Thursday, May 24, 2012

II. O.Henry: Trial and Conviction

In Mid-December 1894, there were signs that there were complications with William Porter's accounts at the First National Bank (Austin). That is also when he "suddenly" resigned from his position as teller. In the background, it was rumored / known that his humor weekly, The Rolling Stone, was struggling financially, and that, on occasion, Porter was prone to gamble.

F.B. Gray, the federal bank examiner, insisted on prosecution over the initial protests of Robert U. Culberson, the U.S. Attorney in Austin, who insisted that, at most, Porter may have made a "series of mistakes" without any criminal intent (O, 46, 47).  Officers of First National, including the Vice President, also let it be known that they did not believe Porter had committed any crime (O,47). So, while Gray did appear before a grand jury, in July of 1895, and dramatically accused William S. Porter of embezzlement from bank funds, the members of the grand jury didn't buy it.

Seven months later, Gray managed to have the case resubmitted. This time, he claimed to have found no less than 50 instances in which William S. Porter "unquestionably embezzled" funds amounting to $5,654.20. As impressive as that display may have been, the eventual indictment, however, contained a mere three counts amounting to slightly more than a thousand dollars. More specifically, the flowing amounts were reported missing on the associated dates:

Case Number 1174, October 10, 1894 - $544.48
Case Number 1148, November 12, 1894 -  299.60
Case Number 1175, November 12, 1895 - 299.60

Porter was arrested in Houston and jailed in Austin. Although he was released on bail, Porter consulted with no attorneys previous to trial (O, 53). On July 6, 1895, he boarded a train for Austin, exited at a station fifty miles short of the target and fled toward New Orleans. From there, the fugitive made his way to Honduras, where he may have met the notoriously self-promotional Al Jennings, a supposed Wild West, movie-reel out-law (and gubernatorial candidate) who eventually received both a commutation of sentence (McKinley) and a pardon (Roosevelt). One author notes, "had [Porter] gone he would have certainly have been acquitted" (S,136)

Upon hearing that his wife was near death, Porter returned home in January of 1897. The complete stenographic transcript of the trial has been lost (O, 64), but it began on February 7th. Porter plead guilty but communicated very little with his attorneys throughout the process. Gray, the indefatigable federal bank examiner, testified. Ten days later, the jury found Porter guilty on all three counts and the Judge sentenced the thirty-five year old to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary. Federal prisoner 30664 stepped into his cell on April 25, 1898, and the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals on December 13. Porter remained in prison just over three years, until July 24, 1901.

See Also:
I. O.Henry: The Early Years
III. O.Henry: Prisoner 30664
IV. O. Henry: The American Writer

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