How would you like to own a jar of dirt from Ed Gein’s grave, cards and letters written by serial killer Arlene Wuornos, or a drawing by Charles Manson? Murderabilia isn’t for everyone and it certainly hasn’t gone without serious debate on the ethics of selling these items. In spite of efforts from lawmakers and websites such as Ebay to thwart this macabre niche market, murderabilia is becoming more popular than ever, and collectors of these items have built their own community around owning artifacts from their favorite grisly murderers.
Like any collectible market, items vary in price depending upon the rarity of the item. The celebrity status of the killer also holds a profound impact on an item’s market value. A quick glance at one popular murderabilia auction site shows that some items start at just a few dollars, while other items can fetch up into the thousands. Five of the top grossing murderabilia items of all time are provided below. Should companies and individuals be allowed to make these sort of profits off of the infamy of killers, or should lawmakers shut down this market for good?
Bonnie and Clyde’s Guns
The two notorious gangsters rose to fame for their spree of robbery and murder during the 1930’s. In the wake of their crimes, Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits have become romanticized within popular culture. Seen today as an outlaw couple who lived the hard life and loved one another even harder, it should come to no surprise that items owned by the pair are a highly coveted market. RR Auction of Amherst, N.H. profited heavily on the infamy of the two murderers. In 2012 the company auctioned off the gun– a .38 caliber Detective Special– that Bonnie Parker had strapped to her thigh during the legendary standoff with police that ultimately took her life. The auction closed at $264,000. Coming in at a close second was Clyde Barrow’s Colt .45 caliber automatic, selling for $240,000.
The Gun that Killed Lee Harvey Oswald
Just days after Oswald shot Kennedy, a Chicago night club owner by the name of Jack Ruby would make national headlines for shooting Oswald on national television as he made his way to an armored car to be transported to jail. Believing he was saving Mrs. Kennedy from the further grief of having to endure the trial process, for some Ruby is seen as the poster boy for vigilante justice. Jack’s brother, Earl, gained control over Jack’s estate after a lengthy court battle. With mounting tax bills, Earl decided the best thing to do was to auction off the gun Jack used to kill Oswald, complete with police evidence tags still attached. Selling for $220,000, Jack Ruby’s gun is only slightly less valuable than those owned by Bonnie and Clyde.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s Coffin
After his widely publicized death, being shot by Jack Ruby while on his way to jail for shooting President Kennedy, it would seem that Oswald is worth far more dead than alive. Rumors and conspiracy circulated around the death of Oswald, suggesting that the body that was buried was not actually Oswald, but a Soviet agent instead. The casket along with Oswald’s body was exhumed in December of 2010 to put the rumor to rest once and for all. After the body was determined to be that of Oswald’s, the body was reburied and the casket was auctioned off for $87,000. A number of other items belonging to Oswald also fetched a hefty sum. These items included his signed Marine guidebook, selling for $72,500; and his blood stained toe tag from the medical examiners office, purchased for $67,500.
The Unabomber’s Typewriter
Ted Kaczynski, better known as The Unabomber, was what would be known today as a domestic terrorist. Over the course of nearly 20 years he sent a total of 16 homemade bombs to universities, airlines, and other targets that undermined his political and social agenda. Three people were killed as a result, and another 23 were injured. One of the most famous pieces of evidence to emerge as a result of his trial included his personal manifesto, stating Kaczynski’s political views and his dissent for the modern establishment. In May of 2011, the FBI decided to hold a benefit auction for his victims’ families selling off various personal items of Kaczynski’s. The typewriter used to compose his infamous manifesto alone sold for $22,003, while his personal journals collectively sold for another $40,676. In total 53 items were sold and the FBI was able to raise nearly $200,000.
Paintings by John Wayne Gacy
Chicago’s own killer clown, accused of raping and murdering 33 men and boys throughout the 1970’s, has transformed himself from a serial killer to a world-renowned artist. Taking up painting as a form of therapy while awaiting his execution, Gacy’s work has joined the leagues of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Art galleries across the country have featured Gacy’s work and much of it has been auctioned off for charity. Rocketing Gacy to almost a pop culture celebrity, the 90’s band Acid Bath featured several of Gacy’s pieces as the artwork for their album When the Kite String Pops. Others did not embrace the idea of a psychotic killer gaining recognition for his prison past-times. After Gacy’s execution, a group of victims’ rights advocates purchased a number of his works for somewhere in the ballpark of $15,000-$20,000 in order to burn them. Today an original Gacy can run anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars.
Those that seek out these rare collectibles consider themselves historians of sorts. Much like those who collect war artifacts, those who purchase murderabilia believe that they are purchasing a piece of the puzzle, or a glimpse into a dark mind that many cannot understand. Often the attack on murderabilia is not on the collectors, rather it is directed towards the ones who cater to this market. Some believe that living killers use their media celebrity to profit and specifically seek out these dealers. Most dealers scoff at such claims and insist that it is they themselves that are the ones making the real profit. In either case, there are those who feel that no one should be profiting off of death unless those profits are going directly to the victims or the surviving family.
Understandably funeral and medical costs can be costly, and killers should certainly be held financially responsible for these costs, but if certain groups hold the idea that no one should profit off of death then where is the line drawn? Why should a family be able to profit off the death of a loved one? No amount of money is going to bring that person back, and unless that money is going directly towards costs incurred as a result of that loved one’s death, a victim’s family shouldn’t be exploiting death for profit either.
As previously mentioned, there is a similarity between murderabilia collectors and those who collect war and military items. Is war not also death? Should private dealers of war related mementos be forced to send their profits to the families of those who died during a particular war? And what about the media’s role?
One could argue that these items would not be sought after if the media wasn’t guilty of making these criminals into celebrities in their first place. Perhaps these advocacy groups have their heart in the right place, but are fighting the wrong battle. Oliver Stone’s popular film Natural Born Killers showed how media celebrity can propel criminals into the same leagues as rock stars in some instances. Instead of going after the small-time businessmen embracing the true spirit of capitalism, these lawmakers and advocacy groups should attack the problem at the source. There is a lot of questions posed within this article, which I have been told is bad form in many of my writing courses, however I do so with the intent that the reader will ask themselves these questions when forming an opinion on this topic. Until the cultural obsession with murderers and criminals is subdued, websites such as this one will continue to be popular, and things like Jeffery Dahmer action figures will continue to be sold along side the Marvel Signature Series and McFarlane collectibles in shops across the nation.