Mary Alice Smith, c. 1863
Here’s how the iconic character of pop culture, now the subject of the Broadway revival of “Annie” started out.
The original Orphan Annie wasn’t exactly an orphan, and actually her name wasn’t even Annie. She was a little girl named Mary Alice Smith, whose mother had died shortly after her birth, and who was sent by her father to live with his mother. When the grandmother became too ill to care for her, she was sent to live with her uncle, John Rittenhouse. This arrangement, however, was not satisfactory as the uncle had a large family, little money, and could ill afford another mouth to feed. So, in November of 1861, the first year of the Civil War when Mary Alice was barely eleven years old, she went to live with the Reuben Riley family. It’s not clear what the relationship between the Riley family and the Rittenhouses was, but a bargain was struck: John Rittenhouse was relieved of the responsibility of Mary Alice, and Mary Alice would help Mrs. Riley with the chores and the care of the Riley children. One of those children was James Whitcomb Riley, who would become one of the most beloved American poets of the 19th century.
James Whitcomb Riley
Mary Alice stayed with the Riley family for only about a year before she was bounced about once again, but she left an indelible impression on the poet. Riley remembered Mary Alice as an elfish child, a little enchantress who gathered the children around her and told them scary stories. Such stories are part of the treasure of children’s folklore, passed on to children by children for nobody knows since when. Children love to be scared to death when they know they are really safe. Scary stories serve to help children handle fear by experiencing it in a protected environment. You probably remember such stories from your own childhood. Remember the one about the baby sitter and the killer on the telephone extension? No? How about the couple parked in lovers’ lane who heard on the car radio that a maniac had escaped from the asylum? How about the baby sitter on drugs who baked the baby instead of the turkey? Well, you get the idea. It was this genre of tale that Mary Alice told the Riley children around the fireside after her chores were done.
In 1885, Riley wrote what is perhaps his most well remembered poem. He called it “The Elf Child.” It was so popular it went through two editions. When the third edition was in preparation he decided to retitle the poem “Little Orphant Allie,” but the typographer, misreading Riley’s handwriting and possibly unfamiliar with the nickname “Allie,” set it as ‘Little Orfant Annie.”
This was a time when people of all walks of life read poetry with pleasure, and children of all ages memorized and recited poems in speech contests and festivals. “Little Orfant Annie” was one of the most popular. Like much of Riley’s poetry, it was written in Hoosier dialect.
For most people today, a little of Riley’s poetry goes a long way. But here are the first two verses of “Little Orfant Annie.”
Little Orphant Annie
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An ‘shoo 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;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-listin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll gits you
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’press,
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
Boyhood home of James Whitcomb Riley
If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you can visit James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield, Indiana. There you’ll see Mary Alice’s little attic room, the clothespress referred to in the poem and the fireside where the little orphan girl told her tales to the wide-eyed Riley children.