William Sydney Porter (O. Henry)

See the O. Henry Walking Tour map

Sites on the Walking Tour:

Suggested route: Start at O. Henry Statues in Downtown Greensboro and end at O. Henry Hotel.

O. Henry ca. 1909 from Greensboro Historical Museum

O. Henry ca. 1909 from Greensboro Historical Museum

O. Henry, wife, Margaret

From Greensboro Historical Museum

Welcome to the O. Henry Walking Tour, presented by Special Collections and University Archives at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Those who complete the tour, whether virtually or on foot, will visit ten important sites in the life and career of O. Henry, Greensboro’s most famous short story writer. The purpose of this tour is educational, though it is also intended to serve cultural tourists as well as the general public.

William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), known to most by his pen name O. Henry, was an American author of short stories. Born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, he cultivated his love of books during his youth while being educated at his Aunt Lina’s schoolhouse. Porter was raised by his father, Algernon Sidney Porter, and his mother, Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter, died of tuberculosis when he was only three years old. Porter would later become a licensed pharmacist in his uncle’s drugstore, but he left Greensboro around age 19 and relocated to Texas in an effort to improve his health and to "make his fortune."

Porter spent his early years in Texas living and working on the ranch of a family friend and developing his creative talent by writing stories and skits and drawing sketches. He continued working other jobs to make ends meet. Porter worked as a druggist in 1884 and later as a bookkeeper for a real estate firm, gaining a more steady salary when he began his job as a draftsman for the Texas Land Office. Around the same time, Porter fell in love with Athol Estes (1868-1897). The couple eloped in 1887 and settled in Texas to begin a family.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, O. Henry faced a difficult financial period of his life. During his time as a bank clerk in Texas, he had a legal mishap and was indicted for embezzlement. Athol died of tuberculosis in July of 1897, and Porter began to serve his sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary in April 1898. During this time, he penned 14 of his best-known stories, several of which are adventure-themed. After his early release in 1901 for good behavior (he also dutifully filled the position of night druggist while in prison), he went on to live in New York, what would become his home and the setting of most of his fiction for the remainder of his life. In 1907, Porter married Sarah Coleman, a woman with whom he grew up in Greensboro. Porter’s health continued to decline, however, and in an effort to recover it, he often visited Asheville. He died on June 3, 1910 of sclerosis of the liver, diabetes, and an enlarged heart. He was buried in Asheville.

O. Henry’s short stories are known for both their local and adventurous flavor and often reflect aspects of his own life with their ironic twists and surprise endings. Some of his most famous stories include "The Gift of the Magi," "The Ransom of Red Chief," "The Cop and the Anthem," "A Retrieved Reformation," and "The Duplicity of Hargraves." He also published collections of stories: Cabbages and Kings (1904), The Four Million (1906), The Trimmed Lamp (1907), Heart of the West (1907), Voice of the City (1908), The Gentle Grafter (1908), Roads of Destiny (1909), Options (1909), and Strictly Business (1910). Whirligigs and Sixes and Seven were published posthumously.

Here is an opportunity to hear O. Henry speak about the craft of writing:

A special thank you to the staff at the Greensboro Historical Museum for providing much helpful information and photographs for this project, especially Elise Allison, Archivist. I also want to thank Ms. Kathelene McCarty Smith (Photographs, Artifacts, and Textiles Archivist at UNCG Libraries) for suggestions and vital feedback for this project.