O. Henry – A Brief Biography (1862-1910)
O. Henry. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
O. Henry was an American writer who wrote short stories, non-fiction, and poetry. However, he is mostly known for his short stories and is widely regarded as one of the greatest short story writers of all time.
O. Henry went on to write some of the most popular short stories in literature, such as The Gift of the Magi, The Ransom of Red Chief, Makes the Whole World Kin, and The Duplicity of Hargraves, among several others.
O. Henry, whose actual name was William Sidney Porter, was born on 11th September 1862 in the city of Greensboro in North Carolina, to Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter and Algernon Sidney Porter, who was a physician.
He was born a year and five months after the onset of the American Civil War that would rage on till 1865.
In 1865, when O. Henry was 3 years old, his mother passed away after giving birth to her third child. Although he was too young to truly understand the significance of his mother’s death, O. Henry’s life underwent an immediate change when his father moved into his paternal grandmother’s house along with him and his siblings.
It was there that he began reading books for passing the time and quickly became interested in literature at a very young age. He read everything from cheap dime novels to classics, including One Thousand and One Nights, which was a particular favorite of his.
He soon joined an elementary school run by his aunt Evelina Maria Porter. He graduated from the school in 1876 at the age of 14 and then enrolled at Lindsey Street High School.
In 1879, O. Henry, aged 17, began working in his uncle’s drugstore in Greensboro, where he would continue to work until he became a licensed pharmacist at the age of 19.
Moving to Texas
In early 1882, O. Henry finally decided to leave Greensboro to experience life elsewhere. He was 19 years old when he left his hometown and traveled to Texas along with a man named James Hall. He also hoped that the change in environment would cure his bad cough and improve his health.
Upon reaching Texas, O. Henry went and stayed at the sheep ranch of Hall’s son, Richard Hall, in La Salle County. He began working at the ranch as a cook, shepherd, and ranch hand and even did some babysitting in order to earn a living.
He spent most of his spare time reading classic works of literature and mingling with the other ranch workers who were a mix of immigrants and natives. It was from these immigrants and natives that he picked up some German and Spanish.
Soon his cough went away too and his health improved.
Life in Texas
Life in Texas was good for the young O. Henry, who quickly fit into the social scene there, meeting and befriending people on a regular basis.
In 1884, he made his way to Austin along with Richard Hall for a brief visit. However, upon reaching Austin, he decided to stay there for a while and took up accommodation with Richard’s friend Joseph Harell and his wife.
While residing with the Harellsm O. Henry began working as a pharmacist for the Morley Brothers Drug Company. Later on, he took up a job at the cigar store run by the Harrels.
O. Henry would go on to live with the Harells for three years. It was in their house that he first began writing stories during his free time.
Life in Austin suited the young O. Henry very well, and he led an active social life there, entertaining people with his natural storytelling skills and playing mandolin and guitar for them. He became a member of a group of young men known as the Hill City Quartette, who sang at social gatherings. He even took his singing talents to the church, singing in the choir of Saint David’s Episcopal Church.
In Texas, O. Henry met and fell in love with a young woman named Athol Estes, who was 17 years old when they met, and he was 22. Athol was from a very wealthy family.
It is speculated that the two probably met at the laying of the cornerstone of the Texas State Capitol, which was held on 2nd March 1885.
O. Henry quickly began courting Athol and intended to marry her soon. However, his mother was against the match as Athol was suffering from tuberculosis.
Nevertheless, O. Henry resolved to marry her, and on 1st July 1887, a little over two years after they met, O. Henry and Athol married at the home of the Pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church where Athol’s family went to church.
Even after the marriage, they continued to participate in the theater and music scene in Austin at the time. Athol even encouraged O. Henry to pursue his writing more seriously, which he did.
Barely a year into their marriage, Athol gave birth to their first child, a son, in 1888. Sadly, the boy died a few hours after birth. In September of the following year, they gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Margaret.
By the time his daughter Margaret was born, O. Henry was already working as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office, where he was responsible for drawing maps from field notes and surveys. He was offered the job by his friend Richard Hall after Hall became the Texas Land Commissioner.
It was a secure job with a stable salary, good enough to support his family. In addition to his income from the land office, his frequent contributions to newspapers and magazines gave him an additional income as well. His stories and drawings were regularly published in these publications, giving his work some exposure to a wider audience.
Several of his early short stories during this period were inspired by his time in the Land Office building. The setting would also serve as an inspiration for many of his future stories such as Bexar Scrip No. 2692, Buried Treasure, and Georgia’s Ruling. The characters and plots in these stories were initially thought of and developed while he was working at the Land Office building.
Charges of Embezzlement
In January 1891, O. Henry quit his job at the Land Office after Richard Hall lost his bid to become governor.
After the new governor James Hogg was sworn in, O. Henry resigned from his job and began working at the First National Bank of Austin as a bookkeeper and teller.
At the bank, he was said to be careless in maintaining the books and ran the bank informally without much structure. In 1894, three years after joining the bank, he was accused of embezzlement of funds after the bank found a shortage in funds that he was unable to explain or justify.
O. Henry was fired from the job but not arrested.
The Rolling Stone
While working at the First National Bank of Austin, O. Henry started a humorous weekly known as The Rolling Stone. Through this weekly, he published satirical pieces on politics, life, and people written by him, as well as his drawings and short stories.
After being fired by the bank, he decided to work on his weekly full-time. The weekly reached a maximum circulation of 1,500 copies but failed to provide him with enough income to provide for his family.
In April 1895, he decided to put an end to the weekly. Fortunately for him, his drawings and writings were noticed by the editor of the Houston Post, who offered him a job he gladly accepted.
