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Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train

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(origins) Poetry: Little orphant Annie - roundabout or (19)

autoharper 03 Oct 09 - 07:07 AM
open mike 03 Oct 09 - 11:26 PM
autoharper 04 Oct 09 - 01:12 AM
open mike 04 Oct 09 - 08:33 PM
GUEST,.gargoyle 04 Oct 09 - 10:01 PM
autoharper 05 Oct 09 - 12:33 AM
GUEST,Orphan Annie's Author 10 Nov 09 - 01:53 PM
GUEST,Orphan Annie's Author 10 Nov 09 - 02:01 PM
autoharper 10 Nov 09 - 03:30 PM
open mike 10 Nov 09 - 08:58 PM
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Subject: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: autoharper
Date: 03 Oct 09 - 07:07 AM

I sing and talk a lot about the Orphan Train movement (1854-1929).

Last month someone told me a good story that I had never heard:

Mary Alice Smith (1850-1924), the orphan girl who worked in the childhood home of the American poet James Whitcomb Riley (1847-1916), and was the inspiration for the poem "Little Orphant Annie," traveled to Greenfield, IN, on the Orphan Train.

However, her obituary, contemporary newspaper accounts, and various biographies of James Whitcomb Riley suggest the girl was born close to Greenfield and never rode the Orphan Train.

Anybody ever heard or read anything making the connection between Mary Alice Smith and the Orphan Train?

-Adam Miller

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: open mike
Date: 03 Oct 09 - 11:26 PM

Adam, once again, it is a pleasure and a joy to have you join us here.
I do not have answers to your questions, but do hope you are singing U. Utah Phillips' Orphan train song (take us in, we need a home, we need a name...") or the Gillian Welch song Orphan Girl. I hope more
info is posted on Mary Alice Smith, James Whitcomb Riley, etc.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Tr
From: autoharper
Date: 04 Oct 09 - 01:12 AM


The death of "Little Orphant Annie" made headlines in the Hoosier State when she passed away on March 7, 1924. As a child of ten she unwittingly provided an original American character type traceable through poetry, stories, comics and comic strips, several plays and even the recent Broadway play and movie "Annie." Her obituary reads as follows:

Mrs. Mary Alice Gray, Declared Original Character of Riley's Famous Poem.

"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an brush the crumbs away,
An' shoe the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth an sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an' keep -"

    "Little Orphant Annie" of James Whitcomb Riley fame, in life, Mrs. Mary Alice Gray, died yesterday in the residence of her daughter, Mrs. L.D. Marsh, 2225 Union Street. Mrs. Gray was 73 years old, and although she had not been well since the death of her husband two years ago, her relatives were not apprehensive of her heath when she retired about 9 o'clock Thursday evening.
       When Mrs. Gray did not appear at the usual early hour yesterday morning, Mrs. Marsh entered her bedroom and found her dead. The fact that Mrs. Gray was the tiny, elfish girl, who came to work in the home of Riley's parents when she was about 10 years old, was established in 1915 by Riley's biographers.

Born in Union County

    Her maiden name was Mary Alice Smith. She was born at Liberty, Union County, Sept. 25, 1850. Her mother died soon after she was born. Her father died before she was ten years old and she was forced to obtain housework in neighboring farm homes to "earn her board an' keep."
    She was married to John Wesley Gray, a farm boy of the neighborhood Oct. 2, 1868, and lived on Wesley's farm a mile south of Philadelphia, Ind., until the death of her husband two years ago. Since that time she lived in Mrs. Marsh's home.
    When Riley first wrote the poem, it was entitled "Little Orphant Allie [sic] ," his biographers state. The poet had a vivid recollection of her goring up the stairs at night to her lonesome room in the attic, leaning down and patting each stair affectionately and naming it. Mrs. Gray often spoke of her relatives about this practice. Riley wrote of her in prose also. In the story, "Where Is Mary Alice Smith?" he depicts the little orphan girl falling in love with a soldier boy who was killed, and dying of grief.

Cared for Riley Children

    It was Mary Alice Smith, at the age of 10 years, that "Little Orphant Annie" took a place in the riley home at Greenfield, where she cared for the Riley children - James, John, Whitcomb and Elva. During the lonely hours in the Riley home she used to spend her time before the fireplace telling stories of goblins and ghosts to the children.

