Sunday, May 16, 2021

A Retrieved Reformation

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From O. Henry: 101 Stories

“In a minute, Jimmy’s pet drill was biting smoothly into the steel door.” Illustration by American artist Arthur I. Keller (1867–1924) for “A Retrieved Reform,” the title of O. Henry’s story when it appeared in the April 1903 issue of The Cosmopolitan. The illustration appeared as the frontispiece to the issue. Click on image to see the entire illustration.
“You probably wonder who I am and why I'm here?” William Sydney Porter said to Al Jennings when the two men met in a Trujillo, Honduras.

“Oh, God, no,” Jennings responded. “In my country nobody asks a man’s name or his past.” Honduras was the only country in Central America without an extradition treaty with the United States, so “every American is a subject of suspicion,” Jennings wrote a quarter century later in an often-cited memoir chronicling (and liberally embellishing) his days with Porter. After a two-year stint as a prosecuting attorney in Oklahoma, Jennings had joined a band of bank and train robbers and, with his brother Frank at his side, became the leader of the notorious Jennings gang. In short, he was a fugitive from the law—as was Porter, the man who would become O. Henry.

Jennings never expected to see Porter again after the two men separated weeks later, so he was stunned when a fellow prisoner in the Ohio Penitentiary greeted him with a nickname bestowed in Honduras: “Colonel, we meet again.” Porter was serving a five-year sentence, having been convicted of embezzling funds from his former employer, the First National Bank of Austin. A pharmacist before he became a bank clerk, O. Henry worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison hospital. “The proudest man I have ever known was standing outside a barred door, dispensing quinine and pills to jailbirds,” Jennings wrote.

Prison was where Porter met many of the men and heard many of the anecdotes that would serve as background for stories about con artists, grafters, thieves, kidnappers, and murderers. In his memoir, Jennings claimed to know the real-life inspiration for one of O. Henry’s most famous characters, Jimmy Valentine, the hero of “A Retrieved Reformation.” Jennings named the prison’s resident safe-cracker, Dick Price, who had been in and out of “stir” since he was eleven and who was then serving a life sentence under Ohio’s habitual offender statute. Price was the man recommended to officials when the treasurer of the Columbus Press-Post Printing Company, during a period of financial turmoil, locked up the firm’s papers in a safe and fled. After suggesting he might earn a pardon from Governor George K. Nash if he get it open without damaging the contents, authorities took the prisoner to the safe. He overcame the combination lock “with his bare hands” in less than fifteen seconds. The governor nevertheless turned down the request for a pardon and, according to Jennings, Price died in prison.

Jennings, who would move to Hollywood many years later and become a moderately successful actor and adviser for Western movies, asserted that he was responsible for relating Price’s story to Porter and introducing the two convicts to each other. Yet, although Jennings claimed that “every newspaper in Columbus was full of the sensational story,” no such articles have yet been found. Some of what Jennings wrote in his memoir is verifiable: he and Porter certainly met in Honduras, they were thrown back together in the pen, and he provided the raw material (possibly in the form of a rough draft) for one of O. Henry’s stories, “Holding Up a Train.” One section of the book, however, details how Porter, alongside the Jennings brothers and other Americans, celebrated the Fourth of July with obnoxious revelry that ended in drunken gunplay—none of which could have happened since Porter wasn’t in Honduras for the Fourth. O. Henry biographer Gerald Langford, who regards much of the memoir as fiction, points out that Jennings seems to have worked into his book entirely imaginary events from such O. Henry tales as “The Fourth in Salvador,” in order to claim that he and his gang inspired the stories. Because Jennings is the only source for the story of Dick Price, it remains unconfirmed whether there ever was a prisoner who cracked a safe for the company that owned one of the most prominent newspapers in Ohio.

A more likely candidate for the original Jimmy Valentine was suggested to O. Henry’s first biographer, C. Alphonso Smith, by George W. Williard, the night doctor who worked alongside Porter in the penitentiary hospital:
The moment I read O. Henry’s description and character delineation of Jimmy Valentine in “A Retrieved Reformation,” I said, “That’s Jimmy Connors through and through.” Connors was in for blowing a postoffice safe. He was day drug clerk in the prison hospital at the same time Porter was night clerk. The men were friendly and often, early in the evening, before Connors went to bed, he would come and talk to Porter and tell him of his experiences.

Although Connors admitted himself guilty of many other jobs, he claimed not to be guilty of the one for which he was serving time. Another man who resembled Connors had blown a safe and Connors was arrested and sent to prison for it. Because of fear of implicating himself in other jobs of which he was guilty, he said, he never told on the other man but went to prison innocent. This statement was borne out early in his term in the penitentiary by the arrival of the sheriff who had sent him up and who, in the meantime, had arrested the real culprit and secured from him a confession. To right his wrong the sheriff went to Washington, but the inspectors knew Jimmy Connors and said he doubtless was guilty of some other jobs and had best stay in prison for safe-keeping. . . .

Poor Jimmy! He never lived to try any sort of reformation on the outside. He died of kidney trouble in the penitentiary hospital, May 19, 1902, which was after Porter left and before Jimmy Valentine became famous in story, play, and song.
Unlike the exploits of “Dick Price,” the life and death of James Connors—whose real name was John Berlo, Jr.—are well documented.

“A Retrieved Reform” appeared in the April 1903 issue of The Cosmopolitan. Six years later, Porter included it in the collection Roads of Destiny with the title “A Retrieved Reformation” and turned over the dramatic rights to theatrical producer George Tyler for $500. In a matter of weeks, the story was adapted for the stage by Paul Armstrong and opened in Chicago as Alias Jimmy Valentine, a melodrama that became an international success, earning the playwright more than $100,000 in a year and even more for the producer. Subsequent productions included two silent film versions in 1915 and 1920; a well-received Broadway revival in 1921; a 1928 part-talkie movie starring William Haines, Leila Hyams, and Lionel Barrymore; two B-movie sequels, The Return of Jimmy Valentine (1936) and The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (1942); and numerous TV and radio productions, including “A Job for Jimmy Valentine,” a long-forgotten 1953 episode of the CBS live performance series Medallion Theatre featuring Ronald Reagan in the title role.

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A guard came to the prison shoe-shop, where Jimmy Valentine was assiduously stitching uppers, and escorted him to the front office. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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