by | Dec 13, 2022 | Mystery Minute, The Writer's Life | 7 comments

The Gift of O. Henry

By Z.J. Czupor

While American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) is credited with reviving the Christmas holiday in America, and English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is recognized for reinventing Christmas through his masterpiece, A Christmas Carol (1843), it is American author O. Henry who most captures the spirit of Christmas in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (first published in The New York Sunday World, Dec. 10, 1905, and later in book form in O. Henry’s anthology The Four Million, McClure, Phillips, and Company, April 1906).

A Little History

Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), is a collection of essays and short stories he wrote while traveling in England. Within The Sketchbook are four essays which fondly described English yuletide gatherings, Christmas dinners, celebrations, blazing fires, carol singing, and the spirit of good cheer. By the time Irving’s stories reached America they resonated with the public. 

Irving even popularized our ideas of Santa Claus in his A History of New York, (1809). He created a dream sequence where St. Nicholas (in Dutch is pronounced Sinterklaas) rides over the treetops in a wagon bringing yearly presents to children. Irving describes St. Nicholas as “descending to the ground to smoke his pipe then laying his finger beside his nose” and “mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.”

American biographer Brian Jay Jones claims Irving laid the foundation to revive the holiday, while Dickens would later fine-tune the Christmas story. (Washington Irving: An American Original, 2008).

The Gift of the Magi

Some sixty years later, an American author would emerge and write one of the Christmas season’s most enduring love stories in “The Gift of the Magi.” 

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi book cover was published by Aladdin, 1997. It’s fairly new and looked more Christmasy than some of the others.

The internationally beloved author is William Sydney Porter (1862-1910) but better known by his pen name O. Henry.

O. Henry’s touching story has been repackaged in countless retellings in magazine articles, TV specials, musicals, movies, and parodies. In less than 2,000 words, O. Henry paints the story of a young, poor, working couple who sacrifice to buy Christmas gifts for one another. Della Young has only $1.87 to buy her husband, Jim, a Christmas gift. She decides to cut off and sell her long brown hair so she can buy a platinum fob-chain for Jim’s watch. But unbeknownst to her, Jim sells his heirloom watch to buy a set of tortoise-shell combs for Della’s hair. 

O. Henry compares the couple’s giving to that of the three wise men: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. They are the magi.” The gift wasn’t about gold, watch chains, or hair combs, but rather selfless love.

The legend has it that O. Henry had contracted with the New York Sunday World to write a short story for its Christmas issue. It was scheduled for the center section with color illustration. When the deadline past, the editor sent his artist to see if O. Henry could at least offer an idea so he could start on the drawing. 

Three hours later, O. Henry finished “The Gift of the Magi.” According to legend, the artist refused to leave until O. Henry gave him something. Depending on which source you read, O. Henry either wrote the story in two three, or four hours, but nevertheless, in a short amount of time he produced a near-perfect short story.

The legend also varies in where he wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” One claims he did so while sitting in a booth at Pete’s Tavern in New York City, or he was in his apartment across the street and wrote it there. Both buildings have plaques claiming their site as the originating venue.

Another theory suggests his wife, Athol, inspired his famous Christmas story. The kernel of the idea reverts to when he lived in Honduras. Athol was back home in Austin and with Christmas approaching and no money, she made a point-lace handkerchief which sympathetic friends auctioned off. She got $25 for it and bought presents to send to her husband. That sacrifice may have inspired the story’s ironic twist ending.

More Christmas Stories

O. Henry also published five other Christmas stories all based on people and events with which he had contact. They were written chronologically using backgrounds where he had lived in Texas, New Orleans, Honduras, and New York City.

“A Chaparral Christmas Gift” (from Whirligigs by O. Henry, Doubleday & Co., 1903) and “Christmas by Injunction” (from Heart of the West by O. Henry, Doubleday & Co., 1904) came from his time spent in Texas where he worked as a sheepherder and broncobuster. 

“Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking” detailed the life of a tramp which he met while in New Orleans (first appeared in McClure’s magazine, 1899 and later in Roads of Destiny by O. Henry, Doubleday & Co., 1899). He also wrote this story (the first published as O. Henry) while serving time in prison, which we’ll get to shortly.

