Each age discovers its own O. Henry. Or for that matter, its own William Sydney Porter, the real name of the short story writer who lived a turbulent life, a slice of it in Austin.
Tuesday marks Porter's 150th birthday. The bank teller, ranch hand, actor, cook, pharmacist, illustrator and newspaper publisher was born in Greensboro, N.C., and moved to Texas in 1882 for health reasons. In 1884, he landed in Austin and worked for a time as a draftsman at the General Land Office, the 1857 building that now serves as the Capitol Visitors Center.
Later, while a teller at the First National Bank of Austin, Porter was accused of embezzlement. He jumped bail and fled to New Orleans, then to Honduras. When he learned that his first wife, Athol Estes Porter, was seriously ill, Porter returned to face trial in what is now O. Henry Hall, part of the University of Texas System complex on West Sixth Street. He left Austin a federal prisoner in 1898.
Before his 1919 death, Porter chanced upon more adventures, which became fodder for his playful stories. In his honor, the Austin History Center, the O. Henry Museum and the Capitol Visitors Center have mounted exhibits about the author's complicated life.
On Saturday, the public is invited to "crawl" among the three sites — all within fairly easy walking distance of one another — for historical displays and special events. (A shuttle will also be available.) At 4 p.m., the history center, for instance, stages a mock appeals trial for Porter. The public will serve as jury.
We asked the curators at the three locations — Mike Miller, Kyle Schlafer and Michael Hoinski — to provide some O. Henry trivia, fun facts that readers might not already know.
• Porter earned $100 a month as a draftsman at the General Land Office from 1887 to 1891. That translates to almost $30,000 a year in today's dollars.
• Porter met his future wife on March 2, 1885, at a dance that followed the laying of the Capitol's cornerstone. As part of a souvenir packet, she had placed a locket of her hair in the cornerstone.
• Porter and Estes — she was only 17 at the time — eloped to the Smoot House at 1316 West Sixth St. The best way to view this sprawling, tree-shrouded mansion from the curb is to turn right off West Sixth onto Pressler Street and get out there, noting the parking signs.
• Porter and his friend Eugene Bremond Robinson held a contest to see who could grow the longest mustache.
• Porter purchased stale bread from the Old Bakery at 1006 Congress Ave. to use as pencil erasers.
• He played stringed instruments and sang deep bass in the Hill City Quartette, a serenading parlor band.
• Porter and his wife performed in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. One performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore" took place on a steamship on the Colorado River. The ship started to sink and the cast helped the audience off the boat to safety.
• He hung around the Bismarck Saloon and carved a notch in his favorite table there.
• Porter was a gifted artist. One potential patron offered to pay for him to study art in New York or Paris.
• Porter once went on a state-sanctioned treasure hunt, which inspired one of his stories. A land office document supposedly pinpointed the location of the Lost Bowie Silver Mine. Porter and a co-worker spent a couple of months scouring the Hill Country, but never found the mine.
• Porter served as lieutenant in the local militia company, the Austin Grays, and as a corporal in the Texas Guard unit the Texas Rifles. As part of the second group, he was sent to Fort Worth to guard a railroad depot during a railroad strike.
Contact Michael Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-3970.