"The Cop and the Anthem" is a humorous short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It first appeared in print in the New York World newspaper in December 1904 and was republished in the 1906 anthology The Four Million.
The story's protagonist is a homeless man who is known only as Soapy. It is the start of winter and Soapy plans to spend the entire season inside, away from the cold streets. Soapy does not like hostels for the homeless which are run by charitable organizations. For that reason, he plans instead to get arrested for some petty offense and to receive a short jail sentence. Soapy spends a day trying to get arrested and failing at each attempt. When he pauses outside a church and listens to a hymn (the "anthem" of the story's title), Soapy is reminded of better days in the past and hopes for a better future. He has a complete change of heart and decides that he does not want to get arrested after all. A passing policeman, however, has other ideas.
There have been a number of adaptations of the story for film and television.
Although the word "Christmas" does not appear anywhere in "The Cop and the Anthem", references to Soapy having received a new tie at Thanksgiving, which is still in good condition, suggest that the story takes place in early December. Some elements in the story, such as Soapy pausing outside a church and his decision to change his ways for the better (somewhat like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol), have led some readers to connect "The Cop and the Anthem" to the holiday. This connection has been emphasized in some adaptations of the story to other media.
The action takes place in New York City at the beginning of winter. Soapy, a homeless man who sleeps on a bench in one of the city's parks, is starting to feel the cold and wants to get inside. Although there are numerous hostels for the homeless which are run by charitable organizations, Soapy does not like them. At the hostels, Soapy is forced to take baths and behave himself. He much prefers prison, where he has relative freedom to do as he pleases. Therefore, as he has done every winter for several years, Soapy plans to get arrested for a petty crime so that he will receive a short prison sentence.
Soapy decides that the most pleasant way to get arrested is to order a meal which he cannot pay for in a fine restaurant. He does not plan to run up a huge bill because he does not want to make the restaurant staff very angry with him. However, he is looking forward to having duck, wine, cheese, brandy and a cigar. Soapy is confident that he looks presentable enough to get into the restaurant. However, he is not allowed in due to the bad state of his old pants and shoes.
In his next attempt to get arrested, Soapy throws a rock at a shop window. A police officer asks Soapy who broke the window. Soapy replies that he did. The policeman, however, does not believe him because people who break shop windows do not wait around afterwards to get arrested. When he sees a man who is running to catch a streetcar, the policeman takes him to be the culprit and chases after him.
Returning to his original plan, Soapy goes to a more modest restaurant. His old pants and shoes do not prevent him from entering and he orders a simple meal. When he says that he has no money at all, the waiters simply throw Soapy out and the police are not called.
Soapy reasons that he can get arrested if he appears to be making unwanted sexual advances. He follows a young woman and asks her, "Don't you want to come and play in my yard?" Far from being offended, the woman is prepared to go anywhere with Soapy, on the condition that he buys her a beer first.
As evening approaches, Soapy attempts to get arrested by pretending to be drunk and disorderly. He shouts gibberish at the top of his voice. A policeman, however, ignores Soapy, mistaking him for a Yale student who is celebrating his university's victory in a football game.
Seeing an umbrella which a well-dressed man has left in the doorway of a shop, Soapy snatches it. He challenges the well-dressed man to call the police. However, it turns out that the well-dressed man is not the umbrella's rightful owner. He took it from a restaurant that morning. The well-dressed man assumes that the umbrella rightfully belongs to Soapy and allows him to keep it.
On the way back to the park where he sleeps, Soapy passes by a church. He can hear the organist practicing a hymn to be played on the following Sunday and stops to listen. The church is in a quiet part of the city and birds fly around the building. Soapy is reminded of the country churches that he knew in his youth. As he listens to the hymn, Soapy thinks about his mother and remembers the days when he had clean clothes, friends and ambitions. Soapy feels disgusted with himself for what he has become but decides that it is not too late to start again. He decides that he will try to get a job the following day. He remembers that a man offered him a job recently and determines to find that man again.
While Soapy is standing in the street, listening to the hymn and planning his better future, a policeman comes along and arrests him for loitering. The following day, Soapy is sentenced to three months in prison.
A short silent movie adaptation of "The Cop and the Anthem" was released in the United States in 1917.
"The Cop and the Anthem" is one of five short stories by O. Henry to be adapted for the 1952 American anthology film O. Henry's Full House. The segment based on "The Cop and the Anthem", directed by Henry Koster, stars the British actor Charles Laughton as the vagrant, who is given the name of Soapy Drockmorten. So that Soapy can voice his thoughts and feelings, the character of another vagrant, a younger man named Horace (played by David Wayne), is added in the film version as someone with whom Soapy can interact. Horace tries to persuade Soapy to come with him to Florida for the winter instead of attempting to get arrested. Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance as the young woman that Soapy fails to irritate.
The American comedian Red Skelton twice recorded a set of sketches that were based on "The Cop and the Anthem' for television. The first episode of The Red Skelton Show to be called "The Cop and the Anthem", made in black-and-white, was first broadcast on CBS on December 21, 1954. The action takes place on a snowy Christmas Eve. Red Skelton's hobo clown character Freddie the Freeloader replaces Soapy as the episode's protagonist. In much the same way that Charles Laughton's Soapy interacts with Horace, Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader interacts with his friend and fellow vagrant Muggsy (played by Allen Jenkins). Like Horace, Muggsy tries to persuade his friend to accompany him to Florida and discourages him from trying to get arrested. Freddie the Freeloader has his change of heart when he hears a choir sing the Christmas carol "O Come All Ye Faithful". He tells one of the choirboys about how he plans to turn his life around. The boy tells Freddie that his father runs a factory, is always looking for new employees and is certain to give Freddie a job. In order to give the episode a happy ending, the choirboy reassures Freddie that the job will still be open for him when he gets out of jail in ninety days time. The episode was remade in color the following year with largely the same cast. The color remake was first shown on CBS on December 20, 1955.
The animated TV special The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas, which first aired on ABC in the United States on December 7, 1978, is credited as an adaptation of O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem".
- The fact that O. Henry's most famous short story, "The Gift of the Magi", takes place at Christmastime has no doubt led some readers to think of "The Cop and the Anthem" as being a Christmas story also.
- Other segments in the film O. Henry's Full House are based on "The Clarion Call", "The Last Leaf", "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Gift of the Magi".