O. HENRY was the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862 – 1910), born in North Carolina. Henry worked in his uncle’s drugstore and qualified as a licensed pharmacist. A moderately humdrum life included much reading and useful if modest artistic skill. His time working in a bank did not end well: he was suspended then charged for embezzlement, but he decided on impulse to flee to New Orleans and the Honduras whilst changing trains to attend his trial. Informed of his wife’s impending death, Henry returned in 1897 after three years absence. He was then imprisoned but in 1901 was released early for good behaviour. He had always written short stories but became prolific during his stay in the Ohio State Penitentiary and afterwards, when he settled in New York, where he built up an enthusiastic audience through magazine work. He kept his identity secret from all but a few friends. He died from cirrhosis of the liver.
A Retrieved Reformation was published in 1903 in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, and was published in book form in Roads of Destiny in 1909. The Gift of the Magi (1905), After Twenty Years, The Skylight Room and The Furnished Room, The Cop and the Anthem(1904) were published in book form in The Four Million in 1906, Henry’s second collection of short stories. Its title was a response to a newspaper editorial that claimed that there were only 400 people in New York worth knowing. The Last Leaf was included in a short story collection of 1907. The Caballero’s Way (1907) includes Henry’s most enduring character – the Cisco Kid. The Ransom of Red Chief was published in 1910 in The Saturday Evening Post.
He wrote over 600 stories, usually immensely witty with exaggerated twists at their end. He rejoiced in hapless or difficult situations and the ingenious ways often in which people escape from them. The critics derided them, yet many of these stories live on in the popular imagination and have been the basis for successful film or television adaptation. A Retrieved Reformation, for instance, became a successful Broadway play in 1910 and filmed three times, the last time in 1928 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (its first sound film with dialogue sequences).