William Sydney Porter and Austin's Original 'Rolling Stone'

Apr 27, 2016

Today's Wayback Wednesday looks back at Austin's onetime Victorian-era literary magazine, The Rolling Stone. The DIY-minded rag published short stories, cartoons and other Onion-esque items, but it is largely known as the first creative sandbox for its publisher, William Sydney Porter.

Porter, a North Carolina transplant who moved to Austin in the late 1880s, worked as a druggist and as a clerk at the General Land Office before he took a job at the First National Bank as a teller. It was during his time as a teller that he started The Rolling Stone in 1894. 

A year later, in April of 1895, Porter printed the last issue after being fired from the bank for embezzling money. Turns out he was using the money to support his enterprise, a crime that would land him time in federal prison, where he would continue writing under his now-famous pseudonym: O. Henry.

Graft aside, Porter showed signs of self-starterdom from an early age. He took up a job at his uncle's pharmacy in Greensboro, N.C. in 1879, when he was 17, and within two years he'd worked his way up to become a certified "dealer of drugs."

A referral letter written by Porter's uncle, a "dealer of drugs."
Credit Austin History Center

The next year, he decided to leave North Carolina for Texas, carrying little more with him than two letters of recommendation — one of which was from his druggist uncle (pictured).

Just a few years later — after time on a sheep farm, a stint as a pharmacist, and a gig at the General Land Office — Porter had joined minstrel group the "Hill City Quartette," had eloped with his wife Athol Estes, and was working as a teller at Austin's First National Bank, where he would start publishing The Rolling Stone in 1894.

That's when things started to get mossy.

“It rolled for about a year and then it showed unmistakable signs of getting mossy," Porter told the New York Times in 1909. "Moss and I never were friends, and so I said goodbye to The Rolling Stone.”

Porter was fired by the bank in 1895 after accusations of embezzlement — though he wasn't indicted — and moved to Houston to take a job as a columnist. Later that year, he was arrested on charges related to the embezzlement, and while awaiting trial in 1896, he fled to Honduras by way of New Orleans. He returned to Austin in 1897 after his wife took ill. He turned himself in, and she died shortly after.

A ghostly image of Porter working as a bank teller at the First National Bank in Austin.
Credit Wikipedia

Porter was sentenced to five years in prison at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1898, where he began writing under the pseudonym O. Henry out of necessity. A little over three years later, he was released and then went on to remarry and have a prolific career as a master short story-writer. Things got mossy again in 1908: His new wife left him. He died two years later after complications from cirrhosis.

Since his death, O. Henry's legacy took on a new light — his Austin home is now a museum, and he's the namesake of both a prestigious short story prize and even a pun-off.

Still, despite numerous attempts, he hasn't garnered a presidential pardon for that embezzlement charge.

Below you can hear the only known recording of Porter's voice from the Austin History Center, and read a collection of clippings from O. Henry's The Rolling Stone from the University of Michigan's library via the Internet Archive.