Othinel was born in the Oley Valley in Berks County in 1821. He moved to Norristown as a young boy with his parents. As a teenager, he began learning the stone cutting trade. However, from an early age he had an interest in art and drawing. He abandoned stone cutting in 1854 and opened an art studio here in Norristown. In 1855, he began teaching art in the public schools. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted Company E of the 15th PA Cavalry. He fought at Antietam but then came down with typhoid fever. After recovering, he rejoined his regiment and served at Chickamauga and the battles around Chattanooga. After the war, he continued working with students in the schools and was an instructor for a number of years at Oakland Female Institute.