been turned into a museum, “to collect, preserve and interpret artifacts and archival materials relative to William Sidney Porter, the author otherwise known as O. Henry.”
Amanda and I went there a couple weekends ago. I hadn’t known until I moved to Austin that O. Henry was considered such a cherished ‘local’ boy (there’s even a Pun Off in his honor) and, like many people, I’ve read and loved his work over the years, so I knew I wanted to make it a goal for this year.
Next door to the O. Henry home is another small museum, this one dedicated to Joseph & Susanna Dickinson Hannig.
“Joseph Hannig built this home in 1869 for his new wife, Susanna Dickinson. She survived the Battle of the Alamo and carried the news of its fall to Sam Houston, which ultimately led to Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto and won independence for the Republic of Texas. For this deed, Susanna Dickinson became known as the “Messenger of the Alamo.” Her home was saved, restored and opened as a museum on March 2, 2010, Texas Independence Day.” [source]
In the back of the museum is a small art gallery:
And outside the museum: new Austin art. A new coffeeshop. A changing landscape. A quiet afternoon.