Henry Darger

A close-up from one of three known photographs of Darger. A close-up from one of three known photographs of Darger.

Henry Darger was born in Chicago in 1892. Just before his fourth birthday, his mother died from an infection incurred after the birth of a baby girl who was presumably given up for adoption. He lived with his father, a tailor, until 1900, when he was placed in The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, a Catholic institution for young boys. Darger attended a public school during this period, and was apparently highly intelligent with a particular interest in the Civil War. But after evincing signs of behavioral problems and on the recommendation of several medical evaluations, he was sent to live in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. The asylum housed 1,500 children, many of whom were severely developmentally disabled, and there is no doubt that he received only a rudimentary education during the years that he lived there. After his father died in 1905, Darger made several attempts to escape from the asylum, and in 1909 at age 17, he succeeded. He returned to Chicago for the remainder of his life and worked in various hospitals.

The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy

The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy

Darger lived a solitary life and attended several masses each day at a Catholic church near his home. In 1930, he rented a single large room he inhabited until he became too weak to climb the stairs. He went to live in the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Elderly, coincidentally, the same home where his father had died years before. Shortly after Darger left his apartment, his landlord Nathan Lerner discovered the hand-bound volumes of Darger's literary and artistic works among the clutter Darger had accumulated over the years. Within six months of leaving his apartment and one day after his 81st birthday, Henry Darger died.

Darger later in life. Darger later in life.

Henry Darger's artistic creation is essentially literary in conception. Even the paintings -- illustrations for the text -- were originally bound into three huge volumes. Darger began to write his epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, around 1910. He wrote first in longhand on legal-sized paper, but started retyping the story well before it was finished. Darger continued to work on In the Realms of the Unreal for many years. When he was finished, the typewritten manuscript was 15,145 pages and contained in 13 volumes. The detailed descriptions of military engagements were heavily influenced by Darger's knowledge of the American Civil War, and he chronicled the flags, maps and officers in separate journals. Darger also kept various journals that reflected his deep interest in the weather and fires. In one journal, Darger noted weather conditions on a daily basis for years. A little-known second novel revisits the Vivian Girls. In 1963, ten years before his death, Darger embarked on an autobiography that filled eight volumes, The History of My Life.

Also in Special Features: Take an interactive audio tour of a selection of Henry Darger's works ».