Stamps, coins, baseball cards, comic books, dollhouses –over the years, collectors have spent millions of dollars on rare and vintage memorabilia, and for some, the dogged, one-track pursuit of these commodities is like a Grail quest. However, it’s not the old stamp that’s really important to the collector; it’s the story behind that old stamp.There’s a growing subculture of collectors who have a taste for sordid, lurid and sensationalist stories. While the market for murderabilia is small –a niche offshoot of true crime collectibles -an X-ray of Charles Manson’s spine or a clown painting by serial killer John Wayne Gayce retails for top dollar.
Why would someone collect items once owned by murderers? The commercialization of evil is part of our culture, and people’s fascination with crime, murder, and serial killers goes back to the days of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. Suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, Lizzie Borden even inspired a popular nursery rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe/and gave her mother forty whacks/when she saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one.”
When it comes to collecting murder merchandise, it’s not a question of why. It’s a question of why not? Why did thieves steal the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) sign from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial in 2009? Why did armed men steal Edvard Munch’s “Scream” painting from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2004? Whether it’s murderabilia, true crime collectibles, Nazi dishware, locks of celebrity hair or stolen artwork -somebody, somewhere, wants these items in their personal gallery.
Is a modern collector going to impress an audience with a book of old coins or stamps? No. However, display 20 personal journals from the Unabomber’s archive or Lee Harvey Oswald’s coffin, and the Wow factor is ratcheted up by “forty whacks.” In the end, murder is business, and business is good.
10. Charles Manson’s Hair – $800
In the summer of 1969, the Manson family went on a killing spree that has become one of the most famous acts of violence in American history. When the California bloodbath was over, seven people were dead including pregnant film actress Sharon Tate, the hippie dream had been forever changed by a self-proclaimed messiah’s death squad commune, and the words “Helter Skelter” had gone from being a Beatles song to a rallying cry for apocalyptic race war.
Profiteering from the Manson murders hasn’t been subtle. There have been numerous books written about the cult leader and his followers, the most famous being “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” penned by Vincent Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor on the case. Since his incarceration, Charles Manson has self-propagated his mythology by giving dozens of interviews and writing a biography. Cultural obsession has turned him into a brand. A lock of Manson’s hair sells for $800.
9. BTK Killer’s Envelope and a Drawing of “Factor X” -$3,000
The BTK Killer (Dennis Rader) murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991, before the taunting letters he sent to police led to his capture in 2005. Blind, Torture, Kill –that’s what the BTK acronym stands for, and it’s also what Rader did to his victims. “Factor X” is the demon/creature that Rader told police made him kill. After his sentence, the BTK killer’s possessions started appearing on auction websites. A BTK envelope containing a drawing of “Factor X” retailed for $3,000.
8. John Wayne Gacy Clown Paintings – $200-$20,000
John Wayne Gacy was one of America’s most notorious and prolific serial killers. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy is said to have murdered at least 33 teenage boys, 26 of which were buried in a crawlspace in his Norwood Park Township home in Chicago, Illinois.
Gacy was a businessman and community volunteer. He joined the Moose Club, where members dressed up as clowns and performed at local parades and fundraising events. After his arrest, the media dubbed Gacy “The Killer Clown.”
When Gacy was on death row, he painted –much of his artwork depicted clowns- and after his execution in 1994, his lawyer auctioned his work. Some of the paintings were purchased and destroyed by family members of Gacy’s victims, while others ended up in the hands of private collectors. In 2011, a Las Vegas art coordinator came under fire for hosting an exhibit and charity sale of Gacy’s work entitled: “Multiples: The Artwork of John Wayne Gacy.” A self -portrait called “Pogo the Clown” was listed at $4,500, but Gacy’s work is said to have auctioned for $20,000.
7. The Unabomber’s Hoodie and Sunglasses – $20,000
Between 1978 and 1995, Ted Kaczynski killed three and injured 23 when he embarked on a nationwide bombing campaign. The Unabomber is America’s most famous homegrown terrorist; other than his bloody mail bomb crusade, Ted Kaczynski is known for his social critiques against government, industrialization and technology.
