By Joe Turner
There is no criteria for artistry. While some people may find allure only in the most captivating works of creation and design, others may find solace in midnight graveyard strolls and the sight of long-abandoned buildings which have since succumbed to their inevitable decline.
Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. A walk through any museum or art gallery in the world will see crowds of people gathering to view famous portraits of perfectly-captured historical figures, while crimson-tinted depictions of violence, war and bloodshed appeal to a different crowd only several feet away. All men may be created equal, but the same cannot be said for art.
This goes a long way to explain why there are people who find beauty in the artistic outputs of the most heinous men to have ever lived. As you read this, there are thousands of people buying, selling and trading pieces of art painted by hands which were once used to end the life of another. These artistic creations adorn the walls of both the rich and the poor; the famous and the ordinary. There is no ‘type’ of person who collects such oddities, as each has their own reasons for doing so.
This is the world of murderabilia.
Modern murderabilia is generally considered to have sprung into popularity around the 1980s, although accounts which can be considered similar date back much further. The phrase money for old rope is generally believed to have stemmed from the days of public hanging. Following a successful execution, a hangman would cut up the rope which was used and sell it to the more bloodthirsty members of the public. In 1934, when notorious outlaw John Dillinger was shot outside a Chicago theatre, there were reports of people soaking up his blood with their handkerchiefs in order to keep a memento of the incident. In London, England, artifacts relating to infamous British murderers and serial killers are housed in the ominously-named Black Museum, access to which is only allowed through invite-only. The museum began collecting its wares almost 150 years ago.
Cut to the 1980s, and infamous names like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez are holed up in jail cells across America. Such prisoners have nothing but spare time, usually to the tune of around 23 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, many prisoners use this time to dabble in creative outlets rather than sitting around waiting for death. While many people on the outside might consider it an undeserved luxury that criminals are allowed the freedom to paint, draw or write whilst behind bars, it can be argued that it is more of a convenient distraction than anything else. The alternative would be boredom, which could often manifest in forms of violence or prison breaks.
Whilst prison art is nothing new, it was the killer clown himself, John Wayne Gacy, who would be the catalyst to the phenomenon which murderabilia has become today. Whilst incarcerated, Gacy began painting strange portraits of his alter egos – Pogo the Clown and Patches the Clown. These were the characters he played whilst entertaining children back when he lived a life of freedom. These portraits, whilst sorely lacking in artistic credibility, became highly sought after on the outside world. Gacy had no shortage of pen pals, reportedly being contacted by rock stars, actors, movie directors, museum owners and anyone remotely interested in the more macabre aspects of the world. When word got out that Gacy’s handiwork was available, the demand for his paintings rapidly increased.
Unfortunately for Gacy, he found that his sudden popularity didn’t mean an increase in wealth. Several years prior, the Son of Sam Law had been brought in thanks to the actions of New York serial killer David Berkowitz. Berkowitz had allegedly been approached by several filmmakers for the rights to his story; something which would have netted Berkowitz a large sum of money. However, it was considered morally wrong that a murderer should profit from their crimes, and so a law was imposed which removed any possibility of this being the case.
Gacy, of course, felt the repercussions of this law, but he was one of the few criminals who found a way around the legal issue of selling his art. Gacy commissioned a ‘dealer’ who would visit him at his Illinois jail and accept all of his paintings as ‘gifts’. His paintings would then be sold to the public, then Gacy would receive the profits back as a return gift.
This would continue until Gacy’s execution in 1994, which subsequently increased the popularity of his artwork even further. Likewise, this boom in popularity meant items belonging to other infamous criminals became similarly coveted.
It is important to remember that murderabilia doesn’t simply consist of paintings and drawings. Over the years, countless types of murder-mementos have popped up, the most common of which are letters of correspondence and the aforementioned artwork. However, such a bizarre subject can only breed further peculiarities. Poems, fiction, items of clothing, murder weapons, courtroom sketches, wanted posters, crime scene relics, even hair and nail fragments – all of these (and much more) come under the banner of murderabilia.
