Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive


Fascination with serial killers is an American pastime, spurring a profitable underground trade. Some people are so obsessed with the subject that they carry on correspondence with men behind bars, design trading cards or board games, or indulge in a more expensive hobby: purchasing art made by killers or depicting their murders. Several collectors have expressed the idea that having something a murderer made protects them in some way.

Gerard Schaefer
Gerard Schaefer

The market serves both sides. Imprisoned killers have time on their hands, and some have turned to art as a way to express themselves, to explore their creativity and even to make money. People on the outside often act as their agents, and with the popularity of eBay and anything-goes Internet sites, it's not difficult for the most violent offenders to find an audience—or buyers. Gerard Schaefer, who was convicted of two 1970s murders, suspected in 34, and confessed to more than 80, published a collection of short stories, thanks to his former girlfriend, Sondra London.

A few killers have made art part of their crimes. California's Zodiac killer drew sketches and devised codes for his intricate game, but such expressions are rare. Those who do communicate generally only write letters or leave scrawled messages. Forms of art done by killers after incarceration range from poetry and fiction to sculpture and painting. Charles Ng, once part of a killing team in California with Leonard Lake, reputedly does origami, Lawrence Bittaker (another team killer) creates greeting cards, and cult leader Charles Manson offers sock puppets. Sometimes the "art" is just a doodle on an envelope or in a letter, as Jennifer Furio illustrates in The Serial Killer Letters, but some murderers have shown genuine, ongoing talent. They may not be artists in the Michelangelo sense, but they've acquired some skill with pencil, charcoal, or paint.

Gary Gilmore
Gary Gilmore

Gary Gilmore, made famous when he refused to go through a death penalty appeals process in 1977 after murdering two young men, actually had such artistic talent that he won prizes and earned an early release. With an IQ of 130, he had educated himself in literature, poetry, and drawing. For his improving talent, he was allowed to live in a halfway house in Eugene, Oregon in 1972 to attend art school at the local community college. While he welcomed the opportunity, it apparently intimidated him. Rather than show up to register, he got drunk. Within a month, he had committed armed robbery and was arrested and sent back to prison. Whatever talent he had was lost in the anger that drove him to lash out later with murder. In 1978, he was executed in Utah.

Prison wardens are usually pleased when otherwise aggressive prisoners turn to artistic outlets. It makes these men more manageable, and as long as they're not breaking a law, no one is going to stop people like Ng or Manson from indulging in a little creativity.

But the market for this type of art does meet with resistance. Both members of law enforcement and families of victims are outraged by killers making a profit from their notoriety, and they want laws enacted to stop it. For now, however, if they're doing nothing illegal or expressly forbidden by prison rules, they can ply their trade. Let's look at the different angles of this business.

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