O. Henry, also known as William Sydney Porter, was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina during the Civil War.
His mother died when he was young and he moved with his father into his grandparents’ house. He loved reading from a young age and as a teenager, started working at his uncle’s pharmacy, where he was later licensed.
At age 20, Porter moved to Austin, Texas in hopes of finding relief for his breathing problems.
There he worked a series of odd jobs including as a ranch hand, pharmacist, and in a cigar shop. He started writing during this period, inspired by the people he met.
In 1885, Porter met Athol Estes, from a wealthy local family, and the pair eloped, despite her family’s objections. Their first child died but the couple later had a daughter.
He took a job drawing maps from land surveys and continued his writing, but when the current governor lost reelection, Porter left his post. He moved on to a local bank and a humor magazine. But when the bank was audited, he was accused of embezzlement. Before the trial, he fled to New Orleans and then Honduras, where he spent six months.
Porter heard word from his wife, who was in ill health, and he returned to America, where he was sentenced to five years in an Ohio prison. She died after he returned and after his release, he moved to New York City and remarried his childhood sweetheart from North Carolina.
In 1910, his years of heavy drinking led to his death from cirrhosis. His short stories are still remembered, including “The Gift of the Magi,” and the O. Henry Award was created in his honor.
O. Henry Landmarks in the South
Greensboro, North Carolina
The writer is honored in his hometown of Greensboro with a statue at North Elm and Bellemeade streets downtown. The three-piece bronze sculpture includes his likeness, his small dog, and a large book modeled after his collection of short stories. O. Henry is also honored with his name bestowed upon an elementary school in town, along with the O. Henry Hotel.
New Orleans, Louisiana
In 1896, O. Henry fled to New Orleans to escape possible jail time. He kept a low profile, but his widow later told a newspaper that he spent the early days of his time there sleeping on a park bench in Lafayette Square Park. He later moved on to a room at a boarding house on Bourbon Street.
While here, he wrote for newspapers and picked up his famous pen name. He frequented the bars and restaurants of the French Quarter and lived at 241 Bourbon Street, now operating as a bar called Bourbon Cowboy.
Asheville, North Carolina
O. Henry spent years visiting Asheville with his wife, but found it too quiet for him to remain full-time. After his death, he was buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, where fellow North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe is buried. People leave $1.87 on the writer’s grave as a nod to one of his stories. A street in town is named in his honor, along with the state’s oldest gay bar.
Other O. Henry Landmarks
Most of O. Henry’s major life events happened in Austin. The Driskill Hotel, where he worked in the cigar shop, is still open to guests. His former residence is now the O. Henry House, a museum with artifacts from his life. There’s also an O. Henry House in San Antonio, where he lived later.
New York City, New York
O. Henry moved to New York after leaving prison to be closer with his publishers. During this time, he wrote stories for the New York World.
He lived at 55 Irving Place in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, which is now home to bars and restaurants. He was allegedly a regular at Pete’s Tavern, a longtime haunt across the street, where visitors can sit in his preferred booth.