Howdy pilgrims, and welcome to America! Gaze into our mysterious land where gun ownership is a basic human right and pizzas are vegetables. We'll try to take the sting off your suffering by reminding you of all the times where fantastic art has hovered at the crossroads of death. So cheer up. There's 10 million square km in the U.S. That's more than enough room to bury your ass.
The five year old girl was wearing a red dress over her black stockings as she floated facedown in a canal. It was Chicago, 1911.
The girl went missing a month earlier. They said the last time anyone saw her she was trotting alongside an unidentified and supremely creepy-to-imagine "organ grinder" on a deserted street. In my mind I can see her being led away, powerless from the arcane vexations of that timeless pied piper.
The next day the hunt for little Elsie Paroubek began and it was an extraordinary production. The usual suspects were questioned. The Chicago waterways were dragged. Soon a tip surfaced that she had been spirited away by an encampment of roaving Gypsies because of "the natural love of the wandering people for blue-eyed, yellow haired children". Apparently this was a legitimate concern of the time, being that they brought in a specialist to assist with investigation. And that specialist was an eleven year old girl who'd escaped being kidnapped and brainwashed by Gypsies only a few years earlier. She helped as she could.
While Elsie's distraught father, Frank, combed the countryside in search of the fabled King of the Gypsies to barter the return of his daughter, his wife Karolina was left behind to consult with a psychic who pointed her in the direction of Wisconsin.
The fantastic efforts to locate Elsie began to take on a life of their own. Huge search parties were organized, Gypsy caravans were surveilled, the river was continuously monitored... Elsie's six year old brother even dragged a shovel out into the street and started digging, looking for her in his own way. There were trolls in 1911. Frank received inflammatory letters saying that he deserved what he got, which infuriated him. Mostly because the letters were in English and he couldn't read them. So he torched them.
Did a ransom letter come? Possibly. If so it wasn't broadcasted.
With great effort the storied Gypsy King was finally reached and questioned but was of no import. His subjects had not been involved. This left only the miscreants and low-lives of the family's Chicago neighborhood where police said she was most likely "slain by some degenerate".
One suspected pedophile was questioned by police and subsequently hurled himself under an oncoming train. Another loner described as a "religious enthusiast" fled away into the woods when called on by investigators. He never returned.
When Elsie's body was finally found floating in the water the dogged head inspector drooped and commented "There seems to be no doubt that she was abused in the most fiendish way."
While Karolina professed of an intuitive clairvoyance that her daughter had been abused, strangled and dumped in the river, Frank vowed to hunt the perpatrator until the day he died. And he did, succumbing two years later while still in his forties. It's a hard luck life in Chi-town. With the death of Karolina in 1927 the story of her daughter's disppearance fell into obscurity.
Absolutely no one knows what happened to Elsie Paroubek.
Cut to 1973. A weird, bent man lies dying in a room in Chicago. It's his 81st birthday. A neighbor comes to his bedside. "Henry," he says. "We've seen some of your artwork in your room. It's beautiful."
The neighbors are about to make Henry Darger ridiculously famous and bring into the public eye the secret art project on which he'd worked for sixty years, "In The Realms Of The Unreal".
It starred Elsie Paroubek in literary form. And it is the longest fictional story ever written.
Darger had lived in the slums and the asylums of Chicago most of his life. A loner and a hermit, he was obssessed with children and had been 19 years old when Elsie met her fate. A newspaper photograph he kept of her was instrumental in the creation of his enormous body of work. Posthumously his paintings hang in galleries from Paris to Tokyo.
Was Darger involved in the disappearance? He attended Mass multiple times a day and was a "religious enthusiast" by all measures. It's possible. His proclivity for drawing prepubescent girls engaging in torture and war seems to give you a glimpse into his inner most desires.
"It's beautiful.", the neighbor had told him. He'd been one of the first people to see anything Darger had created.
"Too late now.", Henry said, and died the next day taking whatever secrets he kept with him.
Elsie Paroubek is buried at the Bohemian National Cemetery in Illinois. Her headstone reads "Tragic victim of Chicago safety and human urges".
If in Chicago, experience the rebuilt room where Henry Darger lived out his artistry at http://www.art.org/henry-darger-room-collection/
Good Murder America is an uplifting monthly feature about the crossroads of death and art in the USA. www.MagiciansHouse.com