James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet who grew up in Greenfield, has been celebrated as one of the most popular and prolific writers of his time. As local historians celebrate the coming release of a documentary on Riley’s life, they shared a few fun facts with the Daily Reporter.
Famous family: His father, Reuben, was the first mayor of Greenfield.
Varied interests: Riley wasn’t just a poet. He held several different jobs throughout his life, including musician, sign painter and graphic artist. He could play the guitar, banjo, violin, bass and snare drums.
Prolific poet: He wrote more than 1,000 poems and more than 90 different books.
Familiar face: Riley performed at the White House for every president from Benjamin Harrison to Woodrow Wilson.
Community support: The statue of Riley that stands before the Hancock County Courthouse was funded by pennies donated by school children across the country.
Art imitating life: At least two of Riley’s famous characters are based on real people: “Little Orphant Annie” was really named Mary Alice Smith; and “the Raggedy Man” and “the Hired Girl” were based on hired help who worked at the Riley house.
Ongoing issue: Riley suffered from alcoholism throughout his life, a struggle he referenced in the poem, “Tom Johnson’s Quit.”
Death date: He died the same year as Indiana’s centennial, 1916.
Favorite spots: The “Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole” Riley wrote about was Brandywine Creek, which runs through Riley Park in Greenfield.
Military honor: A World War II-era Liberty Ship, dubbed the SS James Whitcomb Riley, served with the United States Maritime Commission from 1942 to 1971.
Mistake made: “Little Orphant Annie” was really meant to be “Little Orphant Allie,” but a typesetter’s error forever changed the name of the character.
Sources: James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum; “James Whitcomb Riley, A Life”