O. Henry Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: William Sydney Porter advanced the state of American short stories and made his pen name of O. Henry synonymous with surprise endings. In a little more than one decade, he published more than two hundred stories in magazines and books, some of which are still well known one century later.

Early Life

The life of William Sydney Porter was much like the literature he wrote as O. Henry: a short story punctuated by unforeseen twists. His opening took place in the North Carolina mountain town of Greensboro, where he was born in the midst of the Civil War and grew up under the postwar occupation government.

His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, had a well-known drinking problem and no medical degree, but he was known as the best doctor in the county. His mother, Mary Jane Virginia Swaim, died of tuberculosis when Porter was only three years old. Porter and his older brother Shirley (“Shell”) were mostly raised in their grandmother’s boarding house by their Aunt Lina, a schoolteacher who encouraged Porter’s love of books. By age ten, he was reading Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. At fifteen he left school and became an apprentice pharmacist in his uncle’s drugstore, just as his father had done. Four years later, he was a licensed pharmacist.

In March of 1882, Porter went to Texas with family friends, hoping that the Texas climate would help his persistent, racking cough. He spent two years on the Dull-Hall Ranch near Cotulla, where he lived as a sheltered guest in Dick Hall’s home doing very little real ranch work. He sent some stories and letters to Greensboro, some of which appeared in the local newspaper.

In 1884, the Halls deposited Porter in Austin, the state capital. He worked briefly in a pharmacy and then part-time in a cigar store, but mostly he did little for two and one-half years but socialize, sing in a quartet and church choirs, and serenade women. Late in 1886, he was given a job as a real-estate bookkeeper. He learned this job quickly, but soon moved to a $100-per-month job as a draftsman in Hall’s new Texas Land Office. Many of his later stories drew on the experiences of his four years there. In January, 1891, Hall had lost his gubernatorial bid, so his job as land commissioner and Porter’s job as draftsman both ended. Within one month, however, Porter’s friends got him a new job as a bank teller, also at $100 per month.

Meanwhile, Porter’s serenading had been fruitful. A rather normal-looking but foppish man at a height of 5 feet 7 inches, with broad shoulders, blue eyes, chestnut brown hair, and a fashionable mustache, he eloped with young Athol Estes on July 1, 1887, less than three weeks after her graduation from high school. Athol apparently stimulated Porter into more frequent writing, as he sold some humorous items to the Detroit Free Press in 1887. On May 6, 1888, they had a son who died only hours after birth. This seems to have begun the decline in Athol’s health that finally resulted in her death nine years later. On September 30, 1889, she bore their only other child, Margaret.

Life’s Work

In March, 1894, Porter and a partner bought a struggling scandal sheet and its press and used it to publish humorous commentary and stories, many of them poking fun at the large German community of central Texas. They soon changed its name to The Rolling Stone, stimulating Austin through the next twelve months.

A crucial change in Porter’s life began in December, 1894, when bank examiner F. B. Gray uncovered shortages in the accounts and charged him with embezzlement of bank funds. Porter left the bank to spend more time with The Rolling Stone, but it folded in April. In July, a grand jury refused to indict Porter, but Gray persisted.

In October, 1895, Porter accepted a new job writing for the Houston Post. In February, 1896, Gray succeeded in getting four indictments against him. Porter wrote his last Houston Post column on June 22. On July 6, he boarded a train heading up to Austin for his trial; after fifty miles he apparently got off and, hours later, boarded an eastbound train to seek anonymity in New Orleans, Louisiana. With his excellent command of Spanish, he decided that he could build a new life in Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the United States, and that he could then send for his wife and daughter to join him there until the statute of limitations expired. Honduras was at that time a stereotypical banana republic but politically more stable than most of its neighbors. Once there, he mixed with the swindlers, bank presidents, confidence men, and other brigands who would later populate some of his stories. The pueblo of Trujillo, Honduras, later became Coralio, Anchuria, in his Cabbages and Kings (1904).

