So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the listâ€¦
16. Moondog (1916-1999)
They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.
He moved to the Big Apple in 1947 and New Yorkers recognized his raw talent almost immediately. It wasn't long before he could actually make a living on the streets performing and selling his poetry and recordings. He invented several musical instruments including something called the “oo” and, most
famously, the trimba.
His reputation as a fearsome percussionist and innovative composer grew such that within 5 years, he was recording his own works, composing for orchestra, running his own radio program, being profiled in magazines, and being feted by giants in the music industry. Over the years he became friendly with such music luminaries as George Szell, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Phillip Glass. By the mid-1950s everyone knew Moondog.
He took it to another level in the 1960s as the hippie counterculture really got rolling. Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce performed with him. Bob Dylan wrote about him. An early incarnation of the Beatles was called Johnny and the Moondogs. His song “All is Loneliness” was covered by Janis Joplin. Moondog even made an appearance on â€œThe Tonight Showâ€. In fact, the spot where Moondog most often worked, 54th Street and 6th Avenue, became known as “Moondog Corner”. In 1989 he conducted a series of concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.
According to allmusic.com, Moondog produced 12 albums in his lifetime, 7 of which they give ratings of 4 stars or higher (out of 5).
Just looking at him however, you knew he was weird. He made all his own clothes, or costumes, really. Togas, tunics, thongs, cloaks, cowls, you name it. He wanted to be the incarnation of the Norse God Odin (but with additional blind eye), hence the nickname “Viking of 6th Avenue”. He didn't wear shoes, just leather squares that he wrapped around his feet. In the snow, in the rain, it didn't matter, he was always on the streets. He actually preferred the streets to any comfy domicile and by 1960 split with his wife and child as a result. He was a tad anti-Semitic and didn't care too much for black people either. Then he would complain about how all his best friends are either Jewish or black. He would also drink from a hollowed-out antler. Where does a blind man find a hollowed-out antler in New York City?
By the mid-1950s Moondog had the world at his feet. Recording studio executives really wanted to market him and put him on a coast-to-coast tour. But he walked away from it all. He was just too darn weird for success, it seems. It's ironic because he did like making money, just on his own terms. Moondog was famous for playing all sorts of exotic instruments, but when asked which one was his favorite, he replied with his trademark wit, “the box that collects the coins.”
15. Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)
Cayce is mostly forgotten these days, but in his day he was one of the most famous psychics in America. Believers in his abilities claim that as a boy he could memorize books by sleeping with them under his pillow. He could also solve murder mysteries, revisit a person's past lives, predict the future, and offer uncannily sage business advice. But he was most famous for his healing abilities. Typically, he would hear or read about a person's ailment, and then fall into a hypnotic trance during which he would offer eerily accurate prescriptions for treatment. Some of which ran counter to the common medical wisdom of the day. For example, as a young man he reportedly saved an infant dying of convulsions with belladonna, a known poison. He eventually became so well known that he treated such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.
Cayce skeptics point to the fact that most of Cayce's prescriptions were common-sensical or involved standard osteopathic treatments of the time. They also point to the fact that Cayce was an avid reader of alternative medical texts and surrounded himself with medical practitioners who could at some point or another assist him with his diagnoses. He also didn't always get it right, such as when he prescribed eating almonds to prevent cancer. What they latch on to most however are his (such as China converting to Christianity by 1968), his bizarre ideas on race, and his intricate and wholly ridiculous opinions on the lost city of Atlantis. In fact, he predicted that by 1958 the U.S. would discover the Tuaoi Stone, the great cylindrical energy crystal which caused Atlantis to crash into the sea ten thousand years ago. Yeah. He also wrote a book about Atlantis but couldn't exactly predict when people would ever get tired of it.
Cayce skeptics of course reject all the folklore and anecdotal evidence supporting Cayce's healing powers. They ignore the fact that Cayce did make many accurate predictions, such as the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and World War 2 among others. They also reject as pure hearsay all the fawning newspaper articles, the thousands of pages of records kept by his wife Gertrude, as well as testimonials left by his patients. But what they cannot reject is the whopping amount of all this evidence. Cayce gave over 20,000 readings in his lifetime. Many, many, many people who dealt with him claimed he did what said he would do, which was successfully treat or heal them. Today, thousands the world over revere him as a prophet, and he has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Therein lies the man's greatness.
Another aspect of Cayce which was, um, weird, was his overall reluctance to benefit from all this. For much of his life, he insisted on working for free. He was also a devout Christian who had serious misgivings about the other-worldly aspects of his gift. His trances often left him physically and emotionally exhausted, but he kept working well into his old age despite knowing it would eventually kill him.
The irony about Edgar Cayce was that when he was awake he was actually a pretty normal guy. But whenever he fell into his famous trances, he became one of the weirdest people in the world.
14. Walter Freeman (1895-1972)
Nobody embodies both sides of the morality coin better than Walter Freeman. Having pioneered the lobotomy operation in America in the 1930s and then streamlined it into a casual 20-minute outpatient procedure, Freeman was the center of a truly fascinating yet mortifying chapter of twentieth century psychiatric history. Was he an angel of mercy or a diabolical monster? Did he help the incurably insane or was he preying on vulnerable innocents? People can debate either side, but what isn't up for debate is that he was a really weird guy.
