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Happy (Belated) Birthday to O. Henry!

By Claire Korzen

This September, Greensboro-born short story author William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry, would have turned 150. Porter wrote hundreds of short stories, two of the most famous being “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.” His stories became renowned for their empathetic portrayals of everyday people, their surprise endings, and their humorous style. These characteristics have helped his stories remain popular to this day.

Born in 1862, Porter spent his early life in what was then the small town of Greensboro. He attended private school, taught by an unmarried aunt, and worked in his uncle’s drug store. But at nineteen he moved to Texas, first to a ranch and then to the big cities, and experienced what was definitely still the “Wild West.” Here he married into a prominent Austin family, began to publish a humorous newsletter, The Rolling Stone, and worked as a bank teller.

Porter’s bank teller job came to an end when bank examiners found shortages in accounts he handled (and others). He managed to evade his trial at first by escaping to Honduras, but was eventually sentenced to prison in Ohio; however, it remains uncertain whether or not he really did embezzle funds from the bank. From prison, Porter continued to write and submit stories to magazines, and it was here that he began to write under his pen name.

Porter’s love of telling stories extended to his personal life, so nobody knows for sure how he chose his pen name; the story changed every time. O. Henry could have been the name of a pharmacist he worked with, a neighborhood cat, or even a name chosen at random from the newspaper. Whatever the reason for his choice of name, with his prodigious output of engaging stories, “O. Henry” became one of the most popular short story writers of his time.

After his release from prison, Porter moved to New York, which became a primary setting for his stories. He wrote stories effectively capturing everywhere he had lived, however, from Texas, to Central America, and of course to North Carolina.

To celebrate Porter’s 150th birthday, the US Postal Service has released a commemorative stamp. North Carolinian organizations have honored Porter in many ways over the years; perhaps most notably, the Greensboro Historical Museum has run a “5 by O. Henry” production each September since 1987. Porter’s gifts for twist endings, dialogue, and the tales of ordinary people have led his stories not only to the stage, but also to an enduring place in both North Carolinian and American literature.

WUNC 91.5 “The State of Things with Frank Stasio” featured O. Henry—a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame—in a recent segment. To listen, click here.