The flaw in Porter’s Honduras plan was that Athol’s tuberculosis was too serious to let her leave her mother’s care. In January, 1897, he returned to Austin. He posted a new court bond and spent the next several months caring for his wife until, on July 25, she died. Porter stayed in Austin writing freelance articles and stories. He finally went to trial on February 15, 1898. The evidence seems to imply that Porter was innocent but unwilling to implicate others. However, the jury convicted him on three counts, and he was sentenced to the lightest possible term, five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

When he became prisoner 30664 on April 25, 1898, he showed the strains of the past two years, during which he had lost his young wife, his home, his job, and his good name. The good news, though, was that he was allowed to work in the night shift of the prison pharmacy, leaving him plenty of time to write stories. It was there that he was to really begin the writing career that brought his fame. The twist, however, was that the more famous he became, the more he feared that people would discover his imprisonment. He submitted his stories through friends in New Orleans and elsewhere.

A model prisoner, he was released from prison on July 24, 1901, and went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to stay with Athol’s parents and his twelve-year-old daughter. He wrote some stories and newspaper features, but it was soon clear that he hated Pittsburgh. In April, 1902, he moved to New York City, which he was to call “Baghdad by the Subway.” In New York, Porter’s frequent drinking companion Bill Williams said he “drank as the Southern gentleman he was and carried his liquor as a gentleman does. I . . . never once saw him or heard of his being intoxicated.” While Porter might not have gotten roaring drunk, he nonetheless drank whiskey steadily throughout his short life. In 1909 he began to fade from cirrhosis of the liver. He spent six months back in North Carolina in hopes that the healthier environment might help to cure his illness but eventually moved back to New York City.

Porter collapsed on June 2, 1910, and friends took him to the Polyclinic Hospital. As an attending nurse dimmed the light on the evening of June 4, Porter said, “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.” Porter died the following day soon after sunrise.

It was apparently in the Travis County Jail as Porter awaited transportation to Ohio that his middle name migrated from the “Sidney” of his birth and of his father to the “Sydney” of his later years. An April, 1898, letter addressed him as “Mr. Sydney Porter,” and prison records also used “Sydney.” On the other hand, many theories purport to explain how he settled on his plebeian nom de plume. The first story published by “O. Henry” was also the first one he wrote in prison: “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” which drew on his experiences in New Orleans and appeared in McClure’s Magazine in December, 1899. In the December, 1901, Ainslee’s Magazine, he used “Olivier Henry.”

While Porter was awaiting trial after his wife’s death, McClure’s Syndicate bought “The Miracle of Lava Canyon” and published it months later under the name of W. S. Porter. A revision of that story later appeared as “An Afternoon Miracle.” In all, Porter used twelve different names for his writing, and it was several years before he settled on using only O. Henry. Some say the name was abbreviated from the name of a French pharmacist, Etienne Ossian Henry. Porter told one writer that he picked “Henry” from a list of notables in the New Orleans society pages, then a friend suggested using a single initial, and he decided that “O is about the easiest written.” An Ohio Board of Clemency chairman noted that the prison had employed a Captain Orrin Henry who had retired eleven years before Porter’s incarceration but whose signature Porter could well have seen.

Porter’s reason for using the pen name is clearer than its precise origin: He was embarrassed about his prison record and did his best to keep it a secret from friends and public alike.


Even after his death, the ending of Porter’s life story took a characteristically ironic twist. Somehow, the Little Church Around the Corner had scheduled a wedding for 11:00 A.M. on June 7—the same time as Porter’s funeral. The bridegroom’s brother, trying to hide this omen from the bride, told the wedding party that another wedding was under way, so they spent the next hour in a nearby hotel while William S. Porter and O. Henry were eulogized in the church.

In the decade after his death, Americans bought nearly five million copies of his books, second only to Rudyard Kipling. They were translated into French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Russian, and Japanese. Ironically, this man’s stories of the Western and urban life of America became even more popular in the new Soviet Union than in his own country. While American writers were using the Russian Anton Chekhov as their model, Russian writers were putting out O. Henry twist endings. In 1962, a Soviet postage stamp commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of Porter’s birth, although his own country had never so honored him. His Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” eventually became universally known to American schoolchildren, and one of his characters, the Cisco Kid, became a mainstay first to many radio listeners and then to a new generation of television viewers.


Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). Boston: Twayne, 1965. Summarizes O. Henry’s life in one chapter, then focuses on the literary influences of his southern upbringing, Texas development, prison experiences, and New York life. Includes chronological summary, endnotes, extensive bibliography, and index.

Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sidney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. Covers O. Henry’s entire life, with emphasis on his two marriages, his time in Houston, and the evidence in his embezzlement trial. Includes photographs, endnotes, index, and an extensive appendix about The Rolling Stone.

Nolan, Jeannette Cowert. O. Henry: The Story of William Sydney Porter. New York: Julian Messner, 1943. Written as a juvenile novel with fictional dialogue. Includes line drawings, list of articles in periodicals, and index.

O’Connor, Richard. O. Henry: The Legendary Life of William S. Porter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Covers O. Henry’s entire life. Includes photographs and index.

Porter, Jenny Lind, and Trueman E. O’Quinn. Time to Write: How William Sidney Porter Became O. Henry. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1986. Emphasizes the life of O. Henry in Texas. Includes index and twelve short stories written while he was in federal prison in Columbus, Ohio, each with notes.

Watson, Bruce. “If His Life Were a Short Story, Who’d Ever Believe It?” Smithsonian 27 (January, 1997): 92-102. Biography strewn with anecdotes and some literary criticism. Includes photographs.

Williams, William Washington. The Quiet Lodger of Irving Place. New York: Dutton, 1936. Firsthand account of Porter’s life in New York written by a longtime friend and newspaper reporter with emphasis on the people and locations that inspired many O. Henry stories.

O. Henry Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

O. Henry was born William Sydney Porter on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though his father, Algernon Porter, was a...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

O. Henry Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although O. Henry was primarily a showman and a journalist who wrote stories to make a living rather than to create art, no study of the short story would be complete without some consideration of his brilliant ability to create an irresistible storytelling persona; to fulfill the human need for unity, order, and poetic justice; and to leave his readers—whether laughing or crying—always satisfied.

O. Henry Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Receiving little formal education, O. Henry, pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, found themes and plots for his short stories in his early jobs as pharmacist, ranch hand, draftsman, and bank teller. After being arrested for embezzlement in 1894, he fled to Honduras, where much of the material for Cabbages and Kings was acquired. He returned to Texas in 1897 to be with his dying wife and was convicted and sent to prison one year later. During his imprisonment he began to achieve national prominence for his stories and subsequently continued his writing career in New York. He signed contracts with the Sunday World and Munsey’s for weekly stories drawn from his own experiences in the city. In 1907, he married his childhood sweetheart; three years later he died, finally succumbing to alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes.

O. Henry Biography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although O. Henry was born in a small town, he was to feel most comfortable personally and professionally in New York City, observing and chronicling the little lives of little people. He was a private and gentle man in his life and in his writing, and he harbored a humiliating secret. Although his work cannot be called “autobiographical” without a considerable amount of qualification, his writing certainly was based on his own experiences and observations. His production coincides with the four main stages of his life: childhood in North Carolina; youth in Texas; adulthood in New Orleans, Honduras, and the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio; and maturity in New York City.

Christened William Sidney Porter (he changed the spelling of his middle name to “Sydney” in 1898), O. Henry had a peaceful childhood in North Carolina. The early death of his mother at the age of thirty from tuberculosis meant that O. Henry’s nurture and tutelage after the age of three were provided by his paternal aunt Evelina. Long walks with friends and much reading offset boredom as he clerked in his uncle’s drugstore, and his becoming licensed as a practicing pharmacist would serve him well later. He was scarcely twenty when a Greensboro physician and his wife, concerned about Porter’s delicate health, brought him south with them to the Rio Grande. For nearly two years on a sheep ranch in La Salle County in southwest Texas, Porter learned to rope and ride, went on weekly mail runs, played the guitar, sketched, and read almost everything in the ranch library. His discomfort with the raw frontier, with its frequent shootings and lootings, prompted his move to the more urban Austin. He married Athol Estes after a whirlwind courtship and then worked first as a draftsman at the Texas Land Office and next as a bank teller. He fathered a son, who died; a daughter, Margaret, lived. He also began publishing a humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone, which lasted a year, and later wrote features for the Houston Post, continuing his hobby of sketching and illustration. The first use of his most popular pen name, O. Henry, appeared in 1886.

Although bank practices in Texas in the 1890’s were notoriously loose, O. Henry was nevertheless indicted by a grand jury for embezzlement of funds while serving as a teller. When he fled first to New Orleans and then to Honduras, his guilt seemed evident, though he maintained his innocence. In 1898, after the death of his wife, he was sentenced to five years at the federal penitentiary at Columbus, ultimately serving only three years and three months before being released for good behavior. Letters written in prison express his desperation and humiliation at serving time, though he enjoyed work in the prison hospital as a drug clerk and outside the prison as a private secretary.

An often-quoted line from his first authorized biographer, C. Alphonso Smith, asserts, “If ever in American literature the place and the man met, they met when O. Henry strolled for the first time along the streets of New York.” O. Henry saturated himself with the atmosphere of the city. He gained inspiration for his stories by strolling in the rough Hell’s Kitchen section or on Broadway and along the byways of Manhattan, and by haunting especially restaurants of all varieties. In 1903-1904 alone, he published more than one hundred stories in the New York Sunday World. His extravagance, generosity, and the steady drinking, which led to his death at forty-eight, required a steady income, which meant that he lived his life attached to publication deadlines. Normal family life (with his daughter and the childhood sweetheart who became his second wife, Sara Lindsay Coleman) was sacrificed to furious writing activity.

Practically all of his short stories and sketches first appeared in periodicals; before his death, nine volumes in book form were published, and after his death eight more volumes appeared. In the last year of his life, he tried his hand as a playwright and a novelist but without much success.

O. Henry Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his father was a physician. His schooling was meager, and at the age of fifteen he was given a job in a store kept by his uncle, a pharmacist. In 1882, threatened by pulmonary weakness, he went to stay on a large ranch in La Salle County, Texas. Two years later, he moved to Austin and found employment as a bookkeeper. For four years, he worked as a draftsman in the Land Office there. He was clandestinely married in 1887 to Athol Estes, a seventeen-year-old young woman whom he had met while both were members of a Presbyterian church choir. Early in 1891, he became a teller in the First National Bank of Austin. At the end of 1894, after acquiring the proprietorship of a humorous weekly paper, Brann’s Iconoclast (later renamed The Rolling Stone), he resigned his position to try his hand at cartooning, writing, and editing. He had previously contributed literary sketches to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers. In the spring of the next year, after the failure of his publishing venture, he went to Houston and became a columnist for the Houston Daily Post. His collected “Postscripts” show the wit and agility of mind he later displayed in his short stories. His wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she at first remained in Austin but later joined him.{$S[A]Porter, William Sydney;Henry, O.}{$S[A]O. Henry;Henry, O.}

In 1896, Porter was indicted for having misappropriated funds totaling $1,153.68 while an employee of the First National Bank of Austin. He started to return to Austin to stand trial, but on the way reversed his direction and on reaching New Orleans took ship for Honduras. Upon his arrival there, he fell in with Al Jennings, an outlaw trainrobber. For the greater part of a year, Porter and the two Jennings brothers made common cause as fugitives, traveling all the way around the South American continent and at last stopping in Mexico. At the beginning of 1897, having got word that his wife was dangerously ill, Porter went back to Austin, where his wife died the following summer. Porter was tried for embezzlement, convicted, and sentenced to a five-year term, beginning March, 1898, in the federal division of the Ohio State Penitentiary. Although he seems to have been technically guilty, this may only have been the result of extreme carelessness in keeping the bank’s records; he always insisted that he had not profited. In prison, he renewed his friendship with Al Jennings, now a fellow inmate. He also wrote fiction, which he readily sold, and worked in the prison pharmacy. After serving three years and three months of his sentence, he was discharged for good behavior.

After his release, Porter joined his daughter in Pittsburgh and in the spring of 1902 moved to New York. This final change both made and broke him. Up to this time, he had drawn the subject matter of his stories from experiences in the Southwest and in Latin America; plunging into the turmoil of “Bagdad on the Subway,” as he called it, he perceived that the city held, in its masses of people and its infinite scenes, the multiplicity of events that he required to stimulate his imagination. In New York, he frequented not only the parlors of his respectable friends but also sweatshops, low theaters, wharves, warrens, and dives, the breeders of disease and violence. He saw in this world only human perplexity and delusion, and, where other writers might have been satirical, he put into his work a humorous pathos. His first collection, Cabbages and Kings, was followed by fourteen more, several published posthumously.

