O Henry


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O. Henry, pseudonym of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), noted American author of hundreds of short stories including "The Ransom of Red Chief" (1910), "The Duplicity of Hargraves" (1902), and "The Gift of the Magi" (1905);

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

William Sidney Porter was born 11 September, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina, to physician Algernon Sidney Porter (1825-1888) and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim (1833-1865). The two brothers of William were Shirley Worth (1860) and David Weir (1865) who both died in early childhood. Mary was a graduate of Greensboro Female College (founded in 1838) now Greensboro College. She wrote poetry and had a promising artistic temperament with a natural eye for drawing and painting, surely a talent which young Will inherited. She ran her household with a firm but loving hand. Tragically she died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty when Will was only three years old. His father Sidney was a gentle and good humoured man, gregarious, and generous to a fault. Absent-minded with a long flowing beard, he travelled Guilford county visiting his patients. As was the custom of the time, he never sent invoices to his patients; they were expected to settle once a year. Without his wife to stay on top of their accounts, finances dwindled and Sidney started to drink.

After Mary's death, widower Sidney and his shy, freckle-faced son moved to his mother's farm, that of Will's paternal grandmother Ruth Coffyn Worth Porter (1805-1890). Sidney became increasingly occupied with various inventions he was developing, poking about in his workshop with such contraptions as a perpetual motion water wheel. Also living at the farm was Will's aunt, Evalina Maria Porter or "Miss Lina" as she was known. She would become the most influential person in the first 20 years of Will's life. She became teacher, parent, and mentor to him. She had started a school at her mother's home that was soon established in it's own building on the Porter property. Will studied the basics there, writing and arithmetic, and he read classic literature and poetry. He was very clever with a pencil and loved to draw caricatures.

At the age of fifteen Porter began working as a clerk in his uncle Clark Porter's store. The combined pharmacy, soda fountain, tobacco shop, and newsstand was the local gathering spot. Porter became immersed in the social scene, entertaining the customers with stories and drawing caricatures of them for which he became well known. He saw the humour in the everyday, and made notes of all the colourful characters he encountered, fodder for his future stories. He also obtained a pharmacist license in 1881. Small town life was not to hold him for long, however, and he had developed a persistent cough. Thinking that a change of climate would do him well, at the age of eighteen he moved to Texas, settling in Austin in 1884. He was already writing short stories while he held a number of jobs including pharmacist before working with the Texas Land Office. Around this time he met Athol Estes Roach. They married in 1887 and had a daughter, Margaret Worth (d.1927), in 1889. With a steady income Porter was now able to focus on his writing. In 1891 he began work as a bank teller with the First National Bank. The Porter's were living in the house which is now known as the O Henry House Museum. In 1894 Porter launched a humorous weekly magazine The Rolling Stone (no relation to the current magazine, founded in 1967.) It featured political and every day satirical articles and cartoons, all by Will himself, which he also published. 1895 found the Porter's living in Houston, Texas, where Porter started a column in the Houston Post.

After time spent in Honduras, during which Porter coined the term "banana republic", he had to return to Texas to face charges of embezzlement. His wife was also was suffering from tuberculosis and he rushed to see her. Athol died in July of 1897. At that time Margaret was living with Athol's parents. They then moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Margaret never knew that her father had spent time in prison. She was always told he was away on business. After inconsistencies were found with Porter's First National Bank records, Porter was charged with embezzlement. In 1898 he began a five-year sentence in Columbus, Ohio federal prison. Around this time he changed his name to Sydney. The following year, in 1899, from prison, Porter began his short story career by contributing "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking" to McClure's Magazine. Thereafter a number of his stories written in prison appeared in print, always under a pseudonym, his favourite being "O. Henry". The general public did not know of his prison term until after his death.

After being released from prison in just three years, Porter moved on to the next chapter in his life: New York City. This was where he really came into his own and all his previous life's experience served to inspire stories. Porter crafted everyday tales of myriad characters, many recurring, based in New York City with humour, wit, and realism. His stories often have a surprise or twist ending, and Porter's fans looked forward to more in such publications as World, Ainslee's, and McClure's. Porter has been compared to other masters of the short story including Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, Bret Harte, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). Porter also wrote numerous stories set in Western and South and Central America. Despite many of his works being panned by the critics he was becoming one of America's most popular short story authors. So much so that several collections were published including Cabbages and Kings (1904), The Four Million (1909), Options (1909), Roads of Destiny (1909), The Trimmed Lamp (1910), Strictly Business: More Stories of the Four Million (1910), Whirligigs (1910), Sixes and Sevens (1911), The Gentle Grafter (1919) and Rolling Stones (1919).

Troubled by ill-health and heavy drinking for many years, surely Porter was happy when he married his childhood sweetheart from Greensboro, Sara (Sallie) Lindsey Coleman, in 1907. But Porter was living an extravagant lifestyle amid increasing pressure to keep his commitments to publishers for more and more stories. This stress plus added financial problems led to Sara leaving in him in 1909. William Sidney Porter died of cirrhosis on 5 June, 1910. A funeral was held in New York City. He now lies buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter was later buried beside him. His last complete short story is "Let Me Feel Your Pulse". The O. Henry Museum in Austen, Texas, open to the public, serves to preserve artifacts and archival materials related to O. Henry.

