Portraits of the Town Drunk

The man has songs written about him. He has fan sites dedicated to him. People have had his image airbrushed onto T shirts. He's been on late night TV. And sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, he's--almost certainly, as you read these very words--doing what made him so famous: time. Henry Earl is in jail. Again.

In itself, his is not such a fascinating story. Henry Earl likes to drink. A lot. Henry Earl gets arrested. A lot. Enter Kentucky's Fayette County correctional facility in the city of Lexington. About two years ago, the county jail began publishing photos of its prisoners online. And Earl, who has been detained with astonishing regularity for about two decades, has, at last count, 52 of his drunken mug shots on the site. They have been circulated widely through online chat rooms and blogs (most notably on the popular goofy news site Fark.com), turning him into an overnight underground Internet folk hero.

These are remarkable documents, these portraits. Watch Henry Earl age a decade before your very eyes. See him in nearly every mood a man can have--here he is impish; there he is contemplative. He can be a clown, a scoundrel, a cad, a punk. He appears alternately proud, pontificating, pugnacious and preening. Like Monet's haystacks, Earl is captured in all seasons. (And unlike them, in various stages of intoxication.) "The guy is just as funny as he looks," says Chad Cottle, the county's Web administrator. "Everybody enjoys a good drink, but this guy is just taking it to the limit. He's like a machine. It actually makes me laugh to talk about it."

Every so often the Internet coughs up an unlikely celebrity--it's a phenomenon as old as the dancing baby. Most recently there was the lovable "She Bangs" dork, William Hung, whose abysmal "American Idol" tryout won him instant celebrity. A couple years back, there was the young Turkish man whose "I Kiss You" site was hotly debated--could its sublime cheesiness possibly have been in earnest? Now, we have Henry Earl. Fark.com was the first to pick up on him, posting links to each new mug shot. Earl was such a hit that Lexington's server would crash every time Fark linked to it. "The guys over at the city government asked me to stop," says Fark's founder Drew Curtis, who, like Earl, is based in Lexington. "Apparently they read the site all the time."

Local media outlets jumped on the wagon next. Now there is a Yahoo group dedicated to him; there are blogs boasting real-time jail stats and all 52 of his mugs (some of them animated), online forums where readers swap stories and recent sightings around town. A local artist did an oil painting (an "Earl painting," a NEWSWEEK wag called it) of him. ABC's late-night show "Jimmy Kimmel Live" actually considered flying him to Los Angeles to appear on the air (the producers settled for showing old local-news footage of him). "It just won't die for some reason," marvels Cottle.

Earl was a local legend years before the Internet. Known around the college town as James Brown, Earl will do a little jig for attention and money--anything to get some hooch. He shows up at house parties; he wanders the streets with fried chicken in his pockets; he shakes hands; he drinks. Generally regarded as harmless, he is tolerated by most and even loved by a few. Homeless and unemployed since 1969, Earl spends just about every other night in jail--he's been arrested somewhere between 800 and 1,000 times, mostly for public drunkenness, in the last 20 years. "I like to drink," he tells NEWSWEEK in a collect call from the Lexington jail. "Alcoholic, that's what I am. Every police [officer] knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days. When I get out, I'm going to drink some more, to tell you the truth."

Alcoholism is no laughing matter. But Earl is a grown man who makes his own decisions, and he knows he has achieved a certain level of fame just for being himself. "I have been to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings--they don't do no good. It's a mind thing. I gotta quit on my own; make up my own mind," he says, knowing that he probably won't. "I've been drinking since I was 18. I'm 54 years old. That's a lot of booze, ain't it?" It is. And in all likelihood, this recent positive reinforcement isn't doing the man a whole lot of good. Now when Earl enters a bar (a habit as hard to break as digital encryption), he is hounded for an autograph. He drinks for free more often now, but he's still just as willing to leave the bar in search of another when he ultimately wears out his welcome.

There are those who will wring their hands and wonder whether this is what society has come to. With the proliferation of sites like The Smoking Gun that revel in the arrests of the famous or the bizarre (and in some cases, both), one may wonder if we really need to celebrate someone solely for his self-destructive antisocial behavior. Earl, for his part, represents no physical danger to anyone, but "one of the things that people forget is that Henry can be aggressive when he is intoxicated," says the jail's deputy director, Don Leach, who has known Earl for 20 years, and says the phenomenon is like something out of "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 study of social behavior. Then there is the cost to the taxpayers--for every night that Earl spends in jail, the good people of Fayette County must fork over $62. "It would actually be cheaper if we were to get him a cheap hotel room and supply him with Mad Dog 20/20," says Leach.

Still, it should be sadder story than it is. A shame. A waste. But people like Earl--they love his photos, and Earl seems so happy in many of those mug shots. One local girl band, the Dangels, may have put it best in a song they wrote a song about him (the tune's new popularity has brought a bit of corollary fame to the group itself, which disbanded two years ago). The lyrics go, in part, like this:

So tell Henry Earl I want to be his girl,

'cause he's the sanest guy in town

And he can dance just like James Brown,

Not like the other boys around that made me cry.

Tell Henry Earl I want to be his girl

And we'll buy apple wine on sale,

Spend the night with him in jail.

And I know he won't post bail like other guys.

But fame's 15 minutes, as is their wont, are swiftly ticking away. People will forget about Earl when the next giant Cheeto is discovered on eBay, when the next dancing baby minces along. And perhaps that's the real shame, because life won't change for the man himself. Because then who will be around to buy Earl that apple wine and spend one more night in jail with him?