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
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.