Tuesday, May 29, 2012

III. O.Henry: Prisoner No. 30664

William Sydney Porter stepped into the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio on April 25, 1898. He was thirty-five years of age and signed in as a newspaper reporter and pharmacist. He soon confided in others that his hope for a favorable appellate court decision made prison life tolerable. One author suggests Porter "lived in constant expectation of a pardon"(S, 154).

Chief physician John M. Thomas said, looking back over his experience with over ten thousand prisoners, he had never known a man "who was so deeply humiliated by this imprisonment." As a result, said Thomas, Porter's record was "clear in every respect." Indeed, there was not a single demerit against him (S, 147). Thomas said of Porter, He was a "model prisoner, willing, obedient, faithful" (O, 66)

Porter worked directly under night physician Dr. George W. Willard who considered him "careful and conscientious." Porter's shift was from six at night until six in the morning, but Willard often left him "in charge," knowing things would be run "regularly and effectively" (O, 68-9). Willard also remembered that "nearly every" drug clerk at the prison was "at some time or another" guilty of petty trafficking in drugs or whiskey. But Porter was "always above reproach" (O, 69).

These assessments of Porter had amazing consequences. The Ohio Penitentiary was located downtown. But some of its administration offices were actually in separate buildings, on the same street, but a great distance away ... outside of the prison walls. Only a few trusted prisoners were allowed to work in these offices. And Porter was one of them. He once wrote:
I am about as near as free as possible ... I sleep outside at the office and am absolutely without supervision of any kind. I go in and out as I please. At night I take walks on the street or go down to the river and walk along the paths there (O,72).
Looking over Porter's prison history, one might very well judge his behavior to be that of a man who 1) never should have been in prison to begin with or 2) had certainly rehabilitated. With time off for good behavior, Porter's sentence ended on July 24, 1901. He immediately took a train to Pittsburgh to reunite with his twelve year old daughter.

I. O. Henry: The Early Years
II. O. Henry: Trial and Conviction
IV. O. Henry: The American Writer

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