Last year, an uproar sounded over the sale of items linked to Casey Anthony. The items, several pairs of jeans and purses purchased by Christina Werner at a garage sale run by Anthony’s parents, were snatched up by business savvy website owner Eric Holler. In a true display of business acumen, the jeans, complete with a price tag for $1 left over from the garage sale, were listed at $800.
Though Anthony was found innocent in court, it’s hardly surprising that a shadowy, underground marketplace has formed around objects — often former possessions — linked to murderers, and in particular, serial murderers. This marketplace, catering to a growing number of collectors of what is called “murderabilia,” sells anything from locks of hair to courtroom sketches to handwritten letters.
The market for murderabilia used to enjoy a certain level of acceptance with items exchanged above ground via eBay auctions. However, in May of 2001, eBay banned the sale of murderabilia. With a vast number of regular customers hungry for their fix, it’s no surprise that the market continued to operate underground. Many providers — including the previously mentioned Eric Holler — struck out on their own, creating websites that offered a veritable catalog of macabre relics.
Where there is a desire, there is a man lurking on some corner of the Internet ready to fulfill it. Whether you’re looking to brighten up your holiday get together with “Slave Master” John Edward Robinson’s Santa suit or have a void in your refrigerator that can only be filled by cult leader Charles Manson’s half-eaten burrito, heave a sigh of reliefs because your search is finally over.
With that, we turn our eyes towards these shaded corners of the Internet. Those corners upon which operate men with toothy grins dressed in prison blues. We peer across this stark and frightful landscape, through the iron bars of untold penitentiaries and into the shadowy world of murderabilia.
Into The Art Of Darkness
John Wayne Gacy was convicted of the murder of 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Gacy earned the moniker the “Killer Clown,” from his work on the charity circuit and at children’s parties where he performed as “Pogo the Clown.” He spent 14 years on death row before being executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.
But there was more to John Wayne Gacy. A prolific artist, Gacy produced a vast number of haunting, surreal paintings, some of which featured his alter ego Pogo the Clown. In an immediate manifestation of the old suspicion that art is worth more when the artist is dead, dealers began selling Gacy’s work in the months following his execution.
In 2011, the Arts Factory Gallery in Las Vegas hosted an auction for a bulk of Gacy’s work. The show, purported to be the largest exhibition of the killer’s work, promised that a portion of its proceeds would be donated to several named charities. Within months of its opening, the National Center for Victims of Crime — one of the named charities — refused the gallery’s donation and demanded that its name be removed from the show’s promotional materials.
The Unabomber Sheds His Possessions
Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was a gifted mathematician who in the early 60s was part of an morally questionable psychology experiment by Henry Murray. Some say that the experiments — part of the CIA’s Project MKULTRA — are what drove Kaczynski to become a socially reclusive serial bomber.
After his capture in 1996 at a secluded cabin in the Montana wilderness, the U.S. government was faced with a difficult decision. In order to pay restitution to his victims, Kaczynski’s personal belongings would need to be auctioned off. Among the items up for sale: driver’s licenses, personal documents, hundreds of books, a typewritten manifesto and the outfit that inspired the iconic Unabomber wanted poster.
The auction came to a close in June of 2011, having raised over $232,000. The most popular item, Kaczynski’s personal journals, fetched an impressive $40,000 on their own. All told, the auction’s earnings barely put a dent in the $15 million Kaczynski was ordered to pay his victims, however, it stands as one of the largest scale examples of government participation in the darkened corners of murderabilia.
A Decent Engine & A Big Trunk
Ed Gein, the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and The Silence of the Lambs’ Jame Gumb, was every bit as twisted as those roles would lead you to believe. After his arrest, a search of his house discovered furniture upholstered in human skin, skullcaps used as soup bowls, a vest sewn from a woman’s torso, and a light pull made of human lips. In 1968, Gein was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in a mental institution.
After his conviction, Gein’s car was sold at public auction for $760 to funfair owner Bunny Gibbons. Gibbons, who apparently suffered a critically impaired concept of “fun,” obscured the car inside a canvas tent and plastered a sign on it that read “SEE THE CAR THAT HAULED THE DEAD FROM THEIR GRAVES!” Charging 25 cents admission, Gibbons sold tickets to over 2,000 spectators before a local controversy erupted and he was forced to take his show south.
A View Of The Vampire
In the annals of history, it’s hard to find a more macabre character than Albert Fish. Known by such names as the “Gray Man,” the “Werewolf of Wysteria,” the “Brooklyn Vampire” and the “Boogey Man,” Fish’s gruesome acts span decades and stretch the limits of believability. So callous, so heartless was Fish that he once penned a letter to one of his victim’s parents boasting that, “It took me nine days to eat her entire body.”
The ghastly and horrendous nature of Fish’s acts, coupled with the fact that the majority of his murders were committed over a century ago, created a sort of vacuum for items linked to him and his crimes. Collectors of murderabilia, regular visitors of that intersection of rarity and severity, were shocked when — in 2010, a well-known murderabilia website sold an authenticated Albert Fish autograph for $30,000. The buyer, no doubt thrilled to have scored the dreadful equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, was never identified.
Holiday Greetings From Raiford Prison
Attractive and silver-tongued, Ted Bundy murdered a number of young girls and women during the 1970s. Using his charisma to gain trust, Bundy is famous for feigning injury or authority to then overpower and abscond with his physically diminutive victims. At least partly responsible for the launch of true crime writer Ann Rule’s career, Bundy worked alongside her at Seattle’s Suicide Hotline crisis center. Rule would later describe Bundy as, “a sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human’s pain and the control he had over his victims,” which is only marginally better than Bundy’s description of himself as, “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.”
Among the more surreal items on offer at online murderabilia sites are a set of Christmas cards personalized and signed by Bundy. At the princely sum of $3,000, the cards show a different side of Bundy, who apparently underwent a spiritual transformation since his incarceration in 1976. Inside the cards, he wrote, “I am doing quite well myself, thank you, and I am filled with the Spirit. I pray that you are too. […] God bless you through His son Jesus.”