    She lived in the Riley home about a year, and never was seen again by "Jim," as she knew him. In his later years, the poet made exhaustive search for her, advertising in the newspapers. It was while Mr. Riley was in Florida, just prior to his death, that Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Gray's daughter, saw the advertisement in an Indianapolis paper and communicated with the poet. But owing to his illness, he was prevented from calling on her at her home.

    Mrs. Gray often said she was totally unaware that she was the original "Little Orphant Annie" until told by Riley's secretary years after the poem was first published.

Retained Active Memory

    Mrs. Gray never revisited the riley until a few years ago. She retained an active memory of the famous poet up until the time of her death. She took delight in telling of Riley's habit of writing verses on the walls in the house, on the porch and even on fences, and of drawing pictures to illustrate them.

    Mrs. Gray took a prominent part, despite her advanced age, in the laying of the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children, Oct. 7, 1922, coming to Indianapolis from her home near Greenfield, at the invitation of the Riley Memorial Association.

    Mrs. Gray had four daughters. Three of her daughter, Mrs. Daisy Spilker, who lived in Indianapolis, Mrs. Ethel Hickok, whose home was in Middlefield, O, and Mrs. Cordella Colestock of Philadelphia, Ind. have been dead several years. Mrs. Marsh is the only living child. There are four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren living. The are: Walter and Clarence Colestock, Philadelphia, Mrs. Nona Spikler Jessup, living north of Indianapolis, and Paul Hickok of Titusville, Pa. The great-grandchildren are, Louise, Herbert and Mary Alice Jessup.

    Funeral services will be held at 1 o'clock Sunday afternoon in Mrs. Marsh's residence and burial will be in Spring Lake Cemetery, Philadelphia, Indiana.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: open mike
Date: 04 Oct 09 - 08:33 PM

Anne Hills has put out an album of 10 James Whitcomb Riley poems set to music. Perhaps she has found out more about Little Orphant Annie in her research, as that poem was in this collection.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Tr
From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 04 Oct 09 - 10:01 PM


Please reveal your SOURCE for the obit

Date: 04 Oct 09 - 01:12 AM

This has been one of my "set pieces" since Octobrt 1959.


I was just visiting today - with the son of two Nebraska orphans (the mom and pop)

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Tr
From: autoharper
Date: 05 Oct 09 - 12:33 AM

Mary Alice Smith's obituary is online:'s_obituary.htm

James Whitcomb Riley was born October 7, 1847 in Greenfield, Indiana. His childhood home was on the National Road, the transcontinental highway of the 1840s. His father, Reuben Alexander Riley (1819 - 1893) was a successful lawyer and was one of the delegates to the Chicago Republican Convention of 1860 that nominated Abraham Lincoln. In 1861, Reuben left his family to join the Union Army and fight in the Civil War.

Shortly after Reuben Riley went off to war, early in the morning a man appeared at the Riley home. He had a small girl with him and he said he was her uncle and that she was an orphan. He said he could no longer support her and asked if Mrs. Riley would take her in. Her name was Mary Alice Smith. Mary Alice was only a few years younger than James, but she was small for her age. She worked for her keep in the home (as a servant) and told the Riley children stories. Less than a year later, the "uncle" reappeared, unannounced, and claimed the girl.

In one account the uncle's name is given as John Rittenhouse. He is said to have found Annie in the hills around Liberty, Indiana and took her to his home near Greenfield. Then he put her out to work dressed in black the way orphans dressed. And that's how she came to live with the Riley family.

The T in "Little Orphant Annie" is said to have been mistakenly inserted by a phonetically-challenged typesetter at the time of its publication, and it has never been amended.

-Adam Miller

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: GUEST,Orphan Annie's Author
Date: 10 Nov 09 - 01:53 PM

Re: Mary Alice Smith

I am currently researching the life of Mary Alice Smith and can give you verification on several of the points listed above.

First of all, you need to understand that when Riley originally wrote the poem,"Little Orphan Annie." It was for a newspaper entitled the Indianapolis Journal. It also appeared for the first time in Riley's book, "Boss Girl." In both of those instances, the poem was entitled, "The Elf Child," and the poem said, "Little Orphan ALLIE has come to our house to stay." "Allie" as in short for "Alice."

