When Henry Darger died in 1973, at the age of 81, he left behind one of the most imposing pieces of outsider art ever produced—his 15,145-page, self-illustrated magnum opus, variously known as The Story of the Vivian Girls; In the Realms of the Unreal; or 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. In the years since, it has been recognized as one of the most important works ever produced by a self-taught artist.
So, what does this have to do with the 1911 kidnapping and murder of a young girl? Plenty, it turns out. While Darger was working on his massive tome, he was collecting newspaper clippings, photographs, and other pieces of ephemera as inspiration, some of which he actually collaged into his work. Among those was a picture that he had clipped from the Chicago Daily News—a picture that art historians believe was of young Elsie Paroubek, whose 1911 abduction and murder had occupied the attention of newspapers and authorities alike at the time.
Darger lost the photograph in question, and since he wasn’t able to remember the girl’s name or the precise date, he was unable to find another. This, according to art historian Michael Bonesteel, found its way into Darger’s great work in the form of Annie Aronburg, a leader of the child slave rebellion, who is captured and murdered by her foes. In the sprawling epic, an inspiring picture of Aronburg is lost and there is a desperate struggle to find it.
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The real-life Elsie Paroubek was the daughter of Czech immigrants living in Chicago in 1911. One day, when she was four or five years old, young Elsie departed her parents’ home on Albany Avenue, saying that she was going around the corner to visit her mother’s sister. Along the way, Elsie apparently encountered her nine-year-old cousin, and the two joined some other children in watching an organ grinder. When the other children moved off, Elsie stayed behind—and was never seen alive again.
When Elsie’s mother went to her sister’s house several hours later and learned that the child had never arrived, she initially hoped that Elsie had simply stopped to visit some friend. It wasn’t until her father returned later that night that they grew concerned enough to go to the nearby Hinman Street police station and report Elsie missing, kicking off a dragnet that would occupy much of the city for weeks to come.
Elsie had vanished on the morning of April 8. For weeks, police searched the nearby areas and targeted Romani travelers in the region, who were frequently persecuted and suspected of kidnapping children. After Elsie’s cousin told her parents about the organ grinder, the local Italian-American communities were also questioned, and suspicions arose that Elsie’s abduction may have been a “black hand” kidnapping—a particular sort of kidnapping for ransom which was often practiced by organized crime in the city at the time.
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As more and more people heard about the abduction, the net grew ever wider, outsiders contributed reward money to be paid in the event of Elsie’s discovery, and tips poured in from all over the country, with people as far away as Arkansas reporting “suspicious-looking” people, often of Romani descent, with children who “didn’t look like they belonged to them.” Despite numerous raids of Romani encampments and other harassment, none of these tips actually led anywhere.
For the next four weeks, nobody knew what had become of young Elsie Paroubek. Then, on May 9, several employees of the Lockport power plant in Joliet, Illinois—some 35 miles outside Chicago—saw something floating in the canal. At first, they took it to be the body of an animal, but when they realized that it was a child, they dispatched a boat and brought it in.
The body was that of Elsie Paroubek, though you wouldn’t have known it right away. Contemporary accounts of the discovery were all over the place, with some suggesting that her father, who was called to identify the body, said, “The clothes look like Elsie’s. But the face—I can’t recognize it. Her mother alone can tell.” Meanwhile, other accounts suggested that Frank Paroubek knew his daughter instantly, and broke into tears.
The coroners seemed to be similarly confused, with early accounts suggesting that Elsie had drowned, with “no marks of violence” on her body, while a later inquest determined that she had likely been murdered, either through strangulation or suffocation. Even the length of time she had been in the water seemed to vary with the telling, with some accounts claiming that she was “badly decomposed” while others suggested that she was well-preserved.
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Elsie’s mother, certainly, was convinced that her daughter had been slain. “My Elsie is dead,” she reportedly cried, as she ran from the funeral parlor. “She was murdered, murdered.” The official cause of death, as marked down in the inquest, was not nearly so committal. It was simply recorded as “unknown.”
In spite of the reassurances of the authorities at the time, the fate of Elsie’s killer or killers remained similarly unknown. The police followed up numerous leads, including one man who fatally threw himself in front of a train the day after her body was discovered, but all of them proved fruitless, and the deceased suspect was cleared of wrongdoing within a week.
So, what truly happened to young Elsie Paroubek? We will probably never know. Even newspaper accounts of easily-established facts are scrambled. Drawn by the pathos and the publicity of the case, thousands of people flocked to Elsie’s funeral, which was held on the lawn of the Paroubeks’ home. How many thousands? Most accounts say between 2,000-3,000, with the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper at the time estimating the number as nearer 5,000.
Odds are, none of those people were Henry Darger, but as a fellow resident of Chicago, it’s possible. At 19, Darger wouldn’t have been much older than Elsie when her funeral was taking place, but he had already been out of what was then known as the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children for two years by the time Elsie disappeared, having made his escape from that place in 1909. More likely, Darger—a lifelong advocate for protecting children from harm and abuse—was simply inspired by a striking photograph of the young Elsie in the newspaper, and by the tragic story of her unsolved death.