• Brigette Cook Jones

The Indianapolis News


I believe coicindences are usually signs to encourage us on our way. Therefore, anytime you find something that is a coincidence - I believe it is meant to tell you - you are on the right track.

Well today I had an interesting coincidence. Included in this post is a picture of the Indianapolis News building. For those of you who are familiar with my research, you may know that James Whitcomb Riley, the creator of the Little Orphan Annie character, was a newspaper man. However, Riley was not employed by the News, but he was employed by the Indianapolis Journal. He worked at the Journal from 1879-1888. Ultimately,the Journal would be absorbed by the Indianpolis Star in 1906 - ten years prior to Riley's death.

In contrast, the Indianapolis News was known as "The Great Hoosier Daily." For 130 years, the Indianapolis News was the oldest Indianapolis newspaper and held the largest circulation in the state. A Pulitzer prize winning evening paper, the News began publication on December 7, 1869, and of course would have been around when Riley was alive. In fact, both the Star and the News were around when Riley was alive, but both papers would not survive till today. A merger between the two papers would begin in 1948, and by 1950 - the News would move out of this building and move into the Star bulding. Ultimately, the News would cease publication on October 1, 1999.

However, my reason for looking into the News takes place when it was a thriving newspaper in 1915. Riley used this newspaper to solve a mystery that had haunted him for years. Riley always said that the poems he wrote were - autobiographical in nature and about his own real life experiences. So naturally, people began to ask - just who were the inspirations for his characters? Who was the Raggedy Man, Aunt Mary, and the Hired Girl?

Of course, Little Orphan Annie was Riley's iconic poem, and today it is still his most well known work. In the case of Orphan Annie - the poet knew exactly who had inspired this character. She was Mary Alice Smith, the little orphan girl who came to live at his family's home in Greenfield in 1861, Even though she stayed less than "a season" in his home, this little girl made a lifelong and lasting impression on the Hoosier poet. Not only did he write the "Little Orphant Annie" poem about her, but he also wrote a prose poem entitled, "Where is Mary Alice Smith." As Riley's iconic poem - the orphan girl was the character whome most people inquired about. What had happened to her? Where was she now? Riley didn't know. By the 1910's he started to inquire about her whereabouts - and finally by 1915 he decided to put an inquiry in the newspaper.

Now - here is the interesting part about research. There are many variations on what exactly this inquiry was - - some say just "an ad in the paper." Some believe he posted something akin to "Where is Mary Alice Smith?" - a prose poem that details the arrival of the orphan girl to the Riley Home. However, a few resources simply refer to an inquiry in the "Questions and Answers column" in the Indianapolis News in the Spring of 1915.

Now, I don't know why he selected the News over other newspapers. At the time, he could have put something in the Star, the Indianapolis Times or the News. There were also two black newspapers: the Recorder and the Freeman. The only thing that I can think of was that the News at the time was being run by two partners: Charles Warren Fairbanks, a former Vice President of the US and a Riley acquaintnce, and William H. Smith of Chicago, who acted as publisher. Fairbanks, who served as VP under Teddy Roosevelt in his first term, knew the Hoosier poet. In fact, when Roosevelt had been in Indianapolis to dedicate the Henry Ware Lawton Statue in 1907 - both Riley and Roosevelt came to a dinner at the Fairbanks home.

For whatever reason, Riley chose the Indianapolis News as his vehicle for his Little Orphant Annie search. As a part of my research, I need to confirm the search and the exact form of that inquiry by locating Riley's ad in the Question and Answers column of the Indianapolis News.

Fortunately, in this day and age of digitized documents - research is so much easier. When you can search a specific name or phrase in a whole host of documents, and it will find it - tell you where the name appears (if at all), and in what edition and on what page -research is much easier. The other option is to peruse hundreds of pages of microfilm - and hope that you don't overlook something, and pray that you find it. The first option is an exact science while the second option is more of hit or miss. While Ancestry.com, which I do have a membership, does have the Indianapolis Star as a searchable newspaper for the 1915 era, this is the wrong paper. And, unfortunately, the Indianapolis News is not even there as a searchable source. IUPUI Library has a digitization project that has made available many of the state's early newspapers - including the News. BUT - wouldn't you know - the dates that they have online are from 1869 - 1903 and 1916 - 1920. No 1915! I believe there is some copyright issue with stuff printed after 1924, but don't know why there is this huge gap - between 1903 and 1916. Of course since 1915 isn't there - this means it hasn't been digitized yet. As a result, I will be utilizing option number 2 and the less effective microfilm search. This also means a trip to the State Library and a large expense in gas and time. However, I did start out this column by saying there was a positive coincidence - right? Well the interesting thing about all of this - - is that whoever worked with Riley on writing that ad in the Question and Answers colum in the Spring of 1915 would have worked in the Indianapolis News building that is pictured here. It still stands at 40 West Washington Street. It is a building that I know well - because my sister lived there for several years. Little did I know that a column that was composed in that building in 1915 is one that I would be searching out to answer Riley's question: Where is Mary Alice Smith? And, to answer my queston: What did Riley's Little Orphant Annie's search ad - look like?


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