I have church records which show that Mary Alice Smith was born to Thomas and (I believe) Ellen Rittenhouse Smith in 1850 in Union County Indiana. She was living in Hancock County in the little town called "Reedville" previously known as "Tailholt" and now known as "Carollton," Indiana, in 1860. She was living with her grandmother, Alice Smith. This is per the 1860 census.

Her grandmother is buried in a local cemetery with a death date of 1866. The story goes that her grandmother became too ill to take care of herm, and she was sent to live with other family members. This family member was her uncle John Rittenhouse (her mother's brother as far as I can tell)- who BTW is also in Hancock County in the 1860 census.

There is a dispute as to what happened to her mother - - and any help with tracking down the whereabouts of Ellen Rittenhouse Smith would be greatly appreciated. One family story is that there was a "marital disunion" between Thomas and Ellen Smith. Another story is that Ellen Smith died. I have found no proof as to either story.

Whatever happened - Ellen Smith is out of the picture by 1857 - as Thomas Smith has remarried to a Melvina Hart by the 1860 census - and he and Melvina proceed to have 3 children of their own (there is some question about the oldest daughter - whether she is Thomas's daughter or an offspring from a previous relationship with Melvina). In any rate - Thomas Smith - Mary Alice's father is alive and well, and does not die until the late 1880's.

The story then goes that John Rittenhouse had a large family of his own and needed to find a place for his niece. He brings her to the Riley Home where she works for her board and keep.

James Whitcomb Riley wrote a poem, entitled, "Where is Mary Alice Smith" that details - in great description - the arrival of Mary Alice to the Riley Home. If you have not read it -- I highly suggest it.

I have uncovered that John Rittenhouse enlisted in the Union Army in December of 1861. Reuben Riley, James' father, was also home at this time, but was contemplating a return to service (he had been injured after a 3 month tour of duty in early 1861. It was not out of character for Reuben to be charitable towards others. In fact, there are several stories of Reuben's acts of kindness. I believe that he is thinking about returning to the Civil War, which would leave his wife at home with the two older boys - John Andrew, and James (age 12), and two smaller children - Elva May and Alexander Humbolt. It is very plausible, that Reuben believes that having a young girl to help his wife with the household chores would be beneficial. In fact, it is documented by several sources that the Riley's were told that Mary Alice was 14 (when in reality she had just turned 11 in 1861.

At any rate, Mary Alice comes to live with the Riley family for less than a year. She is at the home probably from November, 1861 - through the fall of 1862. It is then said that her family comes and takes her back home.

The story from there says that Mary Alice goes to work in a Tavern on the National Road in the town of Philadelphia, IN (which is a small town in between Greenfield, and Indianapolis). She works there for the next 6 years. It is there that she meets her husband, John Wesley Gray. She marries and has a total of seven children - the ones who grew to adulthood are listed in the obituary that was already submitted.

Mary Alice Smith Gray is buried in the Philadelphia Cemetery just outside of Greenfield, Indiana. You can go to to see her grave site and her picture.

As for the "T" in Little Orphant Annie - - Riley purposely included the "T" because he was mimicking how the people spoke. Riley was famous for his usage of "dialect" in his poetry.

I highly doubt that Mary Alice rode the Orphan Train. There isn't any evidence to support this.

I am also a docent at the Riley Home in Greenfield, and anytime someone would like to visit - I can show you the place where Mary Alice slept. I can also show you the cubby hole, the rafter room, and the press - that is mentioned in Riley's poem.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: GUEST,Orphan Annie's Author
Date: 10 Nov 09 - 02:01 PM

I forgot - - to see the James Whitcomb Riley birth home - go to

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Tr
From: autoharper
Date: 10 Nov 09 - 03:30 PM

To the guest who made these last two postings: many, many thanks for your great research and willingness to share your findings. Sometimes this list really delivers the goods.

With gratitude,
-Adam Miller

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Subject: RE: Folklore: Little Orphant Annie & the Orphan Train
From: open mike
Date: 10 Nov 09 - 08:58 PM

wow--what treasures come our way here!
what a great lot of background information
you have found and shared...i am working on
genealogy research, and know how much time
and work it must have taken to gather all
those facts!! thanks for sharing..
(want to help me find my lost grand pa? lol)

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