How Much Would You Pay for Some Dirt From Where a Man Was Dragged to Death?
How would you like a strand of hair from murdered President John F. Kennedy, on “8 ½ inch by 11 inch thick papered display suitable for framing”? No blood in the hair, but, “We guarantee this hair strand as being authentic…if…you are not totally satisfied, please return it to us and we will refund your money in total.” Yours for only $205 (plus, we assume, shipping and handling).
Too rich for your blood? Maybe a coroner sheet from Sharon Tate’s autopsy after the Manson family hideously stabbed her and her unborn baby to death. Only $4.99. Or how about two, count ‘em two, original paintings by John Wayne Gacy, the infamous “Killer Clown” who raped and murdered at least 33 teenage boys. Act now and we‘ll throw in an original manuscript of all the letters received by JWG while he was on Death Row. All this for the low, low price of $140,000 (recently reduced from $150,000).
Welcome to the weird and morbid world of murderabilia, the disturbing hobby of collecting artifacts related to murders and those who commit them.
The thriving business for such dark collectibles is somewhat of a mystery, especially given studies such as one done in 1994 by Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin, which confirmed that people actually feel a physical evil is present in such items; an evil that is almost contagious. Subjects in the study would not, if given the opportunity, want to wear a sweater Adolf Hitler once wore, even if was thoroughly laundered prior to wear. If the sweater were dissembled and made into a completely different looking sweater, they still would not wear it. If the sweater were to be incinerated, they would not want to touch the ashes.
One theory is that buyers of murderabilia are actually fearful of being victims of heinous crimes, and that by collecting these items they are (subconsciously) hoping for some sort of magical protection, as if the evil they own would somehow inoculate them from the evil around them. This might explain a somewhat surprising statistic: on some murder auction sites, up to 25% of the registrants are women, a population that might feel more vulnerable to violent crime than men. The media has also been fingered. By elevating murderers, giving them nicknames and fame, the media has made criminals into celebrities. And we all like to collect celebrity memorabilia. A more creepy explanation might be that the collectors actually admire the criminals associated with the items…but we won’t think about that.
Andy Kahan, a victim’s advocate with the Houston Police Department, originally coined the word “murderabilia.” For 17 years he has been diligently following and fighting to make sure violent criminals do not profit from their notoriety. He first became aware of the phenomenon when he read about Arthur Shawcross, a serial rapist and murderer (who also killed two children) in New York State, who was selling his paintings and poems from his prison cell for as much as $600. Kahan’s investigation led him to eBay, where the market for artwork by and related to murderers was bustling.
Some of the items being auctioned on the site were truly disturbing: rocks and dirt from the road where a black man was dragged to death by white supremacists; action figures of Jeffrey Dahmer, complete with removable body parts in its stomach; Charlie Manson hair fashioned into a swastika. Kahan has made it his mission in life to end murderabilia. After much lobbying and shaming, he managed to get eBay to end all auctions for “notoriety for profit” collectibles. Several states, thanks to Kahan’s efforts, have enacted laws banning prisoners from profiting from their criminal infamy. "From a victim's perspective, there's absolutely nothing more nauseating or disgusting than seeing items from the murderer of your loved one being hawked," Kahan told the New York Daily News. "Frankly, it's blood money, plain and simple."
While the “notoriety for profit” laws may prevent Charles Manson from banking a buck on his hair swastikas, there is still murderabilia galore out there for the taking. Like the JFK hair. or chips from the gravestone of Ed Gein, whose disturbing life served as inspiration for multiple serial killer “entertainments,” like Psycho, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs.
The eBay murderabilia ban did nothing to dissuade purveyors, who bypassed the ban by opening their own websites. Criminals being criminals, some of them have bypassed the notoriety for profit laws by making inside arrangements with dealers, mailing out their artwork or personal items and receiving gifts in return, or money deposited in their prison accounts. (Then occasionally we have the serial killer with a conscience, like David Berkowitz, Son of Sam, the born-again killer who has railed against murderabilia.)
“We love to have the crap scared out of us. That, and we're riveted to the dark side of humanity,” notes author and criminologist Scott Bonn. Dark may be undercutting it a bit. Here are five of the lovely gifts some lucky person found under the Christmas tree in seasons past (or maybe in your future).
1. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer (bind, torture, kill) murdered at least 10 people over three decades beginning in 1974. He claimed a creature named “Factor X” made him do it. A drawing of Factor X done by Rader went to auction for $3000 in 2013.
2. Albert Fish, a.k.a. Ham and Eggs, the Boogey Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, killed and devoured several children between 1924 and 1934. In 2010, his autograph sold for $30,000.
3. Jack Ruby, hot-headed killer of Lee Harvey Oswald or co-conspirator in the murder of a president? Ruby’s brother Earl cashed in either way. He auctioned Jack’s murder weapon, a .38 caliber Colt Cobra, for $220,000 in 1991. The buyer then went on to shoot bullets out of the gun and sell the bullets for $1000 each, quickly making his money back and much more. He then resold the gun in 2008 for over $2 million.
4. Ted Bundy was quite the dapper serial killer. He kidnapped, raped, strangled and performed necrophilia on up to 100 women in the 1970s. A 1988 Christmas card, signed by Bundy a month before he was electrocuted, went on sale for $4,999.99. I guess the penny under $5000 made it a bargain.
5. Ed Gein was the inspiration for many a movie blockbuster. Gein dug up old bodies from cemeteries, killed others and made lampshades from human skin and bowls from human skulls. A little early to catch the real murderabilia craze, Gein's car auctioned off for the bargain price of $760 to a carnival barker. The carnie charged the morbidly curious 25 cents a pop to see the Ed Gein Ghoul Car, the “Car that Hauled the Dead From Their Graves.”