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William Sydney Porter

(a.k.a. William Sidney Porter)


William Sydney Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 11, 1862. His father was a doctor in the post-Civil War depression in the South. Growing up in Greensboro, Porter developed a love of books at the school run by his Aunt Lina. At the age of 15, he left the school to work in his uncle's pharmacy. While in Greensboro, he became known for his sketches and cartoons. At the age of 20, he moved to Texas and began working on a sheep ranch. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Houston, where he was a bank clerk, and then on to Austin, Texas.

While in Austin, he held many jobs: from land office draftsman to teller for the First National Bank to founder, in 1884, of a humorous but unsuccessful weekly, The Rolling Stone, to columnist for the Houston Daily Post. In 1894, he was accused of embezzling cash from the First National Bank where he had worked years before. O. Henry fled to Honduras, leaving his wife and daughter in Austin. However, he returned to Austin the next year because of his wife's poor health and pending death. In 1897, he was convicted of embezzling the bank funds and sentenced to five years in a penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio.

While in prison, O. Henry began writing short stories to earn money to support his daughter, Margaret. After three years and a dozen short stories of adventure in the U.S. Southwest and Central America, he had gained success as a writer. After he was released from prison, he began using the name O. Henry and moved to New York City to write one story a week for the New York World. O. Henry continued this prolific writing pace for the next ten years, having published over 300 stories by the time of his death. He died a 47-year old penniless alcoholic on June 15, 1910.

Why he chose the pen name of O. Henry is unclear. He first used the pen name while in Austin. Some think that perhaps he derived the name while staying with the Joseph Harrell family having heard their repeated calling of the family cat as they called, "Oh, Henry." According to other sources, he acquired the pseudonym from a prison warden who called Orrin Henry while in the Ohio prison. Another theory is that it is an abbreviation of the name of a French pharmacist, Eteinne-Ossian Henry
, found in a reference work, the U.S. Dispensatory, that Porter used when he worked in the prison pharmacy. Whatever the source of his pen name, William Sydney (O. Henry) Porter left his mark on the literary world as America's most prolific short-story writer and a master of surprise endings.

Related Links

O. Henry Biographies


O. Henry Museum


William Sydney Porter

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Photos courtesy of Beth Hartness, SERVE