“The Day We Celebrate,” relies on the backdrop of Central America (from Sixes and Sevens by O. Henry, Doubleday & Company, 1907). He spent time in Honduras evading the courts for being accused of embezzling bank funds. Again, we’ll get to this shortly. 

“An Unfinished Christmas Story” (from Rolling Stone by O. Henry, Doubleday & Co., 1911). It’s assumed he began this last short story several years before he died in 1910. The story was finally published January 1911).

In the beginning two paragraphs of “An Unfinished Christmas Story,” O. Henry reflects on his attitude about Christmas and surprisingly addresses how even in his day, honoring Christmas wasn’t always politically correct:

“Now, a Christmas story should be one. For a good many years the ingenious writers have been putting forth tales for the holiday numbers that employed every subtle, evasive, indirect, and strategic scheme they could invent to disguise the Christmas flavor. So far has this new practice been carried that nowadays when you read a story in a holiday magazine the only way you can tell it is a Christmas story is to look at the footnote which reads: [‘The incidents in the above story happened on December 25th. —Ed.’]

“There is progress in this; but it is all very sad. There are just as many real Christmas stories as ever, if we would only dig ‘em up. Me, I am for the Scrooge and Marley Christmas story, and the Annie and Willie’s prayer poem, and the long lost son coming home on the stroke of twelve to the poorly thatched cottage with his arms full of talking dolls and popcorn balls and – Zip! You hear the second mortgage on the cottage go flying off into the deep snow.”

The story’s final line of dialogue is: “’You left your key,’ said –” and here the manuscript ends.

He also wrote sketches about Christmas Eve which he called “sights and sounds on Houston streets and elsewhere.” In one sketch, he writes: “That light streak across the sky, which we call the Milky Way, is nothing more nor less than the foam split from tankards of nectar as the gods quaff and laugh at our strange antics. But it is Christmas eve, and what do we care for their laughter? Turn up the lights; let the curtain rise, and the Christmas crowd is on!”

Before he was O. Henry
Young O. Henry

Before William Porter sharpened his skills in the new genre of short story writing, he bounced from job to job as a sheepherder, pharmacist, bookkeeper, bank teller, journalist, and publisher. He was also a purported embezzler, a fugitive of the law, and a prison inmate.

As a young man, Will Porter was anemic and suffered with a bad cough due to tuberculosis. His eyes were gray blue, his skin freckled, and he wore a twisted mustache. His contemporaries called him a charming conversationalist, but he shunned crowds and refused to dine with more than three people at a time. He memorized Webster’s Dictionary and had a flair for drawing caricatures. 

At the age of 25, he eloped with Athol Estes of Austin. He was struck by her beauty and long, shining golden hair. She confided to a friend she was crazy about him because he was so funny and clever. He began writing to meet expenses, which she encouraged. 

To earn extra money, he wrote stories for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers around the country. As an artist, he earned his first check of $6.00 for two sketches he sold to Truth, a New York publication. He said, “It will keep the chafing dish bubbling and buy steak and onions.” 

Their young son died on the same day he was born in 1888 and a year later their daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, was born. 

He was working as a bank teller for the First National Bank of Austin when he learned that a newspaper was for sale. He convinced two investors to help him purchase the press and for a year he successfully published The Rolling Stone, a humorous weekly. His eight-page newspaper was highly praised and sold for $1.50 per year and reached a circulation of 1,500. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep the publication afloat. 

And then more hard times struck. In 1885, while working as a columnist for the Houston Daily Post, Porter was summoned back to court in Austin on charges of embezzling from the First National Bank. Bank officials claimed Porter had stolen nearly $5,000. His father-in-law posted bail, but when Porter heard the charges he fled to New Orleans and boarded a boat for Honduras, which at the time had no extradition treaty with the U.S. His wife and daughter stayed in Austin. 

