William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) was born in 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina, into a middle-class family. His mother and one brother died when he was only three years old. Along with his father and surviving brother, he moved in with his grandmother and his Aunt Lina. At the age of fifteen, he left school and began working as a clerk in his uncle's drugstore.

In 1882, Porter moved to Texas for health reasons. He had developed a worrisome cough, and his doctor thought the climate of Texas would be better for him. He lived and worked on a sheep ranch in southwestern Texas, between San Antonio and Laredo. Texas would inspire the settings of many of his stories of cowboys and pioneers. His ranch manager, a retired Texas Ranger, inspired the lawman that appears in some of those stories.

In 1884, Porter moved to Austin, where he worked a string of jobs at places including a drugstore, a cigar store, and a real estate office. He became a draftsman for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), spending four years drawing maps. His time there inspired many later stories, including “Bexar Scrip No. 2692,” about a case of land fraud. In Austin, Porter also wrote his first nationally published story, “The Miracle of Lava Canyon,” for McClure’s Magazine. It was the only story he published using his real name.

After four years at the GLO, Porter took a job as a clerk at the First National Bank of Austin. The career move proved disastrous. In 1894, Porter was accused of embezzlement. To escape prosecution, he fled to Honduras. He stayed there for almost a year before returning to Austin, having received news that his wife was terminally ill. In 1898, after her passing, Porter was found guilty and sent to a penitentiary in Ohio. He served three years of a five-year sentence, getting early release for good behavior. While he worked nights at the prison hospital, he also wrote stories, which he sold to magazines to support his daughter. To hide his identity as a convict, Porter wrote under a variety of pen names.

After his release from prison in 1901, he moved to New York City, where he began producing a prodigious number of stories, nearly all of which were bought and published by different weekly magazines. He released several short story collections, including Four Million (1906), in which his Christmas classic, “The Gift of the Magi,” appears, and The Trimmed Lamp (1907), which contains “The Last Leaf.”

Porter experienced declining health, alcoholism, and financial troubles in the years leading up to his death in 1910 from liver failure.

Since 1919, the O. Henry Prize has been awarded annually for the year’s outstanding short stories. His love of puns inspired the O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championship, held annually in Austin, Texas.