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Prolific American short-story writer, a master of surprise endings, who wrote about the life of ordinary people in New York City. Typical for O. Henry's stories is a twist of plot which turns on an ironic or coincidental circumstance. Although some critics were not so enthusiastic about his work, the public loved it.
William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) was born in Greenboro, North Carolina. His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, was a physician. When William was three, his mother died, and he was raised by his parental grandmother and paternal aunt. William was an avid reader, but at the age of fifteen he left school, and then worked in a drug store and on a Texas ranch. He continued to Houston, where he had a number of jobs, including that of bank clerk. After moving to Austin, Texas, in 1882, he married.
In 1884 Porter started a humorous weekly The Rolling Stone. It was at this time that he began heavy drinking. When the weekly failed, he joined the Houston Post as a reporter and columnist. In 1894 cash was found to have gone missing from the bank and O. Henry fled to Honduras. He returned to Austin the next year because his wife was dying. In 1897 he was convicted of embezzling money, although there has been much debate over his actual guilt. In 1898 he entered a penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. While in prison O. Henry started to write short stories to earn money to support his daughter Margaret. His first work, 'Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking' (1899), appeared in McClure's Magazine. The stories of adventure in the U.S. Southwest and in Central America gained an immediately success among readers. After doing three years of the five years sentence, Porter emerged from the prison in 1901 and changed his name to O. Henry. According to some sources, he acquired the pseudonym from a warder called Orrin Henry. It also could be an abbreviation of the name of a French pharmacist, Eteinne-Ossian Henry, found in the U.S. Dispensatory, a reference work Porter used when he was in the prison pharmacy.
O. Henry moved to New York City in 1902 and from December 1903 to January 1906 he wrote a story a week for the New York World, also publishing in other magazines. Henry's first collection, Cabbages and Kings, appeared in 1904. The second, The Four Million, was published two years later and included his well-known stories 'The Gift of the Magi' and 'The Furnished Room'. The Trimmed Lamp (1907) explored the lives of New Yorkers and included 'The Last Leaf' - the city itself Henry liked to call 'Bagdad-on the-Subway.' In one of his stories, 'One Dollar's Worth', O. Henry deals with the judicial system. Judge Derwent receives a letter from an ex-convict, in which the writer, 'Rattlesnake' threatens his daughter and the district attorney, Littlefield. A young Mexican, Rafael Ortiz, is accused of passing a counterfeit silver dollar, made principally of lead. Rafael's girl, Joya Trevi?as, tells Littlefield that he is innocent - she was sick, and needed medicine, and that was the reason why Rafael used the dollar. Littlefield refuses to help, and Joya says that "it the life of the girl you love is ever in danger, remember Rafael Ortiz." When he drives out of the town with Nancy Derwent, they meet Mexico Sam, the writer of the letter. He starts to shoot them from distance with his rifle. Littlefield can't hurt him with his own gun which has only tiny pellets. Then he remembers Joya's words, and manages hit Mexico Sam, who falls from his horse dead as a rattlesnake. Next morning in the court he tells: "'I shot him,' said the district attorney, 'with Exhibit A of your counterfeiting case. Lucky thing for me - and somebody else - that it was as bad money as it was! It sliced up into slugs very nicely. Say, Kil, can' 't you go down to the jacals and find where that Mexican girl lives? Miss Derwent wants to know.'"
Henry's best known work is perhaps the much anthologized 'The Ransom of Red Chief', published in the collection Whirligigs in 1910. O. Henry's humorous, energetic style shows the influence of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. The story tells about two kidnappers, who make off with the young son of a prominent man. They find out that the child is a real nuisance. In the end they agree to pay the boy's father to take him back. - "Sam," says Bill, "I suppose you'll think I'm a renegade. but I couldn't help it. I'm a grown person with masculine proclivities and habits of self-defense, but there is a time e when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy is gone. I sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times," goes on Bill, "that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of 'em ever was subjugated t to such supernatural tortures as I have been. I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there came a limit."
Heart of the West (1907) presented tales of the Texas range. Henry published 10 collections and over 600 short stories during his life time. O. Henry's last years were shadowed by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems. He married in 1907 Sara Lindsay Coleman, but the marriage was not happy, and they separated a year later. O. Henry died of cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1910, in New York. Three more collections, Sixes and Sevens (1911), Rolling Stones (1912) and Waifs and Strays (1917), appeared posthumously. In 1918 the O. Henry Memorial Awards were established to be given annually to the best magazine stories, the winners and leading contenders to be published in an annual volume.