On this day in 1901, William Sydney Porter was released from federal prison in Columbus, Ohio. While prison may have been the lowest point for Porter, it was the best thing to happen to O. Henry, his literary pseudonym.
Unless you never went to school, you have read one of O. Henry’s short stories. Vignettes like “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “Hearts and Hands” ring as true today as they did more than 100 years ago. Those interested in writing short stories should read his collected works to truly see a master of the craft.
But before he found his beloved alter ego, Porter worked as a bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin in the 1890s, where he was fired on suspicion of embezzlement. A few years later, the bank was federally audited and Porter was actually charged. At the time, he was writing for the Houston Post, but fled to Honduras. Porter returned to Austin in 1897 when he learned that his wife was dying of tuberculosis and surrendered to federal authorities.
Porter was convicted and began his five-year sentence in 1898. He only served three years because of good behavior and during that time he published 14 short stories under various pseudonyms, the most popular being O. Henry.
Upon his release, O. Henry would write 381 more short stories before his death in 1910. One has to wonder if the world would have experienced this man’s talent if not for his trip to the penitentiary.