O. Henry Biography

A Short biography of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

O. HENRY (1862-1910), an American short-story writer, was born at Greensboro, N.C., on Sept. 11, 1862. His real name was William Sydney Porter, and he came from an old southern family.

Education: Until 15 years of age he attended a school directed by his maternal aunt in Greensboro, then entered his uncle’s drugstore as a clerk. From early years he was a constant reader, and he secured a wide knowledge of the English classics. He has recorded that his favourite books were Lane’s translation of The Arabian Nights and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and that he was a devoted admirer of Tennyson.

William Sydney Porter as young man in AustinEmployment: The close confinement as drug-clerk impaired his health, and in 1882 he was sent to a friend’s ranch in Texas, where he remained two years. In 1884 he went to Austin, Tex., where he lived ten years, first as a book-keeper in a real estate office, then as an employee in the General Land Office and from 1891 as teller in the First National Bank of Austin. In 1894 he purchased Brann’s Iconoclast, a weekly, which after a short time he renamed The Rolling Stone. This paper he converted into a ten-page weekly, he alone furnishing most of the matter and the illustrations. Even as a young boy he had been locally famous for his cartoons. After a year the paper “rolled away,” to use his own words, and in 1895 he became a reporter on the Houston Daily Post.

Prison: In 1896 he was charged with having embezzled money while teller in the Austin bank some years before. He fled to Honduras, and thereafter visited several South American countries. In 1897 he returned to Austin and the following year was convicted and sentenced to serve four years in the Ohio penitentiary. Later his innocence seemed to have been established, and it was generally agreed that had he originally stood trial he would have been acquitted. He entered prison April 25, 1898 and was released July 24, 1901.

Writing: It was probably while in prison that he first adopted the pen name of O. Henry. Many of his stories, written there, were mailed to New Orleans and thence redirected to the publishers. In 1902 he settled in New York, and sent forth a constant stream of stories, which became extraordinarily popular. They are characterized by a gorgeousness of imagination, recalling The Arabian Nights so familiar to him; but the constant striving for effect and the excessive use of slang led many to see in them a degeneration into “literary vaudeville.” He is perhaps at his best when describing the endlessly varied types presented by the mass of humanity in New York City. He died in New York June 5, 1910.

This O. Henry bio adapted from the Wikisource 1922 encyclopedia project.


Additional resources for O. Henry

You can read this 1909 New York Times interview with O. Henry.

The O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas, offers the annual O. Henry Pun-Off, as well as information about the early life of William Sydney Porter (O. Henry). The museum is located at 409 East 5th Street Austin, TX 78701.

You can read (or watch a dramatization if you prefer) of O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief and Hearts and Hands for free, courtesy of EIL


When will you read O. Henry’s writing in Excellence in Literature?

You’ll study O. Henry as part of EIL 1.1 (Short Stories)


It ain’t the roads we take; it’s what’s inside of us that makes us turn out the way we do.
O. Henry from “The Roads We Take”