This page considers sale of 'murderabilia' - memorabilia
from the dark side - and its regulation.
It covers -
As the name implies, 'murderabilia' refers to the trade
in collectibles from,
by, or about murderers, murders or other violent crimes.
It has been characterised by journalists, religious figures
and legislators as a peculiarly modern activity: one associated
with online trading venues such as eBay
and with a culture that supposedly differs from the past
through a morbid interest in 'celebrity' and artefacts
associated with the infamous.
That criticism is in fact strikingly ahistorical. Marketing
of memorabilia relating to notorious figures is discernable
in the West over several hundred years. That trade reflected
the presumed therapeutic or even magical properties of
items such as the hangman's rope, axe used by a killer
or ink stand used by a prominent forger and poisoner such
as Wainewright. It also reflected the potential of collectibles
to demonstrate the collector's status or to meet more
subtle atavistic needs.
Over the past 200 years in the UK, France and Germany
we can thus identify demand for -
and other apparel that had been dipped in the blood
of publicly-executed criminals
speeches of repentance or defiance by criminals who
were subsequently hung or beheaded
and lockets that featured the hair of killers, or of
their victims or even of horses involved in early terrorist
used by killers
items of the notorious, including snuff boxes, fob chains,
hats, garters and cravat pins
of timber, door handles, textiles and other items removed
by gawkers from crime scenes
with items specifically manufactured by the 'guignol industry',
for example miniature guillotines and prints that were
hawked among crowds attending public executions.
Richard Altick's Victorian Studies in Scarlet,
discussing the 1828 Maria Marten 'Red Barn' murder case,
thus notes planks stripped from the walls of the barn
by sightseers, Staffordshire pottery models of the red
barn and the victim, a plethora of prints and even snuff
boxes made from the barn's timber. Richard Evans' Rituals
of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987
similarly notes a trade in swatches of murderer hair,
rope and splinters from the scaffold, hardkerchiefs dipped
in the blood of beheaded criminals and even tools used
by the executioner
Although often repugnant, much of that collecting (and
the associated commercialisation) is not significantly
different from early demand for autographs by Goethe,
a handkerchief stained with the blood and sputum of the
ailing Keats, the pistol used by Heinrich von Kleist,
the ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz or
Elvis' blue suede shoes and jumbo-size jumpsuit.
Contemporary murderabilia has included items owned or
created by serial killers, including postcards from Charles
Manson, what are claimed as his fingerprint cards, the
license plate of the van used by John Wayne Gacy, a murder
weapon used by Gary Gilmore, letters from the 'Yorkshire
Ripper' and the 'Acid Bath Killer' in the UK, drawings
by Gacy and other US killers, the radiator cap from the
Bonnie & Clyde 'death car', Heinrich Himmler's limousine,
earth supposedly from the house where Gacy buried some
of his victims and the clothing of some killers. 2009
saw artworks by UK gang leaders Ronnie and Reggie Kray
auctioned for £17,125, along with £3,105 for
a canvas by poisoner Graham Young. Auctioneer Christine
Smith announced that "The Krays were the last of
their kind and known all over the world".
Some vendors, successfully or otherwise, have offered
other items: we have difficulty understanding the demand
for serial killer toenail clippings or foot scrapings,
although reputedly such things have come on the market.
The borderlands of such collecting, although rarely remarked
by contemporary moralists, occupy the same terrain as
as the market for Nazi memorabilia - Allach porcelain,
SS daggers, Wehmacht belt buckles and the pornography
of death (copies of Der Stürmer, happy snaps
from outrages such as Babi-Yar ...).
Where does murderabilia come from, how is it sold and
who buys it?
We can differentiate between items created or used prior
to arrest and those during incarceration.
The range of memorabilia created after arrest tends to
be restricted: in general it comprises letters, cards,
sketches and other material that an offender has been
able to to personally hand to visitors, send by post or
persuade a custodial officers to transmit in breach of
official rules, such as censorship protocols highlighted
here. (Some memorabilia
prosecutions feature action against prison staff who have
sold 'official' mugshots of high profile offenders or
been instrumental in smuggling items out of custody.)
Some items will be sold by the offender to the consumer,
and can thence be sold to third parties. Others are not
intended for sale but are offloaded by the recipient or
by someone who has received the item from that recipent.
'Souvenirs' of life prior to arrest have a broader range.
It is clear that people have collected and sold (or tried
to sell) everything from garbage bins and swizzle sticks
used by serial killers through to weapons used in offences.
That range reflects availability. Contemporary jurisdictions
typically do not forfeit all offender assets to the state,
there is scope for gawkers to purloin assets, assets may
be sold by government (with revenue for example going
to compensate victims) or the offender's family, and the
families of victims may indeed gain ownership of an offender's
assets through civil action.
As in the past, owners of properties where crimes have
been committed complain that souvenir hunters invade the
location in search of collectibles; others have acquired
properties with the intention of commercialising the site
and/or retailing its contents.
Sale of murderabilia items reflects the eergence of e-commerce,
with general and specialist online venues supplanting
traditional marketing through shopfronts ('curiosity shops')
and mail order. Auction sites and newsgroups offer a mechanism
for matching suppliers with global markets, important
given indications that trade in serial killer memorabilia,
for example, is international rather than restricted to
a handful of local ghouls.