Seven months later, Porter learned that Athol was deathly ill. He returned to Texas and was formerly charged with embezzlement. His wife died a few months later at the age of 29. At the age of 35, he and his daughter lived with Athol’s parents, and he cared for her, but he needed money. He wrote and sold his first short story “The Miracle of Lava Canyon” to S.S. McClure Company of New York under his real name W. S. Porter. The editors wrote him: “Your story is excellent. It has the combination of human interest with dramatic incident. If you have more like this, we should like to read them.”

Despite the good news, he remained despondent over his wife’s death and his impending trial, and he took no interest in defending himself.

To this day it’s not clear if Porter mismanaged his bookkeeping at the bank or if he withdrew small sums with good intentions of paying them back, or if used the money to keep Rolling Stone alive, or if he simply stole the funds.

Later evidence revealed that the vice president and head cashier at the First National Bank of Austin ran the bank with loose practices. It is assumed they held illegal overdrafts of thousands of dollars and then converted those to illegal loans, which they later liquidated. At trial, the grand jury acquitted Porter but the federal bank examiner decided to pursue the case further and later filed charges. Historians believe Porter was an easy scapegoat. He was sentenced to five years in prison at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.

He wrote his mother-in-law and said, “I am not a thief, and I never stole a thing in my life. I was sent here for embezzling bank funds, not one cent of which I ever got. Someone else got it all, and I am doing time for it.”

Even though Porter claimed his innocence he never spoke up in defense of himself and accepted his fate. Porter confided to a friend that he knew who took the bank’s money but would not reveal the name. He also trusted that the man would straighten matters out in time. 

While in prison, his daughter lived with his in laws, and he wrote to her every Sunday under the pretense he was a traveling writer. He mailed his letters to different postmasters in covering envelopes who would remove the letter and forward them to Margaret. With his clever subterfuge and her grandparent’s conspiracy to hide her from the truth, it wasn’t until Margaret became an adult that she learned her father had spent time in prison. 

Because Porter was a licensed pharmacist, he worked the prison pharmacy and during his long night hours wrote short stories. He sent them to the sister of a fellow inmate who forwarded them to magazines. He used many pen names including John Arbuthnott, James L. Bliss, Howard Clark, T.B. Down, Olivier Henry, S. H. Peters, and Sydney Porter, because he didn’t want editors to know he was a convict. At one time, he had three different short stories running in the same magazine, under different aliases. 

He wrote fourteen stories while in prison, twelve of them were accepted for publication. Many of them could be traced to his prison experience and to tales he heard from fellow inmates.

Becoming O. Henry

While in prison he adopted the pen name “O. Henry.” Again, here the legend varies as to the origin. Many believed it referred to his childhood cat, Henry the Proud, who answered to his calls of “Henry, Oh Henry.” Others believe he chose the name after a prison guard named Orrin Henry, or it was an abbreviated version of the Ohio State Penitentiary.

In his one and only interview he gave to The New York Times in 1909, he said he adopted the pen name while in New Orleans where he picked the last name “Henry” from a list of notables in the newspaper and then decided “O” was the easiest letter written and would be suitable for a first name.

He also answered another newspaper’s question in writing explaining that “O stands for Olivier, the French of Oliver.” 

He entered the prison as William Porter but came out three years later as O. Henry. Historian David Stuart believed he changed his name so that William Sydney Porter could live in the shadows while he slowly drank himself to death. “A cynical, embittered author named O. Henry avoided publicity and the limelight because he feared exposure as a jailbird.” (O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter, David C. Stuart, Scarborough House, 1990).

After his release, he spent a year in Pittsburgh writing for the Dispatch, and in his spare time wrote more short stories. 

About this time, he decided to move to New York to increase his chances as a writer, but he didn’t have enough money. He wrote to the editors at Ainslee’s Magazine, who had accepted seven of his last eight stories and requested $100 against future earnings so he could move to New York. He claimed he needed the money because his business had failed. They sent him the hundred dollars. 

As a writer, O. Henry’s only ambition was to make money. “Writing is my business, it is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and Pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.”

He didn’t know a soul in New York and spent a great deal of time walking the streets and talked to anyone who would give him their time. They became his sources for stories. He wrote of prostitutes, kidnap victims, and street gangs. His income from seventeen stories in 1902 was about $1,200. He lived a pleasant lifestyle, but his chronic drinking kept him short of funds. 

