• Brigette Cook Jones

Riley's Annie to Gray's Annie


The Hooiser Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, created the character Little Orphant Annie while visiting his father and step-mother in their home in Greenfield Indiana. James' father, Reuben Riley, was living in what was known as the "Seminary Building," which had been converted into the Riley Home. It was in 1885 that James created this character. Originally, she appeared in a poem entitled, "The Elf Child," and the poem said, "Little Orphant Allie has come to our house to stay..." Yes - it was Orphant "Allie" not "Annie." Allie was short for "Alice" because the little orphant girl whom the poem was based, was a real

person by the name of Mary Alice Smith.

The Riley poem would appear in the Indianapolis Journal newspaper in November of 1885 with the "Elf Child" title and "Little Orphant Allie." The poem would appear again in the same format in Riley's "Boss Girl" book, which would come out in 1886. However, in a subsequent appearance in a book, a typesetter misread Riley's handwriting and changed the "Allie" to "Annie."

At first, Riley complained about the mistake, but upon being told that the edition was selling well - he was encouraged to leave the mistake in place. He did.

From that point forward - whenever Riley performed the poem, or it was published there was always a "Little Orphant Annie."

What most people discount is the level of fame that James Whitcomb Riley had at the time. He was considered to be the unofficial poet laureate of America. When Ulysses S. Grant died he was asked to compose an original piece. When the monument for fallen President William McKinley was dedicated - - he composed an original piece. He toured extensively around the country with people like Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and Bill Nye. The crowds to hear his performances were frequently sold out, and his books always topped the Best Sellers List.

Always - - Riley's most noted poem - - and the one that most people still recognize today - was "Little Orphant Annie."

Riley would pass away in 1916, and a nation mourned his passing. President Woodrow Wilson sent personal condolences, and the Governor of Indiana asked that Riley's body lie in state under the State Capitol dome in Indianapolis. On the day of Riley's funeral, 35,000 passed by his casket in less than a 15 hour period. This number is significant as is surpasses the amount of people in attendance at the funeral of Michael Jackson (20,000) at the Staples Center in 2009, and the number of people who passed by Elvis Presley's casket at Graceland in 1977 (30,000). Truly, this was a man of the people, and very, very popular.

This popularity had staying power too. Even after his death, his poems were used to promote everything from cigars, to coffee, to pianos.

However, after Riley's death - people seemed to clamor for information about this mega-star. What was he like? How had his boyhood truly been? One of the people who knew James well - and was the inspiration for his most famous poem - was Mary Alice Smith Gray, who had been the little orphant girl that was "Little Orphant Allie."

Riley's nephew had just found Mrs. Gray after publishing ads in the Indianapolis newspapers enquiring about her whereabouts. Through a series of people Mary Alice, who had not moved far from Greenfield, found out about the search and sent James a letter - identifying who she was. Riley's nephew, Edmund Eitel, was dispatched to go to her rural farm to interview her, and to determine if she was who she really said she was. Of course, Mary Alice knew everything about the Riley family, and talked at length with Eitel. She was definitely no fraud. Eitel composed an article about the discovery of the "Real Orphant Annie," and the article appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in 1915. Riley never did get a chance to get reacquainted himself with Mary Alice as he had not been in good health, and was unable to make the trip out to her farm.

After Riley's death, Mary Alice became somewhat of a sensation. Since the great Hoosier Poet was gone - the next best thing was he most popular creation - in Little Orphant Annie. Mary Alice was invited to be a special guest at a performance of a play in the English Opera House one year after Riley's death. She went on "tour" with a Riley lecturer, Oliver Power, in Indiana and Ohio. Power would give a presentation on Riley's works - and would then bring out Mrs. Gray to answer questions about the life of the Hooiser Poet. However, the best treat for Mary Alice was that she was present at the cornerstone laying for the newly planned, James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis in 1922.

Age would soon catch up with Mary Alice, and she would have to leave her small cabin in Hancock County to move in with her daughter in Indianapolis. In March of 1924, she would die.

Newspaper stories across the country wrote about her passing, with many saying "Little Orphant Annie has washed her last cup and saucer." Mary Alice Smith Gray was laid to rest in the Philadelphia Cemetery in her home county in Indiana.

Meanwhile, up in Chicago - a young man was tring to get a new comic strip started. He had submitted several ideas to his editor - with each being passed over with some issue. Finally, a curly headed young boy was presented to the editor with the title of the character being "Little Orphant Otto." The editor, Captain Medeill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune, felt the character looked too much like a "sissy." He told the young artist, Harold Gray, "to put a skirt on the kid and change the name."

Now comic strip artists work several weeks if not a month or more in advance of their publish date. And, with a new comic - the lead time was most likely even greater. This comic strip character - Little Orphan Annie would make her first appearance in August of 1924 - just FIVE months after the death of Mary Alice Smith Gray - - the REAL Orphan Annie.

Is it possible that the death of the real Little Orphant Annie - inspired Gray and/or his editor to change the name of this adventurous independent character from Otto to Annie? For one thing - there were very few comic strips that featured girls - - so this made the strip unique as well, but there are several other similarities:

Both orphans

Both come to live with wealthy families

Both do household chores

Both have some sort of adversitiy in their lives

Both are independent

Both have a strong moral character

Personally, I look at the Vawter picture of Riley's Annie - which is posted at the beginning of this article, and I see this picture of Gray's Annie from a panel in the very first strip - - and I see some STRIKING similarities. Of course, Gray could not make his character EXACTLY like Riley's because of possible copyright issues, but there had to be enough there for people to make the connection from one orphan girl to the other.


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