The Life and Death of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

Great American Short-Story Writer

A portrait of William Sydney Porter, who was also known as O. Henry.
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Famous short-story writer O. Henry was born William Sydney Porter on Sept. 11, 1862, in Greensboro, N.C. His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, was a physician. His mother, Mrs. Algernon Sidney Porter (Mary Virginia Swaim), died from consumption when O. Henry was just three years old, so he was raised by his paternal grandmother and his aunt.

Early Years and Education

O. Henry attended the private elementary school of his aunt, Evelina Porter ("Miss Lina"), starting in 1867. He then went to Linsey Street High School in Greensboro, but he left school at the age of 15 to work as a bookkeeper for his uncle at W. C. Porter and Company Drug Store. As a result, O. Henry was largely self-taught. Being an avid reader helped.

William Sydney Porter, who was also known as O. Henry, as a young man
O. Henry as a young man in Texas. Austin History Center, Austin Public Library / Public Domain

Marriage, Career, and Scandal

O. Henry worked a number of different jobs, including as a ranch hand in Texas, licensed pharmacist, draftsman, bank clerk, and columnist. And in 1887, O. Henry married Athol Estes, stepdaughter of Mr. P. G. Roach.

His most notorious occupation was as a bank clerk for the First National Bank of Austin. He resigned from his job in 1894 after he was accused of embezzling funds. In 1896, he was arrested on charges of embezzlement. He posted bail, skipped town, and finally returned in 1897 when he learned that his wife was dying. Athol died on July 25, 1897, leaving him one daughter, Margaret Worth Porter (born in 1889).

O. Henry as a bank clerk in First National Bank in Austin, Texas
O. Henry (center) worked as a bank clerk in First National Bank in Austin, Texas until 1894. Austin History Center, Austin Public Library / Public Domain

After O. Henry served his time in prison, he married Sarah Lindsey Coleman in Asheville, N.C. in 1907. She had been his childhood sweetheart. They separated the following year.

The Gift of the Magi

Short story "The Gift of the Magi" is one of O. Henry's most famous works. It was published in 1905 and chronicles a cash-strapped couple tasked with buying Christmas presents for each other. Below are some of the key quotes from the story.

  • "One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas."
  • "There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating."
  • "The magi, as you know, were wise men —wonderfully wise men —who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones."

Blind Man's Holiday

"Blind Man's Holiday" was published in the short story collection Whirligigs in 1910. Below is a memorable passage from the work:

  • "Man is too thoroughly an egoist not to be also an egotist; if he love, the object shall know it. During a lifetime he may conceal it through stress of expediency and honour, but it shall bubble from his dying lips, though it disrupt a neighbourhood. It is known, however, that most men do not wait so long to disclose their passion. In the case of Lorison, his particular ethics positively forbade him to declare his sentiments, but he must needs dally with the subject..."

In addition to this passage, here are key quotes from O. Henry's other works:

  • "He wrote love stories, a thing I have always kept free from, holding the belief that the well-known and popular sentiment is not properly matter for publication, but something to be privately handled by the alienist and the florist." - "The Plutonian Fire"
  • "It was beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are." - "The Octopus Marooned"


O. Henry died a poor man on June 5, 1910. Alcoholism and ill health are believed to have been factors in his death. The cause of his death is listed as cirrhosis of the liver.

Grave of William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, in Asheville, North Carolina
In reference to the first line of "The Gift of the Magi" ("One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all"), loose change is often seen on Porter's headstone in Asheville, North Carolina. chucka_nc / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Funeral services were held at a church in New York City, and he was buried in Asheville. His last words are said to have been: "Turn up the lights —I don't want to go home in the dark."

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Life and Death of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lombardi, Esther. (2020, August 28). The Life and Death of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Life and Death of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).