O. Henry was the pen name of American writer William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862–June 5, 1910), whose clever use of twist endings in his stories popularized the term "O. Henry Ending". His middle name at birth was Sidney; he later changed the spelling of his middle name when he first began writing as a journalist in the 1880s.
William Sidney Porter was born in 1862 on a plantation called "Worth Place" in Greensboro, North Carolina. When William was three, his mother died from tuberculosis, and he and his father moved to the home of his paternal grandmother.
William was an avid reader and graduated from his aunt's elementary school in 1876, then enrolled at the Linsey Street High School. In 1879 he started working as a bookkeeper in his uncle's drugstore and in 1881 – at the age of nineteen – he was licensed as a pharmacist.
He relocated to Texas in 1882, initially working on a ranch in La Salle County as a shepherd and ranch hand, then Austin where he took a number of different jobs over the next several years, including pharmacist, draftsman, journalist, and clerk. While in Texas he also learned Spanish.
In 1887 he eloped with Athol Estes, then eighteen years old and from a wealthy family. Her family objected to the match because both she and Porter suffered from tuberculosis. Athol gave birth to a son in 1888, who died shortly after birth, and then a daughter, Margaret, in 1889.
In 1894 Porter started a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone. Also in 1894, Porter resigned from the First National Bank of Austin where he had worked as a teller, after he was accused of embezzling funds. In 1895, after The Rolling Stone ceased publication, he moved to Houston, where he started writing for the Houston Post. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for embezzlement in connection with his previous employment in Austin.
Porter was granted bond, but the day before he was due to stand trial on July 7, 1896, he absconded to New Orleans and later to Honduras. However, in 1897, when he learned that his wife was dying, he returned to the United States and surrendered to the court, pending an appeal.
Athol Estes Porter died July 25, 1897. Porter was found guilty of embezzlement, sentenced to five years jail, and imprisoned April 25, 1898 at the Ohio State Penitentiary. He was released on July 24, 1901 for good behaviour after serving three years.
Porter married again in 1907 to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey Coleman. However, despite the success of his short stories being published in magazines and collections (or perhaps because of the attendant pressure success brought), Porter became an alcoholic. Sarah left him in 1909, and he died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, died in 1927 and was buried with her father.
Attempts were made to secure a presidential pardon for Porter during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. However, each attempt was met with the assertion that the Justice Department did not recommend pardons after death. This policy was clearly altered during the administration of Bill Clinton (who pardoned Henry Flipper), so the question of a pardon for O. Henry may yet again see the light of day.
The play Broadway in the Shadows based on the life of O. Henry opens at the Arcola Theatre in London on 10th October 2006