HENRY DARGER (1892-1973) was a reclusive hospital janitor and dishwasher who led a secret life as a prolific visual artist and epic novelist. His vast collection of creative work was discovered in 1972 when his two-room apartment in Chicago was cleared out shortly before he died. Over some 350 watercolor, pencil, collage and carbon-traced drawings, most of them stitched into three enormous "albums," as well as seven typewritten hand-bound books, thousands of bundled sheets of typewritten text, and numerous journals, ledgers and scrapbooks were discovered.
Darger's unpublished 15,000-page typewritten fantasy novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion — or, for short, In the Realms of the Unreal — and its 8,500-page handwritten sequel of sorts, Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago, were the sagas upon which he based several hundred panoramic "illustrations," many of them double-sided and more than 9 feet in length.
Sometime between 1910 and 1912, when he was 18 to 20 years old, Darger began writing his epic saga in longhand, and fashioning visual portraits of its leading characters. He started typing the story in 1916, in 1932, he embarked on the task of hand-binding the first seven volumes. Clearly, Darger found the arrangement of his last volumes a daunting task, for the remaining seven or eight volumes were left unbound in separate bundled stacks, and the placement or order of several of them is somewhat questionable.
The author, who wrote himself into the saga as both a savior and betrayer of these child-victims, was himself the real-life victim of a tragic and miserable childhood.
He was born on April 12, 1892, at 350 W. 24th Street in Chicago. At the age of 4, Darger lost his mother, Rosa Darger (nee Fullman, 1862-1896) when she gave birth to his baby sister, who was put up for adoption.
His earliest recollections of interacting with neighborhood children ranged from getting into fights with other boys to throwing ashes in the eyes of one little girl. He later wrote in The History of My Life that when he grew older, he came to love young children and would do anything to protect them.
He freely admitted: "I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always." And so he remained, at least psychologically, for the rest of his life. Emotionally arrested in pre-adolescence, Darger pined for the days of his early youth.
Darger's father, Henry Joseph Darger Sr. (1840-1908), a tailor by trade, taught his son to read the newspaper and when it came time for him to enter school, he was promoted from the first to the third grade because of his reading ability. Darger Sr. became lame around 1900, could no longer take care of his boy and was admitted into St. Augustine's Home for the Aged at Fullerton and Sheffield Avenues. At age 8, young Darger was placed in the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic orphanage and boys home at 1138 W. Jackson Blvd., which was where he first earned the nickname "Crazy," and attended Skinner Elementary school, 1260 W. Adams.
Darger's father reported that his son was exceptionally intelligent, but also exceptionally "peculiar." At the age of 12, his father and Dr. Otto Schmidt signed the papers that would have him sent downstate to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. The reason stated on his admission papers was "self abuse," or excessive indulgence in masturbation. The Lincoln Asylum held the notorious reputation of being one of the most corrupt and scandalous institutions of its time. While residing at what he later referred to as "that childrens [sic] nuthouse," he suffered various forms of physical, emotional and, very likely, sexual abuse.
When he was 17, and still living at the asylum, his father died, precipitating a number of attempts to run away from the institution between 1908 and 1909. On his first attempt, he was caught and returned. His second attempt resulted in him giving himself up to the police and returning again. His third and final try was successful and he arrived at his godmother's residence in Chicago some time afterward.
Darger was hired as a floor janitor at St. Joseph's Hospital, Burling and Dickens, where he also lived from 1909 to 1922.
Darger had a couple of boyhood chums when he was at the asylum, but as an adult he had only one true friend: a Luxembourg immigrant by the name of William Schloeder. They probably met sometime during Darger's first few years back in Chicago. Darger and Schloeder would go together to the Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western Avenues, and Darger was a frequent guest in Schloeder's home where he lived with his mother and several sisters. Their friendship was so close that Darger even wrote his buddy — as he had himself —into his Realms saga. When Schloeder relocated to Texas and died shortly thereafter, in 1959, Darger took it very hard.
In 1917, Darger was drafted into the army and sent to Camp Logan, Texas. It was not a situation he was comfortable with and was honorably discharged a short time later for eye trouble. The only military actions he was truly interested in pursuing were the ones in his imagination. He had been fascinated with the American Civil War since his early youth used it as a model of sorts for his Realms saga, as well as bringing in many aspects of World War I, which was being waged during the first years he was writing his novel.
In 1922, Darger quit his job and left his residence at St. Joseph's hospital because of his intense dislike of an autocratic nun, Sister De Paul. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as a dishwasher at Grant Hospital, on the corner of Lincoln and Webster, and moved to his first apartment at 1035 Webster Avenue in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. In 1932, after fearing that a new landlord might install a still for making illegal liquor in his building, Darger relocated to a boardinghouse two blocks away. He was terrified by the notion that the still might explode while he was living there.
