Murder for sale
Andy Round logs on the sites that market memorabilia associated with murderers and discovers there are plenty of people out there making a killing.
By Andy Round
Before his execution Ted Bundy confessed to killing at least 30 young women in horrendous whirlwind of rape, necrophilia and decapitation that dated back to the mid 1970s. By the time 2,000 volts of electricity extinguished the serial killer at Florida’s State Prison 11 years later, Bundy had become so ingrained in the world’s cultural fabric that his grisly story had inspired numerous films, books and documentaries.
But if you’ve read the books and seen the films, where do you go from there? Well, why not own a piece of the man for yourself? It’s not that hard. If you have a few hundred dollars to spare you can snap up some body hair shaved from Bundy before his execution or even a few strands of “fried hair” scooped from under the electric chair that killed him.
Not keen? Then, what about a sperm-stained photo from school killer Wayne Lo or fingernail clippings from serial rapist and murderer Roy Norris? No? Perhaps you’d prefer pubic hair from cannibal Arthur Shawcross who slaughtered 11 women or soil taken from the crawl space where ‘Killer Clown’ John Wayne Gacy buried 27 of his 33 victims?
Looking for clippings, artwork or hair from killers?
There’s a world of macabre choice out there and it’s just a click away on auction websites that market ‘murderabilia’ associated with criminals. Sites such as daisyseven.com, prisonboundserialkillers.com or murderauctions.com offer everything from autographs, photos and letters from killers to their clippings, artwork or hair.
Andy Kahan, director of the Mayor’s Crime Victims Office in Huston, has been campaigning to clamp down on these sites for a decade. “I came across an item on eBay in 1999 for sale belonging to a serial killer and I thought, ‘That’s illegal, you can’t make money from crime’,” he says. “I put serial killer into the eBay search engine and found there were lots of items for sale.”
When Kahan contacted eBay he was told the company was “not the morality police” and people could sell whatever they wanted as long as it was legal. “So, I thought I needed to understand more about this, so for a year I became a murderabilia collector.” As Kahan amassed his killer hair samples, finger-nail cuttings and scrapings, he became well known as a reputable collector even receiving advance notices from dealers before items were posted.
Sourcing items from crime scenes or prison
Then Kahan started to use the media to leverage a highly emotive anti-murderabilia campaign. “The relatives of victims get sick to their stomach when they see items associated with their loved ones being hawked for profit.” Eventually eBay banned murderabilia from its site. “Unfortunately these people are like cockroaches,” he says. “You close one outlet and they set up shop somewhere else online.”
Dealers often write to prisoners to source items, occasionally murderabilia is sold from killers’ families, their lawyers, crime scene police or taken from cells by guards. So, Kahan stepped up the momentum of his campaign by writing to high profile serial killers himself. “I got 12 responses and many were outraged their possessions were being sold for cash. Susan Atkins, for example, one of the girls involved in the Charles Manson murders, identified a photograph that had been stolen from her cell and was stunned, ‘People actually make money out this?’ she asked.”
An unlikely relationship also emerged from correspondence with ‘Son of Sam’ serial killer David Berkowitz. “It’s incredibly partnership because Berkowitz became a great asset providing me with information. And as he is so high profile he gets a lot of letters from people who want to sell items associated with him.”
Berkowitz’s name is applied to the American ‘Son of Sam Law’ that prevented the sale of stories through films or books that would profit criminals. In 1987 the Supreme Court found the legislation unconstitutional and a violation of the freedom of speech. Now Kahan is driving a new national ‘Notoriety For Profit’ bill to crush the sale of murderabilia by making it illegal for prisoners to profit from the sending or receiving of items through the post.
Selling items associated with the murder of a loved one
Attorney Kim Ogg has been working with Kahan on the bill’s legal detail. “We are trying to cut off the trade of goods at source,” she says. Ogg is the founder of a Houston law firm and has worked with relatives of victims for 22 years. “No-one ever imagines a loved one will be murdered. It’s incomprehensible,” she says. “But then to be further victimised by seeing the sale of items associated with that tragedy by the person who killed your loved one. That’s emotionally devastating.”
In the words of Kay Reeves whose daughter Teri Lynn Matthews was murdered by Florida serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin, “It just turns your insides makes you sick to believe that someone would do this.”
Tod Bohannon has been collecting murderabilia since he wrote to Charles Manson at the age of 13. Among his prized possessions are a John Wayne Gacy ‘Skull Clown’, cufflinks that belonged to ‘Hillside Strangler’, a tooth from serial killer Daniel Siebert and biscuits half-eaten by Charles Manson.
Bohannon who started murderauction.com three years ago believes that forcing the murderabilia trade underground will increase its value and appeal. “I don’t see how the US can justify spending money on having someone reading the outgoing mail of inmates when they can’t afford to pay prison guards overtime or make sure inmates in toiletries,” he tells me via email.
'I wrote to killers in Florida to send me their financial statements'
Bohannon says regularly receives death threats following anti-murderabilia stories in the American media, but he says his site is doubling in size every year with items occasionally reaching “six even seven figures”.
“My site is not mainstream and if it were not for people like victims rights advocates fanning the flames then a lot of these victims’ families would never know about my site,” Bohannon says. “Television stations, publishing houses and production companies make millions selling their products but I get criticised for selling an autograph. I don’t really have a response for people that are too close-minded to see what I really stand for. They take the word of someone else and think I am sitting around rubbing my hands together with blood money and that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Bohannon’s site is set up as a public auction house. Dealers and collectors pay a registration fee to join, so how does he respond to criticism that criminals are cashing in on their crimes? “I helped a reporter do a story to prove this theory wrong and I did. I wrote to 12 of the biggest names in Florida to send me their financial statements. [Serial killer] Glen Rogers had the most deposits and that was US$350 for 10 years. I don’t remember other amounts, but they were nothing.”
'It's not abnormal to be interested in true crime'
Bill Shafer has been collecting art produced by notorious criminals for 18 years. He now runs California’s Hyaena Gallery in California that buys and sells art by criminals in addition to surrealist and ‘outsider’ works. At the time of going to press, Hyaena was selling scorpions made from yarn by Charles Manson for between US$1,600 and US$2,700 and John Wayne Gacy ‘clown’ paintings from US$2,200 to US$3,500.
“I’ve had exhibitions of true crime art and I try to handle them very responsibly so as not to have the stigma of exploitation of sensationalism attached to what I do,” Shafer says. “Quite honestly, it’s not abnormal to be interested in true crime. It’s not a glorification of the killer, more a reminder that it’s natural to be fascinated by the macabre in a psychological sense. This fascination is reflected in our demand for true crime dramas and forensics documentaries on television.”
The gallery owner says that true crime artworks represent the way in which the cult of celebrity extends easily to notorious killers. “Sensational cases create a mythology and place people like Manson or Gacy on an iconic pedestal,” Shafer says. “This allows unskilled artwork created by someone like Gacy to be worth more than our most talented trained artists.”
'Is watching a documentary on serial killers offensive?'
But what about the relatives of the victims who were killed by Gacy or Manson? “I try to show respect for the victims and their families, but I do not believe that collecting or selling true crime art is offensive. Is watching a documentary on serial killers offensive? I don’t view it as much different than that.”
One of Andy Kahan’s strangest purchases is a Jeffrey Dahmer killer cannibal doll that can be unzipped to reveal toy body insides. “I understand the attraction of the macabre,” he says. “You only have to look at this doll, there is no legislating for bad taste. But what I don’t want to see are criminals making money from their notoriety. You can collect all you want, draw, write or paint all you want. Just don’t make any money of it. It’s simply blood money.”