CHICAGO, IL — On the early spring morning of April 8, 1911, five-year-old Eliška “Elsie” Paroubek told her mother she was going out to visit her aunt who lived around the corner. She never made it.
Elsie was last spotted watching an organ grinder with a group of other children. Given the open, communal nature of the Paroubeks’ European immigrant neighborhood, when Elsie didn’t return that night, her parents initially assumed she’d slept over at the home of one of her playmates.
Eventually, after asking around and not finding her, Elsie’s parents went to the police. Captain John Mahoney immediately launched an intense, multi-precinct search involving 20 officers and 100 volunteers.
A local boy said that he’d seen two Gypsy women with a little girl shortly before Elsie vanished. That seemed to provide quite a lead — at first.
The notion of children being “stolen by gypsies” packed a wallop at the time. In Elsie’s case, it’s not specified whether the gypsies were Romani or Irish Travelers, but suspicion fell quickly on the outsiders.
Such thoughts weren’t entirely irrational, though. Four years earlier, a Chicago girl named Lillian Wulff had been kidnapped by a traveling clan and forced to worked as a beggar until a farmer spotted her outside the city.After Elsie disappeared, then, 11-year-old Lillian came forward to offer information on her experience and assist police in working the gypsy angle. Unfortunately, that strategy proved fruitless — the gypsies didn’t have her.
Numerous false leads stymied the police and tormented Elsie’s parents. Finally, on May 9, an electrical engineer spotted Elsie’s body floating in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Medical examiners determined that someone had beaten, cut, choked, and raped Elsie before killing her and tossing her remains in canal. She had been in the water for about a month, meaning that the murder occurred right around the time she went missing.
Elsie’s funeral attracted nationwide sympathy. Chicago Chief of Police John McWeeny vowed that his entire force would work full-time to find the child’s killer. Frank Paroubek, Elsie’s father, told the press: “My little girl is at rest and nothing matters to her now, but I shall never rest until I see her murderers paying the penalty for taking her life.”
Tragically, no one ever paid any penalty for the horrors that befell Elsie. To date, the case remains unsolved, but it has hardly been forgotten.
In large part, Elsie’s memory lives on due to the bizarrely beautiful tributes paid to her by Henry Darger, an outsider artist whose work remained unknown until after his own death.
Darger was a simple, seemingly autistic Chicago resident born in 1892. Throughout his young life, Darger suffered constant abuse and neglect, ending up institutionalized many times. All that trauma instilled in him an extreme sympathy for the plight of unfortunate children.
In fact, Darger never regarded himself a member of the adult world, even after he settled into a tiny attic apartment in 1930 and supported himself by working as a janitor. He had no friends and no interest in connecting with others.
What Darger did have, though, was a one-of-a-kind imagination and a peculiar genius for expressing it through words and pictures. He also felt a profound connection to Elsie Paroubek, so much so that he kept a newspaper photo of her in his work locker.
After a thief made off with the contents of his locker — including his cherished Elsie picture — Darger worked frantically to locate a replacement, and stormed Heaven with prayers for its safe return. He never found another one. Instead, Darger built a shrine to Elsie in his single-room dwelling.
That makeshift temple inspired Darger for the next 40 years. Amid egregious clutter, he created some of the most striking visual art of the 20th century.
Almost all of Darger’s work fixated on little girls, who he drew as having penises. Some analysts believe this came about as a result of Darger’s confusion over his own gender and sexuality; others theorize that he may have never seen an actual naked female.
Darger’s 15,145-page magnum opus of vividly illustrated stories is titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandenco-Angelinnian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The leader of the child-slave uprising in Darger’s epic is called Annie Aronburg, but she is clearly modeled on Elsie Paroubek. Her assassination is what inspires the “Vivian Girls” to fight back and conquer their oppressors.
Shortly before Darger died in 1973, his landlords entered his chaotic attic and discovered In the Realms of the Unreal, along with piles of other masterpieces he had constructed and kept to himself. In the decades since, Darger has become one of America’s most acclaimed and well-known outsider artists.
For his final resting place, Henry Darger was buried at Illinois’ All Saints Cemetery, in a section called the Little Sisters of the Poor Plot. His gravestone inscription describes him as an “Artist” and “Protector of Children.”
Main photo: Elsie Paroubek [WikiMedia Commons]