The Story of Writer O. Henry’s Short Life

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in 2012 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Porter
The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in 2012 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Porter

by Ray Setterfield


July 25, 1897 — Athol Estes Porter died from tuberculosis, then known as consumption, on this day. The event is significant because her husband, William Sydney Porter, who had been on the run after being charged with embezzlement, was arrested when he returned to be at his wife’s deathbed.

Porter was sent to prison in Columbia, Ohio, for five years and while there produced a body of written work that would help establish him as one of the world’s great short story writers. He wrote them under the pseudonym O. Henry.

He was born in North Carolina in 1862, the son of a medical doctor. Tragically, his mother was to die from tuberculosis when Porter was just three years old – the same disease which, 32 years later, would cause the death of his wife.

When he was 17 he began work in an uncle’s drugstore, and qualified as a pharmacist two years later. But poor health, specifically a persistent cough, made him decide on a move to Texas where he stayed at a friend’s sheep ranch, hoping that a change of air would help his cough.

An avid reader since childhood, Porter dived into classic literature while staying at the ranch. He also worked as a baby-sitter, a shepherd and a cook and learnt a smattering of German and Spanish from the culturally diverse ranch-hands.

His career and his life took a significant turn when he moved to Austin, Texas, in 1884. Porter liked to enjoy himself and became known among Austin’s younger set for his wit, story-telling and musical talents. He not only played guitar and mandolin, but sang in a church choir and became a prominent member of a quartet of young men who sang at social occasions.

One 17-year-old who was captivated by him was Athol Estes and the pair began a romantic attachment, much to the displeasure of Athol’s mother who wanted her daughter to concentrate on improving her health. She, like Porter’s mother before, was suffering from tuberculosis.

As a result of the parental opposition, the pair eloped and were married in 1887. Four years later Porter landed a job as a book-keeper and teller at Austin’s First National Bank, but his career there was cut short when he was accused of embezzlement. The police were not called but he was fired.

If he had hoped that was the end of the matter his hopes were dashed two years later when federal auditors checked the bank’s accounts and discovered missing money. Porter was charged with embezzlement.

On the day before he was due to stand trial he fled, first to New Orleans and then to Honduras. In his writing he described Honduras as a “banana republic” – the first known use of the phrase. He was on the run for a year until he heard that his wife was dying of the same disease that had killed his mother. Porter returned to Austin to be at Athol’s bedside.

He was arrested, found guilty at his trial of embezzling $854 from the bank and sent to prison for five years. It was said that he needed the money partly to pay his wife’s medical bills. She died five months after his return to Austin.

While in prison Porter wrote many short stories including in 1899 "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking” – the first to bear the O. Henry pseudonym.

Released after three years for good behavior, he went to live in New York, where his flow of stories began in earnest until, by his death, he had produced more than 600. His stories were distinguished for their witty approach, effects of coincidence on their characters and most often for their surprise endings. His readers loved them.

The world’s other great short story writer, France’s Guy de Maupassant, obviously penned thoughts that were of no appeal to Porter. He said: “I have been called ‘the American De Maupassant.' Well, I never wrote a filthy word in my life, and I don't like to be compared to a filthy writer.”

William Porter had long been a heavy drinker, and he died in June 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes, and an enlarged heart, aged just 47.

In 2012, political science professor P.S. Ruckman Jr. and Texas attorney Scott Henson filed a formal application seeking a posthumous pardon for the writer. Previous attempts had been made to obtain such a pardon under Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. It was never granted.

Published: July 4, 2020

Articles on Events in July