When I was a kid I found a human tooth. There was a gap in a row of houses, and in that gap was an overgrown garden. My parents banned me from going there, warning me about used needles in the uncut grass. I didn't listen.
One day I went to the garden with a few friends and we decided to dig a hole. We scooped away handfuls of dark soil until we reached the roots of the ivy and the bushes. As I pulled away a handful of dirt I saw something white and square. "It's a tooth," I told those gathered around.
A serial killer called John Christie once lived in the house that occupied the gap. He killed eight people and hid the bodies beneath his floorboards and in his garden. He propped up his fence with their bones. After the bodies were discovered, Christie was hung, his house was knocked down and, later, the garden was planted.
I kept the tooth in a drawer near my bed until I was a teenager. I don't know exactly when it disappeared, but I'm assuming around the time I started paying income tax – that point in your life when you realise you no longer need an XS Chelsea strip, or your year 6 maths textbooks, or a stranger's tooth cluttering up your room. And actually, in retrospect, I'm not even sure what I had was a tooth; it may well have been a small stone that looked vaguely tooth-like. However, I do vividly remember believing that I had a piece of the Christie story sitting in the palm of my hand,
I didn't know it then, but I'd just become (or maybe not, depending on the whole pebble theory) a "murderabilia" collector.
Murderabilia collectors are exactly what they sound like: people who search for objects associated with murder or violent crime. The hobby is predominantly an American phenomenon, but the UK has its own small, dedicated community collecting British pieces.
The first time I heard about this community was in a book about infamous serial killer lovebirds Fred and Rose West. In 1987, the couple killed their 16-year-old daughter Heather and buried her dismembered corpse under the patio stones of their house on Cromwell Street.
After the Wests were caught in 1994, that house stood empty for a while before being demolished. In that interim period someone dug up a patio stone and took it home with them. It's rumoured they built a barbecue with the stone acting as its foundation.
For a while, this story informed my idea of what collectors were like – strange, wheezy creeps sneaking into gardens and struggling to lift masonry into the back of their people carriers. They were all men, they all had combovers and they were all just one traumatic life event away from becoming murderers themselves. The truth is they're not like that at all.
Steven F Scouller is a British true crime writer and murderabilia collector. From a young age he's had an interest in horror films like Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs – all movies that have their basis in real-life cases. Steven's intrigue eventually led him to investigate the reality behind the films, and this influence can be seen in the sort of things he collects today.
For instance, Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs is based partly on the American murderer and body snatcher, Ed Gein. A farmer from Plainfield, Wisconsin, Gein dug up freshly-buried bodies and made trophies out of their skin and bones. He crafted lampshades and masks out of human faces, a belt out of nipples, bowls out of skulls and a corset out of a female torso. Steven owns the razor that Gein used to make his human Etsy catalogue.
It's a gruesome object – something it's hard to imagine any rational person paying actual money for. However, Steven's purchase had nothing to do with a fascination with brutality, but rather an interest in pieces that could offer new clues into famous cases.
He also has an identity card owned by Fred West, for example. Masking tape is wound around the top of the card, concealing a substance that resembles dry blood. If it is blood, the card might offer new evidence into the Cromwell Street murders.
Then there's the artwork created by an American cannibal and killer called Ottis Toole. Six murders have been attributed to Toole, though he claimed to have killed many more. Toole drew depictions of the murders that he wasn't convicted for, and Steven believes that the pictures could help to solve a homicide.
Joel Griggs is a father first and a murderabilia collector second. He runs the True Crime Museum in Hastings and, when I visit, he tells that he wants to make it a family attraction. "My daughter loves it, and she's 11," he says.
Pieces of murderabilia sit disguised among Halloween props. A plastic face hangs from a meat hook next to an info board about Ed Gein. A flashing UV light uncovers bloody handprints on a mock-up of a sitting room wall. A noose hangs in a coldly-lit room.
When I ask for a photograph Joel poses beside a large glass jar that once contained acid used by the killer John George Haigh to decompose the bodies of his victims.
Joel admits two things: that the kids who come will probably be a bit weird, and that the ephemera he displays mustn't be too extreme. He says his museum falls on same scale as the London Dungeon or the Horrible Histories books, and argues there's nothing wrong with exhibiting pieces of murderabilia.
"I'm often asked, 'Does this glorify crime?' And I say, 'No, it doesn't glorify crime, it doesn't condone crime; it looks at it as part of society, part of human nature,'" he tells me. "Does it sensationalise it? Probably, yes, it does, but then so does a newspaper, so does a magazine."§
Joel's own interest was sparked at the age of eight, when he witnessed a bank robbery. One of the robbers was a man called John Childs, who later became one of the UK's most prolific contract killers. He killed six people and cut up the bodies into tiny pieces in his bath, before burning them on his fireplace. Eventually he was caught and given life for the murders.
Childs lived in a council block in Poplar, four doors down from Joel's great uncle, a man who worked for the council's civic amenity department. So it was his colleagues who cleared Child's flat and took the bath to the Poplar refuse depot, where it was planted in a garden of remembrance. When the depot closed down, Joel's great uncle took the bath to his allotment in Walthamstow, where he used it as a water trough. Now, the bath is in Joel's dad's garden, and soon it may be in the museum.
Joel says that you never know who's going to be interested in murderabilia. "I thought it would be mainly blokes, but far from it," he says. "You get very, very genteel women who look like they wouldn't say boo to a goose."
That said, there are visitors who have darker reasons for seeking out the museum. Joel tells me that the noose I saw earlier was used to execute two people at Lincoln prison.
"We had a birthday party here recently and there were a few people enjoying themselves, and they wanted to be photographed with exhibits. One of the partygoers put the noose around her neck," says Joel. "I thought to myself, 'I don't think I could do that.' I don't think you can disrespect a noose."
Joel has also been approached by people who want to use his items for S&M, saying they have more appeal specifically because they've been used to kill.
So how did Joel get hold of these items? The methods used by murderabilia collectors vary. Some will befriend the families of killers, or actually write to the killers themselves so they send on personal items. These items could be anything from letters and artwork to chocolate bar wrappers or toenails.
Steven says that female collectors often have an advantage when writing letters to male serial killers, and male collectors will even pose as women to lure the killer into a relationship.§
Understandably, most collectors won't talk to the press about where they get their items from. If prison authorities discover that convicted killers are sending items onto a collector, the correspondence will be stopped, so it's not in the interest of the collectors to talk.
Joel, however, is surprisingly willing to say where he sources his items; he writes to museums and asks if they have anything of interest, and says he has police and forensics contacts who sell to him.
The internet has opened up trade on a global level, with websites like murderauction.com allowing collectors from America, Australia and the UK to bid against each other for pieces. At the time of writing, some artwork by satanist and serial killer Richard Ramirez is going for just under £1,000.
In fact, a portion of your income may have even gone towards murderabilia in the past, as an (admittedly very small) amount of taxpayer money has been used to acquire stuff associated with murder for a variety of reasons. The Welsh government, for example, bought the house where a man called Mark Bridger is believed to have killed five-year-old April Jones two years ago just so that they could knock it down. Then there's the London Met's Crime Museum, which has housed the property of criminals since around 1874. That one, however, is currently off limits to the public.
When you think about it, the collecting of objects that are associated with the murder and the suffering of people happens in museums all over the world; the difference between a sword used in battle and a modern murder weapon is only a few hundred years.
While it's easier to assume that collectors are strange or dangerous, it's not always the case. As Ed Gein once said: "Every man has to have a hobby."
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