Comprehensive information regarding consumption is unavailable.
Anecdotal indications suggest that consumers are typically
male, under 35 and in a blue collar or low-level white
collar job. However, it is evident that some wealthier
consumers have built collections (particular rock musicians
for example have sought to buff their profiles as 'transgressive'
by publicising their collecting) and lawyers or justice
officials use items as decoration.
Are consumers getting what they have asked for (as distinct
from what they deserve)? Elsewhere on this site we have
highlighted the potential for forgery
and fraud. Few items on the murderabilia market come with
authoritative authentication or provenance.
Regulation of murderabilia has taken several forms.
The first is an outright prohibition on dissemination,
with for example confiscation by prison officials of artwork,
correspondence and other items created by prisoners while
in custody. That confiscation has sought to prevent prisoners
from passing items to family, lawyers or other contacts,
some of whom may later sell the items (whether for their
own benefit or that of the prisoner).
A more subtle approach, consistent with notions of allowing
criminals some autonomy, has been to allow prisoners to
communicate in writing with family, lawyers, friends and
groupies but not to sell items. The intention is that
the offender should not receive a financial benefit from
notoriety. The restriction has been subverted by prisoners
giving drawings or other items, rather than selling them.
Recipients are free to subsequently market the items and
it is clear from examination of some murderabilia sites
that some people have corresponded with US serial killers
to gain letters and sketches that can be sold.
A third restriction is for the state to claim ownership
of revenue from the sale of artefacts. That claim is consistent
with the treatment of literary rights highlighted in the
preceding page of this note, with revenue typically being
distributed to victims/estates on request. Alberta's proposed
Criminal Notoriety Act sought to take premiums where convicted
criminals receive an "inflated price" for memorabilia
because of the notoriety of the crime, with the provincial
government receiving that portion of the price above the
"market value" for the item.
final restriction is self imposed by intermediaries. eBay
for example has formally banned sales of murderabilia,
whether directly from imprisoned offenders, from their
representatives and associates or from people who have
obtained (licitly or otherwise) 'murder collectibles'.
In practice that restriction appears to fade with time:
interviews with eBay executives for example appear to
imply that although selling serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's
refrigerator would not be permitted it would be acceptable
to offload correspondence or petticoats from 1893 celebrity
Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
the axe would not be accepted.
The restriction does not appear to have crimped the market,
with vendors and consumers instead turning to specialist
sites such as murderauction.com ("We simply present
the facts as they are and offer a rare opportunity to
own various pieces of criminal history") and supernaught.com.
Offline, of course, consumers can get a frisson at venues
such as the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast and Museum:
"You can stay in her bedroom, eat breakfast in their
kitchen, and tour the museum of Lizzie Borden memorabilia".
We are not looking forward to the Chopper Read B&B.
Murderabilia has primarily attracted attention as a subject
for study of popular culture.
Salient works are David Schmid's Natural Born Celebrities:
Serial Killers in American Culture (Chicago: Uni
of Chicago Press 2005) and 2004 article
Murderabilia: Consuming Fame, Harold Schechter's
Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment
(New York: St Martin's Press 2005), VA Gatrell's The
Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868
(Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1994), Richard Altick's Victorian
Studies in Scarlet (London: Dent 1972), Richard Evans'
Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany
1600-1987 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1996), Richard
Schickel's Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity
in America (Chicago: Dee 2000) and Leo Braudy's The
Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York:
Oxford Uni Press 1986).
There appear to have been no major studies of the Australian
murderabilia market, although consumption presumably echoes
that of the US.
For perspectives on the community's ambivalent attitudes
see Media Scandals: Morality & Desire in the Popular
Culture Marketplace (New York: Columbia Uni Press
1998) edited by James Lull & Stephen Hinerman, I
Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby! - A Colorful History of
Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact (Amherst: Prometheus
2001) by Bill Sloan and other works highlighted here.
Works on the psychology of collecting, from status enhancement
and the desire to best the collector's peers through to
control of deep-seated insecurities by ordering a personal
environment, are highlighted here.
They include The Cultures of Collecting (Melbourne:
Melbourne Uni Press 1994) edited by John Elsner &
Roger Cardinal, To Have & To Hold: An Intimate
History of Collectors & Collecting (London: Allen
Lane 2002) by Philipp Blom and Collecting: An Unruly
Passion - Psychological Perspectives (Princeton:
Princeton Uni Press 1994) by Werner Muensterberger.
For auctions see studies of eBay and other online markets
elsewhere on this site. Perspectives on ephemera are provided
in The Encyclopaedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary
Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator
& Historian (London: British Library 2000) by
Work on regulation includes 'The prodigal 'son' returns:
an assessment of current 'son of Sam' laws and the reality
of the online murderabilia marketplace' by Suna Chang
in 31 Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal
(2005); 'Making a Killing: Evaluating the Constitutionality
of the Texas Son of Sam Law' by Tracey Cobb 2003 in 39
Houston Law Review (2003) and 'The Proceeds of
Criminal Notoriety' by Anthony Kennedy in
27(11) Company Lawyer (2006) 322-335.