James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie”

Illustration of Little Orphant Annie from a collection of Riley’s poems called “While The Heart Beats Young, published by Bobbs Merrill in 1906 and illustrated by Ethel Franklin Betts. (Image: Pinterest).

James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” is one of the Hoosier poet’s most beloved and well-known poems, one which has endured and become part of the folk memory of generations of Americans. “Little Orphant Annie” stands alongside “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s,” “The Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole,” and “When The Frost Is On The Punkin” as poems of Riley’s that were once familiar selections in English textbooks and anthologies of popular verse. Although their publication is less frequent in our own times, they are still familiar to many readers.

Still from footage of James Whitcomb Riley near the beginning of the 1918 silent film version of “Little Orphant Annie.” (Image:IMDB).

Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana on October 7, 1849. He attended local schools for a number of years, then worked intermittently as a sign painter and as a musician, barker and performer with traveling medicine shows. He made a couple of futile attempts to learn the law, a profession urged upon him by his father Reuben, a lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran. Riley finally focused his attention on writing, working as a newspaperman in small Indiana towns and polishing his verse. Steady application of his talent resulted in published poems in Indiana papers. His career got a significant boost in 1883 when he published The Ol’ Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, a collection supposedly the work of a rustic bard named “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone.” By the time this book appeared, Riley was publishing more widely and reading his poems around the country, but the collection dramatically increased his fame. From this point on his verse commanded a national audience and and he became a fixture in lecture and performance halls around America.

Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley by John Singer Sargent

Brandyine Creek. Somewhere along here was Riley’s own beloved swimming hole (author’s photo).

Riley enjoyed a successful career, but he also struggled with alcoholism and exhaustion and never had a wife or family, spending long months on the road, living a life governed by performance dates and railroad schedules. One compensation was the incredible popularity he enjoyed. He was widely loved by the American public, and his birthday in early autumn was practically a national holiday during his last few years. Even before his death in July of 1916, Greenfield children and residents had begun holding a parade in his honor around the time of his birthday. The tradition continues to this day. Greenfield celebrates Riley Days each year in early October. The event is an arts and crafts festival that features a parade, and local school children still place flowers on or near the Riley statue in front of the Hancock County courthouse as they have for decades.

Welcome sign in Greenfield, Indiana. Click any photo to enlarge (author’s photo).

Statue of James Whitcomb Riley in front of the Hancock County Courthouse in Greenfield, Indiana . The statue was paid for by donations from American school children (author’s photo).

“Little Orphant Annie” has left an especially enduring mark on American popular culture. The poem is a sort of loose inspiration for the redheaded orphan who became a comic strip fixture and later the subject of a popular musical. But the Annie of Riley’s poem is a different sort of child than the curly-haired moppet belting out “Tomorrow” alongside of Daddy Warbucks during the Great Depression. Riley’s Annie is a country girl who comes to live with a family in a rural town. She aids the family in exchange for her board and keep. The poem was originally entitled “The Elf Child” and first appeared in the Indianapolis Journal on November 15, 1885. It appeared under that same title in several other book publications, but Riley later changed it to “Little Orphant Allie.” It appeared as “Little Orphant Annie” because of a printer’s typo and Riley let it stay.

Photo of a Tiffany stained glass rendering of the Ethel Franklin Betts illustration at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in Greenfield, Indiana (author’s photo).

“Little Orphant Annie” is inspired by a real life little girl who came to live with the Riley family in Greenfield during the winter of 1862. The girl’s name was Mary Alice Smith. Her origins are still somewhat murky, although it appears she was born in Liberty, Indiana in 1850. Elizabeth J. Van Allen, who wrote an excellent and up-to-date biography of Riley published in 1999, states that her parents were separated and she was living with relatives. These family members may have been unable to properly care for her, so the Riley family agreed to take her in, but Elizabeth Riley, the poet’s mother, already had a number of children to take care of, so Mary Alice would have to help out around the house.

Mary Alice Smith around 1863, much as she would have looked when she lived with the Riley family.

Mary Alice quickly made an impression on the children. She not only worked around the house, but became a regular companion to the children and spent a great deal of time entertaining them and telling stories, particularly ones that were strange or spooky. She lived with the family for about a year. It was not uncommon in nineteenth century America for children to be “bound out” to live and work with another family, particularly if the child was orphaned or in some other straits and had few or no family members nearby with the resources and time to take care of them.

Visitors to the Riley Boyhood Home in Greenfield, Indiana can see the area at the top of a staircase where Mary Alice Smith slept during her stay at the Riley home. Her little section was next the boys’ bedroom.

Little Orphant Annie: illustration by Robert S. Robison for Jeannette Covert Nolan’s “James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet.” (Image: Pinterest).

