Hometown History

The Real Dorothy & The Wizard of Oz

July 01, 2020 Shane L. Waters
Hometown History
The Real Dorothy & The Wizard of Oz
Chapters
Hometown History
The Real Dorothy & The Wizard of Oz
Jul 01, 2020
Shane L. Waters

In the back of the sleepy old Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois, sits a tiny 122-year-old unremarkable stone. Buried here, nestled between two old bushes, rests a young 5 month-old little girl whose name is forever memorialized in one of the best-known stories in American Literature - The Wonderful Wizard of OZ.

A video was created of the making of this episode, you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/St92C6hMAMo


Show Notes Transcript

In the back of the sleepy old Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois, sits a tiny 122-year-old unremarkable stone. Buried here, nestled between two old bushes, rests a young 5 month-old little girl whose name is forever memorialized in one of the best-known stories in American Literature - The Wonderful Wizard of OZ.

A video was created of the making of this episode, you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/St92C6hMAMo


The year was 1850 in the United States, American Express was founded by Henry Wells and William Fargo, Los Angeles and San Francisco are incorporated as a cities in California, and in Bloomington, Illinois the Bloomington Cemetery was founded. 170 years after its founding, as you travel slightly south of the city center you enter the now Evergreen Memorial Cemetery on East Miller Street. 

This sleepy old cemetery has suffered from vandalism and deterioration over its many years, but today it's well looked after by the city of Bloomington. Among the permanent residents of Evergreen you’ll find 5 U.S. Representatives, a US Senator, the founder of Illinois State University, 2 Civil War Generals, a Major League Baseball player, and a Vice President of the United States. But if you go to the very back of the cemetery, no not near the back - but the back back - as far back as you can go. There you will find someone very very special. 

The small 122 year old unremarkable stone is severely weathered and worn. The words and markings on the stone have faded long long ago. Buried here, nestled next to an old bush, rests a young 5 month-old little girl whose name is forever memorialized in one of the best- known stories in American literature, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 

Dorothy Louise Gage was born too Sophie and Thomas Gage on June 11,1898 in Bloomington, Illinois. Little Dorthy’s father was the brother to Maud Baum, who the world knows as the wife to The Wonderful Wizard of OZ author Lyman Frank Baum. 

To better understand why and how little Dorothy’s uncle used her name in his book, you first have to get to know him and his background. 

Lyman Frank Baum, or better known as L. Frank Baum, or to his friends and family as Frank, was born on May 15, 1856 in New York. His father owned a barrel factory, which allowed him to live a rather comfortable childhood. Frank was named after his uncle, but chose to use his middle name as he wasn’t too fond of the name Lyman. 

Frank suffered from a heart condition, which later resulted in him leaving school at the Peekskill Military Academy, which he had entered when he was 12. He never graduated high school, instead he spent his time acting and writing for theater. 

Frank lead a decent career in journalism for a newspaper before starting to write children novels in his forties. He and his wife Maud married in 1882, after having their four sons he learned he had a real talent for storytelling after creating tales for his boys. Something also interesting is that Maud was the daughter of famed suffragist Matilda Gage - but more on that later. 

15 years after Frank married Maud, he published his first book for children titled Mother Goose in Prose. That was then followed by Father Goose, His Book (which became very popular at the time). Father Goose, His Book became the top-selling children’s book of 1899. 

Back to little Dorothy - when she was born in June of 1898, her aunt Maud fell in love with her. Maud and Frank had all sons, so when Dorothy came along she was someone very special to her. At the time they were living in Chicago - so little Dorothy was less than 3 hours away in Bloomington. 

By November of 1898, Frank was putting together the story Maud had been pushing him to write. This story is one he told his sons and their friends, which evolved and grew over time 

with each retelling. It was a fairytale story about a magical land and a little girl who wanted to return to her loving aunt. While putting his story to paper, with a wooden pencil he would later frame above his desk, little Dorothy died suddenly of what they called brain congestion at the time. 

Little Dorothy’s death devastated Maud, who traveled to her funeral on November 15th, 1898 in Bloomington. Frank, seeing his wife so devastated by the loss, decided to immortalize little Dorothy by naming the lead character in his book Dorothy. 

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which is sitting right in front of me as I read this - Frank writes “This book is dedicated to my good friend & comrade. My Wife.” 

Although I’ve seen the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, I will admit I have never read the book until creating this podcast. As I flip through the old pages of this first edition book published in 1900, I am pleasingly shocked by how well the illustrations are. Something that immediately catches my eye is that in all the illistrations, Dorothy is a very young little girl. Much younger than Judy Garland in the movie. 

After reading the book, some things stick out to me that I think may be worth mentioning. As I mentioned, Dorothy is a very young child, who lives with her loving aunt and uncle. After a cyclone rips Dorothy away from her aunt, she then is taken to a magical place and spends the rest of the book trying to get home to said aunt. I can’t help but wonder, did Frank base this book off little Dorothy being separated from his aunt, as was the case with little Dorothy of Bloomington and her aunt Maud? 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, in fact Frank took the first pages off the printer and bound them together as a gift for his sister. The public first saw the book at a book fair at the Palmer House in Chicago on July 5th, 1900. Book distribution started in September of that year, and within a month all of the first 10,000 books were sold and the second edition 15,000 books were nearing depletion. By the time the book enters the public domain in 1956, 3 million copies would be sold. 

Over the years Frank and his family did share some secrets about the book - such as many characters and ideas in the novel are based on Baum’s experiences. As a child Frank had reoccurring nightmares of a scarecrow chasing him in a field. Moments before the scarecrow’s “ragged hay fingers” gripped his neck, it would fall apart before his eyes. Tin Woodman was born from Frank’s attraction to window displays. He always wanted to make something captivating for the window displays, so he used an eclectic assortment of scraps to craft a striking figure. From a wash boiler he made a body, from bolted stovepipes he made arms and legs, and from the bottom of a saucepan he made a face. Frank then placed a funnel hat on the figure, which ultimately became the Tin Woodman. 

John D. Rockefeller was someone Frank’s father highly disliked, Rockefeller was seen as a greedy oil baron. It’s believed Frank used Rockefeller as inspiration for the Wizard’s scary persona. In the early 1880s, the Baum Opera House was consumed in flames from a flicker from a kerosene lantern during his play “Matches”. In the book the scarecrow shares his biggest terror: “ There is only one thing in the world I am afraid of. A lighted match.” 

While trying to come up with a name for the magical land Dorthy travels too, he sat back in his chair at looked at the filing cabinet. There were 3 drawers marked “A to G,” “H to N”, and “O to Z”.... And so Oz was born. 

So again I go back to my question - could Frank have based this book off of his niece dying and leaving her aunt? 

The introduction to the original book states: 

“...the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” 

One thing is certain, the person Frank dedicated the book to was his wife Maud, and Maud was experiencing heartache and a nightmare with the loss of her niece Dorothy. 

In the first chapter of the original edition of the book, Dorothy lives with her aunt and uncle, when she is suddenly ripped from them. The fairy tell explains how she goes to a magical land and desperately wants to get back to her loving and caring aunt. 

The final chapter of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is chapter 24. Home Again. 

Aunt Em had just come out of the house to water the cabbages when she looked up and saw Dorothy running toward her. “My darling child!” She cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her face with kisses. “Where in the world did you come from?” “From the Land of Oz,” said Dorothy gravely. “And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be at home again!”