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Who was the Real "Little Orphant Annie?"

Mary Alice Gray.jpg

“Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay . . .”

In 1885, James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet, immortalized the story of an orphan girl in a poem that he wrote, called “Little Orphant Annie.” The poem vividly depicts the story of Annie’s plight. With no parents, and no one else to care for her, she lives with a family of strangers where she does household chores in exchange for a place to sleep and food to eat. After her chores are done, she entertains the children of the family with all kinds of wondrous and even scary stories But, much like the fables of old - Annie’s stories have a moral to be learned, as she warns the children about the necessity for being good, minding your parents, helping the needy, and respecting your elders. Or - “the Gobble-uns 'll git you Ef you Don't Watch Out!”

Who was Little Orphant Annie? Believe it or not - Annie was a real person. And, it was the Riley family of Greenfield, Indiana who brought her into their house. In 1861, the Civil War broke out. Reuben Riley, James Whitcomb Riley’s father, left his family and his law practice in the spring of that year to join the Union army. He was elected captain of the first company of Indiana Volunteers from Hancock County. In July Captain Riley and the men from Hancock County engaged the enemy at the Battle of Rich Mountain in Virginia. During this battle, Reuben Riley was severely injured. He mustered out of service in August of that same year. Reuben would eventually re-enlist in August of 1862; however, it was during the winter of 1861-62, that an eleven years old orphan girl would come to live with the Riley family. Her name was Mary Alice Smith, or “Allie” for short.

What brought this little girl to live with a family that she did not know, and why did this family agree to take her in? Much of the information about Mary Alice Smith’s early life is a mystery. However, we do know that she was born in Liberty Indiana (Union County) on September 25, 1850. Therefore, when she came to live with the Riley family, she and Jim, as James Whitcomb Riley was called, were about the same age, with him being the elder by eleven months. Even though Riley describes her as an “orphan” - meaning that both of her parents were dead, this was not entirely true.

Mary Alice’s parents had separated around the time that she was four years old. We do not know if they divorced, or if they just chose to live apart. However, for whatever reason, the little girl was forced to live with her grandmother. Eventually, Mary Alice and her grandmother moved to the small town of Reedville on the old Brookville Road (The town is now called Finly and is located on U.S. 52 in Shelby County. It was celebrated in the Riley Poem, “The Little Town of Tailholt”). In the small town of Reedville, Mary Alice lived in a log cabin with her grandmother and attended school in a log school house. In time, Mary Alice’s grandmother could no longer afford to keep the youngster. The little girl was then passed along to an uncle who lived west of Greenfield.

John Rittenhouse already had a large family of his own to support, but he agreed to take his niece and see to her care. Unfortunately, times were tough for the Rittenhouse family, and an additional mouth to feed would be an extra burden. At the age of ten , Mary Alice’s uncle required her to earn her own “bread and butter.” She stayed with a few other families before being brought by her uncle to the Riley home on a cold autumn day in 1861. Reuben Riley was always known as a generous man, and it would not have been out of character for him to agree to take this little girl into his home. It may be that he was also thinking about returning to the war (which he eventually did), and he knew that his wife, Elizabeth, would need extra help around the house, especially with five children.

So an agreement was made that Mary Alice would live with the Riley family and would get her meals and a place to sleep in exchange for doing chores around the house. Upon their first meeting, James Whitcomb Riley described her as a “slender wisp of a girl” with “spindle ankles” dressed in a “worn and shadowy calico skirt.” She had “slim blue-veined wrists” that “she tossed among the loose and ragged tresses of her yellow hair.” Sadly, she was wearing a “little summer hat with its hectic trimmings, together with the dismal green veil that had bound beneath it the round tingling ears.” He didn’t say if she was wearing a coat, perhaps not? However, he did describe, “the hollow pale blue eyes” which “followed every motion with an alertness that suggested a somewhat suspicious mind.”

What was that little mind thinking at the time? Here she had been thrust amongst strangers by the only kin that she had, and now she was to work for this family with five other children. However, Mary Alice soon warmed to the family. She had a “bright and infectious humor,” which thoroughly enthralled the Riley children. Eventually, she declared, “I’m mighty glad I’m come to live in this-here house.” And the feelings were mutual.

