Sep 26, 2012

O. Henry

In September, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of O. Henry, born as William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina. At age three, his mother died of consumption, now called tuberculosis, and he was raised by his physician father and maternal grandmother.

Porter spent his first twenty years in Greensboro with a love of reading and a talent for sketching. After high school, he became a licensed pharmacist and worked briefly in his uncle's drug store. At age 20, worried about a chronic cough that might develop into tuberculosis so he moved to Texas.

Porter traveled with Dr. James K. Hall to Texas in 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 and helped out as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and baby-sitter.

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.

During the next several years, he became a well-known member of the social scene as a result of his involvement in musical and theater groups. He played guitar and mandolin and had a great singing voice. It was around this time that he also began to dream up plots for short stories and imagine an assortment of characters, often brought to life in his drawings.

By 1891, while devoting all his spare time to a self-published magazine 'The Rolling Stone', he took a job as a teller and bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin. In 1894, be was abruptly fired for embezzling funds, although no charges were filed. He moved to Houston, where his pieces in The Rolling Stone helped land him a job as a writer for The Houston Post.

Two years later, after a federal audit of the Austin bank, formal embezzlement charges were brought against him. The day before his trial, he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. A year later, after learning that his wife Athol was dying, he returned to Austin and surrendered to authorities.

In 1898, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While serving his sentence at Ohio Penitentiary, Porter worked as a night druggist in the prison hospital, given a room in the hospital wing, and even provided with access to a typewriter to continue his writing efforts.

He had fourteen stories published in national magazines under various pseudonyms while he was in prison, but became best known as "O. Henry." When asked what the O stood for, he said, "O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver."

He was released from prison after serving three years and moved to Manhattan, where he lived until his premature death at age 47 in 1910. He died of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes, and an enlarged heart. During the last decade of his life, he wrote nearly 400 short stories.

In an interesting twist, like many of his stories, O. Henry Hall in Austin, Texas is named for him and it previously served as the federal courthouse in which he was convicted of embezzlement.