Biography and History

William Sidney Porter was born 11 September 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of Algernon Sidney and Mary Jane Virginia (Swaim) Porter. (In 1898 Porter would change the spelling of his middle name to Sydney, and later still he would adopt the literary pseudonym “O. Henry.”) His first job after leaving school was as a pharmacist's assistant in his hometown (1877-1882). In 1882 he went to Texas, and after work at various types of jobs-including as a teller in an Austin bank (1891-1894)-he started a short-lived humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone (1894-1895), and wrote a daily column for the Houston paper Daily Post (1895-1896). On 5 July 1887, Porter married Athol Estes, on whom he based the character Della in “The Gift of the Magi.” The couple had one child, Margaret.

In 1896 Porter was indicted for embezzlement of funds from the First National Bank of Austin, his former employer. The bank's relaxed policies definitely contributed to either his theft or failure to properly record a deposit. Instead of standing trial, Porter fled to Honduras. But when he learned that Athol was gravely ill (she died in July 1897), he returned to Austin and was convicted on 17 February 1898. Porter was then sentenced to five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary (1898-1901). During his imprisonment, he began to write short stories based on his experiences in Texas, Honduras, and elsewhere, as well as the lives of his fellow inmates. It was during this time that he transformed himself from a newspaper columnist to a mature author.

As a reward for good behavior, after serving three years and three months of his sentence, Porter was released early from the penitentiary on 24 July 1901. By April 1902, Porter was in New York City, talking with everyone he met, primarily colorful characters of the city's lower classes, and again using their stories in his fiction. He began writing a weekly story for the New York World (1903-1906) and published his first novel, Cabbages and Kings (1904). However, it would be his short story collections that what would bring Porter immense popularity; he published several volumes between 1907 and 1910 alone. Although his stories are set in many parts of the United States, as well as in Central and South America, Porter is best known for his observations on the diverse lives of everyday New Yorkers, “the four million” neglected by other writers. On 27 November 1907, Porter was married for the second time to Sara Lindsay Coleman, a friend from back in Greensboro. He died on 5 June 1910, in New York, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Source: From the finding aid for C0116