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Inside the Murderabilia Machine

How macabre artifacts became a booming industry

murderabilia, true crime, crime collecting, serial killer, charles manson, john wayne gacy

Images used in photo-illustration by Bettmann/Getty Images, 2; Eric Risberg/AP/Shutterstock

For Eric Holler, it started 25 years ago with a letter to Richard Ramirez — a serial killer and rapist known as the “Night Stalker,” who was active from 1984 to 1985. He was fascinated by Ramirez’s case and decided to introduce himself in a letter. A few weeks later Ramirez wrote back, asking Holler for his phone number. After being in touch a while, Ramirez requested that Holler — who was in his early twenties at the time — act as his art dealer. Holler agreed, so Ramirez sent over a package of his artwork, which Holler then sold on a new online auction site.

“I put his stuff up on eBay and it sold really well,” Holler tells Rolling Stone. “So he sent me another package and another package and another package and he just continued. And I started writing to other [criminals] and other guys started sending stuff too.”

In 2008, Holler started Serial Killer Ink — a website selling true crime collectibles — and he’s not alone in this retail space, though eBay no longer permits the sale of these items. As he learned when the first set of art by Ramirez sold out, there is clearly a demand for physical objects associated with notorious crimes and criminals. In addition to art, this so-called “murderabilia” can take many forms, including but not limited to articles of clothing, personal possessions, and locks of hair belonging to murderers. But is this simply a macabre hobby — collecting parts of dark history — or something more problematic? It all depends on who you ask. Welcome to the world of murderabilia.

For longtime collector Michael Channels, murderabilia and true crime collecting are two distinct categories. He views true crime collecting as memorabilia related to crimes, whether that’s books, newspaper clippings, or a criminal’s artwork or autograph. By contrast, for him, the word “murderabilia” feels dirty, crafted to describe “the demented, unhinged, or the lunatic collector that it was intended to portray in the first place.” And in Channels’ experience, sometimes that description is accurate. “Some of the people who collect murderabilia are unhinged and some of them are even teetering on dangerous,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I have observed from a distance, [and] some of these collectors become actual killers themselves. Several collectors I knew have killed themselves, so it can be a dark hobby for some — but they came to this hobby with their own set of problems that this hobby didn’t create.”  

And there is money to be made in murderabilia. Last year, a painting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy sold for $7,000 — over three times the $2,000 it was estimated to bring in. Currently, a lock of Charles Manson’s hair is listed on the site True Crime Auction House for $2,400 (marked down from its initial price of $2,950). Though items associated with lesser-known criminals won’t command these prices, there is enough interest for this to be a lucrative business for people like Holler.

A drawing by Richard Ramirez aka “The Night Stalker”
Photograph courtesy of Serial Killer Ink

But for some, this is more than a business transaction. In the fall of 1999, Andy Kahan read about a New York serial killer whose art privileges were being rescinded because prison officials discovered that he was selling his artwork on eBay. Kahan was curious about how common this actually was, so he did a quick eBay search, which yielded staggering results. Disturbed by this, Kahan contacted an eBay public affairs representative, who he says told him: “‘You know, Andy, we’re not the morality police. As long as it’s legal, we have an obligation to offer it to our customers, and if you don’t like it, feel free to do something about it.’”

EBay banned sales of murderabilia in 2001. Ashley Settles, who works in corporate communications for eBay tells Rolling Stone that while the company doesn’t have an official definition of murderabilia, it has a policy on offensive materials. While things like letters or artwork created by serial killers or violent felons or any of their belongings are not permitted to be sold on the site, items related to crimes that occurred more than 100 years ago — like those related to Jack the Ripper — are allowed, along with books, documentaries, and Hollywood-style movies about violent crimes.

This is what prompted Kahan, a longtime victims’ advocate, to do something. “I coined a cute little word that caught on — ‘murderabilia’ — to describe the industry,” he explains. For the next two years, he became an avid buyer of murderabilia. He quickly began accumulating information on who the dealers were and how they operated, as well as a duffel bag full of what he refers to as “a smorgasbord of everything that I needed from serial killers” — including pieces of clothing to artwork, letters, autographs, deodorant, hair, and fingernail clippings. 