Reasons why a person would want to own such items vary greatly. Of course, it is human nature to be fascinated by that which we can’t comprehend, and so coming into contact with relics synonymous with death can be an attractive prospect. Museums the world over boast artifacts of war, chaos and death, and we happily gaze at these objects whilst imagining the horrific circumstances from which they were borne. In this sense, murderabilia is no different. However, another popular reason relates to the psychological aspect of the artists in question. Some people believe that the creative outlets for incarcerated killers can be a type of disguised confession.
For example, serial killing drifter Ottis Toole drew a handful of pictures whilst incarcerated, all of which depicted astonishingly savage acts. While it may not be surprising that an unhinged, homicidal maniac would resort to drawing pictures of murder, many believe that Ottis Toole used drawing as a way to re-live the crimes that he committed but wasn’t charged for. While only ever convicted of six murders, Toole was suspected in many more, including the murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, son of TV host John Walsh, and indeed, one of Toole’s drawings did detail the senseless decapitation of a young boy.
A similar situation concerns that of murderer Gerald John Schaefer. While only convicted of two murders in 1975, Schaefer privately boasted to his fellow inmates that he was responsible for the deaths of over thirty women. When police searched Schaefer’s home, they did indeed uncover jewelry, clothing and even teeth belonging to local missing women and girls. Fifteen years later, Schaefer published a book entitled Killer Fiction – a collection of short stories which told of the brutal, graphic murders of many different women. The main character in the stories was usually a disgruntled police officer, which conveniently happened to be Schaefer’s occupation at the time of his arrest. The stories took place in the locations which matched the last-seen locations of many missing victims, prompting the belief that every story was a true tale from Schaefer’s past. The book has since been used to investigate a number of unsolved disappearances.
When discussing murderabilia, its association with the world of rock and heavy metal usually rears its head. Indeed, the actions which afford serial killers their infamy naturally lend themselves to the darker themes often explored in heavy metal music. Therefore, it’s only fitting that these two worlds would intersect at some point.
The aforementioned John Wayne Gacy paintings appear to be popular with the rock clientele, with Dani Filth (vocalist of British metal band Cradle of Filth), Wednesday 13 (ex-Murderdolls) and the god of shock-rock himself Marilyn Manson all claiming ownership of Gacy’s work. Marilyn Manson in particular appears to be quite the murderabilia advocate, reportedly decking an entire room of his home out in genuine Nazi paraphernalia. This included coat hangers owned by Adolf Hitler himself, and a handbag belonging to Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun, which Manson gave his ex-wife as an engagement gift.
Jonathan Davis, singer of the alternative band Korn, was quite the murderabilia collector in the past, but has since come to view such items as distasteful. Davis possessed some of the most high-profile items in murderabilia history, including Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen Beetle – the same Beetle which Bundy used to abduct many of his victims, the confession letter of Brooklyn boogeyman Albert Fish, and the actual clown suits John Wayne Gacy wore to entertain children. In today’s murderabilia market, such items would be deemed priceless, however, Davis was happy to rid the items from his life. Following their eradication, he went on to claim:
“There is definitely a weird vibe attached to those things. I don’t want to glorify what these people did. I wasn’t thinking straight when I bought that stuff.”
A similar revelation was had by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor regarding his foray into the world of murderabilia too. Reznor ended up purchasing the home in which Charles Manson’s followers committed their infamous murder of Tate LeBianca in 1969. However, it was LeBianca’s sister who prompted Reznor to eventually demolish the house following a chance encounter between the two. At a completely coincidental meeting, LeBianca’s sister asked Reznor: “Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?”
Reznor claimed that the incident – despite it being somewhat brief - hit him hard. For the first time, the reality of his actions became real. He was living in a house with a tragic history, and that tragedy was a lot more real for others than it was him.
Realizing that there are others who may not take kindly to the circulation of such items can be enough to prompt a person’s exit from the world of murderabilia, as Rezor and Davis have proven. However, there are others who take the business to new heights entirely.
