After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, a website sold a handwritten letter from the shooter, Dylann Roof, for hundreds of dollars. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, another website sold the shooter’s calculator for thousands of dollars. If these sales are any indication, collectors will be buying and selling items related to the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park.
Some crime victims have been working for years to shut down the market for “Murderabilia.” Andy Kahan, Director of Victim Services and Advocacy at Crime Stoppers, says the buying and selling of items related to high profile murders only compounds family member’s suffering. “It’s the most nauseating feeling in the world,” he explained to me, “when you find out the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit.”
In the early 2000s, he and other victims’ rights advocates successfully pushed eBay to delist items owned, used, and/or created by murderers. While they had been trying to change eBay’s policies for years, the turning point came two weeks before ABC’s 20/20 was scheduled to air a documentary featuring Kahan testifying before the Texas senate. Until that point, eBay had artwork, autographs, clothing, hair samples, and other items from Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and other infamous serial killers.
After Kahan’s win, however, collectors simply created their own websites. Despite not being able to sell on mainstream e-commerce platforms, demand for these items stayed steady. Taylor James, owner of CultCollectibles.com, started selling on eBay as a hobby. Now selling murder memorabilia is his full-time job. “I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to,” he told me, “I’m probably sending out 15-20 packages a week.” Like other collectors, he’s exchanged letters with people convicted of murder. He’s traveled to crime scenes. He’s even created Classmates.com profiles to help him locate yearbooks that might have a well-known murderer’s’ signature.
Today, websites like CultCollectibles.com, SerialKillersInk.net, and ArtemMortis.com, sell items as different as cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s reading glasses ($150,000), necrophiliac John Wayne Gacy’s paintings ($14,000), and rocks from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Parkland, FL shooting in 2018 ($85 for two).
The effort to prevent killers from profiting off their crimes began decades ago. In 1977, New York hastily enacted its “Son of Sam” law while publishers were allegedly offering serial killer David Berkowitz big money for the rights to his story. The laws dictated that any compensation from such a deal would have to be deposited into an account, which the victim’s families could later claim through a civil suit. But in 1991, the Supreme Court struck down this law for violating the First Amendment. In Simon and Schuster, Inc. v. Members of New York State Crime Victims Board, the court ruled that the law was “overinclusive” because “New York has singled out speech on a particular subject for a financial burden that it places on no other speech and no other income.” The justices noted that states may have “a compelling interest in compensating victims from the fruits of the crime, but little if any interest in limiting such compensation to the proceeds of the wrongdoer’s speech about the crime.”
Technically, 45 states still have some version of this law on their books. The laws “prevent those accused or convicted of a crime from profiting from the commercial exploitation of their crimes by contracting for the production of books, movies, magazine articles, television shows and the like in which their crime is reenacted” or in which the “person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions or emotions” about the crime are expressed.
These laws mostly focus on media rights, and they are rarely enforced. But, when they are enforced, they’re often struck down for violating the First Amendment, too. In one of the more famous examples, Frank Sinatra Jr. used the “Son of Sam” law to sue Columbia Pictures. As part of an attempt to secure film rights, Columbia had offered money to the man who kidnapped Sinatra in 1963. In the end, the California Supreme Court struck down this law. In its ruling, the justices cited Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board:
“[California’s law] contains the fundamental defect identified in Simon & Schuster; it reaches beyond a criminal’s profits from the crime or its exploitation to reach all income from the criminal’s speech or expression on any theme or subject, if the story of the crime is included.”
As an alternative, Kahan and other activists pushed eight states to pass “notoriety-for-profit” laws. While these laws do not restrict prisoners from selling their stories to book publishers like Simon & Schuster or movie production studios like Columbia Pictures, they do restrict incarcerated people from selling their possessions for a profit. This includes letters, paintings, t-shirts, locks of hair, and the like. While the state laws are imperfect—an incarcerated person might “gift” their possessions to a “friend” who “donates” to their prison account months later–they help to curb the market for murder merchandise. So far, these laws haven’t been struck down. Though, one can imagine a challenge that treats a letter, a painting, or a spider made from a murderer’s hair as speech.