Arrest in Houston
In 1895, O. Henry moved to Houston along with his family to work for the Houston Post. He continued to write his stories for the Post and their popularity kept on increasing. The increase in demand for his stories led to an increase in his salary as well.
For inspiration, O. Henry often spent time in hotel lobbies, observing and talking to people. He would continue this practice for the rest of his writing career.
However, just as things were getting good for him and his family, his past caught up with him. When the federal auditors audited the First National Bank of Austin and found evidence of embezzlement of funds, a federal indictment followed, and O. Henry was arrested in Houston on charges of embezzlement.
Living in Exile
O. Henry was soon bailed by his father-in-law after his arrest, and his trial was to be held on 7th July 1896.
While on his way to the courthouse on the day before the trial, he became afraid and nervous about his fate and decided to flee. First, he went to New Orleans where he had some contacts, and then from there he fled to Honduras in Central America, as at the time the United States did not have a treaty of extradition with Honduras.
O. Henry spent the following six months living in exile in Honduras, staying holed up in a hotel in the city of Trujillo. It was here that he began writing his first novel, Cabbages and Kings, which consisted of interlinked short stories. The novel was inspired by his stay in Honduras and is set in a fictional Central American country known as the Republic of Anchuria. It would eventually be published in 1904.
While living in Honduras, O. Henry also met and became friends with the infamous train robber Al Jennings.
Back to Austin
When O. Henry was arrested in Houston, his wife and daughter went back to Austin to live with his wife’s parents. Unfortunately, before his wife could visit him in Honduras, which was originally the plan, she became ill and was on her deathbed.
On hearing the news, O. Henry resolved to return to Austin to see his dying wife. On arriving there, he decided to abandon the life of a fugitive and surrendered to the court, pending trial.
Sadly, on 25th July 1897, his wife died from tuberculosis at the young age of 35.
O. Henry’s trial was held on 17th February 1898, in which he was found guilty of embezzling $854 and sentenced to five years imprisonment at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio.
Being a licensed pharmacist proved to work in his favor as he was given an opportunity to work in the prison hospital as a druggist. The job came with its perks, one of which was that he was given his own room in the hospital wing and did not have to spend time in the cell block of the prison.
O. Henry remained productive in his writing as well, completing and publishing 14 short stories under different pen names while in prison. One of the pen names he used during this period was O. Henry, which first appeared in his short story Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking in the December 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine.
The pen name O. Henry would not only become his most popular pen name but also the name by which the world would know him for eternity.
While in prison, O. Henry delivered his stories to publications through a friend of his in New Orleans so that the publications would not know that the stories were written by a prisoner.
On 24th July 1901, O. Henry, aged 39, was released from prison after serving only three of his five years, on grounds of good behavior.
Life After Prison
After being released from prison, O. Henry reunited with his 11-year-old daughter Margaret. He then moved to New York City in 1902 to be close to his publishers.
His move to New York City would mark the beginning of his most prolific writing period, during which he would go on to write 381 short stories. He began writing stories for the New York World Sunday Magazine, writing one story a week for over a year.
Although critics generally gave his stories negative reviews, readers loved his characters, his wit, and his plot twists. His stories steadily increased in popularity and so did he himself as a writer.
In 1907, O. Henry married his childhood sweetheart Sarah Lindsey Coleman, who was also a writer.
Final Years & Death
Even though O. Henry continued to write prolifically in his final years, his health had drastically deteriorated from years of heavy drinking.
In the last four years of his life, he published several collections of short stories such as The Four Million, The Trimmed Lamp, Heart of the West, The Gentle Grafter, The Voice of the City, Roads of Destiny, Options, The Two Women, Strictly Business, and Whirligigs.
By 1908, his deteriorating health began to affect his writing, slowly down his output. The following year, his second wife Sarah left him, leaving him devastated.
On 5th June 1910, O. Henry, aged 47, died of cirrhosis of the liver, enlarged heart, and diabetes. He was interred at the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina.
Several of his short story collections such as Sixes and Sevens, Rolling Stones, Waifs and Strays, and Postscripts were published posthumously.
O. Henry is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential short story writers of all time. Several of his stories have found their way into school curriculums across the world, where students read and study them.
His stories have left a pleasant and lasting impact on readers for decades, as they usually featured common, working-class characters and social outcasts. His famous wit and the twist ending to his stories allowed for a good way to deal with the struggles of the common man, something that readers could relate to and enjoy.
He was often described as America’s answer to French writer Guy de Maupassant, who too wrote stories that depicted the lives of the common people in his short stories.
Several of O. Henry’s stories have gone on to become some of the most famous short stories of world literature, particularly classics such as The Gift of the Magi, The Duplicity of Hargraves, The Cop and the Anthem, The Caballero’s Way, and The Ransom of Red Chief.
Not only are his stories read and studied in schools across the world, but they have also been adapted into films, television series, plays, operas, etc. The courthouse in which he was convicted for embezzlement was renamed O. Henry Hall in his honor. Schools have been named after him and stamps have been issued in his honor in the United States and the Soviet Union.
The most prestigious American award for short stories of exceptional merit has also been named the O. Henry Award in his honor.
Although today O. Henry is mostly known for his short stories, few are aware of the fact that he also wrote several poems and non-fiction works.
His literary legacy continues to live on today, probably stronger than ever before due to their permanent place in schools and the various adaptations his stories have been subjected to in popular culture.
There is absolutely no doubt that O. Henry has cemented his place in the pantheon of great short story writers along with the likes of Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, and Guy de Maupassant.