“Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay, An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away.” With those lines, James Whitcomb Riley introduced a character that would take a prominent spot in 20th-century American culture. Riley, best remembered as “The Hoosier Poet,” and “The Children’s Poet” published “The Elf-Child” in The Indianapolis Journal in 1885. The four-stanza poem later dubbed “Little Orphant Annie” is a morality tale in dialect, recounting woeful ends met by mischievous children. The servant girl who spins these tales is the eponymous “Little Orphant Annie,” the misspelling meant to reflect rural Hoosier speech of the day. Riley took seriously the task of recording the language he heard in his Hancock County surroundings, often locking horns with editors to let stand a particular local expression or irregular spelling. Along with Joel Chandler Harris (author of Uncle Remus Stories), and Edward Eggleston (who wrote The Hoosier Schoolmaster), as well as Mark Twain, Riley helped carve the genre of American dialect literature in the late 19th century.
The character of Annie was drawn from a young girl named Mary Alice “Allie” Smith, who worked at the Riley home in Greenfield for room and board, and enthralled the six Riley children with her ghost stories. Mary Alice Smith Gray was already an elderly woman, unaware that she had been the inspiration for Riley’s famous character, until the poet tracked her down and brought her along on his speaking tours. The legacy of “Little Orphant Annie,” however, has outlived both the poet and his muse. A comic strip of the same name created by Harold Gray debuted in 1924, and continues, off and on, to the present. The Raggedy Ann doll, which appeared in 1918, was said to have taken its source from “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man,” another of Riley’s poems. The Broadway musical Annie , also based on Riley’s character, ran from 1977 to 1983; the film Annie came out in 1982.