We find his greatness in how he was one of the first to pinpoint a physiological etiology for mental illness. He was also truly moved by the suffering of the insane and wanted to do something about it. In his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, Freeman sold lobotomy to the medical establishment as a procedure of last resort for only the most dire cases. And in those instances, lobotomy, more often than not, worked. The violent, the psychotic, the suicidal became more docile, more manageable, happier even. So what if they had to re-learn how to use the toilet and had difficulties holding down a job? They were in a better place, and so were their families. And if the procedure didn't work, well, it wasn't like the patients were going to get better anyway, soâ€¦
At a time when there was no alternative to treating the insane, the lobotomy was often the only option. And the public reaction at first was overwhelmingly positive. In 1949, Freeman successfully lobbied for AntÃ³nio Egas Moniz, the originator of lobotomy, to receive a Nobel Prize. Once, when facing his critics (mostly Freudian psychiatrists questioning his ethics) Freeman produced a box of Christmas cards – hundreds of them – all from former patients and their family members. He then challenged anyone in the room to do the same. He had no takers.
By mid-century, Freeman was a star. But that's when the weirdness crept in. After developing the “ice pick lobotomy” (in which he would hammer a long blade called a leucotome into the brain's frontal lobes through the eye socket), he seemed a wee bit too eager to perform his special operation.
He had no license to perform operations, but would do them anyway, often in his own office. This alienated his longtime partner James Watts, but that didn't stop Freeman. Freeman also ignored his not-so-rare disasters, such as when he rendered poor Rosemary Kennedy permanently incapacitated.
He became a bit of a showman, arriving at hospitals in a wide-brimmed hat and brandishing a cane. He dubbed his own station wagon as “the Lobotomobile”. To mix things up, he would perform lobotomies right-handed, then left-handed, and sometimes with two hands at once. He would use ordinary carpenter's mallets instead of surgical hammers. He always played for the crowd or the press more than he sought the formal approval of colleagues. He ate up all the attention. Once he killed a patient when he carelessly stepped back to pose for a photograph during an operation. He let his leucotome sink too deep into the patient's brain.
Freeman also insisted on filming and photographing his operations and even talking to his patients as he severed their minds away. He referred to photographing his patients as his “magnificent obsession” since he felt before-and-after shots could help vinidcate lobotomy. Driving from town to town looking for people to lobotomize was what he called a “head and shoulder hunt”. He claimed that time passed more swiftly when he was head and shoulder hunting.
What makes Freeman even weirder is that he never let any of his colossal failings deter him, nor did he ever recognize how macabre his magnificent obsession really was. What started as a course of last resort became one of first resort by the mid-1950s, after antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine were quickly rendering Freeman's ghastly procedure obsolete. Rather than concede to more humane measures to treat insanity, Freeman instead moved to California and started selling lobotomies to the unsuspecting public for twenty-five bucks a pop. At his nadir, he lobotomized a four year-old child. Walter Freeman died in 1972, still in touch with many of his patients, people who would have had nothing to do with him had they known exactly how weird he was.
13. Henry Darger (1892-1973)
Remember those weird Dungeons and Dragons geeks from our childhood? Remember how they would spend hours cataloging the minutest details of fictitious characters living in imaginary worlds? Henry Darger spent a lifetime doing that. And, reclusive weirdo that he was, he never seemed to come up for air. Self taught as a writer and painter, he left behind a body of work of such breathtaking power and scope that he is now considered one of the greatest if not the greatest outsider artist of the 20th century.
Darger's story is miraculous and tragic at the same time. Placed as a young boy in an abominable institution called the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children where he was worked like a slave, Darger escaped at 16 and walked over a hundred and fifty miles to his home in Chicago. There he got a job as a janitor in a hospital. Aside from a brief stint in the military during World War I, he stayed at this job until his retirement in 1963. His neighbors knew him as strange, reclusive, asocial. He could be heard through the walls of his apartment staging conversations with himself, assuming different dialects or accents for different characters. Yet he would never talk to people. And if you ever forced him to talk to you, he would respond with something completely unrelated. He collected trash. He collected rope and twine. He once started a weather journal of excruciating detail and kept at it for ten years. His autobiography spans 5,000 handwritten single-spaced pages. Only three photographs of Henry Darger exist.
Darger had two major obsessions, his faith in God and a desperate need to protect or avenge children. For years he tried unsuccessfully to adopt, but the state wouldn't let him. Some time around 1911 he lost a newspaper photo of a 5 year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered.
This sent Darger on a tailspin of grief and existential angst in which he petitioned God to return the photo. He built a shrine. He threatened to swear and throw things at the crucifix on his wall.
Henry Darger never found the photograph, but this episode inspired him to create his magnum opus, a novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is also known as In the Realms of the Unreal for short. This is a 15,145 page fantasy novel containing hundreds of panoramic illustrations and watercolor paintings.
It took him 60 years to write it. It's the story of the Vivian Girls from the Christian nation of Abbieannia. They lead a child slave rebellion against an evil people called the Glandelinians who murder, torture, and abuse children. The events in the story and in the illustratiins go from the beatific to the unspeakably violent. Darger would even catalog the names of the myriad slain as well as the cost in dollars of each battle.
The mythology is as complex as anything from ancient Greece, and at its core is an almost pathological compassion for children. In his paintings girls would often appear with penises. We are not sure if this was some hermaphroditic conceit on the part of Darger or if he was just unaware that girls do not have penises.
Throughout his sad, solitary yet extremely productive life, Henry Darger never told anyone about his work. He was just the oddball janitor who lived down the hall. Today however his works are shown in museums where a Henry Darger original can fetch over $80,000. A new copy of the only biography about Darger currently runs for over $2,000! This is testimony of the imaginative power of one very weird man who was broken as a child and spent the rest of his life picking up all the beautiful pieces.
Check out Weirdos Part 4.