Moreover, since Kahan’s laws focus on profits above market value, for example, a convicted serial killer can sell his Nike hat for $10, but not $1,000 because the additional money derives from the “notoriety” of his crimes. But art and assessed value is a gray area. Since these laws have yet to be challenged, it is unclear how the courts might assess the market value of a Gacey painting on aesthetic grounds only? Also, because the laws focus on everything (from paintings to toenail clippings) and every person who is incarcerated (not just murderers), they also risk being considerded “overinclusive” much like the “Son of Sam” laws.
Some argue the law’s broad scope further punishes people in prison. “People who are convicted of committing murder are easy to vilify,” criminal defense attorney, William R. Bickerton said. “That vilification makes it easy to co-sign laws that go too far in punishing or restricting that defendant. A lot of the discourse around Son of Sam laws tends to overlook the fact that the First Amendment also protects the right to receive information.” As Bickerton told me, “there needs to be a balance between eliminating possible rewards for committing crime and a defendant’s right to express themselves.”
An even thornier issue is what to do about third-party collectors who traffic in lucrative murderabilia? The key question here is how to distinguish murderabilia from memorabilia. Are Billy the Kid’s guns Murderabilia? Are confederate soldiers’ diaries Murderabilia? What about Nazi uniforms? Holocaust survivors and their families may not be thrilled when former Red Sox pitcher, and QAnon conspiracist, Curt Schilling posts pictures of his Nazi memorabilia to Facebook, but the sale and purchase of these items is so far protected by law.
None of these laws, of course, prevent family members of crime victims from cashing in. But too often, documentarians cut them out of the lucrative deals to tell their stories, citing journalistic norms. In 1993, Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and murdered twelve-year-old Polly Klaas. Marc Klaas was angered by a major streaming service that wanted to film a documentary about his daughter’s murder without compensating him for his contributions to the film.
“I’m supplying you with photographs, videos, everything. And you guys have all just signed big contracts to make millions of dollars for yourself. I want a piece of that action,” Klass said he told the filmmakers. “They said no it’s against journalistic ethics. It’s just another form of exploitation. What they’re doing is really no different than what the Murderabilia guys are doing.”
Legal and financial issues aside, the desire for murderabilia reflects a broader cultural obsession with crime, cannibals, necrophiliacs, and mass shooters. True crime podcasts, books, and what seems like an endless stream of films and documentaries about notorious killers have boomed in recent years. From the Last Podcast on the Left tour, to the hit Bloody Alphabet coloring book, to the Rolling Stone cover glamorizing the Boston Marathon bomber, to the Ted Bundy biopic starring heartthrob Zac Efron, some people are raking in killer profits for dramatizing horric murders.
Some have argued the true crime genre is cathartic, at least for women, but the fascination with murderers may have a simpler explanation. What standup comedian Jim Norton said of The Ted Bundy Tapes—a series that led Forbes to reasonably ask if this cannibal was “Netflix’s Newest Breakout Star”—is just as true of other content about murderers. “You can tell it’s more than just curiosity, it’s admiration. If they were speaking about him honestly, every sentence would start with, ‘And then this piece of shit.’” Instead, documentarians, writers, podcasters, and collectors describe Bundy as a handsome, evil genius.
Today, it’s mass shooters not serial killers who stand to profit from their murderabilia. Serial killers have been in decline for the past three decades. Yet, mass shootings have dramatically increased over the same time period. Twenty percent of the mass shootings between 1966 and 2019 happened in the last five years of study, according to data gathered by The Violence Project, a non-profit research center dedicated to violence prevention and intervention. The shooters, especially those who develop cult followings with their misogynistic and white supremacist manifestos, are the new breakout stars offering sites like Cult Collectibles, which is already selling items from mass shootings such as the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in 2017 and Columbine High School in 1999, even more inventory.