One of his readers’ favorite stories was “The Ransom of Red Chief,” with his trademark surprise ending. Two men kidnap a rich man’s son, hoping the father will pay a large ransom for his return. But the boy soon makes the men regret taking him. In the end, they are willing not only to forgo the ransom, but even to pay the father to take the boy back. (The Saturday Evening Post, July 6, 1907).

The Four Million collection by O. Henry
And The Four Million book cover is an original edition. It was this edition that first included “The Gift of the Magi” short story.

He moved to 55 Irving Place in New York’s Gramercy Park, an area known for its upscale restaurants, hotels, and theaters, as well as dance halls and dives. He avoided high society and spent hours in cafes and bars absorbing the atmosphere and alcohol and lived in constant fear of being discovered as a jailbird. 

Editors competed for his stories, and he wrote constantly to meet demand. In fact, the editor of Collier’s wrote him and said, “Every time I pick up a magazine and see one of your stories I am thoroughly envious and wish that you had something for us.”

In 1904-1905 he produced 120 new stories. When editors pressured him for a story, he’d offer them a title then rush to write it in the next few hours before press time. By 1905-1906 he was earning $600 a month but always in debt and always requesting advances.

One of the editors at McClure’s recommended that O. Henry turn his Central American stories into a novel, claiming that novels sold better than short story collections. O. Henry agreed. That novel became Cabbages and Kings (McClure, Phillips, & Co., Nov. 28, 1904). While the book gained favorable reviews it was not a financial success.

In 1906, O. Henry published his second book, The Four Million, a collection of twenty-five stories which were previously printed in The New York World. He picked the title from a list of four hundred wealthy socialites who some wag had said were the only people in New York worth noticing.

He renewed his relationship with Sara Coleman, a sweetheart from his youth when he lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. She wrote him first and they corresponded for a year before she moved to New York, and they married. Then 18-year-old Margaret joined them, and her presence strained the relationship. Meanwhile, he struggled to afford their lavish lifestyle. Within the year, the marriage ended. 

His generosity, living expenses, and constant drinking, kept him in financial distress. He often gave $20 to beggars, or would stroll Madison Park, handing out quarters to homeless people. 

Now suffering from diabetes, and the stress of his failed marriage, and money woes, O. Henry retreated to Asheville, North Carolina for six months to restore his health but then returned to New York. 

He soon fell ill and refused to be taken by ambulance to the hospital because it would have cost him $30, and he only had twenty-three-cents in his pockets. Friends who lived nearby lent him money and he took a cab to the hospital. Afraid no one would know his real name he asked a friend to register him as Will S. Parker.

Doctors diagnosed him with cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, and an enlarged heart. After a couple of days in the hospital, a nurse checked on him at midnight. As she started to leave and turn off the light, O. Henry said, “Turn up the lights; I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Last photo of O. Henry
Last photo of O. Henry taken by W. M. Vanderwayde (New York, 1909)

He died the next morning, June 5, 1910, three months shy of his 48th birthday. He was buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His tombstone reads “William Sydney Porter 1862-1910” with no mention of O. Henry. He died owing thousands of dollars advanced to him by publishers and friends. 

Interestingly, fans of O. Henry visit his graveside and often leave $1.87 in change on the monument—a reference to the opening line of “The Gift of the Magi.” The change is gathered and donated to local library funds in tribute to O. Henry.

After O. Henry’s death his reputation as a writer waxed and waned. Critics deconstructed his style and considered his stories to be outdated. 

O. Henry never claimed to be a great artist. He considered himself a storyteller and entertainer. He believed every person had a story to tell. He wrote about the poor and the rich and the shared experience of humanity. He had a genius for observation and invented a short-story technique of his own using an economy of words, with rising suspense, and a denouement of surprise.

Today he’s ranked as one of the top masters of the short story the world has produced and has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Mark Twain (1835-1910), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893).

Unfortunately, O. Henry’s financial success was greater after his death and his works are still in print and selling. 

