James Whitcomb Riley

Born: October 7, 1849
Died: July 22, 1916


Although Riley was born in Greenfield, he had many friends in Anderson and spent a good deal of time here. As a young man, he traveled summers with Dr. S. B. McCrillus, a local medicine man. Riley painted signs for McCrillus and helped put on a show in the towns where they stopped to sell medicine.

When Riley came to town to work as a reporter for the Anderson Democrat, he was familiar with the city. During this period he began to write seriously. The poetry flowed from his pen onto the news columns.

The face of the Democrat took on a whole new look. An aspiring artist named Samuel Richards cleverly illustrated Riley's poems. Even advertisements for local retail stores and businesses were set to rhyme.

Riley "hung out" with the newspapermen at the hotel in the evenings, where he was frequently teased about the quality of his poetry by the editor of the rival Herald. One night, during a discussion about writing, he told the group that any poem by a well-known author would be immediately accepted because of the author's celebrity alone. To prove his point, he wrote a poem, "Leonainie", in the style of Edgar Allen Poe and sent it to a newspaper friend in Kokomo, who was in on the joke. The poem drew national attention and even drew praise from his critical editor. When an authority on Poe wanted to see the manuscript, some friends of Riley's created a hand-written poem on the flyleaf of an old book. However, the fraud was discovered.

Riley was fired and went home to Greenfield in disgrace. The incident embittered him; however, it also provided his career with the boost it needed. He was able to find an audience and command the attention of editors. His road to riches, fame and respect had begun.

For many years, Riley refused to return to Anderson. He said "They don't like me there." He was finally persuade to include the city on his lecture tour in 1903. Ten years later, Riley was the guest of honor at the "Made in Anderson" trade show celebrating Anderson's manufacturing prowess during the Gas Boom Era.

--Adapted from Anderson: A pictorial history by Esther Dittlinger (1990)