O. Henry Biography

 

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Biography

William Sydney Porter, photo taken soon after his arrival in Austin. PICB 07214, Austin History Center, Austin Public LibraryWilliam Sydney Porter (O. Henry) was born on a plantation in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 11, 1862. In 1882, prompted by ill health, he moved to a ranch in West Texas. Two years later, he moved to Austin where he resided until 1898. During Porter's early years in the city, he held several jobs. He was a pharmacist at the Morley Drug Store, a bookkeeper for Joe Harrell, and later, a clerk at Maddox Brothers and Anderson, general land agents. As a bachelor, he enjoyed singing with the Hill City Quartet, known for serenading young women on the streets of Austin. The group also entertained at local weddings, church festivals, and picnics. Porter was a frequenter of the Bismark Saloon, his favorite "watering hole".

In 1887, Porter eloped with seventeen year old Athol Estes, an Austin native, who was impressed with both his singing and drawing abilities. They were married at Flower Hill, the home of Reverend R. K. Smoot. Porter's status as the head of a new household motivated him to take a job at the Texas Land Office, where he translated his skills as a cartoonist into cartography. Porter's maps, some of which are embellished with topical sketches and landscapes, are still on file at the General Land Office in Austin.

Will and Athol had two children, an infant son who died in 1888 and Margaret Worth Porter, born in 1889. Shortly after, Athol's health began to deteriorate from tuberculosis. Will pursued his interest in writing and illustrated a book, Indian Depredations in Texas, by J. W. Wilbarger. In 1891, Porter left his job at the Texas Land Office and moved on to become a bank teller at the First National Bank of Austin, earning $100 a month.

The Rolling Stone, his 1894 venture in writing and publishing a newspaper, gained a healthy circulation of about 1000 in a city of 11,000. Despite public interest, Porter was unable to make a profit and stopped production after a year. Further disappointments ensued when discrepancies in his accounting at the bank amounted to over $4000, demanding his resignation. Porter removed himself to Houston where he wrote a column for the Houston Post. To avoid an embezzlement trial, he fled to New Orleans and embarked on a steamer to Honduras. In his desperate situation, he impulsively planned to wait out the statute of limitations in Central America, but he abandoned this plan when he got word that his wife was about to die. He returned to Austin to care for her and to await his trial. Shortly after his wife's death in 1897, William Porter was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio and he never returned to Texas. After his release from prison, Porter moved briefly to Pittsburgh and then to New York City, where he established residency.

While in prison, Will Porter adopted the pen name O. Henry and began his career as a short story writer. His work was prolific but began to decline, along with his health, after 1907. O. Henry died in New York City in 1910, prior to his forty-eighth birthday. His legacy continues in the O. Henry Award, one of the most prestigious short story prizes in America.