O. Henry

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William Sydney Porter in his thirties

O. Henry was the pen name of the American writer William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910). Porter wrote around 400 short stories in his lifetime and raised his particular form to a literary art form. His stories are known for their wit, wordplay, characterization and the clever use of twist endings.


Early life

Porter was born in 1862 on a plantation called "Worth Place" near Greensboro, North Carolina. His middle name at birth was Sidney; he changed the spelling in 1898. His parents were Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Jane Virginia Swain Porter. When William was three, his mother died from tuberculosis, and he and his father moved into Greensboro to the home of his paternal grandmother.

William was an avid reader and graduated from his Aunt Evalina Maria Porter's elementary school in 1876. He then enrolled at the Linsey Street High School. His aunt continued to tutor him until he was 15. In 1879, he started working as a bookkeeper in his uncle's drugstore and in 1881, at the age of nineteen, he was licensed as a pharmacist. At the drugstore, he also showed off his natural artistic talents by sketching the townsfolk.

The move to Texas

Porter traveled with Dr. James K. Hall to Texas in March, 1882, hoping that a change of air would help alleviate a persistent cough he had developed. He took up residence on the sheep ranch of Richard Hall, James' son, in La Salle County and helped out as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and baby-sitter. While on the ranch, he learned bits of Spanish and German from the mix of immigrant ranch hands. He also spent time reading classic literature.

Porter's health did improve and he traveled with Richard to Austin in 1884, where he decided to remain and was welcomed into the home of the Harrells, who were friends of Richard's. Porter took a number of different jobs over the next several years, first as pharmacist then as a draftsman, bank teller and journalist. He also began writing as a sideline to employment.

He led an active social life in Austin, including membership in singing and drama groups. Porter was a good singer and musician. He played both the guitar and mandolin. He became a member of the "Hill City Quartet," a group of young men who sang at gatherings and serenaded young women of the town.

Porter met and began courting Athol Estes, then seventeen years old and from a wealthy family. Her mother objected to the match because Athol was ill, suffering the effects of tuberculosis. On July 1, 1887, Porter eloped with Athol to the home of Reverend R. K. Smoot, where they were married.

The couple continued to participate in musical and theater groups, and Athol encouraged her husband to pursue his writing. Athol gave birth to a son in 1888, who died hours after birth, and then a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, in September 1889.

Porter's friend, Richard Hall, became Texas Land Commissioner and offered Porter a job. Porter started as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office (GLO) in 1887 at a salary of $100 a month, drawing maps from surveys and field notes. The salary was enough to support his family, but he continued his contributions to magazines and newspapers.

In the GLO building, he began developing characters and plots for such stories as "Georgia's Ruling" (1900), and "Buried Treasure" (1908). The castle-like building he worked in was even woven into some his tales such as "Bexar Scrip No. 2692" (1894). His job at the GLO was a political appointment by Hall. Hall ran for governor in the election of 1890 but lost. Porter resigned in early 1891 when the new governor was sworn in.

The Porter family in the early 1890s - Athol, Margaret and William.

The same year, Porter began working at the First National Bank of Austin as a teller and bookkeeper at the same salary he had made at the GLO. The bank was operated informally and Porter had trouble keeping track of his books. In 1894, he was accused by the bank of embezzlement and lost his job but was not indicted.

He now worked full time on his humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone, which he started while working at the bank. The Rolling Stone featured satire on life, people and politics and included Porter's short stories and sketches. Although eventually reaching a top circulation of 1500, The Rolling Stone failed in April 1895, perhaps due to Porter's humor poking fun at powerful people. Porter also may have ceased publication as the paper never provided the money he needed to support his family. By then, his writing and drawings caught the attention of the editor at the Houston Post.

Porter and his family moved to Houston in 1895, where he started writing for the Post. His salary was only $25 a month, but it rose steadily as his popularity increased. Porter gathered ideas for his column by hanging out in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. This was a technique he used throughout his writing career.

While he was in Houston, the First National Bank of Austin was audited and the federal auditors found several discrepancies. They managed to get a federal indictment against him. Porter was subsequently arrested for embezzlement in connection with his employment at the bank. Porter denied the charges.

Flight and return

Porter's father-in-law posted bail to keep Porter out of jail, but the day before Porter was due to stand trial on July 7, 1896, he absconded to New Orleans and later to Honduras. While in Honduras, Porter is credited with coining the term "banana republic".

Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to Austin to live with Athol's parents. Unfortunately, Athol became too ill to meet Porter in the Honduras as Porter planned. When he learned that his wife was dying, Porter returned to Austin in February 1897 and surrendered to the court, pending an appeal. Once again, Porter's father-in-law posted bail so Porter could stay with Athol and Margaret.

Athol Estes Porter died July 25, 1897, from tuberculosis (called consumption at the time). Porter, having little to say in his own defense, was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898, sentenced to five years jail, and imprisoned March 25, 1898, as federal prisoner 30664 at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. While in prison, Porter, as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital as the night druggist. Porter was given his own room in the hospital wing, and there is no record that he actually spent time in the cell block of the prison.

He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms while he was in prison but was becoming best known by the pseudonym O. Henry. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers, so they had no idea the writer was imprisoned. Porter was released on July 24, 1901, for good behavior after serving three years.

Porter reunited with his daughter Margaret, now age 12, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol's parents had moved after Porter's conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison - just that he had been away on business.

A brief stay at the top

Porter's most prolific writing period started in 1902, when he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. He wrote 381 short stories while living there. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. His wit, characterization and plot twists were adored by his readers but often panned by the critics. Yet, he went on to gain international recognition and is credited with defining the short story as a literary art form.