Author’s Notes: 

In his lifetime, O. Henry published 287 stories in newspapers and magazines, many of which appeared in The Houston Post, The New York Sunday World, or distributed by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate. Historians have estimated that O. Henry published about twenty stories a year. In the peak year of 1904, he published 75 stories, averaging more than one a week. 

The O. Henry Award, established in 1918, is an annual prize given to short stories of exceptional merit and is presented by the Society of Arts and Sciences. Past winners include a Who’s Who of American writers including Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, Stephen King, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Dorothy Parker to name just a few.

His love of language and wordplay was the inspiration for the “O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships” established in 1978 that celebrates the often-maligned but wickedly funny pun. Punsters from around the globe travel to the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas each May to compete in the Punniest of Show, PunSlingers, and Most Viable Punster competitions.

Pete’s Tavern, the New York bar where O. Henry purportedly wrote “The Gift of the Magi” is located at 129 East 18th Street on the corner of Irving Place in Gramercy Park and claims to be New York’s oldest tavern (est. 1829). O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” in either the second or third booth from the front. The building that houses Pete’s was originally the Portman Hotel, which was bought by Tom and John Healy in 1899 and became Healy’s. O. Henry refers to the bar as “Kenealy’s” in his short story “The Lost Blend,” about two men trying to rediscover an alcoholic drink they once made by accident. The O. Henry twist ending is that the missing ingredient was already in the barrel—plain water.

O. Henry’s reference to “Annie and Willie’s prayer poem” is a sentimental poem by Massachusetts author Sophia P. Snow (1836-1900) published in 1884. Her story is of two young children on Christmas Eve who lost their mother and whose father had lost Christmas in his heart. Snow was a frequent contributor to local newspapers and her poem first appeared in the Rockland County Messenger, a New York newspaper, on Dec. 28, 1871.

In 1904, O. Henry coined the term “banana republic.” His short story “The Admiral” was set in Anchuria, a fictional place based on Honduras, where he was at the time. He called it a “small, maritime banana republic.” 

In 1907, O. Henry’s short story “The Caballero’s Way,” introduced The Cisco Kid, who he depicted as a dangerous desperado hunted by a Texas Ranger on the Texas-Mexico border. Hollywood and television producers later made him into a heroic “Robin Hood of the Old West” as The Cisco Kid appeared in 28 film versions. The Cisco Kid was also a popular radio show from 1942-1956. A comic book appeared in 1944.

The title for Cabbages and Kings was inspired by Lewis Carrol’s (1832-1898) poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” (Through the Looking Glass, Dec. 1871).

In the 1950s, The O. Henry Television Playhouse presented more than 40 dramatizations of his works. “The Gift of the Magi” is the fifth and last short story by O. Henry dramatized for the 1952 American anthology film O. Henry’s Full House. The segment stars Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger. In the next decade more than 130 motion pictures were based on O. Henry’s stories, including films made in Russia, Greece, and India.  

Despite some accounts on the internet, O. Henry was not named after the Oh Henry! candy bar introduced by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago in 1920. Nor was the Oh Henry! candy bar named after the author.

Z.J. Czupor

Z.J. Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    I love reading about all of these Christmas stories throughout history – I learned so much — and also about the life and times (and travails) of O’Henry. Thanks, once again, for being our great guest blogger!!!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Karna. My pleasure!

  2. Jenny Milchman

    I live in Irving country,and The Gift of the Magi is my favorite short story of the period, but I never knew so much about Will Porter as I do now. Thank you for embedding history and society in my favorite topic, literature. Happy holidays!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Jenny. What a great experience to live in “Irving Country” with all that rich history.

  3. Lisa Black

    That is so interesting! When I was young my father and I just happened to catch a made for tv special of The Ransom of Red Chief—we thought it was the most hilarious thing ever, and always wondered why we never saw it aired again!

    • ZJ Czupor

      I never saw “The Ransom of Red Chief” TV special but my grade school teacher read us the story. I believe that was my first exposure to a “twist ending” and I admired O. Henry from that point on.

  4. Christine L Goff

    Hard to believe O. Henry died bankrupt and relatively unknown. Very interesting! Thanks for the great blog.