Riley described her as “Our Lady of the Broom.” She liked to work, and the children bemoaned the fact that her chores deprived them of her presence. She had “many household tasks that she herself assumed, so rigidly maintained and deftly executed.” She made many of her chores into a game, and she loved to talk to herself. But, most of all she loved the curved stairs at the Riley home, which Reuben Riley had designed himself. It is possible that she had never seen a stair case quite as grand as this one. According to Riley she would frequently climb up and down the winding stairs, and would pat each step, giving each one its own name.

Unfortunately, Mary Alice Smith stayed for only a season with the Riley family, but her presence had left an indelible imprint on the poet for the rest of his life. In the spring of 1862, she left the Riley home and went to work in a tavern on the old National Road in western Hancock County. She worked in the tavern for the next six years. By the time she was 18, Mary Alice had met a young farmer from Philadelphia, Indiana (Hancock County). His name was John Wesley Gray. They married on October 2, 1869, and she moved into a small log cabin on his farm just south of U.S. 40. She would remain there for most of her life.

Mary Alice Smith Gray, never knew that she was the subject of Riley’s poem until she was much older. The Riley family had always called her “Allie,” short for “Alice.” Riley originally published the poem about the orphan girl under the title, “The Elf Child” in the Indianapolis Journal Newspaper on November 15, 1885. In 1886, Riley changed the title to “Little Orphant Allie,” but a typesetter misread the text and printed it as “Little Orphant Annie.” The poem became an instant success so Riley decided to leave the poem with “Annie” as the name of the orphan girl.

It wasn’t until 1915 when Mary Alice Gray, at the age of 65, discovered that she was the inspiration for the famous Riley poem. Mary Alice and John Wesley Gray lived very happy in their small log cabin on their farm. She had five children of her own, and by this time was also a grandmother. A relative of the Gray’s had recently discovered the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, and when looking through one of his books, she came upon the story, “Where is Mary Alice Smith?” This story, written in prose, was originally printed by Riley in the Indianapolis Journal Newspaper on September 30, 1882. Recognizing the name and the circumstances, the relative wrote to Mr. Riley, and answered his question from the story - “Where is Mary Alice Smith?” She was alive and well and living in Philadelphia.

In late 1915, Riley’s nephew, Edmund Eitel, journeyed out to visit Mary Alice Gray. He found her living in the small log cabin that had been her home with John Wesley Gray for the past forty-five years. Together they shared her memories of her life with the Riley family. “Those nice months at Captain Riley’s, with so many children to play with and such a sweet mother to take care of us, was the best of those awful lonesome days.” she said.

Unfortunately, Riley himself never got to meet with Mary Alice. He passed away on July 23, 1916. Mary Alice Gray lived many more years in the same home in Philadelphia. She became a frequent visitor to schools where she would share with children her stories of her life with James Whitcomb Riley. John Wesley Gray passed away in 1922, and Mary Alice left her home and moved in with her daughter in Indianapolis. Mary Alice Smith Gray passed away on March 7, 1924 at the age of 74. She was buried in the Philadelphia Church Cemetery located on the south side of the National Road. She left behind a daughter, four grand-children, and three great-grandchildren, including a namesake, Mary Alice Jessup.

About the Author:

Brigette S. Cook Jones is a life-long resident of Hancock County Indiana. She has a bachelors degree in social studies education from Ball State University. As a historian and educator, she has worked with the Indiana State Museum, and has served on both the Hancock County Historical Society Board, and the Board of the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home. Ms. Jones was also a member of the James Whitcomb Riley Sesquicentennial Committee in 1999.


Dickey Mss.: Papers and letters of John Marcus Dickey. Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Eitel, Edmund H. “The Real ‘Orphant Annie.” Saturday Post, Indianapolis, November 1915.

Riley, James Whitcomb. “Little Orphant Annie.” The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley, sesquicentennial edition: 370. No publisher listed, 1999.

Riley, James Whitcomb. “Where is Mary Alice Smith?” The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley, memorial edition, volume X: 2564-76. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1916.

Van Allen, Elizabeth. James Whitcomb Riley, A Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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