Portrait of William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) in his thirties.

William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910), better known by the pseudonym O. Henry, was an American writer who popularized the use of twist endings in short stories. He was a prolific author, publishing nearly three hundred short stories and some poems in his brief literary career. He wrote stories inspired by ordinary people and everyday life, and his tales about middle- and lower-class residents of New York City were extremely popular during and shortly after his lifetime. Today he is best remembered for "The Gift of the Magi" (1906), a story about a poor couple who make personal sacrifices in order to buy Christmas presents for each other.

O. Henry's stories have been translated into many languages and also adapted to other media. The Cisco Kid, a character he created in "The Caballero's Way" (1907), has starred in numerous films, television and radio shows, and comic books. A prestigious annual award for short stories is named in O. Henry's honor.


William Sydney Porter was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, to Dr. Algernon and Mary Jane Porter. William's mother died when he was three years old, and the family went to live with his paternal grandmother and aunt. William was educated at a private elementary school run by his aunt. He then attended a public high school before starting to work at the age of fifteen as an apprentice at his uncle's pharmacy. Porter became a licensed pharmacist in 1881, but he soon developed a persistent cough and decided to move to a better climate. From 1882 to 1884, he worked at a friend's ranch in Cotulla, Texas. It was while working at the ranch that Porter began writing for personal entertainment.

Wiliam Sydney Porter with wife Athol and daughter Margaret.

In 1884, Porter moved to Austin, Texas, where he met and fell in love with Athol Estes. They eloped in 1887, and Athol gave birth to a daughter, Margaret, two years later. After working as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office for a few years, Porter became a teller at the First National Bank of Austin in 1891. Three years later, an audit at the bank revealed shortages in Porter's accounts. He maintained his innocence and the case was dismissed by the grand jury, but Porter found himself jobless with a family to support. He had started selling humorous articles to newspapers after his marriage, and had also published a short-lived weekly humor magazine The Rolling Stone. With the bank position lost, he decided to pursue a career in writing and moved to Houston to work as a reporter and columnist for the Post newspaper.

In the mean time, Federal investigation into the account discrepancies persisted, and charges against Porter were reinstated in 1896. On the way to Austin to appear in court, Porter instead fled, first to New Orleans then to Honduras. Before he could move his wife and daughter there to wait out the statute of limitations, Athol, who had always suffered from poor health, became seriously ill. Porter returned to Texas to be with her and surrendered to court. Athol died while he was out on bail awaiting trial.

Although the evidence against him was inconclusive, Porter was found guilty of embezzlement in 1898 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was imprisoned at the Ohio State Penitentiary and worked as the night pharmacist at the prison hospital. While serving his sentence, Porter was able to write and sell stories, using various pseudonyms, to support his daughter. In 1901, he was released early for good behavior and began a new life as O. Henry.

Porter moved to New York City in 1902 and quickly achieved popular success. From December 1903 to January 1906, he wrote a story a week for the New York World while also contributing to other publications. The first collection of his stories Cabbages and Kings[1] was published in 1904, followed by The Four Million[2] two years later. From 1907 to 1910, he published two collections every year.

In spite of his success, Porter became increasingly unhappy towards the end of his life. Dissatisfied with short stories which did not challenge him, he felt the need to write a novel to prove himself. His health, already poor from tuberculosis, deteriorated from heavy drinking, and both his personal life and his writing suffered. He was also always in debt, even though he had a very good income, due to careless spending habits. Porter married his childhood sweetheart Sara Lindsey Coleman in 1907, but the second marriage was not a happy one and Sara left him after two years.

William Sydney Porter died in 1910 at the age of forty seven, penniless despite his popularity. Collections of his stories continued to be published after his death, and in 1918, the Society of Arts and Science established the O. Henry Award as "a monument to O. Henry's genius."

Selected works

Cover of first edition of Whirligigs, 1910.


  • Cabbages and Kings (1904)
  • The Four Million (1906)
  • The Trimmed Lamp; and Other Stories of the Four Million (1907)
  • Heart of the West (1907)
  • The Voice of the City; Further Stories of the Four Million (1908)
  • The Gentle Grafter (1908)
  • Roads of Destiny (1909)
  • Options (1909)
  • Strictly Business; More Stories of the Four Million (1910)
  • Whirligigs (1910)
  • Sixes and Sevens (1911)
  • Rolling Stones (1912)
  • Waifs and Strays (1917)
  • O. Henryana (1920)

Short stories

Sherlock Holmes parodies:


  1. The title of the collection is taken from the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll. The book begins with "The Proem: by the Carpenter, " which contains the following paragraph: "So, there is a little tale to tell of many things. Perhaps to the promiscuous ear of the Walrus it shall come with most avail; for in it there are indeed shoes and ships and sealing-wax and cabbage-palms and presidents instead of kings."
  2. The title refers to the population of New York. O. Henry meant it as a rebuttal to the elitist comment by Ward McAllister, a famous socialite, that only four hundred people in New York "were really worth noticing."

External links

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