Porter married again in 1907 to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah (Sallie) Lindsey Coleman, whom he met again after revisiting his native state of North Carolina. However, despite the success of his short stories being published in magazines and collections (or perhaps because of the attendant pressure success brought), Porter drank heavily.

His health began to deteriorate in 1908, which impacted his writing. Sarah left him in 1909, and Porter died on June 5, 1910, of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes and an enlarged heart. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, died in 1927 and was buried with her father. When Sarah died, she was also buried in Asheville.


O. Henry stories are famous for their surprise endings. He was called the American Guy De Maupassant. Both authors wrote twist endings, but O. Henry stories were much more playful and optimistic.

Most of O. Henry's stories are set in his own time, the early years of the 20th century. Many take place in New York City, and deal for the most part with ordinary people: clerks, policemen, waitresses. His stories are also well known for witty narration.

Fundamentally a product of his time, O. Henry's work provides one of the best English examples of catching the entire flavor of an age. Whether roaming the cattle-lands of Texas, exploring the art of the "gentle grafter", or investigating the tensions of class and wealth in turn-of-the-century New York, O. Henry had an inimitable hand for isolating some element of society and describing it with an incredible economy and grace of language. Some of his best and least-known work resides in the collection Cabbages and Kings, a series of stories which each explore some individual aspect of life in a paralytically sleepy Central American town while each advancing some aspect of the larger plot and relating back one to another in a complex structure which slowly explicates its own background even as it painstakingly erects a town which is one of the most detailed literary creations of the period.

  • The Four Million (a collection of stories) opens with a reference to Ward McAllister's "assertion that there were only 'Four Hundred' people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the 'Four Million'". To O. Henry, everyone in New York counted. He had an obvious affection for the city, which he called "Bagdad [sic]-on-the-Subway,"[1] and many of his stories are set there—but others are set in small towns and in other cities.
  • "The Gift of the Magi" concerns a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jeweled combs for Della's hair. The essential premise of this story has been copied, re-worked, parodied, and otherwise re-told countless times in the century since it was written.
  • "The Ransom of Red Chief" concerns two men who kidnap a boy of ten. The boy turns out to be so bratty and obnoxious that the desperate men ultimately pay the boy's father two hundred and fifty dollars to take him back.
  • "The Cop and the Anthem" concerns a New York City hobo named Soapy, who sets out to get arrested so he can spend the cold winter as a guest of the city jail. Despite efforts at petty theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and "mashing", Soapy fails to draw the attention of the police. Disconsolate, he pauses in front of a church, where an organ anthem inspires him to clean up his life—whereupon he is promptly arrested for loitering.
  • "A Retrieved Reformation" has safecracker Jimmy Valentine take a job in a small-town bank in order to case it for a planned robbery. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with the banker's daughter, and decides to go straight. Just as he's about to leave to deliver his specialized tools to an old associate, a lawman who recognizes him arrives at the bank, and a child locks herself in the airtight vault. Knowing it will seal his fate, Valentine cracks open the safe to rescue the child—and the lawman lets him go.

Origin of his pen name

Porter never admitted how he came up with the name O. Henry as a pseudonym. There are a few popular theories:

  • In prison, movement of prisoners and staff is done "by the book", sign in and sign out. One of the guards in Columbus was named Orrin Henry and he would sign the book O. Henry. Porter liked it and adopted the signature as his nom de plume.
  • The Harrells, with whom Porter stayed with in Austin, had a cat named Henry that Porter would play with. The cat would come running when Porter would shout "Oh, Henry!"
  • He took the name from the place he was imprisoned, the Ohio State Penitentiary.
  • In New Orleans, before he left for the Honduras, Porter would often call to the bartender of his favorite saloon, "Oh Henry, set 'em up again!"


  • The O. Henry Award is a prestigious annual prize given to outstanding short stories.
  • O. Henry is a household name in Russia, as his books enjoyed excellent translations and some of his stories were made into popular movies, the best known being, probably, "The Ransom of Red Chief". The phrase "Bolivar cannot carry double" from "The Roads We Take" has become a Russian proverb, whose origin many Russians do not even recognize.
  • In 1952, a film featuring five O. Henry stories was made. The episode garnering the most critical acclaim was "The Cop and the Anthem", starring Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe. The other stories are "The Clarion Call", "The Last Leaf", "The Ransom of Red Chief", and "The Gift of the Magi".
  • The play Broadway in the Shadows, based on stories by O. Henry, opened at the Arcola Theatre in London on October 10, 2006.
  • Attempts were made to secure a presidential pardon for Porter during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. However, each attempt was met with the assertion that the Justice Department did not recommend pardons after death. This policy was clearly altered during the administration of Bill Clinton (who pardoned Henry Ossian Flipper), so the question of a pardon for O. Henry may yet again see the light of day.
  • The house that the Porters rented in Austin from 1893 to 1895, moved from its original location in 1930 and restored, opened as the O. Henry Museum in 1934. The William Sidney Porter House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The "O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships", hosted by the O. Henry Museum, started in 1977 and are held annually in May in Austin.
  • There is also an O. Henry Middle School in Austin.

Quotes attributed to O. Henry

  • "There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands." [2]

O. Henry in fiction

  • William Sydney Porter is the chief protagonist of the novel A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry (Simon & Schuster, 2000) by Steven Saylor.


External links

  • Henry, O. "A Madison Square Arabian Night," from The Trimmed Lamp: "Oh, I know what to do when I see victuals coming toward me in little old Bagdad-on-the-Subway. I strike the asphalt three times with my forehead and get ready to spiel yarns for my supper. I claim descent from the late Tommy Tucker, who was forced to hand out vocal harmony for his pre-digested wheaterina and spoopju." The Trimmed Lamp, Project Gutenberg text