Ghouls on the Internet: The Booming Online Trade in ‘Murderabilia’

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A True Crime Trading card by artist Jon Bright for sale on Cult Collectibles for $2,000. Described a s “very rare piece.”

The Internet is proving to be a golden treasure house for True Crime fans.

A site called Cult Collectibles, recently offered the following items for sale:

    • “Ted Bundy Signed Envelope” ($2,300);
    • “Charles Manson Premium Display with a strand of Manson’s hair affixed to the back” ($275);
    • “Jeffrey Dahmer Typed Letter and Envelope Set” ($2,500).

The site is one of many that have propelled the growth of a market in so-called “murderabilia.”

Once an underground cult obsession, the sale of items associated with notorious killers  has been energized by the proliferation of true-crime related documentaries, podcasts, and books. Thanks to the Internet, it has become a ghoulish counterpart to mainstream sites like Amazon or eBay.

And it raises some disturbing questions.

Should owning a lock of a serial killer’s hair be advertised as if it were an antique piece of furniture at a yard sale?

A four-page handwritten letter and envelope from deceased cult leader Charles Manson. For sale on Cult Collectibles for $600.

“Murderabilia” has long since moved from the online fringe to bona fide auction houses.

An auction in Sacramento, Calif., this month sold Al Capone’s favorite pistol for over $1 million as part of a sale of items associated with the late Chicago mob boss, including a color photo of his wife Mae in a blue dress, the New York Times reported. The items were offered by members of Capone’s family.

The results, said Brian Witherell, a co-founder of Witherell’s Auction House, “exceeded our expectations.”

Keith Jesperson agrees the commercialization of objets d’crime raises some concerning issues.

He speaks with some authority.

Jesperson, also known as the Happy Face Killer, murdered eight women across the United States in the 1990s. In the Oregon prison where he is serving a life sentence, he has become an artist, whose vibrant color pencil drawings are among the hot items in the murderabilia market.

Interest in those items is not based “on the fact of how good of an artist you are; it’s how sick of a killer you are,” he conceded in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Your value to (the buyer) is how bad of a person you were on the street and how you were arrested and remembered.”

Items associated with infamous American criminals are fueling the boom.

“The big names are usually the most sought-after. Dahmer, Bundy, Gacy,” says Robert Applewhite, the owner of Cult Collectibles.

Years ago, Applewhite’s interest in the occult led him on an unusual journey of collecting obscure crime artifacts, beginning with items collected after the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, where 900 members of a San Francisco cult died in Guyana after drinking poisoned Kool-Aid at the urging of cult leader Jim Jones.

As time went on, he owned as many Jonestown keepsakes as he could find and expanded his interest to other horrific events.

Eventually, his collection grew so large, he said, that the next logical step was to begin selling some of his merchandise. Cult Collectibles was born.

Today Applewhite is the owner of morbid mementos from some of America’s most infamous crimes, and he has developed his own particular standards for assessing their market value.

Morbid Mementos

“Lots of obscure cases can hold value as well,” he said. “Dahmer, for example, was only in prison about a year before he was killed, so a letter from him is going to be very hard to find, as he had much less time where he would have been responding to mail.”

Where does he get the items? Applewhite keeps his trade secrets to himself, but he has been in the business long enough to know which websites to peruse to find certain pieces.

Often, these searches will lead to trades with other trusted collectors he has established relationships with through the years, much like the dealings between any other kind of like-minded entrepreneurs.

When he can’t find what he’s looking for, he’ll “search locally in areas where a case happened,” he adds.

As collectors and buyers scramble to get hold of these obscure pieces, has a disconnect formed between entertainment and real-life tragedy? Have the crimes that were committed to make these items valuable been forgotten?

When it comes to the ethics of this dark, macabre industry, Applewhite argues that the surge in popular fascination with true crimes makes sites like his inevitable.

“There is a lot more money in true crime documentaries, books and magazines than there will ever be in murderabilia,” he maintains.

“I don’t see why someone would be fine with Netflix making money off a true crime case but be mad that someone is selling a painting by that same criminal.”

Aggravating Harm?

The answer, according to some critics, is that such sites exacerbate the psychological harm experienced by the victims or the victims’ relatives.

Andy Kahan, director of victim services and victim advocacy at Crime Stoppers in Houston, Tx., argues there’s a big difference between books or documentaries about grisly crimes and selling objects related to the crime itself, or the perpetrator.

“[In books] you also include the victims,” says Kahan, who has been trying to curb this industry by holding conferences to spread awareness and relentlessly trying to get a federal bill passed that would put the brakes on criminals profiting from their crimes.

“[The victims] are the only unwilling participants in any of this. So, if you’re going to write a book, you also have to include why we’re writing this book and lost their lives as a result of this person.”

Kahan acknowledges the fascination held by “murderabilia” objects.

“We turn these (killers) into household names. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I will walk into a room, and I will say John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz—we all know. Can you name any of their victims? Nobody can…unless you’re really truly immersed in this.”

Jesperson believes that the true crime genre and the murderabilia market can’t be separated from each other.

“Here you have a TV program that’s showing court TV, but they still have commercial breaks where they go to commercials to sell time to pay for their court TV…they’re all making money off of crime,” he said in a phone interview.

“How do you separate the two?”

