Raggedy Ann's Tragic And Often Misunderstood Origin Story

Girl with Raggedy Ann doll. (Jodi Cobb/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

For much of the 20th century, Raggedy Ann was a childhood favorite, but it's also been the subject of dark rumors and conflicting origin stories. Just where did Raggedy Ann come from? Could she possibly have been, as some anti-vaccination activists have suggested, modeled after a dead child?

Rag Doll

According to legend, sometime between 1900 and 1902, Indianapolis landscape painter Johnny Gruelle was cleaning out his parents' attic when he happened upon a faceless rag doll that his mother had once made for his sister. Some variations of the story claim that it was his daughter, Marcella, who discovered the doll, but Gruelle's wife confirmed that her husband found it before their daughter was even born. She became its main beneficiary, however, after Gruelle painted a whimsical face onto the cloth and began making up adventurous stories about the doll to entertain Marcella.

Gruelle's Raggedy Ann design patented by United States Patent Office on Sept. 7, 1915. (Johnny Gruelle/Wikimedia Commons)

Raggedy Ann

At the dawn of the new year in 1915, Johnny Gruelle took the first steps to mass producing his rag doll and publishing its accompanying children's books. When it came time to name the doll on the patent application, Gruelle thought of his friend and neighbor, poet James Whitcomb Riley, and his two most famous poems, "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie," the latter of which later served as the inspiration for the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. The patent was approved on September 7, 1915, but the celebrations were cut short.

A Raggedy Ann 100-year edition doll. (Prisencolinensinainciusol/Wikimedia Commons)

The Death Of Marcella Gruelle

A popular myth holds that Marcella Gruelle died after she was vaccinated against smallpox without her parents' permission, which is technically true, but the 13-year-old died of diphtheria, not smallpox or any complications of the vaccine itself. It was a mandatory vaccination that was given to all students, which is why the school didn't seek parental approval, but the same needle was used over and over again for each student and, at some point, picked up the bacteria that causes diphtheria, which we now also have a vaccine to prevent. Of course, by the time Marcella Gruelle died in November 1915, her father had already created Raggedy Ann, so he couldn't have modeled it after his daughter's lifeless visage, as rumor has it.