September 1862: The Birth of O. Henry

This Month in North Carolina History

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, is the final resting place for Thomas Wolfe, Asheville native and North Carolina’s most famous author. It is perhaps less well known that Riverside also contains the grave of William Sydney Porter who, under the pen name O. Henry, had gained a national and even an international reputation as a writer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, on September 11, 1862. He was educated by his aunt, Evelina Porter, until he was fifteen, when he left school to go to work in the drugstore of his uncle. He became a licensed pharmacist at nineteen. In 1882 Porter left Greensboro for Texas hoping to improve his health. For almost a decade he worked at a number of jobs, including ranch hand, cook, draftsman, and, ultimately, bank teller. At the same time he began to write short pieces for local newspapers and develop his talent as a cartoonist. In 1895 Porter left his position at the First National Bank of Austin to become a columnist and reporter for the Houston Daily Post. He married Athol Estes in 1887. The couple had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter.

Porter’s life changed dramatically in 1896 when he was indicted for fraud in connection with his work with the bank in Austin. Porter protested his innocence, but, to avoid standing trial, he fled to Central America. Learning that his wife was suffering from an incurable disease, Porter returned to Austin in 1897. After his wife’s death, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary. After serving a little over three years he was released for good behavior in 1901. Working as a druggist in the prison hospital gave Porter the time to continue his writing. His first short story was published in 1898 and others followed. To conceal his identity and imprisonment from his publishers, Porter wrote under several pseudonyms, but the one on which he finally settled was O. Henry. On his release from prison Porter moved with his daughter to New York City, where for the remaining eight years of his life he wrote prodigiously, producing more than 380 short stories, sometimes at the rate of one a week.

O. Henry became one of America’s most popular writers, with an international following as well. Whether his theme was serious or comic, his writing style was casual, light, and playful. He created hundreds of characters from the people he found around him in the west or in New York. Clerks, waitresses, ranch hands, policemen, confidence men – The Four Million, as he entitled one of his collections of stories – were his inspiration. O. Henry was most famous for his surprise endings. In “The Cop and the Anthem” a New York hobo, Soapy, tries repeatedly to get himself arrested so he can spend the cold winter months in the relative warmth of the city jail on Riker’s Island. Discouraged because all of his efforts have failed spectacularly and comically, Soapy sits on a bench and listens to a beautiful anthem being sung in a nearby church. Under the influence of the music Soapy pledges to become a new person and rebuild his life. At that moment a patrolman arrests him for loitering and marches him off to The Island.

Porter’s health began to fail in 1908 under the impact of diabetes and heavy drinking. He traveled to Asheville in an attempt to recuperate and believed he had regained much of his strength while he was there. He returned to New York to resume work, but his health continued to deteriorate. He died on June 5, 1910.


O’Connor, Richard. O. Henry: the legendary life of William S. Porter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Edgar E. Macdonald, “Porter, William Sydney.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Image Source:

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Brinkley’s Doctor Book

A couple of year ago I had the pleasure of writing a “This Month in North Carolina” feature on Dr. John R. Brinkley, a famous or maybe infamous, son of Jackson County, North Carolina. Brinkley made himself a millionaire, in the teeth of the Great Depression, performing an operation which he claimed transplanted goat glands into men to restore virility. I noticed the other day that our copy of Dr. Brinkley’s Doctor Book was being sent to the Library’s Conservation Laboratory for restoration work. Published by Brinkley around 1933, the Doctor Book described and promoted his practice and hospital in Del Rio, Texas. Del Rio is on the Rio Grande, and I have always wondered if Brinkley located there, at least in part, because it was so handy for sudden trips out of the country. At any rate, the Doctor Book is a good example of an item to which no importance was attached when it was published because it was little more than a piece of advertising. As a consequence, our copy is one of the very few left, and it has become very important because of its connection with the history of medicine, or perhaps medical fraud, in the United States. I am pleased to report that our copy is in pretty good shape. The paper has held up well, but the cover has become detached. In my brief study of the life and times of Dr. Brinkley, I enjoyed looking through the Doctor Book. I particularly remember the advice to prospective patients to “bring cash, the Doctor does not take checks.”

