Interesting Ideas

A world of his own - 6

Murphy's contemporaries appeared to have viewed him mostly as a great, if eccentric, collector. The newspaper articles that turned up every few years generally showed amazement at his prodigious accumulation, but legitimated it by characterizing him as simply a hobbyist and an unofficial historian for the Andy Frain company, where he worked.

Murphy died in 1979, his passing reported in obituaries in the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune. "`40,000' Murphy, usher of celebrities, dies at 82," said the Tribune, which noted that Andy Frain ushers were probably going to be needed to hold back the crowds at his funeral. (The church, St. George's, has since been torn down.)

Murphy's environment, recognized in the newspapers as "an unofficial Andy Frain museum," passed with him. Before selling the building in 1991, his sister had the interior pretty much stripped -- a process that took a month, according to the salvager.

Bits of 40,000's vision have turned up at antique dealers, including panels from the attic girlie room, miscellaneous photos, and huge collages of wrestlers and baseball players. The annotations evidently proved a sales liability for some of the material though; people want clean pictures, one dealer said.

Through the years, though, all that stuff never failed to impress visitors.

"His bachelor apartment reflected his consuming interest in his life as an usher," the Sun-Times reported in its obituary. "The walls were covered with photos.... The floors and shelves were stacked with programs, buttons, badges and other souvenirs from notable public events."

In 1949, when Murphy's accumulation already amounted to tens of thousands of souvenirs, tickets, programs and photos, he told the Tribune: "I'm a bachelor and this is why. No woman would put up with this junk. But this junk is my life. This junk and my job. Do you want to see a picture of a happy man? That's me. Look at me."

Of course no one, not the reporters, nor the obit writers, nor the photographers and caption writers, nor, undoubtedly, Murphy himself, would have applied the term "art" to this lifelong effort; the house on 34th Street (now a fixed-up rental building) is an environment only in retrospect.

But in his accumulation of intensely individual, obsessively decorated and massively displayed images and assemblages, Murphy expressed himself eloquently enough that his imagination has survived the undoing of his "Murphy Museum," as signs he had printed up said. Granted, he was not exactly Henry Darger. But the world he re-created on his walls and ceilings still displayed an awesome absorption with a personal vision.

***

Curious about the name? The Sun-Times reported it this way:

"The 40,000 tag stuck from Mr. Murphy's habit during Chicago's bleak baseball days of the 1920s of estimating crowds with a laugh at `40,000 ... empty seats.'" It was, the Tribune says, the figure he always gave when sports writers asked how many were in attendance at the ballpark. Of course, in 1949 the Tribune said in a caption that "Murphy claims to know 40,000 persons by their first names -- one of three reasons why he's got that nickname." The third? A grateful baseball fan who left Murphy $40,000 in his will, according to the Tribune.

5K 40,000 GIF

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