A Retrieved Reformation

by O. Henry

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In "A Retrieved Reformation," why did Jimmy Valentine go to Elmore?

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In a rather subtle way, O. Henry shows that Jimmy Valentine is coming to the realization that he is getting to be too well-known in the area around Indiana where he usually commits his safecracking crimes. This is indicated by the fact that he usually got "sprung" from prison in a few months because of his many connections, but when the story opens he has already been serving ten months in prison for a job he pulled in Springfield, Indiana. The Warden seems to know all about Jimmy, including his modus operandi and his social and political connections. The following jocular dialogue by the Warden is revealing:

“Oh, no,” laughed the warden. “Of course not. Let's see, now. How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn't prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society? Or was it simply a case of a mean old jury that had it in for you? It's always one or the other with you innocent victims.”

Then Mike, who runs the restaurant and rooming-house where Jimmy has kept a room, explains:

“Sorry we couldn't make it sooner, Jimmy, me boy,” said Mike. “But we had that protest from Springfield to buck against, and the governor nearly balked. Feeling all right?”

Mike seems to know all about Jimmy's activities, and this suggests that he talks about Jimmy with all the low-life characters who frequent his restaurant. Jimmy wants to keep a low profile, but it is becoming impossible to do so in this region. There is also the probability that his nemesis Ben Price, a detective who works for an agency that provides protection for banks, will be coming after Jimmy again. It was Ben Price who was responsible for Jimmy going to prison for the Springfield job.

So Jimmy decides to move to an entirely different area, set up a legitimate business as a "front," and continue to burglarize safes in a virgin territory. He chooses the town of Elmore, Arkansas at random. He has no special reason for moving to that particular town, but his choice shapes his destiny. He falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Annabel Adams and decides to "go straight" because he knows a girl of her high moral standards would never associate with a criminal. He changes his name to Ralph Spencer and opens a shoe business. He is surprised to find that he is very successful as a businessman. He soon becomes engaged to Annabel and is on his way to being a prosperous small-town family man with a wide circle of respectable friends.

But Ben Price traces Jimmy to Elmore with the intention of arresting him for the four safecracking jobs he pulled after getting out of prison. Ironically, Jimmy "retrieves" his reformation by using his custom-designed safecracking tools to rescue a little girl who has accidentally gotten locked in Annabel's father's bank vault. O. Henry seems to know something about the art of safe-cracking. He spent about three years in a state prison for embezzlement and associated with all kinds of career criminals even after his release. Ben Price is so impressed by the noble sacrifice Jimmy is making in revealing his identity and his obvious safecracking expertise that he decides against making the arrest.

“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now.”

And then Ben Price acted rather strangely.

“Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer,” he said. “Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?”


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