Who is Orphan Annie's Author?
Hi There! How ya doin? My names is Brigette Cook Jones, and I am Orphan Annie's Author. So how did I become the author for Orphan Annie? Why Orphan Annie? And, why should you care?
Well - the character Little Orphan Annie has had a presence in American History since 1885. Isn't it interesting that some version of the orphan girl who is known for her "pluck" and wisdom - has had some presence in literature, in movies, in the comic strip and stage and screen - - not to mention art, dolls, and music - for well over 100 years. What is it about this little girl with no parents that seems to strike a chord with the American experience that we have some "version" of her coming back around for every generation?
That is a good question?
However, that wasn't the question that I originally set out to answer. You see I grew up in a medium sized town in central Indiana by the name of Greenfield. Now Greenfield's one claim to fame is that it was the birthplace and boyhood home of the Hoosier Poet - James Whitcomb Riley. Don't know about Riley? I bet you do - - because if you know Little Orphan Annie - - then you are aware of one of Riley's many characters and stories that he gave to us: "The Raggedy Man," "The Ol'Swimmin' Hole," "When the Frost is on the Punkin'" . . . Still don't think you know Riley? - Have you ever heard, - - "An the Goblin's will getcha - ef you don't - - watch - - out!" Well THAT is Riley. See I am fairly certain many Americans know Riley - - they just don't realize - that they know him!
Anyway, my hometown - Greenfield - is famous because of Riley. And much like Riley's contemporary and friend Mark Twain, who romanticized Hannibal Missouri in his books about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn - Riley romanticized his time as a boy in Greenfield - - and other places around Indiana.
Greenfield was a small midwestern town, located on the National Road - the main highway west. In 1849, the same year young James was born, gold had been discovered in California, and people flooded this road - on their journey to the great oppportunities on the Pacific coast. Young James was a witness to this great migration, and also weathered the great Civil War - which would come after. His father would serve his country as a Captain - first in an Infantry unit and then in a Calvary unit.
James Whitcomb Riley was the son of a local attorney who was quite influential in this small town. Reuben Riley had been the first mayor of Greenfield, served two terms in Indiana's General Assembly as a State Representative, and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention - where he cast the district's vote to nominate Abraham Lincoln as president.
Due to his father's many absences - James was primarly supervised by his lovely mother, Elizabeth (Marine) Riley. She recognized the budding poetic talent in her young son - and encouraged his artisitc endeavors - She too was a writer of verse - as was her own father.
Then there were the other folks in James' life - - The people who many times inspired his poems - The "Raggedy Man" - the hired hand who worked Reuben's farm and did the farm chores around the house. There was the "Hired Girl" - the cook - a young girl who worked in the kitchen and helped to prepare the food for the Riley family. And of course there was the "Orpan girl" who happened to come live with the Riley's in the winter of 1861/62. Her name was Mary Alice Smith. She would become the inspiration for two of Riley's poems - one was "Where is Mary Alice Smith" and the other would be originally entitled, "The Elf Child."
"The Elf Child" appeared in the Indianapolis Journal newspaper in 1885, where Riley was working as a poet in residence. In it's first line it would say - "Little Orphant Allie has come to our house to stay," . . . That is right "Allie" not "Annie." The little orphan girl was an "Allie" - but a typesetter in a later printing of the poem - changed the "Allie" to "Annie." Riley complained to the publisher about the mistake - -but the publisher stated that the edition was selling well and to just leave it. So it was left - - and "Allie" became "Annie." Riley's poem, "Little Orphant Annie" is probably his best known work today. It has that favorite catch-phrase about - the Gobblins. But, this poem is just one of over 1,000 poems that Riley wrote, and what he wrote SOLD! Riley was on the best-seller's list and was one of the wealthiest poets in American history. As a result of this fame, every year in Greenfield, the city hosts the Riley Festival which occurs around the poet's birthday on October 7th. It is a four day event, and both main arteries in and out of the city are closed and filled with craft booths, food vendors and live entertainment. This is all to celebrate the birthday of James Whitcomb Riley. The Riley Festival has become one of the largest and one of the oldest fall festivals in the state of Indiana.
Each year - a different Riley poem is selected as the theme for that year. In 2005, when I started on this project - the theme for that year's festival was - you guessed it - - "Little Orphant Annie."
So why did I choose to research this particular poem? Well - it was sort of a matter of circumstance and a matter of fate...
You see in 2005, I had lost my job at the Indiana State Museum after 8 year of being with the museum and 13 years with the state of Indiana. There were cut backs - and eight people lost their positions that year. I had a 2 year old and a 6 year old at home and the older one was just starting school. I really wanted to be involved in their lives as well as trying to stay closer to home - as the drive to Indy - one way was an hour trip. I felt this was God's way of telling me - - Brigette - you need to stay closer to home. So I returned to substitute teaching - a job I did right after college - and became a part-time working Mom. Instead of being away from home for 10 hours a day or more - five days a week - I was able to stay at home, take care of the kids - and cart them to their events and programs myself instead of trying to find someone else to do it. Luckily, my husband was agreeable to this - - and I was able to pick up additional part time jobs along the way since then.
So I had more time. Writing and researching was something that I really enjoyed doing. I thought to myself - - you know - I bet people do not realized that "Little Orphant Annie" was based on a real person. I had researched quite a bit about James Whitcomb Riley - while I was working at ISM. I wrote a lesson plan for teachers at all grade levels, and wrote an informational piece about him. In addition, I had been in charge of the State Museum's events and activities for the James Whitcomb Riley 150th Birthday celebration. I met and got to know other people with a passion for all things Riley - and learned a lot about the man that I didn't know myself - even though I grew up in his hometown.
So my intention was to write a one page - front and back piece about Mary Alice Smith that would coincide with the 2005 Riley Festival theme. I wanted to know - what happened to her parents? Did they die? Who were they? Why was she brought to the Riley home? What happened to her after she left? These were all questions that I didn't know the answer.
Well - I wrote that one page piece - -a front and back piece that I sold for a quarter to benefit out church booth during the Riley Festival. But, more importatnly, Mary Alice's story - sucked me in. And, I have been unraveling clues about her life and her family - and the relationship to Riley's Orphan Annie character and to the other Orphan Annie characters, dolls, art, music, etc since Riley.
Now, mind you - I do this in my "spare" time. In between my now four part time jobs, and taking my children to this event and that event - my spare time is limited. This is one of the reason why this process has taken me so long - - I can't work at it full time. And believe it or not - - historical research is EXPENSIVE!! I am not exactly a rich woman working four part time jobs - - so sometimes - I don't have the money to request research or copies from an archive or library. Or, I can't afford the gas to go to a place to do the actual research - - so I wait.
I have a few big things that I still need to solidfy - before I can actually write - - but most of the info that i have uncovered has never been written about before, and most of the connections I have made - - have remained undiscovered. So I can't wait to share them all in a book.
So - - this is why I have started this site. So that I can share tidbits and pieces of my journey on finding out facts and things about Orphan Annie. So I can hopefully create a following that will be interested in buying that book - - once I get it written, and if you want to help me out with any information - or anything else - - that too would be greatly appreciated!
I hope you enjoy what I have to share!