The Legacy of ‘Son of Sam’

Many states introduced so-called “Son of Sam” laws preventing any profits from books or movies from accruing to the perpetrators. Named after a notorious serial killer in New York State, the laws require any profits earned by works about a crime perpetrator to be shared with the victims.

But no such barriers appear to exist in the murderabilia business.

A further complication: many notorious criminals are often clueless that their items are being sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars.

Ever since the start of his incarceration in 1995, Jesperson was bombarded with mail from people all over the world, at one point, receiving about 50 letters a day. Most of the letters asked about the details of his crimes, but some bluntly requested specific items such as artwork, a spare pair of eyeglasses, fingernail clippings, and hair.

“If I send a letter to someone, they cherish it because I signed it with my name and it’s coming from a serial killer,” he said. “They want to say, ‘Look who I’m talking to,’ and it makes them feel important, I guess, but at the same time, I feel like I’m being used, and I’m not really cool on that.

“I’m a commodity to them. I’m not something of value to them as a human being.”

Jesperson said it had made him suspicious of forming pen pal relationships, as he discovered that some would-be “friends” had been selling his letters behind his back.

“When someone sells my letter, I think, well, that’s a personal letter…when they do that, I don’t care too much for them. I just quit writing them,” he said.

Many other notorious criminals have also been scammed into these kinds of pen pal relationships. Kahan notes David Berkowitz, famously known as The Son of Sam, and the late Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson “family,” have both been subjected to having their letters sold without their knowledge and permission.

Both Berkowitz and Atkins publicly opposed this kind of trickery. Prior to her passing, Atkins told Kahan, “This makes me look callous and unremorseful, for which I am not, and it leads to unscrupulous behavior by other inmates and prison guards that realize they can make money off of me.”

Berkowitz has worked alongside Kahan for the last 20 years to help dismantle the murderabilia industry.

Just like Jesperson, Berkowitz receives requests for items from various people via snail mail; however, he turns over these correspondences to Kahan, who then gains an advantage in learning who these collectors are and how they operate.

“The reason David is so valuable to me is obviously because of his high name recognition…he gets request for items…so, I get to see how this industry works from a perspective that I would never have,” Kahan reflects.

Yet, as both Jesperson and Kahan concede, some criminals are not only aware of the murderabilia market, but they also actively―and profitably― participate in it.

artwork

Artwork by serial Killer Keith Jesperson, courtesy of the artist.

“There are some killers out there that just love the play that goes along with this,” says Jesperson. “Not all of us want to do this, but at some point—you gotta understand that we’re in prison and we don’t have an income coming in—and they offer an income coming in.

“There are some prisons that allow this to happen without any problem, and I’m sure they get a lot of donations in their account and they’re more willing to help send off a few things here and there just to keep the flow of money coming in.”

Kahan, like most people, feels criminals should never possess the freedom to capitalize financially from their crimes.

In 1991, New York’s Son of Sam law was deemed unconstitutional, on the grounds that it infringed on the rights of free speech protected under the First Amendment.

That leaves activists to pursue other channels to block the trade.

Waiting for a Law

Kahan says he has tried unsuccessfully to push for a federal bill.

“Basically, I’ve just made life a bit more difficult for dealers to obtain the items,” he said. “EBay, after I put them through the ringer, put out a news release stating that they will no longer allow murderabilia.

“So, what happened was the dealers that primarily applied their trade on eBay simply just set up shop on their own.”

Due to many collectors franchising private businesses, Kahan realizes completely destroying the murderabilia market would most likely be impossible.

Yet, even a small win still counts as a win in his book.

“If I can make it more difficult for buyers and sellers, and of course, where the product comes from, then I believe I have achieved some sort of—I think more prisons are now aware,” he remarked.

Jesperson confirms that as more prisons have become more aware of the industry, they have stepped in with rules prohibiting incarcerated individuals from selling their artwork.

“Over the years I’ve had permission to sell my art and then it’s been taken away from me. It’s gotten to the point I can’t sell artwork, but I can give it away to friends and family, and what they do with it is up to them,” he said.

“But I can receive donations from people. So, it’s a fine line.”

However, there’s a possibility the memorabilia market will dry up for lack of subject matter.

“What’s replaced the serial killers in the true crime market are your mass murderers and your school shooters…but they don’t really carry the name recognition,” said Kahan.

“We don’t give them cool, catchy nicknames like we do with serial killers.”

Yet, Applewhite of Cult Collectibles disagrees.

“People will always be starting cults and killing other people,” he said. “If every inmate on earth was put to death right now, not only would there be new cases to collect, but there is so much stuff out there already that I don’t think it would make any difference.”

So, is there really a way to dismantle this industry as Kahan hopes? Should prisoners simply be banned from creating art and writing letters?

Jesperson warns that for some of the most notorious inmates, such a decision would backfire inside prison bars.

“If you took everything of mine away from me and all I had was anger left, then I’m just gonna be angry,” he said. “You give me everything, and it makes me happy—pardon the pun—but that’s how it is.”

Kahan believes one solution is to ensure inmates or their representatives don’t profit from their work.

“Knit, paint, doodle, sketch, whatever, but you can’t make money off of it,” he says.

Even if you’re selling a lock of your hair.

Maria DiLorenzo, based in Brooklyn, NY, is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. She recently started a blog called Beyond the Crime, which shares stories of those incarcerated for murder to gain a deeper understanding of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system.

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