Kahan, who is now director of victim services and advocacy at Crime Stoppers of Houston, uses the contents of his duffel bag to give presentations on murderabilia and campaign for Notoriety for Profit laws, which currently exist in eight states and prohibit people from profiting off of similar items. “I felt it was important to have these actual items in my possession to show that the industry actually does exist and is thriving, as opposed to simply printing out items that were being sold,” he explains. “It’s a more powerful presentation when I pull out Charles Manson’s hair that was sold in the form of a swastika.” 

Previously, what were known as the Son of Sam laws were passed in New York in 1977 out of a concern that serial killer David Berkowitz would profit off selling his story to the media or for book or film rights. The U.S. Supreme Court deemed the laws unconstitutional in 1991, however, for violating freedom of speech. So Kahan has focused his efforts squarely on profits, rather than anything that may restrict free speech. “Basically, in layman’s terms: paint, scratch, snip, doodle all you want — just don’t make money from it,” he says.

A painting by John Wayne Gacy. Photograph courtesy of Serial Killer Ink

So where does that leave collectors? For Kahan, that part isn’t as problematic. “People have been collecting true crime memorabilia since, more than likely, the first caveman bopped somebody. So collect all you want,” he says. “Where we draw the line is when you’re actually listing items to be sold for personal profit.”

There is also the question of what constitutes murderabilia, versus artifacts that are viewed more simply as pieces of history. While some objects — like a painting by Gacy or Manson’s ashes — appear to clearly fall within the boundaries of murderabilia, others aren’t as clear-cut. For example, J.D. Healy, the owner and curator of the Museum of Death in Los Angeles, points to artifacts associated with presidential assassinations as an example. “If you think about Lincoln, he was murdered,” he explains. “Who has that stuff? The Smithsonian.” Along the same lines, he brings up objects associated with 9/11, many of which are now on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. “That was murder,” Healy says. “I think people wear these blinders where they think that just serial killers and murderers — like that’s the only murderabilia out there. But if you really think about it, there’s a lot more to murderabilia than people think.” 

While murderabilia typically centers on the criminal, part of Kahan’s work involves shifting the focus to the victims and to their families. “As someone who served on the board of Parents of Murdered Children and Surviving Family Members of Homicide, I can unequivocally tell you that from the victims’ perspective, it’s one of the most nauseating and disgusting feelings in the world, when you find out that the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has personalized items being hawked by third parties for pure profit,” he explains. And when it comes to consideration of victims, both Channels and Holler draw the line at collecting anything to do with pedophiles or people who kill children. “Those guys are the bottom of the barrel,” Holler says.

A clipping of Charles Manson’s hair. Photograph courtesy of Andy Kahan

But where does that leave murderabilia collectors or visitors to places like the Museum of Death — people who don’t profit off of these items and are simply interested in their history? Healy argues that it all depends on a person’s perception of where the line between history and exploitation is drawn. “People will complain, ‘You’re exploiting the murder of these poor victims.’ No, I’m not. I’m a collector who’s trying to save a part of history and, if you think about it, the news reports on this stuff every day and they are much more graphic and worse than I am,” he says. “It’s funny. People want to look at it the way they want to look at it — they don’t want to look at the big picture. And that’s why the museum is great, because we throw everything out there, and we let you decide what you want to think. We don’t tell you what to you think.” 

And though it may be tempting to paint those interested in murderabilia as morally questionable, both Channels and Holler point out that many work in the criminal justice profession, including police officers, attorneys, professors, prison guards, and judges. “Many of the people who collect murderabilia are compassionate, honest, god-fearing people who are silent about their interest in the hobby because of the stigma it carries with it,” Channels says.

Regardless of where you stand on murderabilia, it’s here to stay. Channels, Holler and Kahan agree that this is thanks, at least in part, to the constant media coverage of crime and murders in particular. And given that our cultural appetite for all-things-murder never seems to be satiated, there is no end to true crime podcasts, articles, documentaries and books in sight. According to Holler, “soccer moms picking up books on Charles Manson” is an indication of how mainstream the genre has become. “These items that I sell do take the books and go a little further,” he says. “There are people who are proud to hang a John Wayne Gacy painting up on their wall and they’re not psychos, and the dealers are not psychos. It’s just a culture that interests people.”

 

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