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Welcome to Biography Out Loud. I am your host, Dane Allred.

He spent time in the Ohio penitentiary. He is better known by his pen name, which some have said is made from the phrase “Ohio penitentiary”. He worked as a pharmacist, sheep-herder, cook, babysitter, draftsman, a teller and a bookkeeper. He was married, and though his wife had tuberculosis when they were married, she lived ten more years. They had children, and participated in music and theatre groups. This author fled the country when he was accused of embezzlement, spending time in Honduras and New Orleans. His most famous work may be “The Gift of the Magi”. In a moment, we examine another exciting literary life on

Biography Out Loud

William Sydney Porter was three when his mother died of tuberculosis. Though better known as O. Henry, he would spend his formative years in North Carolina, moving to Texas when he was twenty in hopes of getting rid of a persistent cough. He did get better, and worked on ranches, at banks, and as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office. O. Henry continued to make contributions to magazines and newspapers and started a magazine called “The Rolling Stone” which he eventually stopped producing. He then began writing for the Houston Post, often sitting in hotel lobbies observing and talking to people he would meet there.

Federal investigators found discrepancies from his work in Austin, and Porter was indicted for embezzlement. The day before the trial was to take place, O. Henry fled Texas, going to New Orleans and then to Honduras. When he learned his wife was dying, he returned to Texas, where he surrendered to authorities. O. Henry once said of his self-exile, “You can't appreciate home till you've left it, money till it's spent, your wife till she's joined a women's club, nor Old Glory till you see it hanging on a broomstick on the shanty of a consul in a foreign town.”

A few months later his wife died, he was put on trial and eventually found guilty of embezzlement, and was sentenced to five years. He spent the next three years in the Ohio Penitentiary, being released early for good behavior in 1901. Having a friend forward his stories from New Orleans, neither his publishers nor his daughter knew he was spending time behind bars. His daughter, Margaret was told he had been away on business.

After moving to New York to be near his publishers, he wrote 381 short stories. His stories have surprise endings, and while critics often panned his work, William Sydney Porter once said, “Write what you like; there is no other rule.”

There are two versions of how his pen name was selected. Porter once wrote he and a friend came up with it one day, but author and scholar Guy Davenport offers another explanation. He says "The pseudonym that he began to write under in prison is constructed from the first two letters of Ohio and the second, third and last two letters of penitentiary." O. Henry also once said the “O” stood for “Olivier”, what he called the French version of Oliver.

Whatever the source, O. Henry is most well-known for his poignant stories like “The Last Leaf”; where a sickly girl wishes to see the last leaf fall from a tree outside her window, and it is discovered it has been painted there. The girl recovers; the artist who hoped to paint a masterpiece died from painting it there one cold night. He says of death in this story, “The lonsomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey.”

Retold on radio, television and other movie adaptations, “The Gift of the Magi” is a story of two poor lovebirds who sacrifice their prized possessions to get a Christmas present for each other, with a nice twist at the end. A classic phrase from the story is “Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”

Two other famous stories are “The Cop and the Anthem”; where Soapy, a homeless wanderer in the city wants to be arrested so he can spend the cold winter in jail, but can’t get arrested no matter how he tries. Another Porter classic is “The Ransom of Red Chief”; where a kidnapped child is so much trouble the kidnappers end up paying to get the father to take him back.

O. Henry was reunited later with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Lindsey Coleman. They were married briefly before his health and writing began to deteriorate.

A heavy drinker later in life, William Sydney Porter died of cirrhosis of the liver. A writing award carrying his name has been presented every year to outstanding short story writers since 1919. If you hear a short story with a surprise ending, check to see if O. Henry is the author.

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