O. Henry (1862-1910) was born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina. His father was a doctor and madcap inventor and his mother, who died when he was three years old, was a gifted artist and scholar. He was educated by his aunt, who encouraged his love of literature, and at fifteen became a clerk at his uncle’s pharmacy.
In 1882, Porter moved to Austin, Texas, where he took a job as a draughtsman. Five years later he eloped with Athol Estes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a prominent local family, and in 1891 became a teller at the First National Bank.
Porter left the bank in 1894, but was summoned back two years later to answer charges of embezzlement. The amount in question was more than $1,000 and, despite protesting his innocence, he panicked and fled to New Orleans. After sailing to Honduras (the inspiration for Anchuria in Cabbages and Kings) he returned to the United States on hearing the shattering news that his wife was dying. He was tried a year later and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at the Ohio Penitentiary.
It was during his time in prison that Porter first began to send stories to magazines under his adopted pseudonym, and by the time of his release in 1901 ‘O. Henry’ was already an established name. He moved to New York and wrote prodigiously before publishing his first book, Cabbages and Kings, in 1904. This was followed by numerous collections of short stories, including The Four Million (1906), Waifs and Strays (1907), The Trimmed Lamp (1907) and The Voice of the City (1908).
As Porter’s success grew so his health began to deteriorate and it was a combination of overwork, heavy drinking and the onset of tuberculosis that contributed to his early death.