Little Orphant Annie

In the days before the explosion of technology light verse was ideal for Saturday-night recitations and standard fare for holiday festivities. Casey at the Bat, Plain Language from Truthful James and "Little Orphant Annie" were popular among those who prized pronouncing them in a variety of voices and different dialects. In fact, they're still fun on the right occasion to cast aside inhibitions and let the melodrama rip. Before long everybody’s smirking and maybe just a few think that poetry isn't so boring after all.

Backwoods beginnings

Known as the “Hoosier poet” it may not be too surprising to learn that as a student James Whitcomb Riley had spent some time during his school years studying another well know poet who used Scottish dialect Robert Burns. Born in Greenfield, Indiana Riley spent his early years working with a group of wandering painters and a patented medicine show eventually becoming a regular contributor of verse to Indiana newspapers. Riley’s popularity was derived largely from his quaint use of Hoosier dialect, a Hoosier being a native of Indiana. Originally writing under a pen name, "Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone" he appealed to the majority of people with his ordinary style and expressions. Many likened Riley to fellow contemporary author Mark Twain for his talented use of natural parlance. His dialect and use of the language, as well as his cheerful sense of humor fascinated people.

Deliciously dark

Although a bit gruesome "Little Orphant Annie" is a deliciously dark morality tale for kids. Overflowing with the nostalgia and warmth along with her own colorful commentary ‘Orphant Annie’ tells a terrifying tale of the consequences to disobedient and disrespectful children reminding them to "say our prayers", "help the poor and needy ones", and "cherish them that loves us". James Whitcomb Riley attributed his ghastly storyline to the family's hired girl. One source from the University of Indiana explains:

    The poem we familiarly call "Little Orphant Annie" was first printed in the Indianapolis Journal on November 15, 1885 as "The Elf Child." It appeared under that title in Character Sketches The Boss Girl, a Christmas Story and other Sketches published by the Bowen-Merrill Company in 1886. Orphaned during the American Civil War, Annie, whose name was actually Mary Alice Allie Smith, came to stay with the Riley family in Greenfield during the winter of 1862. She performed household chores in exchange for her room and board. Allie enchanted the Riley children with tales, warning of the goblins below the stairs. When next published Riley altered the title to "Little Ophant Allie," but a typesetting error turned Allie into Annie. Riley contacted his publisher about a correction, but upon being informed that the edition was selling extremely well, he decided to leave the error intact. Allie grew up, married a fellow named Grey, and moved to the Indiana town of Philadelphia. When she was 74 she visited the Greenfield home. It was not until she was in her 70's that she knew that she was the heroine of Riley's poem.

The picturesque tale of spooks and goblins in its Hoosier dialect made Riley one of the most well-liked and well off American poets of his day. As his popularity mounted Riley took to the road yet again, traveling around the country to perform his poems in many cities. By 1883, two collections of his poems were published, entitled The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems. Little Orphant Annie was at last published in hard print 1890 in an anthology titled Rhymes of Childhood striking a chord in many as to what the American Midwest was like in the years following the Civil War.

From celebrity to superstar

The mythology of the orphan was born in children's literature and popular culture. Its whimsical narrative style captures the imagination with an orphan storyline that has gone on to become a recurring theme in media today. In 1918 a black and white film by the same title was made. Surrounded by a group of children, the poet himself narrates the story of Little Orphant Annie, who loses her mother at an early age and is sent to an orphanage. Rated PG-13 Annie, played by Colleen Moore charms the other children with her stories of goblins and elves.

From tall tales to poetry to dolls. Patented in 1915 by Johnny Gruelle literary legends discuss that while…..”reaching for a volume of poetry behind his desk,” Johnny Gruelle leafed through several by poet and family friend, James Whitcomb Riley. Condensing the names of two of his favorites -- "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie" -- he asked, his daughter, "What if we call your new doll Raggedy Ann?"

Of course the most famous orphan of the 20th century is Little Orphan Annie. Beginning as a weekly newspaper comic strip published by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate in 1924 and created by Harold Gray. Several sources relate that Gray attributed the inspiration for his self-reliant, plucky and cheerful rags to riches character to Riley’s poem. Add to that the combination formula of her early origins in a Dickensian orphanage to Daddy Warbucks the results have been guaranteed Annie’s comic strip success.

In Riley's later life, Little Orphant Annie, The Raggedy Man," "When the Frost Is On the Punkin," and several more volumes of poetry attracted both national and international readers. He was honored as America's "Children's Poet," and in his home state he became known as "The Hoosier Poet." In 1913 a 6-volume collection of the complete works of this kind, wise poet of everyday Americans was published. James Whitcomb Riley died of a stroke three years later on July 22nd, United States President, Woodrow Wilson sent a note to the poet's family, saying Riley was
"...a man who imparted joyful pleasure and a thoughtful view of many things that other men would have missed."


Colleen Moore:


James Whitcomb Riley: The Hoosier Poet :

Lost Indiana's In Grave Condition: James Whitcomb Riley: html/crown_hill__riley.html

Outpost 10F - Poetry Guild - James Whitcomb Riley:

Public domain text taken from The Poet’s Corner:

The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie:

RPO -- James Whitcomb Riley : Little Orphant Annie:

CST Approved.

My father would recite poems at bedtime instead of reading books with us, like my mother did. He would turn off all the lights so we could listen better. In pajamas, clutching stuffed animals, we huddled together for protection. His voice in the daylight was scary, but the darkness made it worse. He should have been an actor instead of a math professor.

"Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley

1912 phonograph recording of the poet reading his poem

    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-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
    An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
    Ef 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
    Ef you

    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, an' 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

    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 parunts, an' yer teachurs 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

This particular poem always terrified me, mostly because I only pretended to pray (almost religiously), was afraid of the dark, of going to sleep, and of dying and going to Heaven. Plus at family gatherings, without meaning to, I "mocked 'em and shocked 'em, and didn't een care".

It was made worse by my father explaining the background of the poet and the convoluted story of the poem, originally titled "The Elf Child" after a girl named Mary Alice. I always knew that my mother had lost a baby at birth, named Mary, born before me, though my father never talked about her until he was dying, almost eighty years later. Since Hell seemed rather an absurd place, even as a child, and Heaven not much better (who wants to be anywhere for ETERNITY ?); I guess I was afraid of being nowhere. Snatched away, like the Lindbergh baby, who everyone talked about, which explains my lifelong fear of ladders.

a part of The Nodegel from Yuggoth: The 2011 Halloween Horrorquest

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