August 1831: North Carolina and Nat Turner

This Month in North Carolina History


Beginning in the early hours of Sunday, 21 August 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led about sixty followers in a series of attacks on white families in Southampton County, Virginia. By the time local militia had suppressed the insurrection some 48 hours later more than fifty people had been killed.

The shock waves from Turner’s attack were felt all over the South. Counties in North Carolina were just over the state line from Southampton, and word of the assault spread rapidly along the border. Rumors grew by leaps and bounds as they traveled.

As refugees from Virginia poured into Murfreesboro, North Carolina, a band of rebellious slaves was reported to be within six miles of the town. The militia was called out in Hertford, Halifax, and Northampton Counties. North Carolina’s Governor Montford Stokes was bombarded by reports of violence and requests for weapons. In Edgecombe, Gates, and Chowan Counties white people armed themselves and closely monitored the behavior of their slaves.

As news of Turner’s insurrection spread, reaction began to crop up in areas relatively far removed from the North Carolina-Virginia line. In Duplin, Sampson, and New Hanover Counties, more than a hundred miles from the scene of Turner’s attack, a situation near panic ensued. Frightened by rumors, most of the citizens of the area convinced themselves that there was a general plot among their slaves to rise up and massacre the white population.

Confessions extorted from slaves under torture became the basis for arresting even more slaves who were similarly tortured until they confessed. Wild stories were everywhere. At one point, the town of Clinton in Sampson County was reported burned to the ground and dozens of white families killed. Kenansville in Duplin County braced for an attack by an army of more than 1500 slave insurrectionists. Wilmington in New Hanover County was thrown into a panic by the discharge of a cannon north of the city, and citizens passed a night of near hysterical fear.

Investigation the next day revealed that the gun had been fired by a carousing group of white men. Eventually news of the events in Virginia reached even the far western counties of North Carolina. In Rutherford County, slaves who worked local gold mines were feared to be plotting an uprising.

None of the many rumors of murderous slave insurrections which circulated in North Carolina in August and September of 1831 proved to be true. Terror and death were very real, however, for the state’s African American population. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of slaves or free blacks were arrested, and many were tortured and killed in areas where white peoples’ fear turned into panic and then into violence. Black North Carolinians paid a heavy price for the revolt of Nat Turner.


Charles Edward Morris, “Panic and Reprisal: Reaction in North Carolina to the Nat Turner Insurrection, 1831,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1985 (Volume 62, no. 1).

Robert N. Elliott, “The Nat Turner Insurrection as reported in the North Carolina Press,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1961 (Volume 38, no. 1).

Image Source:

Nat Turner. The confessions of Nat Turner…. Baltimore : T.R Gray, 1831 ([Baltimore] : Lucas & Deaver).

The Case of the Missing Hornet

We often blog about interesting items we find in our collection, but recently an email request sent us looking for an intriguing item which we turned out not to have at all. Published in Davie County, NC, by W. Henry Davis in the early to mid twentieth century, The Hornet advertised itself as “The Hottest Paper For Free-Thinkers in America” and proclaimed “Ultimate Victory for all TRUTH is certain; Final Defeat of all Falsehood is Inevitable.” It turns out that the State Library of North Carolina, the State Archives, and Appalachian State University have issues for some years, but nobody has a complete run. We don’t have a single copy. If any of you have been saving The Hornet and are looking for a good home for your collection, let us know.

Grits Forever

Several years ago David Perry and the late Bill Neal published a brief tribute to a great dish: Good Old Grits Cookbook. I don’t make grits much any more. I don’t have time in the morning for slow cooked grits; I don’t much like quick cooked; and I can’t abide instant. Neal and Perry reminded me, however, that grits are not just for breakfast and fit in nicely with a main dish. I was particularly struck by “eggplant creole,” essentially a vegetable stew served over hot cheese grits. The dish may be a little warm for the summer, but it is at the top of my list for the first cool days of fall.

