In the summer of 1994, about 300 people gathered on the premises of James Quick Auctioneers near Naperville, Illinois, to burn some art. The bonfire faced none of the cries of censorship that usually accompany the destruction of creative works. The two dozen paintings set aflame were original works by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and to most people back then, this wasn't fine art—these were talismans of an evil that needed to be destroyed. And that position is understandable, considering the "artist" behind the paintings had been convicted in 1980 of the rape and murder of more than two dozen boys.
Gacy picked up painting during his 14 years on death row. Some of his works—like Sex Skull, a mass of nude bodies in the shape of a cranium in a pool of blood—are horrific, while others—such as his childlike renderings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Elvis, and Jesus, or various iterations of his clown alter ego, Pogo—have an innocent quality that makes them especially unsettling.
Upon his 1994 execution, Gacy had his lawyers put 40 of these paintings up for sale via James Quick Auctioneers, which garnered a great deal of national attention. For many, it was an abomination that works with such dark origins could be turned into commodities. It upset two local (and now late) businessmen, Joe Roth and Wally Knoebel, so much that they decided to attend the event and drop upward of $15,000 to buy up the bulk of the paintings. When they announced that they intended to burn all the artwork right there on the James Quick premises and would allow the families of Gacy's victims to toss the paintings onto the fire, they received a standing ovation. Other people even came out with more Gacy artifacts to place on the pyre.
For most people, the June 19 1994 bonfire was the end of the story. But in truth, Roth and Knoebe's bonfire barely made a dent in Gacy's catalogue. And Gacy's body of work is only a blip in the bigger world of art produced by murderers, which is coveted by many because of the sense of gore and infamy that hangs over such pieces.
Collectively known as "murderabilia," these items have spawned an active and diverse market, much to the chagrin of both victim-rights advocates, who are afraid the profits from these sales go back to the killers, and the incarcerated murderers themselves, who are pissed that all the cash from these sales is going into the pockets of collectors. Yet neither group has made any traction in their efforts to dismantle and outlaw the sale of these items.
Beyond paintings, murderabilia encompasses any number of ghoulish artifacts—from an action figure with body parts inside of it made by Jeffrey Dahmer to string art made by Charles Manson to dirt pulled from the crawlspace where Gacy buried his victims.
Andy Kahan of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office in Houston, one of the chief opponents of the murderabilia industry, has been cataloguing sales since 2008. In that time, he's seen grotesque items like sperm-splattered photos of models, gruesome crime-scene pictures, fingernail clippings, and scrapings of foot calluses—all sourced from 234 different killers who hail from 41 states as well as Canada, England, Japan, and Russia.
"Some of the artwork is extremely sexually graphic," says Kahan. "[They can] contain the names of victims in the drawing... like a line of headstones with their names on it."
"The items that I sell are kind of dark," admits Eric Holler, the man behind Serial Killers Ink, one of the major sites that hawks the personal effects of criminals.
But despite the gruesome nature of this stuff, some murderabilia can fetch thousands of dollars.
"I know one guy who made eighty thousand dollars on my site last year. He had a lot of Gacy paintings [which have only gone up in demand as they've gained media attention due to events like 1994's bonfire] and a lot of money to put into it," says William Harder, who runs another site called Murder Auction.
Someone making as much money as Harder described is a bit of an anomaly, considering the industry is still relatively small. It only came into its own in 1998, with the birth of eBay. Thanks to pressure from advocates like Kahan, eBay banned the sale of murderabilia in 2001 and about six major American sellers, like Murder Auction, subsequently emerged to fill the void.
"Take the true crimes collectibles industry [another term for murderabilia] and compare it with the entertainment autographs industry," says Holler. The latter, he estimates, "is ten thousand times larger," and for people involved in it, "it's a hobby. There's not a ton of money in it, and you're not going to make a hundred thousand a year."
At any given time, there are 3,000 items on sale at Murder Auction. About 45 to 90 of these items change hands every month, with prices ranging from a few bucks for a letter to a few thousand for a painting.
Despite their financial interest in macabre merchandise, there's little that the major murderabilia site owners actually agree upon. In conversations with me, both Harder and Holler stressed that they don't want to be equated with the other's site, and accused their competition of sniping and backstabbing. They also have different philosophies on how they source their products.
"I don't sell things that I obtain from inmates I write to and meet in person," says Harder, who believes that many sellers who do that don't reveal to the murderers that they intend on selling that ephemera. "I buy stuff [from small collectors], and then I sell [it]. And half of the things I buy I keep personally.
