The famous short story writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) died in 1910 at the age of 47. Apparently, he never was free from the fear that someone might find out about his three-year term of imprisonment for embezzlement. In fact, that is one reason he changed his name to O. Henry when he began to gain national attention as a clever writer, whose surprise endings were his stock in trade. Towards the end of his life, he confessed to one of his close associates that he was tired of what he called the trick of unexpected conclusions to his stories. He said he wanted to write without the device, but he didn’t live to try it.
I think he came by the trick honestly, since his life was so unpredictable and adventurous. Born in Greenville, N.C. to an ailing mother and an alcoholic father, he was raised and home schooled by an aunt, who taught him the value of a good vocabulary and encouraged his early efforts at story writing and drawing. Because his father’s medical practice was waning, Will Porter studied on the job and became a licensed pharmacist at the age of 19. He didn’t care for that line of work, though, and spent a lot of time caricaturing customers both in drawing and writing.
At about the time he became a pharmacist in North Carolina, he had the opportunity to join some family members on a huge ranch in west Texas and he lived a rugged life out there for several years, learning about roping, herding, riding, shooting, gambling and other cowboy activities. There was not much to read on the ranch, so he devoured whatever he could find, including a Webster’s dictionary. Later in life, he astounded friends by their inability to stump him on the definition and spelling of any word they found in the dictionary. And, those who have read a few of O. Henry’s stories know that he was not afraid to use unusual words in his writing.
After marrying a beautiful woman in Austin, Tex., her father got him a job at the First National Bank of Austin, where books were reportedly kept in a haphazard way. From what I have read about the accusation of embezzlement, it seems to me that his crime was being in a job for which he was so ill suited. At any rate, money came up missing; he was accused; he left the country. He spent a little while in Honduras working and observing life and learning Spanish before he returned to face the music. He was sent to prison in Columbus, Oh. for three years, where he served as assistant to the prison pharmacist.
While in prison, he sent stories to magazines under the name O. Henry and began to gain popularity and money. He sent all he made to help support and educate his daughter, who lost her mother to consumption. Upon release from prison, O. Henry went to New York City and established a very lucrative writing career. His own death was a kind of surprise ending. The funeral was held in a church where a wedding was to take place the same hour. The minister rushed through the service and those who attended could hear the celebrative wedding party in the wings. O. Henry was a writer who found his niche and stayed in it—gloriously.