O. Henry (William Porter)

Writer's life has as much legend as his fiction

William Sydney Porter, more commonly known by his pen name O. Henry, is widely recognized for his short stories. His work is distinguished by its wit, characterization and often a plot twist at the end of a story.

"That twist ending is something O. Henry is known for," said Michael Hoinski, culture and arts education coordinator with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department's O. Henry Museum. "Kind of pulling the rug out from underneath you."

But outside the world of writing, the story of O. Henry's life also includes plenty of its own elements of fiction and fantastic situations.

"If you ask five different people who know about O. Henry, you might get five slightly different answers. That's the beauty of O. Henry," Hoinski said. "He's this really dynamic character who's been in a lot of really interesting situations and defining moments in his life."

O. Henry was born Sept. 11, 1862, in Greensboro N.C., and moved to Cotulla, south of San Antonio, in 1882 for health reasons. He moved to Austin in 1884 and married Athol Estes in 1887. O. Henry held several jobs while in Austin, including working as a draftsman at the General Land Office, a teller at the First National Bank of Austin and publisher of a weekly satirical paper called "The Rolling Stone" for a year.

O. Henry lost his job at the bank after discrepancies were found in his bank records, and he was indicted on federal embezzlement charges. Before his trial, O. Henry went to Honduras for six months and then returned to Austin to attend to his ailing wife. O. Henry was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898 and sentenced to five years in prison at a federal penitentiary in Ohio.

Hoinski said there still is debate as to whether O. Henry was guilty and fled to Honduras to escape trial, but it was the trip that turned the jury against him.

Hoinski said myths around O. Henry continued during his time in prison, including that he was allowed to drink beer during his incarceration and that he saved the warden's life. While in prison, O. Henry created his famous pen name, though its exact origins are unknown.

"That's the story of O. Henry," Hoinski said. "A lot of elements of his story, you're kind of left guessing."

After his release in 1902, O. Henry moved to New York and was contracted to write one story a week for The New York World Sunday Magazine. O. Henry published 381 short stories, including The Gift of the Magi, before he died in 1910.


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