Porter wrote prolifically, averaging more than a story a week for some years, and he was never without a market. He might have become rich, but he squandered his income by drinking heavily, leaving munificent tips in restaurants, and giving gold pieces to beggars. His attempts to write successful plays came to nothing. His health deteriorated, and he developed active tuberculosis. In his final years, he made several trips to Asheville, North Carolina, for rest. He was survived by his second wife, Sara Lindsay Coleman.

O. Henry’s stories are distinct in their benevolent spirit, gentle irony, and surprise endings. His tales embody a sense of youthful exuberance and wonder at life’s possibilities, as well as a belief in the human capacity for goodness. His characters personify the ideals of industry, hope, and goodwill, and through them the writer captures a romantic view of daily life. His development of a popular form of the short story—the expanded anecdote with a surprise ending—bequeathed to the American short story an awareness of formal economy that had a lasting effect.

O. Henry Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

William Sidney Porter, best known by his pen name O. Henry, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, the second son of Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Jane Porter. When his mother died of pneumonia three years after his birth, he and his father and brother moved into the home of his grandmother and his aunt Lina, who took over his education and started him in his interest in literature.

In his late teens, O. Henry began working in his uncle’s drugstore as an assistant pharmacist, obtaining his pharmacy license in 1881. However, when he developed a cough that made him fear his mother’s fate, he moved to southwest Texas as the houseguest of family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Hall. At age twenty-two, he moved to Austin where he met Athol Estes, the stepdaughter of a well-to-do Austin grocer; the two married in 1887.

His first child, a son, died shortly after birth, and in 1889, after the birth of his daughter Margaret, his wife became very ill. After working for a few years as a draftsman in the Texas Land Office, he took a job as a teller in the First National Bank of Austin. In 1894, he sought to further his ambition to be an author and publisher by starting his own humor magazine, The Rolling Stone, writing all the stories and drawing all the illustrations himself; however, the venture failed after a year.

In 1894, O. Henry was fired from his bank job because of shortages in his account and brought up before the grand jury. When they could find no cause to prosecute him, he took a job with the Houston Post, writing sketches and short stories. However, the case was reopened in 1896, and he was arrested in Houston. Out on bond, he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. In 1897, when he heard his wife was very ill again, he returned to Austin. After her death on July 25, 1897, he was tried and found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years at a federal penitentiary in Ohio. Whether O. Henry was actually guilty of the crime or whether it was the result of shoddy bookkeeping has never been determined.

While in prison, he published more than one dozen stories in national magazines, and he was released after three years on good behavior. In the spring of 1902, at the urging of the editors of Ainslee’s Magazine, where many of his stories had been published, O. Henry moved to New York City and signed a contract with the New York Sunday World to write a story a week for one hundred dollars each, a very generous fee for the time. Over a two-year period, O. Henry published more than one hundred stories in the World, which, with its half-million readership, made him famous.

His first book, Cabbages and Kings (1904), a collection of stories based on his experience living in Central America, was followed in 1906 by The Four Million, which contained twenty-five of his stories about New York. He was now celebrated and popular throughout the world. However, for all his fame and good pay, O. Henry, financially careless, was always in debt.

In 1907, he married his childhood sweetheart, Sara Lindsay Coleman, and continued his breakneck writing schedule to try to keep ahead of his debtors and in front of his deadlines. Seven more volumes of his stories were published between 1907 and 1910. However, he was never financially secure. In 1908, he was diagnosed with diabetes. In the summer of 1910, he checked into a hospital after collapsing in his hotel room. Emptying his pockets, he joked, “Here I am going to die and only worth twenty-three cents.” He lost consciousness around midnight on June 4 and died the next morning of cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes at the age of forty-seven. He was buried in Asheville, North Carolina.

O. Henry Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

O. Henry was born as William Sidney (changed to Sydney in 1898) Porter on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. After his mother...

(The entire section is 549 words.)