William Sidney Porter wasn’t satisfied with the name he was born with. He changed the spelling of “Sidney” to “Sydney” to add a bit of class. When he began publishing short stories (while in prison) he used the pseudonym “O. Henry,” a name with many explanations. And when he entered the hospital shortly before his untimely death at age forty-seven, he listed his name as “Will S. Parker.”
This chameleonesque author was born September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of a physician and his tubercular wife, who died of that disease when young William was three. He attended a private grammar school operated by his aunt, who continued to tutor him into his teenage years. He worked at an uncle’s drug store, and at nineteen became a licensed pharmacist. Beset by a persistent cough and fearing the onset of the disease that killed his mother, he moved to a ranch owned by a friend in LaSalle County, in south Texas, where he worked as a ranch hand and household helper.
In 1884 he moved to Austin, where he found work as a pharmacist. He met a seventeen-year-old girl named Athol Estes, who also suffered from tuberculosis, and over the objections of her parents eloped with her. They had a son who died in childbirth, and the following year a daughter named Margaret. Athol encouraged her husband’s literary bent, and he began to write poems and stories.
A friend named Richard Hall was elected Texas Land Commissioner and offered Porter a job as a map draftsman in the General Land Office at a salary of $100 a month. When Hall ran for governor, he lost to James S. Hogg, and Porter was quickly out of a job. He soon found another, as a teller and bookkeeper at Austin’s First National Bank. Procedures were lax at the bank: customers were known to step behind the counter, take a couple of hundred dollars from the cash drawer, and leave an informal IOU, if they remembered to do so. Not surprisingly a year-end audit could not be reconciled, and Porter was accused of embezzlement. He was fired, but not formally charged.
He then founded a humorous weekly magazine that he called The Rolling Stone, which went belly up after about a year. His work had attracted the attention of editors at The Houston Post, and they offered Porter a job as a columnist at $25 a month, and he and his family moved to Houston.
After Porter had been at The Post less than a year, government auditors at the Austin bank uncovered evidence that resulted in his indictment and arrest on the embezzlement charges. His father-in-law got him out of jail on bail, and the day before his trial, Porter skipped out on a train to New Orleans and from there sailed to Honduras. He spent several months in a Trujillo hotel, where he wrote the novel Cabbages and Kings, which takes place in the fictional country of Anchuria, for which he coined the descriptive term “banana republic.”
In February of 1897 Porter learned that his wife was dying of tuberculosis and he returned to her side, although he knew it would mean his arrest. Once again out on bail, he remained with her until her death in July of 1897. Then he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in a federal prison in Ohio.
While in prison, Porter published numerous short stories, many of them under the “pen” name O. Henry. Why O. Henry? One story is that there was a guard captain named Orrin Henry, who signed himself as “O. Henry,” and Porter borrowed the name. Another insists it is a cryptic construction from the first two letters of Ohio and the second two and last two of penitentiary. Yet another tale is that an Austin family with whom Porter stayed had a cat named Henry the Proud and he was regularly called with the phrase “Henry, oh, Henry!” Porter gave his own explanation to The New York Times:
“It was during the New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: ‘I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias.’ He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. ‘Here we have our notables,’ said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry. ‘That'll do for a last name,’ said I. ‘Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.’ ‘Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?’ asked my friend. ‘Good,’ said I, ‘O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.’"
Whatever the truth, when Porter was released for good behavior after serving three years, he reunited with his daughter (who never knew where her father had been) and eventually moved to New York, where he became a well established literary figure as O. Henry, turning out almost 400 short stories noted for their ironic twist endings. He was married again in 1907, to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Coleman, now also a writer, whom he saw while on a visit to North Carolina. She left him after two years, disgusted with his heavy drinking, which had begun to affect his health.
Porter developed diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and an enlarged heart. He spent time seeking cures for his ailments in both North Carolina and New York, where he continued to write in a studio he kept in the Caledonia Hotel on West 26th St. and Sixth Avenue. He made his home at the nearby Chelsea Hotel.
O. Henry scholar Tom Dodge wrote of him during this period: “He was sociable and reserved, partial to prostitutes yet prudish, and outrageously generous with all but landlords and bill collectors. His daughter's tuition was $1,000 a year; his fondness for fine clothes, perfume, female companionship, and his superhuman thirst for whiskey required lots of money. He earned $12,000 some years and borrowed as much from editors. It was never enough. His account was always in the loss column.”
Ill as he was, Porter gave little serious thought to mortality. When someone asked him his views about the possibility of an afterlife, he responded with a verse:
I had a little dog
And his name was Rover,
And when he died
He died all over.
And his name was Rover,
And when he died
He died all over.
On the afternoon of June 3, 1910, Gilman Hall, an editor at Ainslee’s magazine, received a telephone message from Porter asking him to come to the Caledonia Hotel. He found Porter collapsed on the floor, and he summoned Dr. Charles Russell Hancock, who had him taken to the Polyclinic Hospital on East 34th Street. Porter insisted on using the name “Will S. Parker” to prevent unwanted publicity. Dr. Hancock reported of his final moments: “He was perfectly conscious until within two minutes of his death Sunday morning and knew that the end was approaching. I never saw a man pluckier in facing it or in bearing pain. Nothing appeared to worry him at the last. Just before sunrise he said to those around him: ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.’ The sunlight was on his face as he passed.” Porter was forty-seven.
The funeral was at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, known as the Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street. Because he had used a fictitious name at the hospital, hardly anyone other than his family knew he had died, and there were few mourners, no music, no eulogy, and no mention of the name O. Henry. The service was a hurried one, since a wedding party scheduled at the same time were eager to get into the church. Porter was buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina.