• Brigette Cook Jones

The Ex-Brother-in-law and the Comic Mentor


This post is about two men who were definitely connected to each other, but the question is: Did they have anything to do with Little Orphan Annie?

The first man pictured is the "ex-brother-in-law" of James Whitcomb Riley - Frank Payne (1862-1949). Frank was once married to Mary Elizabeth Riley (1864-1936) - James Whitcomb Riley's youngest sister.

Now those of you who may not know about the poet Riley - may not know that he was the creator and originator of the "Little Orphan Annie" character. Riley wrote the poem, "Little Orphant Annie" in 1885, and it was based on a real person - Mary Alice Smith who lived at the Riley Home during the early months of the Civil War.

Anyway, Riley's sister, Mary Elizabeth, married Frank Payne on June 30, 1888 in Marion County, Indiana. Frank and Mary Elizabeth had one daughter – Leslie Payne (1891 – 1976). Both Mary Elizabeth and Leslie Payne are buried on the Crown Hill in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis with the poet James Whitcomb Riley.

Frank and Mary Elizabeth (Riley) Payne would divorce, but I am not sure exactly when. They are in the 1900 Census and listed as living in Indianapolis – where Frank was working as a newspaper editor. However by the 1910 Census – Frank is living in New York City, divorced, and working as a theater manager. So somewhere in that 10 year span - the divorce happened.

In working at the Riley Boyhood Home, I know that James was very close to his youngest sister. Mary Elizabeth was only six years old when their mother died, and James felt very protective of her for this reason.. It is also said that Mary Elizabeth's marriage was not a happy one, and there have been some allegations of verbal abuse (none of this is verified). However, obviously something was wrong with the Payne marriage since it ended in divorce. In addition, there is evidence of financial instability as the website Historic Indianapolis uncovered a property in the Herron - Morton district of Indy that was once owned by James Whitcomb Riley from 1892-1908, but the tennant in the home was Frank Payne (Riley's brother-in-law). So it seems that Frank Payne was not financially stable enough to provide for James Whitcomb Riley's sister.

Frank seemed to have several different jobs over the years. The HI article states he was a telegraph operator for the Indianapolis Journal (Riley's former employer). This info probably came from a City Directory, but the source and date are not listed. However, looking at the census in 1900 - Frank was listed as an editor for a newspaper . In fact, he was the managing editor at the "Indianapolis Press."

Now this is where the comic mentor comes into play - his picture is below.

The Comic Mentor is Sidney Smith (1877-1935). Smith is best known for his comic strip, "The Gumps." This strip first appeared in the "Chicago Tribune" on February 17, 1917, and continued even after Smith's death (until 1959).

"The Gumps" comic strip was actually the idea of Joseph Patterson, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Patterson often referred to the masses as "gumps" and thought a strip about the domestic lives of ordinary people and their everyday activities would appeal to the average American newspaper reader. Patterson hired Smith to write and draw the strip, and Smith breathed life into the characters. He was the first cartoonist to kill off a regular character, and Smith received thousands of letters as a result. Due to this success, Sidney Smith would be the first cartoonist to receive a $1 million dollar contract in 1922 - $100,000 each year for ten years.

Drawing a regular strip like this - means assistance, and Smith had a young man who did the lettering for him on "The Gumps" strip from 1921-1924. This man was Harold Gray who would then go on to create the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip in 1924.

So what is the connection between Frank Payne and Sydney Smith?

Frank Payne, the Hoosier Poet's brother-in-law, was working as the managing editor of the "Indianapolis Press" newspaper in 1899 when he hired a new artist. This artist would be a 22 year old Sidney Smith. Smith would draw his very first cartoon for the "Indianapolis Press," and after 2 weeks on the job, Payne made him head of the art department.

Unfortunately, the "Press" did not have much life left in it. It appears the paper ceased publication in 1901. This is probably why Frank is working at a different job by the time HI article finds him in the City Directory, and Sidney has moved onto a different paper.

However, what I find intriguing is the possiblitiy of connectivity between these men. What sort of influence did Frank have on Sydney in discussing family, Riley and Little Orphant Annie? Likewise what sort of things would Sydney have discussed with Harold in the creation of the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip?

Frank Payne, as JWR's brother-in-law, would have intimate family knowledge about Riley's homelife, and by the late 1800's Riley's most famous piece would be his poem, "Little Orphant Annie." The question would be if anything about Annie would come up in discussion between Frank Payne and a young employee like Sydney? Of course, with the great level of fame that James Whitcomb Riley enjoyed - it would be hard NOT to know that your boss' brother-in-law wrote Little Orphan Annie. This would be especially true given the fact of Riley's closeness he had with his sister, and the fact that Riley lived in Indianapolis and was originally a newspaperman himself.

The information about the relationship between Harold Gray and Sydney Smith is much better documented. These two worked closely together, and as Harold Gray decides to create a strip of his own - the Mentor Smith gives him advice and encouragement - even suggesting edits.

There are two or three different stories as to the naming and creation of the LOA comic strip, but none mention Harold Gray’s Mentor - Smith - as a former employee of the Riley ex-brother-in-law Frank Payne. It begs to wonder if there were several influences that gave birth to this comic that we don't know about, and other influences that caused this name and similar theme to be chosen as a title for this comic strip, which ran from 1924 - 2010.


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