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Darger, Henry (1892-1973)  
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Now considered one of the most original and important artists of the last half of the twentieth century, Henry Darger died completely unknown in his native Chicago. When he moved out of his one-room apartment on November 24, 1972 into an old folks home a few blocks away, his next door neighbor, who had been hired to clear out Darger's room, discovered over 300 canvases Darger had painted and the huge manuscripts of two novels and an autobiography that he had written.

The canvases, which depict naked little girls with penises (who, in many of the paintings, are being eviscerated, strangled, and crucified by adults), became synonymous with the man, causing critics who were unaware of their relevance to the gay subculture of the time to call Darger a pedophile, child killer, and sadist.

Darger's Life

Darger was born into utter poverty on April 12, 1892. His mother died in childbirth when he was four. Within a few years, his father, a failed, alcoholic tailor, had all but abandoned his parental responsibilities to the boy.

Growing up in one of the darkest and most desperate vice districts in Chicago, now the much-gentrified Near West Side, Darger became involved in male-male sexual activities early in life, admitting to the most significant one in his autobiography decades later. In it, he reported that, by the time he was eight years old, he had developed a relationship with an adult guard whom he visited late at night at the lumberyard where the man worked.

Unable or unwilling to check his son's sexual behavior, Darger's father sent the eight-year-old to live at the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, a priest-run home for boys. Instead of being protected there, he became even more involved in sexual activities. As one newspaper article at the time reported, after lights-out, the boys engaged in sexual activities with one another--some consensual, others coerced. Darger would later confess that, had he known what was going to happen to him at the Mission, he would have run away.

In 1904, the priests who ran the Mission grew tired of Darger's activities and told his father to send the boy elsewhere. He had the twelve-year-old confined to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois because the boy engaged in "self-abuse," a nineteenth-century euphemism for masturbation. At the time, physicians believed self-abuse was a symptom of homosexuality and even used it as a synonym for same-sex sexual activity.

Illinois' prisons had become so full that authorities sent adult convicts to live at the Asylum among what were called the "bright boys." These were children who, like Darger, had no mental disability, but were problems for their families and society. The convicts slept in the same dormitories as the boys, with no substantial supervision at night. In words that echo the summary of his life at the Mission, Darger stated that, had he been aware of what he would experience at the Asylum, he would have run away before being taken there.

After three attempts to run away, Darger successfully escaped the Asylum in 1909. Penniless, he walked nearly 170 miles back to Chicago. There he became a janitor at St. Joseph's Hospital on the Near North Side, the first of his many menial jobs--all mind-numbing, ten-hour (sometimes more) shifts with only a half-day, sometimes a full day, off per week--that he would have for the rest of his life.

In 1910, Darger began writing his first 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, and painting the canvases that would illustrate it.

The novel, which would not be completed until 1932, depicts a war between evil Gladelinians and godly Angelinians. Gladelinians have kidnapped millions of Angelinian children, forced them to work naked as slaves, and routinely crucified, strangled, and eviscerated them. After they are no longer useful as slave laborers, some become sex slaves.

Darger's other novel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, was written between 1932 and 1968, and also features the Vivian children as protagonists. In this novel, they attempt to exorcise a haunted house.

Set in 1911 in the neighborhood in which Darger spent his childhood, most of the six Vivians are involved in same-sex sexual relationships. One of the characters describes Angeline, the oldest of the Vivians, performing a live sex show naked with a group of other boys. Angeline and Joice, another of the Vivian childen, go on dates with adult men.

Near the end of Crazy House, Darger depicts a man named Bill and his friend who run into yet another Vivian "sister," Jennie, at a corner. As they pass her, Bill's buddy thinks she's a girl and begins to tell Bill how beautiful she is, but stops in mid-sentence. He has realized "she" is a cross-dressing "he" and expresses disgust. In contrast, however, Bill appreciates Jennie and comments about how alluring and beautiful "she" is. Bill is likely based on Darger's lover William Schloeder, whom he met in 1911.

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Henry Darger. Photo by David Berglund, c. 1970.
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