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one last masterpiece

one last masterpiece - Knightsbridge State Hospital*
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Known as "the Rembrandt of American cartoonists", Percy Crosby was one of the most successful comic strip creators in America's history, at one point making more money on an annual basis than the President himself. His comic strip "Skippy" was the inspiration for many to follow, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, and he took on issues much larger than the often tame comics in papers today - ranging from subjects like melancholia and mortality, to political crusades that lambasted the Tammany Hall political machine, Al Capone, the Ku Klux Klan, and even the president, to ones that fought for child labor laws, civil liberties, and freedom of the press.

It was, perhaps, his vocal nature that led to his undoing, as at the height of his success the IRS hammered him (some claim in response to political pressure from those his strip angered) and corporations who wished to use the immensely popular Skippy character began a crusade to strip the rights for his character away from him. He claimed he was being watched and followed, and began drinking more heavily. There was nobody who would listen to him, and eventually his wife left him. Following a suicide attempt (that is alleged by his daughter to have been a murder attempt, as the knife he supposedly stabbed himself with was never found at the scene), he was committed to this state hospital which is where he spent the rest of his life. Deemed a nuisance for trying to keep his trademark character from being exploited by companies like the one we now know for its Skippy peanut butter, and for trying to voice the same political opinions that made him such bitter enemies, he was denied access to the outside world and his children were told he no longer wished to see them, which was a lie. He spent the rest of his days preserving his sanity by continuing to create cartoons and manuscripts no one outside the walls of the hospital would ever see during his life, and when he died in 1964, alone and penniless, his family wasn't even notified. His children read of it in the newspapers a week later.

Mr. Crosby's fall from grace is perhaps as extreme as they can get - like Job, his fortune and family were taken from him, leaving him only empty years to contemplate their loss. Despite his lack of access to the expensive materials he used in his heyday when his paintings were displayed in galleries in London and Rome, Crosby was able to create one last masterpiece, a work that despite its significance would be as neglected and underappreciated as the rest of his legacy - a mural that spans all four walls of one of the basement rooms in the asylum, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful and touching insights into life on a ward that has survived.

If you look, you can see patients playing chess, working on their Todd looms, listening to music that sets them free - and the shrieking, ghoulish faces of the attendants, the suspicious warden with dozens of keys and dozens of locks. Crosby's depiction, perhaps the only surviving memory of the final years of numbers of other patients, is peeling away now but still brilliantly colored, still a touching testament to a talent that refused to wither away even when everything else was gone. It shows what life was like when the ward and its patients were still alive, and it begs us not to forget.

Photograph/Text by Matthew Christopher

Also in: Knightsbridge State Hospital*