Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Murderabilia - Market for the Macabre

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing consumer market in serial killer themed merchandise and artifacts. Murderabilia refers to the collection, sale, and marketing of original artwork, articles of clothing, and personal possessions of notorious killers in general and serial killers in particular. Stories and books about serial killers have great appeal with the public and attest to the popular interest in this type of murder.

Image from the Shroud of Turin
Since biblical times, religious relics and artifacts were believed to have sacred qualities, a belief which carries down to our present day. The sale of splinters and nails from the crucifixion of Christ were sold throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and the Shroud of Turin still has the ability to inspire the faithful, even after the discovery that it was made of Medieval period linen. The Catholic faithful continue to have their rosaries and scapulars blessed by the parish priest.

The trade in items belonging to serial killers or objects having been touched by them is the antithesis of religious relics or items like mass cards and rosary beads that have been blessed. It is believed that these items have an atavistic quality to them, but rather than being imbued with the sacred, serial killer artifacts are tainted with the profane.

The fascination with death and the dark side of humanity has a long history. The display of the bodies of the infamous has always drawn large crowds of gawking, respectable people. The public viewing of the Dalton Brothers and the James Gang comes to mind. In more recent times, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde's bodies were photographed and given wide circulation in newspapers across American. In many places in America, hangings were public events, especially of ruthless killers.

The severed head of Joaquin Murrietta, legendary Mexican outlaw, was popular on the medicine show circuit in the Southwest and drew huge crowds. So many people were willing to pay to see the notorious bandit that several severed heads were known to be touring at the same time. For many people, the sight of a severed head pickled in a jar of alcohol was enough of an attraction regardless of the true identity of the victim. Touring attractions such as Al Capone's bulletproof car and the bullet-riddled car of Bonnie and Clyde still have the power to attract crowds at county fairs and other venues.

The first murder memorabilia I remember seeing was the chair President Abraham Lincoln was shot in by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Henry Ford had the foresight to purchase the chair before it was lost to history.
Generations of Michigan youth have memories of trips to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and seeing this artifact of our shared national history, still stained with Lincoln's blood. 

Some murderabilia has more historical significance than others to be sure. American collectors in post World War II bought up as much Nazi memorabilia as they could. These artifacts include weapons, uniforms, medals, helmets, flags, and Nazi government documents. It wasn't until the 1980s and the advent of the public internet that the fascination with serial killers began to dominate the murderabilia trade.

Countless magazine articles, books, movies, and cable television shows have made celebrity devils out of many of the most infamous killers in American history. Names like Richard Speck, Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahmer, and the poster boy for American serial killers Ted Bundy are widely known and have become part of the criminal folklore of America.

Some people think the marketing of murderabilia is grotesque and immoral, and it should be illegal. They argue that the promotion and marketing of these ruthless serial killers contributes to their celebrity folk status and larger than life portrayals. Much of the public is disgusted with the idea that convicted sex-slayers can parade around like celebrities nourishing their egos at the expense of their victims and their families.

Son of Sam murders prompted new law.

Because of the feeding frenzy of New York publishers in 1977 to pay big money to David Berkowitz for the rights to tell his "Son of Sam" story, the New York State Assembly drafted and passed what is known as the "Son of Sam" law. The law's intent is to prevent convicted felons from profiting from their crimes through book publishers, film producers, or television networks. Convicts lose the ability to tell their own stories and profit from it.

Any money earned from "expressive or creative works" is deposited into an escrow account and then used to compensate crime victims and their families. Eight states currently have "notoriety-for-profit" laws that follow the money trial of murderabilia sales to insure that convicts don't make money indirectly through third-party involvement.

For my part, I have been purchasing the rights to every John Norman Collins related photograph available on the internet, not to buy and sell as murderabilia, but to use as research documentation in my true crime account of the Washtenaw County sex-slayings, The Rainy Day Murders. At some point, I will donate these photos and the government documents I have purchased to an archive in Ypsilanti, Michigan. For the record, I don't trade in murderabilia.

But recently I came across a site that sells Serial Killer Trading Cards, and I bought two of John Norman Collins' cards for under three dollars apiece. One for me and one for him. What prompted me to purchase them was that the card's writer got Collins' name wrong. It is listed as "Norman Collins." Norman Collins was a British author who is in no way related to John Norman Collins. Even in the subculture of murderabilia collectors, serial killer John Norman Collins cuts a sorry figure.    

Murderabilia dealer banned from Texas state prisons system: