Little Orphan Mary Alice

Once upon a time portions of a girl’s life was memorialized in a famous poem. Later on –– due to a typesetter’s error – her misspelled name was used as the moniker of two iconic fictional characters.

Mary Alice Smith was born in Union County, Indiana on September 25, 1850. Legend has it that she became an orphan at age twelve, when her father died, but recent research suggests her father either would not or could not care for his daughter. Whether or not she was an orphan, it became necessary for young Mary Alice to find a local family to take her in so she could work to earn her board and keep.

Fortunately she went to stay at the farm of Reuben Riley, where she was treated well. Mary Alice, who was called Allie, was assigned kitchen chores, plus she helped care for the family’s four children. During the evening hours she’d sit by the fireplace and entertain the family with stories about ghosts and goblins. She told moral tales, warning about the bad things that happen to children who don’t obey their parents.

One of the children Allie cared for grew up to be a writer who specialized in dialect poetry, written to mimic the way rural Hoosier (Indiana) residents spoke. In 1885 James Whitcomb Riley published a poem entitled The Elf Child, about an “orphant” girl who came to “wash the cups an’ saucers, an’ brush the crumbs away.” After the supper dishes were done the girl would tell witch-tales and declare that “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

When the poem was to be republished in a book Riley changed the title to Little Orphant Allie, but, though the typesetter had no trouble with Riley’s spelling of “orphant” or “Gobble-uns,” “Allie” was too much for him. He felt the girl’s name was misspelled, so he changed the poem’s title to Little Orphant Annie. The error upset Riley, who demanded a correction in future printings, but he was told the book was selling well, and changing the name of a popular poem would cause confusion, so Riley resigned himself to his heroine having the wrong name.

In about 1915 another Hoosier writer by the name of Johnny Gruelle came upon an old handmade rag doll which became the inspiration for a manufactured toy, plus a series of children’s stories. He needed a name for his doll character, so he picked up a volume of James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry and combined parts of two poem titles, The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie, to create the name of Raggedy Ann.

in 1924 a cartoonist created a comic strip about an orphan girl. That orphan didn’t live with a farm family – she started out in an orphanage, and ended up having adventures in all parts of the world. For some reason the comic strip was titled Little Orphan Annie.

You may wonder what became of the real “orphant Allie” who went to live with the Riley family. in 1868 eighteen-year-old Mary Alice Smith married John Wesley Gray, and spent the next 54 years as a farmer’s wife. She lived in a cabin, and gave birth to four daughters.

For many years she was not aware that her story was told in Riley’s poem. How she found out depends on what story you read. One version has it that Riley’s secretary came to her home and told her. Another story is that Riley came to visit her, and invited her to take part in one of his speaking / poetry-reading tours. And one story has it that, shortly before Riley died in 1916, he placed newspaper ads seeking the whereabouts of the girl who had come to stay with his family. Mrs. March, one of Mary Alice Gray’s daughters, saw one of the ads and wrote to the poet, but due to his poor health Riley was unable to be reunited with Mrs. Gray.

However it was that Mary Alice Gray learned she had been the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie the knowledge pleased her, and she was proud of her connection with the former local boy who became famous. On October 7, 1922 she took part in laying the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Mrs. Gray outlived three of her daughters, and when her husband died in 1922 she went to stay with her one remaining daughter, Mrs. Marsh. She passed away in her sleep on March 7, 1924, at the age of 73. Newspapers across the country reported that Little Orphant Annie had died. Six months after her death the comic strip Little Orphan Annie began its 86-year run. (The comic was created by Harold Gray, who was not related to Mary Alice Gray.)

If you would like to read the poem about an orphan girl who helps with kitchen chores and tells stories about goblins, you can download it free of charge at:

(There’s a poem about the poem before you get to Little Orphant Annie.)