What's hidden in a Chicago janitor's room?

Learn about one of the most interesting representatives of 'outsider art' — Henry Darger


Year 1971. An old man in a worn-out jacket sits on the stairs of his house on Webster Avenue in Chicago. The photographer probably took this photo for lack of more interesting material, as it only shows an unremarkable janitor from the Catholic Hospital, who is known to constantly talk to himself and collect garbage along with old newspapers.

At the same time, only a year or so separates this photo from the day the man would leave his room to spend his last days in the St. Augustine's Home for the Aged. Soon afterwards, the landlord, entering his room, will find — next to a collection of discarded shoes, threads and a few icons — tens of thousands of pages and hundreds of drawings by one of the most interesting representatives of "outsider art" — Henry Darger.

It's hard to say much about Darger's life. Early left without anyone to take care of, growing up in an orphanage, transfer to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, two escape attempts, the last of which was successful, 54 years of working as a janitor in a Chicago hospital, death. At least, this is how people saw his biography during his lifetime, because Darger tried to compensate for his outwardly unremarkable existence in the real world by creating an imaginary world. This world was called "The Realms of the Unreal," as described in his 15145-page illustrated novel entitled 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.

The Realms of the Unreal is an epic of the war between the Christian country of Abbieannia and the slave-owning invaders, the Glandelinians. The story focuses on the lives of the seven daughters of Robert Vivian, a Christian, who take part in an uprising against the invaders. However, Darger was not always a merciful creator in his world, so the battle scenes in the novel sometimes end with bloodsheds and enslavement of children from Abbieannia.

henry-darger collage

His main source of inspiration was Elsie Paroubek, a five-year-old girl who was brutally murdered in a neighboring town in 1911. This attitude toward children in society at the time (remember that the laws regulating child labor did not appear in the US until the 1930s) was an important factor in making the theme of children and violence against them a central one in Darger's work. In addition to founding the Children's Protective Society with his (almost only) friend William Schloeder, Darger also sought to protect children in his fictional world, which is why the girls in his illustrations often hold guns and throw grenades at invaders.


Due to his inability to draw, Darger used newspaper clippings and templates in his illustrations, which he colored and adjusted. Probably the most important was the photograph of Elsie Paroubek, from which the author drew inspiration. However, one day Darger lost her photo. The murder had happened a long time ago, and he could no longer find the issue of the newspaper that reported on the crime. The only way out for Darger, who had almost no friends, was to turn to God. After several attempts to beg for the return of the photo, the writer turned to blackmail. In a special notebook reserved for "communication" with God, Darger wrote that if the photo was not returned, Christians from the "Realms of the Unreal" would suffer. It is likely that Darger's requests remained unanswered, because many of the scenes and illustrations in the book are filled with the deaths of little girls cut out of newspaper comic strips.

darger hands image

Eternal "bargaining" with God, compensating for the cruelties of the real world with the cruelties of the imaginary world, recording "never had a good Christmas in all my life" in his diary the day before his death, childhood trauma and a huge but little-known artistic legacy — all this characterizes Henry Darger, a protector of children and their murderer.