A History of a Church, in Verse

The other day I came across a 56 page pamphlet about the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, by Max Hamilton. It was titled First Baptist Church: Historical & Current Highlights, 1972. I glanced at it, glanced again, and then began reading. The entire pamphlet is written in rhyming verse.

From the first lines of the introduction …

“The First Baptist Church Historical and Current Highlights
Is a concise package of facts, trials, faith, and heights”

… to the beginning of the last paragraph …

“One Sunday evening at Primary B.T.U.,
The main program was over and it was play-time cue.”

… the whole thing rhymes!!

Many of the rhymes are pretty standard, but others are more of a stretch:

“In June 1919, off Trade Street in Seversville,
A group formed a Sunday School to execute His will.”

So to Hamilton’s rhyming tome I give all praise,
Although it left me in a daze.

Origin Of The “Germans”

A UNC grad and former student assistant of ours recently shared with us some information that may explain the origins of a term much in use at the University through about the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the student dances at UNC were called Germans. There was usually a Fall German and a Spring German. The dances were organized by a German Club, but so far as we can tell, the club had nothing to do with Germany or the German language. So, where did the name come from? Katie Littlefield emailed us that while doing research on customs and traditions at the University she discovered a passage in Phillips Russell’s These Old Stone Walls claiming that dances at Chapel Hill in antebellum times were called balls. After the Civil War they were called Germans, “…led by gentlemen who could carry out elaborate cotillion figures.” While cotillion dances had dropped out of fashion in the early nineteenth century, Katie notes that they were reintroduced in New York society in 1854 and called “German cotillions.” Could the University’s Germans be a long-forgotten abbreviation of German cotillion? We think it may well be so. How about you?

The image above is from the 1906 Yackety Yack.

June 1859: James Buchanan visits the University of North Carolina

This Month in North Carolina History

Campus 1855Wednesday, the first of June 1859, was hot and dry in Chapel Hill The University’s annual commencement exercises had already been going on for two days, and the morning’s program was just winding up when a large party of visitors, tired and covered with dust, arrived from Raleigh. Although late, this party was perhaps the most important part of the graduation ceremonies, because it included James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States and the second chief magistrate to visit the University campus.

In anticipation of Buchanan’s visit the largest crowd ever to have attended graduation gathered in Chapel Hill, putting a serious strain on the resources both of private hosts and public accommodations. Every carriage in the village and surrounding countryside had been pressed into service transporting the crowds, and when they were not sufficient, springless wagons took up the slack in a bone-jarring sort of way. The carriage of the President and official party was drawn by matched horses. Anything that could pull a wagon, including combinations of horses and mules, sufficed for the rest.

Music for the occasion was provided by the Richmond Armory band. In honor of the President, for the first time in its history the University invited a militia company, the Wilmington Light Infantry, to participate in the festivities. Reporters from the New York Herald and the Richmond Dispatch covered the visit, along with several local papers. Difficult as observers of the modern University may find it to believe, in 1859 UNC ignored and neglected the press. One reporter complained of paying two dollars for a ride from Durham in a wagon and then having to sleep on the floor when he got to Chapel Hill.

Buchanan was a hit with the crowds and seems to have enjoyed himself thoroughly. He made several well received impromptu speeches, although he usually spoke from prepared texts. He dined on the lawn of President Swain’s house with members of the senior class, the faculty, and the trustees. He met the public at a reception under the Davie Poplar during which, a University historian points out, the President kissed only one young lady. Perhaps this was noted especially since Buchanan, the only bachelor president, seems to have enjoyed kissing young ladies. The wife of one of his cabinet officers noted that the President “…had a good time in N. Carolina for Mr. T. says he kissed hundreds of pretty girls which made his mouth water.”

Buchanan came to Chapel Hill near the end of his presidency at a time when he was feeling deep unhappiness and frustration in his political life. When he was elected president in 1856 he brought to the office not only his political popularity, but also substantial experience and talent. He had served for years in both the Pennsylvania legislature and the United States House and Senate. He had been U. S. ambassador to Russia and Great Britain and had been Secretary of State under President Pierce. He had for decades been a shrewd leader of the Democratic Party in his home state and the nation. In less than four years, however, his presidency had fallen apart under the stress of sectional animosity. Buchanan was a northern man with southern sympathies. He liked and admired many slave holders and believed slavery to be a benevolent institution. However, he also revered the constitution and federal union. Caught between militant supporters of slavery on the one hand and abolitionists on the other, Buchanan could find no political way out except to appeal to everyone to obey the law. This position satisfied no one and the country moved ever closer to dissolution as his term came to an end.

