“Toto, I Don’t Believe We’re in Illinois Anymore:” L. Frank Baum’s Chicago Connection

In October of 2016, the Smithsonian Museum of American History began a Kickstarter campaign to raise money toward the conservation of Dorothy’s ruby slippers that were used in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. The slippers in the museum are one of several pairs made for the movie. While I was familiar with the story of The Wizard of Oz, having seen the movie as a child, the Kickstarter campaign made me want to learn more about the author of the original novel, L. Frank Baum.

Much to my surprise, I found that L. Frank Baum (the L stands for Lyman) lived in Chicago with his wife, Maude Gage Baum while he wrote the novel that would become The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. During this time, his niece, Dorothy Gage was born in Bloomington, Illinois. Since the Baums had no daughters of their own, they visited the Gage family often until, five months from the day of her birth, Dorothy died from swelling in her brain. Seeing his wife so saddened by Dorothy’s death, Baum named his novel’s protagonist Dorothy as a way to comfort Maud. So Dorothy Gage from Illinois became Dorothy Gale from Kansas.

Upon its release in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a success and in short time sold ten thousand copies. The book became so popular that Baum eventually wrote thirteen more novels set in Oz. The first novel was the basis for a Broadway musical and the classic 1939 movie. As early as 1922, two years after Baum’s last Oz book was published, other authors began writing their own stories set in Oz. This trend continued throughout the decades that followed. Perhaps the best known is Gregory Maguire’s series geared toward adults that began with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Despite the popularity of the novel and the movie, Dorothy Gage and her connection to the story remained largely unknown until 1996. In that year, scholar Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner discovered Dorothy’s grave while conducting research on the Gage family. Upon learning that the grave had worn down with age, Mickey Carroll, an actor who had appeared as a Munchkin in the movie, created a new headstone at his family’s cemetery monument-making company. He also restored the original headstone as much as possible. The new headstone was dedicated in October 1997.

-Emily Bereiter

Taylor, Troy. Weird Illinois: Your Travel Guide to Illinois’ Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling Publishing Co, 2005.

L. Frank Baum is featured in the American Writers Museum Children’s Literature Gallery. Learn more here.

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