Many people are aware that O. Henry wrote short stories with surprise endings, but no one knows for sure how he chose his pen name. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, he was called Will Porter. As a young man, he went to Texas, where he worked at various jobs. After funds at a bank where he had worked turned up short, Porter was tried, found guilty of embezzlement despite his plea of innocence, and sentenced to the penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. There, beginning in 1898, he served more than three years of a five-year sentence.
In prison, he began writing stories under the name of “O. Henry.” Porter gave different answers when people asked where the name came from. One scholar has suggested that it stems from Porter’s fascination with codes, and may be composed of three pairs of letters from the words “Ohio State Penitentiary.”
Upon his release in 1901, O. Henry began to earn a regular income by writing for newspapers and magazines. By the time of his death just nine years later, he was the most widely read storyteller in America. At least partly as a result of the time he spent in prison, this phenomenally successful author was reluctant to be photographed or interviewed, and gave varying answers to questions about his life and how he chose his pseudonym.
If you were going to publish work under a pen name, what would it be?