Mary Alice Smith (Gray) in later years. Photo on display in the museum in the Mitchell House, which is located next to the Riley Boyhood Home in Greenfield, Indiana (cropped version of author’s photo of picture).

There is an earlier version of Mary Alice Smith in a short story of Riley’s called “Where Is Mary Alice Smith?” In this case, Mary Alice comes to the home, tells some gruesome stories and is later seen with her young beau, Dave Jefferies, who is killed in the Civil War. The material in this story, along with Riley’s poem, shaped the screenplay for a silent film version of “Little Orphant Annie” starring Colleen Moore released in 1918. The film has recently been restored by Indiana film preservationist Eric Grayson and was screened in Greenfield in 2016, part of a number of events that year marking the centennial of the poet’s death.

Colleen Moore as Little Orphant Annie. (Image: Kickstarter).

Mary Alice was taken with the stairway in the Riley home in Greenfield. When I visited there twice this past summer, both docents related the story of how Mary Alice called it “the stairway to Heaven” and named each one of the steps. In later years, when Riley bought back the home and members of his family lived there once again, they spoke often of Mary Alice and they determined to see if they could find her. They did track her down, and she visited the Riley Home and began reciting the names she had given each step of the stairwell!

The “Stairway To Heaven” in the Greenfield home (author’s photo).

Visitors can also see the area where she slept outside of the boys’ bedroom. There are several references in the poem that can be tied to features in the Greenfield home. There is a “rafter-room” in the Riley boys’ bedroom, and also a cubbyhole in one of the downstairs rooms.

Cubbyhole space in first floor of the Riley home in Greenfield (author’s photo).

Rafter room in the Riley home in Greenfield, complete with “goblin eyes” glowing in the distance–click photo to enlarge (author’s photo).

Both were locations where the children would hide out and listen to Mary Alice tell her tales. A roundabout in this case is a shirt, jacket or coat that is circular at the bottom and lacks any kind of trail or train. The kind of short military jacket that General Eisenhower wore that was even around the bottom is similar to what Riley mentions. There is a roundabout from the time period on display in the boys’ bedroom in Greenfield.

Dress worn by Riley as a child with period roundabout on the right at the Riley home in Greenfield, Indiana. In the 19th century boys often wore these kinds of small dresses until a transition to pants later on (author’s photo).

One aspect I find interesting here about this poem is its emphasis on behavior and social responsibility. It’s famous for its “gobble-uns” and Annie herself, but note the fate of the non-praying boy and the disrespectful girl, and then the admonition in the last stanza to respect teachers and parents, love those close to you and look out for the poor and dispossessed in society—including the orphan. I have to wonder if in some of her stories Mary Alice included such themes and if some came from misfortune she had encountered. It’s not unusual in the folk stories of childhood to have stories of monsters and other creatures punishing the misbehaving, but the last stanza with its reminders of obligation to elders, family and community stands out for me.

Artist and fellow Hoosier Will Vawtner illustrated a number of books and the Riley Home and Museum in Greenfield have some of his paintings. Here is his rendering of “Little Orphant Annie” (Source: Pinterest).

Drawing of Little Orphant Annie by Ethel Franklin Betts. (Image: Pinterest).

A quick typographical note about the poem: the last four lines of each stanza are commonly presented in moving in a diagonal pattern descending left to right. This effect is hard to recreate in the WordPress format, so I have let each line stay flush against the left hand margin. I have also included the dedication that appears in the version presented in The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley with preface by Donald Culross Peattie.




To all the little children:–The happy ones; and sad ones;
The sober and the silent ones: the boisterous and glad ones:
The good ones:Yes, the good ones, too: and all the lovely bad ones. 

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to day,
An’ wash the cups an saucers up, an brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, ‘an earn her board-an’-
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the moistest fun
A-list’nin to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you

Scene from “Little Orphant Annie” (1918) which also features the only known motion picture footage of Riley. It appears near the film’s beginning.

Wunst they wuz a little-boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
An when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby hole, an’
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:–
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you
Ef you

This photo by Elizabeth Brownell of a little girl was used to illustrate the poem “Little Orphant Annie” in a 1901 anthology entitled “Dream Children.” (Image: Pinterest).

An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;
An’ wunst, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks wuz there,
She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, ‘and said she didn’t care!
An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed
what she’s about!
‘An the Gobble-uns’ll git you
Ef you

Little Orphant Annie by Ethel Franklin Betts (Image: Pinterest).

An’ ‘little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parents an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you
Ef you

Little Orphant Annie by Ethel Franklin Betts. (Image: Pinterest).

Patrick Kerin


The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley, preface by Donald Culross Peattie. Grossett & Dunlap, New York, 1918, 1937.

The Best of James Whitcomb Riley edited by Donald C. Manlove, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982.

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

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