O. Henry, Criminal and Crime Writer

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
Who doesn’t have a favorite O. Henry story? One that draws the reader in with a light, almost effortless touch. One that follows every joggle and turn, eventually leading to a final jolting twist at the end. O. Henry had a way of making the conclusion of a story so satisfying that the reader would lean back in his chair and chuckle with the words, “I should have known; but how could I possibly guess?” rolling through his mind.  Of course every December millions of readers pick up a well worn copy of a short story collection and re-read “The Gift of the Magi,” a small Christmas story written to emphasize love and sacrifice. A similar theme is evident in “The Last Leaf” when an old painter sacrifices his health by supporting the recovery of a young woman who is seriously ill. He also wrote a number of romantic tales like “A Cupid a la Carte.”

My favorites are the stories that fall easily into the crime genre. Do you remember “The Ransom of Red Chief” about the kidnapping of a small, bratty boy? Sure proved that crime doesn’t pay. And what about “A Retrieved Reformation,” the story of not-quite-reformed safecracker Jimmy Valentine? I credit this story above all others with, five decades ago, cementing in my young mind that it is every person’s obligation to do the right thing when circumstances present.

So, what do we know of this man, who gave us so much joyful reading? When asked about himself, he often exaggerated or altered facts a bit, so the details of his life can be confusing.

William Sydney Porter was born in the mountain town of Greensboro, North

William Sydney Porter also known as O. Henry
William Sydney Porter also known as O. Henry
Carolina in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. His mother died and he grew up during the post war occupation years in the home of his maternal grandmother.

At the age of twenty, he moved to Texas and lived on a ranch for several years. This experience provided Porter’s knowledge of ranch life which shows up in many of his western stories, such as “The Caballero’s Way” and “Madame Bo-Peep of the Ranches.” He met and married Athol Estes, daughter of a wealthy Austin family. Sometime in the early 1890’s Porter became a teller with the First National Bank of Austin. After a few years, he left his job at the bank under murky circumstances. He developed a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone and after that venture failed, he began writing for the Houston Post.

While in Houston, however, Porter was indicted for embezzlement as a result of his activities during his employment at the First National Bank of Austin. Abandoning his wife and young daughter he fled to Honduras by way of New Orleans but subsequently came home when word reached him that his wife was seriously ill. Shortly after Athol’s death, Porter was sentenced to prison—a tragedy for him and his family but a great joy for readers everywhere because that is when and where he became a serious writer. During the three years he was in prison, Porter wrote feverishly and had more than a dozen stories published, most under the name O. Henry. When he was released in 1901, he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. He wrote more than three hundred stories before he died, nearly penniless, in 1910 due to cirrhosis of the liver.

As to the embezzlement charges, maybe they were valid and maybe they weren’t, but the opening sentences of “The Gift of the Magi” tells us that math was not Porter’s strong suit. “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.” Perhaps his problem at the First National Bank of Austin was just a mathematical error. I like to think so.

Of the hundreds of O. Henry stories still in print, which ones have you most enjoyed?

According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.


  1. John Floyd

    Terrie — Great piece! I’ve always been crazy about O. Henry, and was pleased that you mentioned my favorite of his stories, “A Retrieved Reformation.” I loved that one.

  2. Travis Erwin

    Thanks for the interesting background on the man behind the stories.

  3. Jacqueline Seewald

    Hi, Terrie, I agree with Travis. This is a very interesting and well-written piece. As a teacher, I always taught O. Henry stories to freshman in high school. My husband has a complete set of the short stories which he shared with me and our children. My favorite remains “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

  4. Deborah Lacy

    I can remember my mother reading us The Gift of the Magi to my sister and I when we were very little. We asked my mom a lot of questions to understand it, but I’ll never forget it. Thanks for a great article.

  5. Jenny Milchman

    Terrie, I didn’t know all this about O. Henry. Thank you for the entertaining, informative piece. I’m going to look for a collected works so I can read the ones you mention.

  6. Anita Page

    Terrie, The Gift of the Magi is a reminder of the true meaning of gift giving in this season–light years away from what it’s become.

  7. Leigh

    Great article, Terrie. ”Ransom of Red Chief” is my favorite. I love O. Henry stories. And I identify with his math problem. I had to really study those two sentences for a while to discover what was wrong!

  8. Kaye George

    I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. I’ve read through his complete works twice and I’m on my third go-round. BUT, I never noticed the math in “Gift of the Magi”! Math is not my strong suit either. He’s my short story hero! (Him and Mark Twain.)

  9. MRLAnderson

    Hi Terrie, I’m a big fan of O’Henry. I really enjoyed your article. I loved being reminded of one of my favorite authors that I hadn’t thought of for a long time. One note – you may not think this is worth mentioning, but authors are often criticized for very small things. Greensboro is actually in the Piedmont of NC and it’s flat there. The mountain town of Asheville, where O’Henry is buried, is very much in the mountain end of the state. There is a local tradition of leaving pennies on his headstone in Rivderside Cemetery. Why – who knows, but a tribute of some kind. Passage to the other side in the ancient way is one explanation. Anyway, his memory certainly lives on. Thanks for your article. Margaret

  10. Terrie Farley Moran

    Hi All. It’s so nice to know that O Henry still has so many fans. @Margaret, special thanks for your correction. As a city girl, I don’t seem to know my mountains from my flats, and I do like to be accurate so I really appreciate your letting me know my geography was off. Also that is an interesting tidbit about the pennies on the headstone. Live and learn. Terrie

  11. Merry

    Ah, but he might [b]not[/b] have been so wrong regarding the amount of change in the story. The US Mint did produce a 2-cent piece from 1864-1873. A 3-cent piece was also minted from 1851-1873. The 2-cent piece was bronze, with the alloy being the same as for the 1-cent coin. The 3-cent piece was silver.

  12. Terrie Farley Moran

    Merry, thanks for this info. Even though this story was written post 1900, it’s possible that O Henry had these coins in mind when he wrote The Gift of the Magi.

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