The man behind the stories, William Sydney Porter, was a complicated character with a sharp imagination. He was best known for a short pen name, “O. Henry.” Porter wrote hundreds of stories in his short career and became one of the best-known short story writers of the twentieth century.
Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862. His father was a doctor. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a child. He showed a deep imagination and strong artistic talents as a child. He loved reading from an early age. As a teenager, he began working at his uncle’s drugstore as a pharmacist and drew sketches of the customers in his spare time.
In 1882, he moved with a friend to South Texas to attempt to rehabilitate his shaky health, working for a time on a sheep ranch as a ranch hand and a cook. Two years later, he moved to Austin to work as a pharmacist. It was in Austin that Porter began writing.
In 1887, he married and took up a new job. Porter worked for four years at the Texas General Land Office drawing maps and took a job as an accountant at a bank in 1891. However, three years later, the bank came across several accounting errors, accused him of embezzlement and fired him. At that point, he took up writing full time, briefly publishing his own weekly humor magazine and eventually found work with The Houston Post.
Not long after the move to Houston, federal auditors charged him with embezzlement from his former bank job. He was arrested but released on bail. He fled to New Orleans where he continued to write and took up the pen name of O. Henry after a conversation with a friend. He then fled to Honduras but returned to the United States when his wife’s health collapsed. His wife died within weeks of his arrival, and he was again arrested.
The trial was held in Austin, where he was sentenced to five years in prison in 1898. Ironically, the same courthouse today is owned by the University of Texas and has been rechristened O. Henry Hall.
He was released in 1901 for good behavior. In 1902, he moved to New York where he landed a job writing weekly stories for The New York World Sunday Magazine. He would write more than 300 short stories between 1902 and his death, many known for a sudden, surprise twist at the end.
Perhaps his most famous story was “The Gift of the Magi,” originally appearing in December 1905. It is the touching tale of a young couple in turn-of the-century New York who want to get something special for each other for Christmas but have no money and have to give up something special to them to afford the gifts.
Two other stories included “The Caballero’s Way,” (1907) which introduced The Cisco Kid, a character reproduced by many other authors; and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1907 as the tale of two kidnappers who kidnap a rich child in hopes of ransom.
His heavy drinking steadily took its toll on him. It cost him his marriage. His second wife left him in 1909. He descended further into the bottle and died in 1910 at age 47. In spite of his sad end, he was praised in later years. Schools in Garland and Austin were named for him as well as in his native Greensboro. In 1918, the prestigious O. Henry Award was established in his memory for outstanding short story writers.