"I still get [my stuff from] inmates, and I think that's how I will always do my business," says Holler, who believes it's the only way to guarantee the authenticity and quality of his products.
Most of the sites' customers don't get into the behind-the-scenes politics of the industry. Murderabilia collectors are a diverse lot, ranging from one-time buyers to full-on obsessives.
"My customer base is vast," says Holler. "There is no specific demographic. It's people from all walks of life—men, women, younger and older people... You can't pin it down."
Still, there are few demographics that are consistently interested in certain offerings.
"Law enforcement agencies can always buy a lot of letters," he says. "There's one [department] in the US... They said they were doing handwriting analysis. They made two very large orders.
"There's a lot of college professors, too. There's a guy on the East Coast who works out of a university, and he's doing research on school shooters. He buys almost every school shooter letter, because it's part of his ongoing research."
Even Kahan keeps a small collection of murderabilia for lectures and workshops on the industry. He believes that there are a hundred or so hardcore collectors in the US who write to inmates, trade items back and forth, and idolize high-profile murderers. Harder, on the other hand, notes that at least 1,000 people use his site actively, which suggests there are more serious collectors than even Kahan estimates. And the culture around murderabilia has started to slowly filter out into the mainstream, thanks partly to CSI, which has featured episodes on true crime collectors. This has helped inspire more one-time buyers with a mild interest in getting a gory conversation piece.
"It's like owning a piece of [a mass murder's] soul," says Kahan. "It's a talking item."
"I'll get people from Podunk, Iowa," added Harder. "They just want to buy a letter from their town's most famous killer, and there just happens to be that letter on the site."
However, not everyone who catches wind of the murderabilia scene is eager to get a piece of it. Displays of murderabilia at galleries in Texas in 1998, Florida in 2006, and Las Vegas in 2011 sparked national conversations about whether making a profit off murderers' works should even be legal and whether the gallery shows were too insulting and painful to the families of victims to be tolerated.
"We all try to move on with our lives, but that's proven rather difficult," Shelly Mullins, whose relative James Byrd Jr. was killed in a gruesome hate crime in East Texas in 1998, told the Houston Chronicle in 2014 after learning that four items from two of Byrd's three murderers were up for sale on Harder's Murder Auction site.
"People out there continue to stir up things and make a mockery out of [his death] and do not take it seriously," Byrd's sister Louvon Harris told the Chronicle in 2010, when the site put up a bag of his grave dirt and photos of the crime scene. "He should be resting in peace. It's very selfish and disrespectful of the family."
Most efforts to restrict the production, display, or sale of items related to the crimes of murderers have failed on free speech grounds. Kahan's tried to refocus efforts on restricting direct payment to inmates for works sold by the major sites. He's had some success at the state level, as in his push for Texas's "Notoriety for Profit" legislation, which bans the use of the story or image of one's murders to make a profit. But without a federal bill (which he's tried and failed to push to a Senate vote three times) he believes he won't be able to make a difference.
"If I ever get a hearing, I'll knock their socks off," says Kahan. "Much as I believe in capitalism, you have to draw a line somewhere."
He thinks that if there is no way to pay inmates for their work, they will stop putting things into the world and the supply of murderabilia will dry up. However, Harder and Holler say that Kahan doesn't undestand the murderabilia market.
"A lot of this stuff has changed hands several times [by the time it gets to an auction site]," says Harder. "The common myth is that inmates are getting paid via third party sellers... That couldn't be further from the truth."
That said, Holler admits he does pay inmates who give him their personal effects. But he claims it's not a direct transaction and more of him "helping" out the guys who gave him stuff for "free."
Harder, on the other hand, claims that he's heard of inmates who've bashed his site in the media because they weren't getting paid for the sale of their items.
"[One inmate] wrote letters to people who didn't have good intentions. Some of those letters were purchased by me," he says. "And [now] I'm selling them and he's mad about it. I'm sorry, but he should have been more careful who he wrote to."
And so it seems, both the families of the victims and the murders get the short end of the stick in the trade of murderabilia. The one ones who come out on top are the collectors and site owners like Harder and Holler.
"This is the American dream," says Harder. "I found something I enjoy doing. I make a little money. I'm not breaking any laws. Anyone who gets offended by this—they've come to it on their own volition. They've brought it upon themselves."
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