by Jim Elledge
Internationally-recognized, self-taught artist Henry Darger lived in utter poverty his entire life. Not long after he was born in Chicago (April 12, 1892), his impoverished parents moved out of the respectable, blue-collar neighborhood in which they had lived for several years into a coach-house apartment behind 165 West Adams just west of the Loop. That address was at the threshold of Chicago’s most notorious vice district, called West Madison Street after its chief thoroughfare.
Henry’s father went into a tailspin after a string of tragedies blind-sided him. His second son, Arthur, born a year and a half after Henry, died when he was only five months old, and then his wife Rosa died giving birth to their third child, a daughter. Almost sixty years old, too old (he felt) to be taking care of both an infant and a toddler, he immediately put his daughter up for adoption. The loss of his wife and children was too much for him, and he abandoned himself to drink and Henry to the dark streets—and even darker denizens—of West Madison Street.
Henry’s experiences during his earliest days in the vice district were, in a word, horrific as his autobiography, The History of My Life, reveals. He purposely knocked down children younger than he; sliced his teacher’s face and arms with a knife he carried when she punished him for an infraction; flung ashes into the eyes of a little neighborhood girl; committed arson to get even with a neighbor man; was nearly kidnapped by a homeless man; had a relationship with a night watchman; and was removed from his father’s house by authorities who institutionalized him in Dunning among the insane, indigent, and mentally ill—all before he was eight years old. Henry’s anger, violent behavior, and early sexual activities are symptomatic of child sexual abuse. Small for his age, Henry was an easy target.
In 1900, embarrassed by his eight-year-old son’s conduct and unable to cope with him, Henry’s father pawned the boy off on the priests who ran the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, where he would live for the next four years. After more behavioral problems, which included being involved sexually with at least three other boys at the Mission, the priests told Henry’s father that Henry had to go. By then, his father was living in St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, had no money with which to help his son, and had no room to take him in. Instead, he contacted a doctor, told him that Henry had been masturbating since he was six years old (another symptom of sexual abuse), and asked him to examine the boy. After meeting with Henry on two separate occasions, Dr. Otto Schmidt helped Henry’s father to fill out the form that would allow them to exile the now twelve-year-old to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. On Thanksgiving Day 1904, Tim Rooney took Henry by train to the Asylum.
Institutionalizing children for “self-abuse” (the term that was most often used for masturbation) was entirely legal and ubiquitous at the time. Physicians across the country supported institutionalization, and some even went so far as to recommend castration. Henry wasn’t the only boy sent to the Asylum for self-abuse. In fact, four other boys—three, twelve, thirteen, and nineteen years old—were admitted within of a month of the day when Henry arrived, each because of self-abuse.
As it turned out, the Asylum was a hellhole. While attendants had many techniques that they used to control the boys in their care, they were fond of strangling boys until they were close to blacking out, their tongues protruding and their faces turning blue. In such a condition, the boys were unable or unwilling to resist whatever the adult had in mind for them. At the same time, the prisons in Illinois had been filled to capacity, and the courts decided to send the overflow of male criminals to live—and sleep—among the boys at the Asylum. The smaller, weaker boys were at the mercy of the larger, stronger boys and men in the beds beside them.