Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture


Ed Gein
Ed Gein

Collectors once avidly watched for Ed Gein's 150-pound tombstone, stolen form his grave, to appear on some Internet auction site. Acquiring such a specimen, according to Meg Jones in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, would be for art collectors like owning a Rembrandt. In June 2000, a search of eBay showed thirty-one items for sale related to Gein, including an FBI document that contained his fingerprints, wood from his long-gone house, and a painting of him done by killer John Wayne Gacy.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

At that time, serial killer memorabilia could be sold on eBay as long as the seller legally owned it. A check in 2001 yielded 262 hits on the phrase, "serial killer," according to Sam Handlin for Court TV. That included a self-portrait by Gacy and a silk necktie worn by Donald Leroy Evans. In Natural Born Celebrities, author David Schmid documents the skirmish between eBay and protestors of its practice of allowing the free trade of serial killer memorabilia. Members of victims' rights groups signed a petition, which was noted by several news sources, to the effect that the Internet's function as a network for millions of people could have a detrimental effect on society if no limitations were imposed on certain practices. The glorification of killers and the frenzy to purchase and own things that they touched, created or grew (like toenails) would glamorize killers, thus rewarding them for what they'd done and possibly encouraging others toward violent ambitions.

Thus, in May 2001, eBay banned the sale of certain types of murderabilia. Most items found up for auction now that are associated with killers are pieces of property or manufactured trinkets and T-shirts. Some killers attempt to sell via accomplices, but a few have been outed and punished. As of this writing, Gein's tombstone is still missing, and since stealing it was illegal, it's quite unlikely to show up in a public auction. But there's always the dark underground.

Robert Yates
Robert Yates

For some, eBay's policy has been unfortunate. In 2004, the Spokane County sheriff attempted sell two vehicles on the auction site that once were owned by prostitute killer Robert Yates, from Spokane. One was a white Corvette and the other a Chevy Sport van, and both had yielded key evidence. Yates had offered confessions to thirteen murders in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. (But then he was convicted in two other murders and received the death penalty.) The sheriff's sale was an attempt to raise money for the county and to reimburse it for having to purchase the vehicles for evidence processing. However, eBay's policy threatened to stop the sale, because the cars had been owned and used by a serial killer. There was no further news on what occurred, although it's possible that some collector who saw the news item quietly made the deal.

Dennis Nilsen
Dennis Nilsen

There are other auction sites online as well. Letters from Peter Sutcliff, "the Yorkshire Ripper," and Dennis Nilsen were made available in the UK, and reportedly bids flowed in immediately. Among other items for sale on various Web sites are:

  • John Wayne Gacy's Bible and the rosary he used to show DA Terry Sullivan the "rope trick"
  • William Bonin's television, where he'd carved an inscription
  • Doug Clark's driver's license and death certificate
  • Bricks from Jeffrey Dahmer's now-defunct apartment building
  • Numerous handwritten letters and envelopes from various killers
  • A hatchet from Ed Gein's farm
  • Ken Bianchi's prescription bottle
  • Bobby Joe Long's sunglasses
  • Henry Lee Lucas's handmade clock
  • Recipes from self-professed cannibal Arthur Shawcross
  • Lawrence Bittaker's signed handprint
  • Randy Kraft's prison kite
  • Supposedly, the refrigerator that stores parts of Dahmer's victims

Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator
Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator

Most of these items are pricey, so some people just purchase tacky souvenir items that remind them of individual serial killers.

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