Who is Ralph Spencer, and explain why he is the phoenix that arises from Jimmy Valentine's ashes in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation," the detective who waits in the bank for Valentine, impressed with his good deed of opening the safe and saving the little girl, realizes that the criminal that Valentine once was exists no longer. He, therefore, "burns" Jimmy Valentine and allows his present identity of Ralph Spencer to re-emerge, allowing him to walk away a free man.

    In the beginning of the story, when Jimmy Valentine, infamous safe cracker, is released from prison, the warden exhorts him to stop cracking safes and "live straight." But, Valentine disregards this advice and returns to his old room where he pulls from a secret panel his suitcase that contains all his burglar's tools. Then, he returns to his old profession without delay.
    However, after Jimmy learns of a new bank safe having been installed in Elmore, Arkansas, he decides to sojourn there. But, after his arrival, a young lady crosses the street and passes him near the Elmore Bank, and, suddenly, Jimmy "forgot what he was, and became another man." He registers at the hotel as Ralph Spencer and goes into the shoe business. 
    Thinking his past criminal life can be disposed of, Jimmy/Ralph Spencer contacts a friend who can use his safe-cracking tools and arranges to meet him. However, as fate would have it, Jimmy/Ralph finds himself in a predicament. Annabel, the beautiful woman with whom Jimmy/Ralph is engaged, informs him that a small girl named Agatha is trapped in her father's bank safe and is in danger from the loss of oxygen that will soon occur. So, Jimmy Valentine, out of love for Annabel, breaks into the safe and rescues this little girl named Agatha.
    Realizing that he has forfeited his chances of marrying Annabel by identifying himself as a criminal, Jimmy Valentine heads out of the bank. However, detective Ben Price, who originally arrested him, stands near the door, waiting.

"Hello, Ben!"...."Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference now."
"Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer," he said, "Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?"

From this refusal to recognize Jimmy Valentine, emerges the phoenix of Ralph Spencer.

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