By Lenore Fedow
A thickly outlined clown in a red pin-striped suit smiles from a frameless 14-inch by 18-inch canvas. His red-and-blue-painted face is more creepy than whimsical. He holds a bouquet of multicolored balloons in his white gloved hand and waves with the other. Pogo the Clown is the alter ego of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer responsible for the murder of at least 33 young men. Gacy painted Pogo in his cell on death row at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. This signed painting can be yours for $3,500.
To find more paintings by Gacy and other notorious serial killers, browse the many auction sites, such as Dark Vomit, Serial Killer Ink and Murder Auction, that offer “murderabilia,” the memorabilia and artwork of serial killers. The listings include gloves worn by Charles Manson, for $700; a bible owned by the so-called Genesee River Killer, Arthur Shawcross, for $2,000; and a signed Christmas card from the killer Ed Gein for $9,000.
While the hefty prices on these items may seem shocking, victim-advocacy groups are even more aghast that such items are being sold at all. Yet despite the backlash from such groups, sellers like Kelly Hutchinson, the founder of the Dark Vomit True Crime Gallery, stand by their business plan. “Organizations like these use victim’s families as poster children for their cause,” said Hutchinson. “The same organization that will point out that I profit from people’s misery does the exact same thing.”
Hutchinson, who refers to himself as a “modern day smut peddler,” said that he didn’t start selling murderabilia to make money and that there isn’t much to be made, in any case. He said his main income stems from selling his own personal artwork, which draws inspiration from the dark and macabre.
“I am fascinated like many others by trying to find meaning in tragedy,” Hutchinson said. “As an artist myself, it is important for me to portray emotion in my paintings. The same is true for the emotions that I feel and get from reading a letter that I have from an individual condemned to die on death row or trying to understand the person’s artwork. It is fascinating to me on so many levels.”
Hutchinson, a Navy veteran, lives in San Diego with his wife of 15 years and their two cats, whom they love, they say, as if they were their own children. The people interested in Hutchinson’s wares vary widely, he said, adding: “I do my best to not pry in the lives of my customers but I have found that there are literally all kinds of walks of life interested. It is the creepy guy with pencil mustache. It is the Soccer Mom, college students. A CEO of a Forbes 500 company has purchased from me in the past. I think everyone has their own reason why they might collect or have interest. I do try to respect their privacy over the matter. There are a lot of people in the closet with their collections.”
Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology at Drew University, explores this widespread fascination with serial killers in his book, Why We Love Serial Killers. While the interest in true crime books, movies and TV shows is pervasive, Bonn said in a telephone interview that only extremists take it to the level of collecting memorabilia. As to why some people are so attracted to these objects, Bonn credits the talisman effect, the idea that these objects have mystical powers. “As a society, we tend to transform these individuals like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer into larger-than-life gothic monsters,” Bonn said. “They’re almost supernatural in a way. By holding or having these things, it gets us closer to this dark evil force that some people are very attracted to. It’s a way to expose yourself to evil and danger without actually having to do it. You’re just collecting it or holding it as opposed to engaging or encountering with Jeffery Dahmer or someone like that.”
Unlike the Gothic monsters of classical literature, such as Frankenstein’s creation and Dracula, serial killers like Bundy and Dahmer were real people with real victims. Some of these victims are displayed on a wall created by the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, a support group for parents who have lost a child to murder. The organization provides emotional support to the victim’s survivors and matches them with local families who share a similar experience. For a one-time fee of $75 a loved one’s photo added to the “murder wall.”
Patricia Gioia, a mother of eight, lost her daughter Mary Regina Gioia on Aug. 16, 1985. For the last 28 years, she has been the Albany chapter leader of the Parents of Murdered Children. In 2006, she wrote The Berkeley Marina Murders, chronicling “how her family survived the worst nightmare one can experience.” Gioia is firmly against the sale of murderabilia,, viewing it as an insult to those affected by the crime. “To make a profit from another person’s pain and suffering is wrong and should be considered an unlawful act against all of society,” said Gioia. “As the parent of a murdered daughter, and knowing many others who have also been affected by the murder of a loved one, I have zero tolerance for someone seeking to profit from the sale of criminal memorabilia.”
To Hutchinson, however, such victims’ advocacy organizations are “far more disturbing than anything I have listed within my museum. I find it terribly sad that many victims allow themselves to be ‘revictimized’ through these organizations.”
John Walsh, host of the America’s Most Wanted television show, lost his 6-year-old son Adam to serial killer Otis Toole in 1981. Over the next 23 years, his show brought attention to criminals and urged the public to call in with information. According to the show, 689 criminals, 15 of them from the FBI’s most wanted list, were caught with their help. In 2008, in partnership with Orlando businessman John Morgan, Walsh founded the Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington. One of few for-profit museums in the area, the museum showcases Bundy’s yellow Volkswagen buggy, Gacy’s paint box, the hatchet from the 1944 Dillon Massacre and other criminal artifacts. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment claims to house the largest collection of murderabilia in the world, yet, Hutchinson said, “you don’t see them being attacked in the news too often.”
What seems to anger people most about the murderabilia industry is the belief that criminals profit from these sales. Andy Kahan, a victim advocate from Houston, crusaded against the sale of murderabilia and pressured eBay to ban such auctions in 2001, even though, in most cases, it is third-party vendors profiting from the sale of the items. “The offenders themselves can’t profit from this, but there’s nothing to keep vendors from profiting,” said Bonn, the professor of criminology.
“Notoriety-for-profit” laws have been enacted in eight states to prevent criminals from profiting, as Kahan fears. These laws, are also known as Son of Sam laws, after the serial killer David Berkowitz, who was said to be offered a substantial sum of money by publishers to write his story. In 1991, the Supreme Court found that that a New York State law was too broad and violated the First Amendment. However, one-third of all states that had these laws left them unaltered after the ruling, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Despite legislation and protests from victims’ advocacy groups, murderabilia continues to sell, though hard data is impossible to come by. “These things are rare and exotic,” said Bonn. “People collect coins, stamps, everything. Serial killers are kind of the human version of a great white shark or a cobra. They’re rare, exotic, powerful and, deadly. People are drawn to that sort of stuff. We have a fascination with it. There’s a dark, macabre appeal.”