Often referred to as ‘trophy collecting’, killers and especially multiple murderers have a habit of taking items from their victims which they can keep for years to come in order to remind them of their kills. A grim practice which can result in a collection box full of items which extends their dark fantasies past the act of murder. Having possession of them, being able to look at them and touch them serves as an aid to relieve each murder and achieve that same thrill or pleasure long after the act. These items can go from simple belongings such as shoes, clothing, or jewellery to the more gruesome and extreme such as body parts and skin.
Ed Gein will always be remembered more for his shocking acts of human taxidermy and abuse of corpses through grave robbing than his acts of murder, although it is difficult to know how many murders this man actually carried out.
A deeply disturbed individual, Gein began his gruesome collection of skin and body parts by exhuming female bodies in graveyards and cutting of his desired area of the body as a souvenir to take home with him. Raised by an overbearing and domineering mother, after her death Gein’s mental health began to spiral out of control.
He progressed from nocturnal grave robbing to murder, taking the lives of two women that we know about. 54-year-old Mary Hogan went missing in 1954 and Bernice Worden, also in her fifties, disappeared in 1957, both from Plainfield, Wisconsin. The son of Bernice Worden was the sheriff’s deputy and when he went to check out Ed Gein in relation to his mother’s disappearance, the finds within his house were enough to sicken even the most seasoned detectives.
A lampshade made of human skin, human skulls used as soup bowls, chairs upholstered with layers of human skin and the most gruesome; masks made out of his victims’ faces. Ed Gein liked to dress as a woman and in order to make the experience as authentic as possible, he created gowns, vests, and masks using human skin which he would then wear to complete his transformation. “I had a compulsion to do it,” he said.
The mutilated body of Bernice Worden was found suspended upside down from a meat hook in a woodshed on the property and when questioned Ed Gein highlighted he couldn’t remember how many women he had actually killed. After being arrested for murder, Ed Gein pleaded not guilty by insanity and spent ten years in psychiatric hospitals until he was declared fit to stand trial. Found guilty of murder but criminally insane, he died at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin in July 1984, aged 77 years old.
In a chilling act, some killers like to give their chosen souvenir to somebody close to them such as a wife or girlfriend. This is seen most often with an item of jewellery and the recipients’ delight at being given a present is an extra thrill for killers and they can then be reminded of their crime each time their chosen one wears the item. The secret that it has come from someone they have murdered and the recipient has no idea, is something they enjoy and can do so daily.
German serial killer Fritz Haarmann, known as the ‘Vampire of Hanover’ was an especially vicious killer who murdered at least 24 young men that are known about between 1918 and 1924 in Hanover, Germany. Once Haarmann had murdered, dismembered and dumped his victims’ bodies he would collect various items of their belongings to take home with him. He was known to sell these items for money or give them away to friends and family as gifts all the while having the knowledge of their true origins. Harrmaan was sentenced to death for his crimes and executed in 1925.
Photographs of their victims both alive and after they have been killed are common items found in the possession of killers. The ‘Lonely Hearts Killer’ Harvey Glatman liked to do this, posing his victims in various sexual positions. Glatman would lure his victims by pretending to be a photographer for a magazine and would encourage girls to pose for him, often while bound, before he raped and killed them. He enjoyed having women tied up and terrified and capturing their fear and his power with the camera providing him with more than just the memory afterward.
The ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’ Jeffrey Dahmer is another example of the extreme end of serial killers and their souvenirs. Along with almost 80 Polaroid photographs displaying his victims in various states of dismemberment, Dahmer collected the body parts of his victims. When police attended his apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1991 after a report of assault was made against him, they found human body parts in almost every room. Four severed heads were found in his kitchen and seven skulls in his bedroom along with two entire skeletons and various human organs within his freezer. “It was more like dismantling someone’s museum than an actual crime scene.” the medical examiner noted.
These souvenirs can be the undoing of serial killers providing physical evidence linking them to a murder victim which will be a crushing blow to their case in the courtroom. Their wish to steal and keep souvenirs, items which provide them with a way to relieve their crimes or simply a build a collection to give them a sense of power knowing each item belonged to one victim, can be the very same items that confirm to police they have the right man.
When Australian serial killer Ivan Milat was caught, a police search of his house discovered hundreds of items related to his kills, with his victims’ belongings not only being found in his own home but also the homes of his mother and brother. Camping equipment, clothing and money belonging to the seven backpackers he had murdered in New South Wales between 1989 and 1993 were found hidden all around his house in what police described as an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of trophies. These belongings could be traced back to his victims providing further evidence that Milat was responsible for brutally taking their lives. Ivan Milat was convicted of multiple murders in 1996 and is now serving seven life sentences for his crimes.
American serial killer Jerry Brudos was a killer with a fetish for shoes leading him to amputate the lower leg of one of his victims to provide him with a female foot he could model his collection on. Initially starting with simply stealing shoes and women’s underwear, he too like Ed Gein, progressed onto murder. After he confessed and was convicted of the murder of four young women in Oregon between 1968 and 1969, Brudos was sentenced to life imprisonment, dying behind bars in 2006.
While the motivations and methods of murder for these killers may have differed, their desire to keep mementos from their kills undoubtedly helped secure convictions against them and put them behind bars. The sense of pleasure they obtained from these items kept their murderous acts alive in their minds and even when caught and imprisoned for their crimes, the memories remain. Not all serial killers take trophies but these dark collections are an added insult to the victims of these individuals and they are actions that killers across the world as they continue to kill, will continue to carry out.