View Full Version : Wednesday Trivia: O. Henry

Star lover
June 13th, 2018, 07:33 AM
William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was a masterful writer of short stories with a twist. Like "The Ransom of Red Chief," about kidnappers who abscond with a child so horrible and unruly they offer to pay the kid's parents to take him back ($250).


While living in Austin, Texas, in 1895, Porter bought a failing magazine called "The Iconoclast," revamped it and renamed it "The Rolling Stone." As publisher, editor and chief contributor, he filled the magazine with satirical articles and cartoons, but no album reviews.

Porter's life is very interesting.......

Born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. He changed the spelling of his middle name to Sydney in 1898. When he was 3, his mother died of tuberculosis.

1879, when he was 15, he started working in his uncle's drugstore in Greensboro, and on August 30, 1881, at the age of 19, Porter was licensed as a pharmacist. At the drugstore, he also showed his natural artistic talents by sketching the townsfolk.

William traveled to Texas, hoping a change of air would help with a persistent cough. It did. Working at a sheep ranch he was a shepherd, a cook, a baby-sitter, a ranch hand. He picked up some German and Spanish from the ranch hands.


After an active social life, he eloped with Athol Estes, who had tuberculosis. They had 1 daughter, Margaret, born in 1889. Athol encouraged him to write.

Side note: Margaret died of tuberculosis in 1927 and is buried next to her father. She had a short writing career.


Through a friend, he began working at the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which ended in 1891. He worked at a bank, which operated informally. It allowed William to embezzle money. When the theft was discovered, he lost his job. For some reason he wasn't charged at that time.


It was then that William started "The Rolling Stone." It failed in 1895. By then his writings had caught the attention of
the editor of the Houston Post. His writings captured the attention of his audiance and he gained popularity.

Federal authorities, investigating the embezzlement, indicted him and he was arrested. His father in law posted bail to keep him from going to jail. William fled the day before the trail and ran to New or leans and then to Honduras. During the six months he was in Honduras he became friends with a notorious bank robber, Al Jennings. It was here that he coined the term, "banana republic."

Athol, his wife was dying, so he returned to Texas. She died and he was arrested, tried and jailed in Ohio for 3 years. He worked in the pharmacy and had his own room. Records showed that he never served time in a cell. He was released on good behavior in 1901. While in prison he wrote profusely, sending manuscripts to a friend who forwarded them to publishers. He used various pseudonyms, but used O. Henry the most and then exclusively.

He reunited with his daughter Margaret, now age 11, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol's parents had moved after Porter's conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison—just that he had been away on business.


Porter's most prolific writing period started in 1902, when he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. While there, he wrote 381 short stories. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. His wit, characterization, and plot twists were adored by his readers but often panned by critics.

Porter was a heavy drinker, and by 1908, his markedly deteriorating health affected his writing. He died on June 5, 1910, of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes, and an enlarged heart.

Among his most famous stories are:

"The Gift of the Magi" is about a young couple, Jim and Della, who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; while unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his own most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jeweled combs for Della's hair. The essential premise of this story has been copied, re-worked, parodied, and otherwise re-told countless times in the century since it was written. (I've always loved this story!)

"The Ransom of Red Chief", in which two men kidnap a boy of ten. The boy turns out to be so bratty and obnoxious that the desperate men ultimately pay the boy's father $250 to take him back.

"The Cop and the Anthem" about a New York City hobo named Soapy, who sets out to get arrested so that he can be a guest of the city jail instead of sleeping out in the cold winter. Despite efforts at petty theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and "flirting" with a young prostitute, Soapy fails to draw the attention of the police. Disconsolate, he pauses in front of a church, where an organ anthem inspires him to clean up his life; ironically, he is charged for loitering and sentenced to three months in prison.

"A Retrieved Reformation", which tells the tale of safecracker Jimmy Valentine, recently freed from prison. He goes to a town bank to case it before he robs it. As he walks to the door, he catches the eye of the banker's beautiful daughter. They immediately fall in love and Valentine decides to give up his criminal career. He moves into the town, taking up the identity of Ralph Spencer, a shoemaker. Just as he is about to leave to deliver his specialized tools to an old associate, a lawman who recognizes him arrives at the bank. Jimmy and his fiancée and her family are at the bank, inspecting a new safe when a child accidentally gets locked inside the airtight vault. Knowing it will seal his fate, Valentine opens the safe to rescue the child. However, much to Valentine's surprise, the lawman denies recognizing him and lets him go.

"The Duplicity of Hargraves". A short story about a nearly destitute father and daughter's trip to Washington, D.C.

"The Caballero's Way", in which Porter's most famous character, the Cisco Kid, is introduced. It was first published in 1907 in the July issue of Everybody's Magazine and collected in the book Heart of the West that same year. In later film and TV depictions, the Kid would be portrayed as a dashing adventurer, perhaps skirting the edges of the law, but primarily on the side of the angels. In the original short story, the only story by Porter to feature the character, the Kid is a murderous, ruthless border desperado, whose trail is dogged by a heroic Texas Ranger. The twist ending is, unusually for Porter, tragic.

Ahhh, makes me want to read more!

Carlie Wolf
June 13th, 2018, 07:56 AM
Loved his stories. I didn't realize he invented the Cisco Kid. Ohhhhh, Poncho!

June 13th, 2018, 08:23 AM
Always liked The Gift of the Magi.
Thanks for the trivia.

June 13th, 2018, 08:47 AM
Thank you , very, very interesting.

June 13th, 2018, 08:55 AM
I grew up in Greensboro, NC. There was a whole section of the local museum dedicated to O. Henry's younger life. I didn't remember anything beyond the pharmacy days, but it could have been there since I haven't been in well over 50 years.