When Buchanan spoke at Chapel Hill he often referred to his love of the union, the constitution, and the law. Perhaps this is one of the sources of his popularity during the visit. Perhaps North Carolinians, many of whom supported both the federal union and the “peculiar institution” of slavery, could identify with James Buchanan, caught, and increasingly helpless, between veneration of the union and the conflict over slavery.


Klein, Philip Shriver. President James Buchanan: a biography. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, c. 1962.

Battle, Kemp Plummer. History of the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2002.

Auchampaugh, Philip. “A forgotten journey of an antebellum president,” reprinted from Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, July 1935.

Image Source:

[“UNC Campus ca. 1855”] from the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives. File #77-113

May 1898: The Death of Ensign Worth Bagley

This Month in North Carolina History

Bagley-1The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898, accelerated the deterioration of relations between Spain and the United States which had resulted from Spain’s attempt to crush a long-simmering rebellion on the island. On the 19th of April, well in advance of the declaration of war on the 25th, the United States Navy began a blockade of Cuba. U. S. warships patrolled the approaches to every significant Cuban port and began probing coastal defenses.

On the afternoon of May 11, three American ships, the gunboat Wilmington, the torpedo boat Winslow, and the converted revenue cutter Hudson entered Cardenas Bay, about seventy miles west of Havana to confirm the presence of Spanish gunboats in the bay and the creation of new Spanish artillery batteries. Spotting a gunboat tied to a dock in the city of Cardenas, the Winslow moved closer to investigate and suddenly found itself the target of a barrage of shells, fired from the gunboat and hidden artillery on shore. In short order the Winslow‘s steering was shot away and its engines damaged. Attempting to limp away from the Spanish guns, the Winslow signaled for a tow. With shells falling all around them, the Hudson managed to get a tow line to the stricken torpedo boat. As the Winslow was pulled out of range, a final shell exploded on its deck killing three men instantly and mortally wounding two others. One of the men killed, Ensign Worth Bagley of Raleigh, North Carolina, is thought to be the first American naval officer to die in the Spanish-American War.

Bagley entered the U. S. Naval Academy at the age of fifteen in 1889 where he made a name for himself as a football player. Following graduation and a series of typical junior officer assignments, Bagley became secretary to the captain of the Maine, which post he left in November 1897 to become executive officer of the Winslow. The navy hoped for great things from its torpedo boats and service on one was a good choice for a young officer who wanted to distinguish himself.

Bagley’s death was widely reported and caused a sensation in North Carolina. He was buried in Raleigh with the military honors due a brigadier general, and in 1907 a monument was erected to him on Capitol Square. In part this attention stems from Bagley’s family connection. As grandson of a governor and brother-in-law of a powerful newspaper editor and Democratic Party leader, Worth Bagley was clearly part of North Carolina’s political elite, but the reaction to his death also points to the symbolic importance of the Spanish American War. North Carolina had resisted the clamor for war with Spain until after the destruction of the Maine. In the war itself, however, many North Carolinians and other southerners saw a reuniting of the country after the Civil War. Former Confederates volunteered to serve under the American flag—although Joseph Wheeler, once general in the Confederate Army and commander of American cavalry in Cuba, kept referring to the Spanish as Yankees. Worth Bagley, and other young southerners gave their lives in what many saw as a renewal of national allegiance.

Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.

Feuer, A. B. The Spanish-American War at Sea: Naval Action in the Atlantic. Westport, CN: Praeger, c. 1995.

Gibson, George H. “Attitudes in North Carolina Regarding the Independence of Cuba, 1868-1898.” North Carolina Historical Review, 43:1 (January 1966), pages 43-65.

Image Source:
[Front cover of] Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.