In 2011, possessions belonging to the Unabomber including his hoodie and aviator sunglasses (made famous in a police composite sketch), Smith and Corona typewriter, and handwritten manifesto went on sale in one of the biggest murderabila auctions to date. While the handwritten manifesto sold for $17,000, the famous hoodie and aviator sunglasses fetched $20,000.
6. Clyde Barrow’s Revolver – $25,850
Lovers, celebrity outlaws, and American folk heroes –thanks largely to Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” -Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow robbed a dozen banks during the Great Depression. The duo and their gang are said to have murdered at least nine police officers and a handful of civilians before being ambushed and killed in Louisiana in 1934. Bonnie and Clyde were the inspiration for Terrence Malick’s 1973 lovers-on-the-lam drama “Badlands,” as well as Oliver Stone Stone’s 1994 tabloid opus, “Natural Born Killers.” In 2001, Clyde Barrow’s army revolver sold at Christie’s Auction for $25,850.
5. Albert Fish’s Autograph – $30,000
Albert Fish had so many macabre monikers that the 1930s newspaper headlines looked like they’d been ripped from a monster movie marathon. “Eggs and Ham,” “The Bogey Man,” “The Werewolf of Wysteria,” “The Grey Man,” “The Vampire of Brooklyn” –Fish was suspected of five murders, but the serial killer, child rapist and cannibal boasted he “had children in every state.” An unknown bidder bought Fish’s autograph for $30,000.
4. Ed Gein: Crucifix Made at the Mendota Mental Health Institute – $45,000
Ed Gein, “the butcher of Plainfield, Wisconsin,” is the inspiration for popular culture’s most horrible fictional killers, including Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). When the authorities entered Gein’s dilapidated farmhouse in 1957, they found lampshades made of human skin, bowls made of skulls, female genitalia in a shoebox, a belt made of nipples, and the grotesque inventory goes on and on.
Ed Gein only confessed to killing two women. Many of the keepsakes and trophies around the farmhouse are believed to be from bodies he exhumed from the local cemetery. Gein was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the next twenty-seven years in the Mendota Mental Health Institute. Both Gein’s farmhouse and gravestone became tourist attractions; a suspected arson fire destroyed the farmhouse, and the gravestone is now in storage. A crucifix Gein made at the Mendota Mental Institute is believed to have sold for $45,000.
3. John Wilkes Booth: Signed Letter – $65,000
John Wilkes Booth, a popular stage actor, Confederate sympathizer, and fierce opponent of the abolition of slavery, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C, 1865, five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the Civil War. Lincoln, shot in the back of the head while he watched a production of “Our American Cousin,” was the first American president to be assassinated.
In 2004, at Skinners Auction, a letter signed by John Wilkes Booth sold for $65,000. The signed letter, however, isn’t the only piece of Booth memorabilia to go for top dollar. At an RR Auction a book singed by John Wilkes Booth sold for $25,640. The name of the book: “Rifle Practice: An Elementary Treatise Upon the Theory of Rifle Firing,” by C.M Wilcox.
2. Lee Harvey Oswald’s Gold Wedding Band – $118,000
Lee Harvey Oswald woke on the morning of Nov 22, 1963, put his gold wedding band in a cup and $170 in a dresser drawer, and left for work at the Texas School Book Depository. The tragic events that unfolded that afternoon in Dealey Plaza changed the landscape of America forever, as John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the most significant historic event to befall post-war America until September 11th.
In 2013, a Texan buyer bought Lee Harvey Oswald’s gold wedding band at an auction in New Hampshire for $118,000.
1. Jack Ruby’s Colt Cobra – $2 million
Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s suspected assassin, with a snub-nosed .38 caliber Colt Cobra that he had bought at Ray’s Sporting Goods in Dallas, Texas for $62.50. It was the shot heard around the world, and one that left America with more questions than answers. After Jack Ruby’s death in 1967, the gun was the focus of an intense legal battle between Ruby’s lawyer and Ruby’s brother, Earl. Earl was eventually given custody of the firearm; however, hampered with debt, he sold it for $220,000 to a Miami real estate developer named Anthony Pugliese III. Pugliese had possession of the firearm for 17 years before selling it, in 2008, for 2 million dollars at a Pop Culture Auction in Las Vegas.