The Man Who Made A Fascinating Village Of Army Dolls

“There’s but the twinkling of a star / Between a man of peace and war.” —Samuel Butler, “Hudibras”

In A Nutshell

In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was viciously assaulted by a gang of young punks. After waking up from a coma, Mark was suffering from severe brain injuries. And that’s when he set about building Marwencol, a tiny village in his backyard populated with hundreds of dolls.

The Whole Bushel

Once upon a time, Mark Hogancamp was a Navy man. He was married for five years, and he was an alcoholic. He was also a cross-dresser who enjoyed wearing nylon stockings and women’s shoes. Only today, Mark doesn’t remember most of that. Back in 2000, Mark was in a New York bar when he made the mistake of sharing his high-heeled secret with five young men. And when Mark left the bar, the group attacked him, nearly beating him to death.

Mark woke up from his coma nine days later. He was suffering from brain injuries, amnesia, and PTSD. He struggled to perform basic human functions like eating or going to the bathroom. Mark was forced to attend therapy so he could learn how to walk and talk… until Medicaid stopped paying the bills. Depressed and seemingly defeated, Mark returned to his trailer near Kingston, New York, forced to survive on his own. And that’s where Mark created Marwencol.

About a year after the attack, Mark was browsing through a store when he found a World War II action figure. He took the doll home, named him “Captain Mark,” and set to work building a miniature town in his backyard for Captain Mark.

Hogancamp named the town Marwencol and set his village in 1940s Belgium. Marwencol’s first building was a bar called the Ruined Stocking Cat Fight Club, owned by Captain Mark himself. Soon, there were miniature houses, a tiny bank, an ice cream shop, and even a cemetery.

These structures were incredibly elaborate. Hogancamp made the buildings out of wood and added an insane amount of detail to each location.

For example, if you peered inside the Cat Fight Club, you’d actually see a long mirror behind the bar. There were posters on the wall, magazines on the tables, and little ice cubes in each glass (the ice cubes were actually little bits of glass he’d found lying here and there). The town was also full of “people.” After buying Captain Mark, Hogancamp started adding more and more dolls, and today, there are 200 citizens living in Marwencol.

But here’s the really amazing thing. Marwencol wasn’t some sort of insane art project. It was a way for Mark to cope with his PTSD. So how did a miniature village help Hogancamp come to terms with his tragedy?

Well, Mark would use the dolls to create incredibly elaborate stories. As you’ve probably guessed by now, Captain Mark represented Hogancamp himself. According to the story line, Captain Mark crashed outside Marwencol during a World War II aerial battle. He then wandered into town to find a village full of beautiful, widowed women. The townsfolk gave Mark a place to stay, and soon he opened a bar and married a woman by the name of Ana, a doll that represents Hogancamp’s ex-wife.

Article Continued Below

Over time, he added dolls to represent his neighbors and co-workers so he wouldn’t feel so alone in his little world. He also added action figures that looked like famous actors a la Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

But most importantly, there were the five Nazi soldiers.

In almost every story, these five SS men would barge into town and brutalize Mark. Sound familiar? Unlike Hogancamp’s real-life tragedy, these little dramas always had happy endings. In one scenario, the women of the town whipped out their pistols and executed the Nazis. In another story line, the hand of God (Mark’s actual hand) reached down, gently touched the bad guys, and “took their souls from their bodies.”

As Mark explained to reporter Jon Ronson, “Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys. [ . . . ] The first time I killed all five of them, I felt a little bit better. That violent hatred and anger subsided a little.”

But Mark wasn’t just creating story lines. He was also taking photos, capturing his dramas with cinematic snapshots. Eventually, Mark’s neighbor took a look at the photographs and sent them to Esopus, a New York magazine. The editor was so impressed that Esopus published Mark’s photos, and soon the little town of Marwencol was making big waves in the art world.

His photos were put on display in numerous art galleries, and Hogancamp’s life was captured in both a book and a documentary. In fact, director Robert Zemeckis plans to adapt Mark’s story into a film starring Steve Carell.

Mark hasn’t let all this fame distract him though. He’s still trying to cope in his own unique way. Thankfully, since he’s started making Marwencol, Mark has completely stopped drinking. He still wears women’s shoes while he’s at home, and he still spends most of his time in his backyard, enacting little stories, taking photographs, and getting a little bit better each day.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Marwencol: the incredible WWII art project created by a cross-dresser who was beaten up by bigots
NY Times: Mark Hogancamp, the Artist as (Imagined) War Hero
Snap Judgment: The Proxy

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!