"You can tell your paper," the great man said,
"I refused an interview.
I have nothing to say on the question, sir;
Nothing to say to you."

And then he talked till the sun went down
And the chickens went to roost;
And he seized the collar of the poor young man,
And never his hold he loosed.

And the sun went down and the moon came up,
And he talked till the dawn of day;
Though he said, "On this subject mentioned by you,
I have nothing whatever to say."


And down the reporter dropped to sleep
And flat on the floor he lay;
And the last he heard was the great man's words,
"I have nothing at all to say."--"Nothing To Say", poem by O. Henry

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on O Henry

Help-An O.H. Short for Young Kids?

Greetings! I recently sponsored a Great Books Club for 4th through 6th graders and would love to have them read an O Henry short story that is appropriate for their age, especially one that features a child so they could better relate. I'd prefer saving the great Gift of the Magi for Xmas time. Can someone who really knows their stuff suggest a good one? (I did thumb through an anthology of his works, but didn't find one yet myself.) Thank you very much! :hurray:...


Need the title of O.Henry Story

I've been looking for a story about an aging couple that give gifts to each other. IT'S NOT "THE GIFT OF THE MAGI" but is similar in some ways. She gives him a gift to match his blue eyes --they are still blue to her but are clouded now, maybe cataracts. He gives her a gift to match her hair color (red I think) but it has turned gray. In other words, they don't see that the other has grown old, they see each other as they were when they fell in love. I need the reference for a piece I am writi...


Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen

Ironically, and quite unplanned I happened to read this story during Thanksgiving Week. It was within a collection of short stories I have, and just so happened to be the next story in the collection I came to right around Thanksgiving time. This was my second (technically my first as I read it before Mammon and the Archer) O Henry story, and when I read this story I did not even realize it was one of his, as well I hadn't paid that close attention to the authors name when I started reading....


Mammon and the Archer

Prior to this forum I have never actually heard of O Henry before, but since being here I have heard bits and pieces about him. I have heard that he does write horror stories and things of that nature so I have been curious to read his works. I it was by chance that I came across one of his stories within one of my short story collections. I was surprised by how expertly written each story I have read so far was, as I did not really recognize any of the authors names included within the coll...


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I'm looking for the title to an O. Henry short story that involves a married couple. They go about their day either being helpful or nasty to people they encounter then switch roles the next day. Thanks in advance to anyone who can help me....


this is sooooo boring!!!!

sooooo PATHETIC!!!! i just can't understand why writers and poets have to use deep words,when in fact they can just use simple words so as not to give headaches and nosebleed to their readers!! uuugghhh!:flare:...


What makes O'Henry a great story teller?

O'Henry is one of the born story-tellers of the world. He wrote so naturally and without much difficulty as if it was but to breathe to him. He is a master of tragedy, romance and extravaganza, of tales of mystery or of common life/common people, with especial skill in surprise ending. In fact, when one talks about surprise ending, O'Henry rests on the top of the list. What makes him great in my opinion can be listed as such: *the variety and colorfulness of his characters and the places....


I want to find a short stories written by O.Henry

I am looking for a short stories written by O.Henry, but I only remember the plot of it. It's about a pair of young lover. One is a handsome hunter in the mountain and the other is a pretty young peasant maid. They met in the foot of the Alps and fell in love with each other. But in fact both of them are from the upper class of their society. Because of tiring of the life of luxury and privilege of their class, they went to the Alps to live a rural live. But at last, their love story was put to ...


Question of The ransom of Red Cheif

If you are kidnappers, how would ensure that you succeed? Summary of the ransom of Red Cheif This story tells of a young boy held for ransom by two money hungry criminals, Bill Driscoll and Sam Howard. The two men are fugitives who have escaped to the Deep South searching for an easy way to get their hands on $2,000 they need in order to launch a land fraud scheme in Illinois. They set their sights on the quiet town of Summit, Alabama because of the philoprogenitiveness - love for one's own ...


O henry stories..

there are phrases I do not understand at all in O.Henry's stories well maybe because English is not my first language Yet I have read many English works and I am confident that I have read more English books than ones in my native language.. therefore I have very little problem reading English literature works but boy O henry's works leaves me desperately puzzled there are several phrases and expressions I do not understand at all I wonder if it is same for all you guys.. and if it is w...


the listener?

Can anyone help me to find a story by O Henry which my mother read as a child (she is now 80) - she believes it was called "The Listener" and would dearly love to read it again. I have been unable to find anything with this title and wondered whether anyone would recognise the tale of a person who hears the goings on of others. Further update from elderly mother now suggests the story was about people who thought they were in some kind of confessional but they didn't realise nobody was there? ...


Searching For 30 Years...

...for an O Henry short story about two pen pals who agree to finally meet in a bar after years of corresponding. The male has fallen in love with the words of his female pen pal, but he's nervous about what will happen if he's not attracted to her. Naturally, there is a wonderful twist ending. I remember reading and loving the story when I was a kid, but have not been able to find it since. Any help would be greatly appreciated....


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