William Sidney Porter (O. Henry)

William Sidney (sometimes also spelled Sydney) Porter was an American author.  He was the son of physician Algernon Sidney and Mary Jane Swaim Porter and was born in North Carolina in 1862.  His mother Mary Jane died in 1865 when he was three years old and Porter was raised by his paternal grandmother.  He was by all accounts highly intelligent, though he had little formal education.  Porter had attended school through the age of fifteen and became a licensed pharmacist, working in his uncle’s pharmacy.

While still a young man, Porter first moved to Harris County and later to Travis County in Texas where he met his wife, Athol Estes.  According to a 1930 newspaper article by Frances Goggin Maltby, it was quite a love story.  Maltby had been a fellow student with Athol Estes in an Austin high school when Porter began to court her.  Maltby’s account added that prior to coming to Austin, Porter had worked on a ranch and that his two prized possessions were his guitar and his dictionary.  Porter had been living with some Austin friends by the name of Harrell, playing in some musical groups for pleasure and recreation.  Maltby described Estes as being beautiful, with ringlets of hair.  At the time they met, Athol was engaged to another man but was soon won over by Porter, over the objections of her former suitor and her parents.  The couple eloped and were married in the summer of 1887.

While in Austin, Porter began to publish a periodical named The Rolling Stone.  He had bought his printing press from another Texas writer, William Cowper Brann, after Brann’s own Austin publication failed.  It was an unsuccessful venture for Porter, as well.

In 1888 the couple had a son, William, Jr. who did not survive.  In 1889 a daughter named Margaret was born.  In 1891 Porter went to work as a teller with First National Bank in Austin.  At one point he was charged with embezzlement and he left the family and escaped to New Orleans and then to Honduras.  The circumstances of the case are not widely reported, but some accounts question the severity of the charges, whether Porter actually had committed a crime, or rather if the situation should have been attributed to bookkeeping errors.  Porter returned to Austin due to Athol’s ill health and she died before the case was resolved, but Porter was tried and convicted of embezzlement.  He was said to have offered no defense.  While he was serving a five year sentence in Columbus, Ohio, he began to support their daughter Margaret by writing short stories under the pen name O. Henry.  While he was incarcerated, Margaret was told that Porter was away on business as she was raised by the Estes inlaws.  After serving three years of his sentence, Porter was released in 1902.  Upon his release, he moved to the East Coast, where he was hired to write a introductions for a publication known as the New York World.


(Image credit: Findagrave)

His first engagement with the New York World lasted only a short while.  Soon after he was hired, there was a change in editorial management.  The head of the department said that O. Henry’s work was no good and directed someone to fire him.  Later on, as the author’s work became more popular, the same editor asked who was this O. Henry, only to be told that he was the man that he had fired some time ago. The editor said, “Get him!” and Porter was again engaged by the publication, this time to write a story each week about New York life.

One of his best loved and most familiar stories, “The Gift of the Magi” now sounds autobiographical in the reading.  It is the story of a poor couple who independently sacrifice in order to afford Christmas gifts for each other.  It has an ironic and surprise ending, the use of which is known as an “O. Henry ending.”  Porter became a premier American short story writer, publishing over six hundred stories.  He was single for many years, but married again in 1907 to the former Sara Lindsey Coleman, also a writer.  Sara had been a childhood sweetheart of Porter and they renewed their acquaintance in 1905.  How they became reacquainted was that she had read a story called “Little Bo-Peep of the Ranches” that appealed to her and saved it.  She later wondered whether the author O. Henry could have been her childhood sweetheart Will Porter.  She wrote the author, determined that he was indeed her friend from long ago.  The couple continued their correspondence for two years.  They finally met in person in the fall of 1907, got engaged and were married on November 20, 1907.

After their marriage, she and Porter divided their time between North Carolina and New York.  However, Porter took ill on one of their trips and died in 1910 at the age of 48 in a New York hospital. He is interred in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

There was a movement initiated by the Texas Heritage Foundation during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to seek a presidential pardon for Porter for the sixty year old embezzlement conviction, but legal counsel advised President Eisenhower that such a pardon could not be done, since Porter was deceased.  Eisenhower declined, deferring to the State of Texas to pardon the author, which it never did.  Since that time there have been at least two more federal pardon efforts, but neither has gained any momentum.  There were no posthumous presidential pardons until the Clinton Administration, when President Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point.

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