Perhaps the most seasoned collector of murderabilia is Joe Coleman, a self-proclaimed outsider artist. Coleman is currently in possession of many coveted pieces within the crime world, including the Albert Fish letter previously owned by Jonathan Davis, as well as some of the rarer items in circulation from the hands of John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson and Ed Gein. Coleman’s motivation for collecting stems from the connection he feels to these people, stating that: “These people aren’t concerned with sales, trends or the art world. Their feelings are everything. The person is everything.”
But are Joe Coleman’s statements accurate? Is murderabilia a statement, whether it’s being made by killer or collector?
While it is generally believed that serial killer art can provide a look into the inner workings of a psychopathic mind, it cannot be said for every single piece of murderabilia out there. There are a handful of popular websites dedicated to the buying and selling of murderabilia, and these places are littered with the childish drawings and badly-spelled correspondence letters of relatively unknown criminals. Are we to believe that these items can offer glimpses into a murderer’s psyche which police and psychologists are unable to find otherwise? And if not, what is the alternative for killers to pursue such artistic endeavors in the first place?
Aside from it being a simple, convenient way to pass the time inside their cells, the term art therapy gets mentioned a lot when discussing murderabilia. Many criminals, particularly serial killers, view their handiwork as a macabre interpretation of art, meaning that somewhere deep inside them is a desire to be heard above the rest of the world. While this tragically often surfaces in the form of a murder, torture or sadism, the fire burning within these people may still translate to other creative outlets. Many believe that art, then, can be a way of expressing themselves in a way that brings no harm to anyone else; a substitute for the desire to inflict pain onto others.
Whether it works or not is a different story. Elmer Wayne Henley, the Texan serial killer who assisted Dean Corll in the rape and torture of over twenty young boys in the 1970s claims that art has completely negated his desire to kill. Henley, who paints mostly captivating landscapes and nature scenes, believes his art has allowed him to accept God into his life, and ultimately afford him a fulfillment he tried to find through murder but couldn’t.
However, with great artistry comes great ego, and many criminals already come pre-packaged with egos barely able to fit inside their prison cells. It’s not difficult to believe that some killers may partake in the act of painting, writing and drawing in order to appease their inflated sense of self-worth. Then, when their artwork is obtained by someone on the outside, it provides them a further sense of fulfillment. There have been several instances of convicted killers using their ‘celebrity’ status to make a profit following their release from prison, rendering the aforementioned Son of Sam law ineffective in such cases. French killer, grave-robber and cannibal Nicolas Claux spends his days painting portraits of historical figures of terror, which he then sells directly to the public at prices that are more than enough to live on. Similarly, Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa uses his status as a certified misfit to sell paintings, sculptures and all manner of artistic creations to the public.
As with many of the great artists of our time, it is not the work itself that is coveted, but the name which is attached. This helps to explain why a badly-drawn picture of a house by Ed Gein is worth a lot more than a scenic masterpiece by an unknown killer whose crimes never captured the public’s imagination in the same way.
Overall perceptions of murderabilia are fiercely negative. There appears to be a great distinction between the beliefs that such artifacts being displayed in a public museum are acceptable, but such items belonging to a personal collection is distasteful. It isn’t difficult to see why people would hold such beliefs. Being in the personal possession of a true crime relic could be considered somewhat perverted in a way that extends beyond natural human curiosity. Furthermore, it implies a personal exploitation of the corresponding victims.
Debates regarding the effectiveness of art therapy continue to this day, as does the usefulness of prison art in dissecting the subconscious mind of deplorable murderers. Do these killers use creative outlets to battle their inner demons in an act of rehabilitation, or is it simply the narcissistic nature so often found in serial killers crying out for fame and attention?
Regardless, as long as morbid curiosity exists as part of the human psyche, serial killer art will continue to adorn collectors’ walls. Those personally affected or offended by such actions can only pray that an attack of conscience will intervene...
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