The boardinghouse at 851 Webster was owned by Police Captain Walter Gehr. Darger lived on the third floor in a large single room with a smaller attached room. He shared a bathroom with three other residents. Gehr's daughter, Mary Catherine (now O'Donnell) who was born in 1936, and her little brother, grew up in the boardinghouse and often saw Darger. They would sneak into his room sometimes and look at the toys and paints on his table, as well as the pictures of children that covered his walls — especially the works of original art containing figures of little girls. Capt. Gehr was not alarmed, however, and simply thought Darger was shell-shocked war veteran. After all, that would likely explain why Darger always wore the same old army coat year after year, why he was a reclusive loner, and why he didn't like Mary Catherine or her brother snooping around in his room, and touching his things.
Darger never had any visitors, but guests of the Gehr family, as well as the other three tenants who lived in the boardinghouse, would remark about hearing all sorts of people conversing behind Darger's closed door. However, all those people were just Henry — who was a superb mimic — reenacting and possibly amending exchanges that took place that day or earlier in his life. Mary Catherine and her brother would often sit on the stairway leading up to the third floor landing and listen to him speaking in strange voices and dialects.
Darger had other unusual habits. He attended Catholic mass three or four times a day at St. Vincent DePaul Church, located nearby at 1010 W. Webster. He avoided talking to people, but if addressed, he would sometimes speak in nonsense syllables or mutter something about the weather, and then dash away. His room was piled knee-deep in detritus, such as old discarded honey containers and Pepto-Bismol bottles, as well as materials that he foraged from trash-hunts through the back alleys of Chicago: old bundled-up newspapers and magazines, which he read voraciously (and from which he derived the figures and images used in his carbon-traced art works); balls of twine; collections of busted rubber bands that he "repaired"; and numerous pairs of broken eye glasses. He kept a large stash of bricks under his mattress, presumably in case he was attacked. He would ritually intone "ah-bah-suh-duh" in a deep voice before entering the bathroom. He also claimed to be from Brazil and because of that, he once explained, he rarely took a bath.
Darger was asked to resign from his job at Grant Hospital by a new supervisor in 1936. He wrote in his memoire that he did not remember the reason given to him as to why he was asked to leave, but he surmised that it was because he had been friendly with the previous supervisor, who was the new one's rival. He was then rehired at St. Joseph's Hospital as a dishwasher.
In 1947, Darger was let go at St. Joseph's because the work had become too difficult for him. He was then hired at Alexian Brothers Hospital, at Belden and Racine, as a dishwasher, but transferred to the bandage room in 1951.
Darger began keeping the first of six weather journals on Dec. 31, 1957. Always fascinated by the weather, he reported on it almost daily from first-hand observations until Dec. 31, 1967.
Leg pains forced him to leave his job at Alexian Brothers and retire in 1963. It was at some point after this that he began writing The History of My Life. It is a selective history at best. There were many things he left out, such as his frustration at not being allowed to adopt a child and, most conspicuously, the writing of his magnum opus, In the Realms of the Unreal. After documenting his memories for some 200 pages, he then launched into a fictitious story about a tornado named "Sweetie Pie" that occupied the remaining 5,000 pages.
Darger was struck by automobile in 1969 and suffered an injury to his left leg and hip. This, in addition to previous problems with his legs, made it even more difficult for him to climb the stairs. One could clearly discern that a trail of wallpaper above the stairway leading up to the third floor landing had been worn away where he leaned against it for support as he climbed.
In 1972, he asked his new landlord, Nathan Lerner, to arrange for him to move to a nursing home, since he could no longer negotiate the stairs. He was admitted late that year to the St. Augustine's Home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor— the very same nursing home in which his father passed away.
Shortly after Darger moved out, Lerner asked one of his tenants, David Berglund, to help clear out Darger's belongings from the room he had occupied. After hauling away two truckloads of trash, Berglund came upon Darger's artwork and writings. He told Lerner — an artist himself who immediately recognized its importance — and as they began to examine it, their awe and amazement grew.
Darger had been keeping a diary of day-to-day activities from March 28, 1968 through Jan. 1, 1972. The last page of his diary is dated a little over a year before he died. Now, too crippled and exhausted to rant about his problems in his diary, and removed from the private world associated with his boardinghouse room, he ceased all written, artistic or verbal communication, and withdrew into himself completely at the nursing home. When Berglund visited Darger at the nursing home shortly before his death and mentioned the discovery of his artwork, Darger was jolted out of his reverie long enough to say, "Too late now."
Darger died the day after his 81st birthday in 1973 and was buried in a pauper's grave at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, IL. Later, Nathan Lerner purchased a more fitting gravestone to mark the site.
Darger was virtually unknown at the time of his death, but in the last quarter of the 20th century, and particularly in the early years of the 21st, his work has become part of museum collections in Chicago, New York, Paris, and Lausanne and his name is one that is now recognized throughout the world.
— Michael Bonesteel