Classic Authors – O. Henry

Pop quiz! Which famous short story author embezzled bank funds and was imprisoned? Which author’s pen name could have come from the family cat? If you answered O. Henry to both of these questions, you’d be correct. If you didn’t know who O. Henry was (or even if you did!), read on to find out more about this interesting author!

O. Henry was born William Sidney (he later changed it to ‘Sydney’) Porter on September 11, 1862 in North Carolina. When he was fifteen, he became a clerk in his uncle’s drugstore. It was the local gathering place of the town, and his observations and interactions there later became some of the material for his writing.

A few years later, due to a bad cough, he moved to Texas. There he eloped with a rich girl named Athol, and they had one daughter named Margaret. Henry worked for a bank in Austin, but was forced to quit after being accused of embezzling bank funds. During that same time, he had started a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone, but that was never successful and failed within a year.

He then worked for the Houston Post before being arrested on the charge of embezzlement. He was taken to jail, but the day before his trial, Henry disappeared, travelling to New Orleans and then Honduras. However, while he was avoiding the law, he heard that his wife was dying. Henry returned to the U.S., where he gave himself up to the courts. After his wife’s death, Henry was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but his jail term was shortened to three years for his good behavior.

To support his daughter while in prison, Henry started writing. Some say he used a pen name so that his readers wouldn’t know he was in prison! There are many possibilities as to where the name O. Henry came from. The name may have originated from his calling for the family cat, “Oh, Henry!” Others say it came from using some of the letters from Ohio Penitentiary, the jail where he was being held, or from one of the prison guards there. Porter himself said that the name came from flipping through the newspaper with his friend and choosing the name from there. Wherever it came from, it became an extremely popular name, one whose stories everyone loved.

After being released from jail, Henry married again, but the marriage was not happy, and his wife left him.

O. Henry died in 1910, leaving behind many wonderful short stories that we still enjoy today. Henry is known for his dry humor and stories that end with a surprise. There’s an award today bearing his name given to authors of short stories that are especially well written. Today, many people are pushing for O. Henry to be pardoned for his crime. He still hasn’t been pardoned yet, but perhaps one day! There was even a US postage stamp issued commemorating his 150th birthday on September 11, 2012.

O. Henry was famous for many of his stories, but two favorites are “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

“The Gift of the Magi” is a Christmas story about a couple who do not have a lot of money but want to get each other a Christmas gift. You can read the story here:

“The Ransom of Red Chief” is the story of two men who kidnap a little boy in the hopes of getting reward money for him. Things don’t exactly go according to plan though, and the end result is a very entertaining story! You can read it here:

~ Kayla