Police search in vain for Elsie Paroubek’s killer. When months of combing Romani encampments for a perpetrator bears no fruit, investigators redirect their attention to two eccentric peddlers living along the canal where Elsie’s body was dumped. But no suspect is as interesting or disturbing as Henry Darger – the self-taught artist who created over 300 paintings and a 15,000+ page story about tormented little girls – one of which may have been based on Elsie Paroubek herself.
In a hypothetical flashback to the day of Elsie’s disappearance, the little girl loses her way after following a street performer playing music. She crosses the path of Henry Darger, who introduces himself as a member of the Children’s Protective Society and offers to help her find her aunt’s house. Thinking Darger is kind of like a police officer, Elsie trustingly accepts and doesn’t object to a detour to a quiet place for impromptu story time.
But back to known events. Several days after Elsie Paroubek goes missing, her father receives mysterious letters written in English. An immigrant from the Czech Republic, Frank Paroubek is unable to read the letters himself and asks a friend to translate them. The friend reluctantly reveals the writer’s accusation that Elsie was kidnapped to save her from her parents’ neglect and abuse. Police efforts to find the writer are stonewalled by Frank when he burns the letters.
Fortunately, another anonymous letter is sent directly to the police. In it, the writer claims to have seen Elsie walking with a young man down by the canal on the day she went missing.
Police steer their attentions to Joseph Konesti, a Bohemian peddler living in a shack along the canal. His landlady Mrs. Shaughnessy fuels suspicions when she tells police that he likes to bring little girls to the property. Upon visiting Konesti’s home, police find boxes and trunks filled with women’s and children’s clothing. An officer picks up a green ribbon like the one Karolina Paroubek said Elsie was wearing. They also find a hemp sack large enough to hide a child’s body and a hole in the dirt floor that was recently filled in. They presume Konesti killed Elsie and temporarily buried her body before dumping her into the canal. Before they can arrest him, Konesti steps out in front of a moving train.
Whatever information convinces the police of Konesti’s innocence and pushes them to move on in their investigation is never publicly disclosed. Just a few days after Konesti’s suicide, a young man is found dead in the same canal. Police suspect he was the young man seen with Elsie the day she disappeared, but he is never identified.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter and Wenndy briefly consider the possibility that the young man was murdered by Elsie’s killer for knowing too much about the crime or was the perpetrator himself and committed suicide before police could apprehend him.
The next possible suspect the police approach is another man living in a canal-side shack, Mr. Kinsella. The man has mental health issues and is a known religious fanatic. When police visit him home in hopes of interviewing him, he runs. After a three-mile chase, Kinsella loses the police in the nearby woods. No publicized efforts are made to find him.
On the second anniversary of Elsie’s funeral, Frank Paroubek passes away without closure. A new suspect doesn’t arise until over a half a century later – Henry Darger. A kooky old man, Darger spends his life painting child martyrs and, to accompany it, writes a 15,145-page fantasy manuscript about tormented little girls. In a scene showcasing his odd behavior, two of his neighbors overhear him having an argument with an old woman, only to realize he is changing his voice to be both.
As a child, Darger hated little girls. In a flashback to his boyhood, he threatens to knife a girl attempting to play with him and throws ashes into another girl’s eyes. The death of his father lands him in the Home for the Feeble Minded, and as an adult he claims that his horrific experiences there led him to form the Children’s Protective Society. At the encouragement of his friend and alleged romantic partner, William Schloeder, Darger tries to adopt a child, but is turned down, leaving him heartbroken and angry. That’s when he begins writing a story about the trials and tribulations of seven young girls.
Theoretically, Annie Aronburg, a child martyr character that serves as a source of inspiration for the story’s protagonists, is based on Elsie Paroubek. Details about Annie’s clothing and physical appearance match Elsie’s perfectly on the day she disappeared.
The paintings Darger creates to illustrate his story are mixture of watercolor and collage. Unconfident of his ability to paint little girls, Darger cuts out pictures from magazines and newspapers. While some of the paintings are peaceful and fantastical, there are others that are quite disturbing. Some paintings portray the girls naked and with penises. In others, they are brutally tortured and murdered by men.
A year after Elsie’s death, Darger flips out over losing a picture of a girl he finds utterly precious – a picture meant to depict Annie Aronburg. In his diary, he writes down that he had cut the little girl’s picture out of the Chicago Noise in May, June, or July of 1911, which was when Elsie’s case was making headlines and her picture circulated through the paper.
Carter favors the theory that Darger murdered Elsie Paroubek and obsessed over it in his artwork for 60+ years. Wenndy doesn’t disagree, but thinks Konesti comes in at a close second. But what do you think? Weigh in on Facebook and Twitter!