Murderabilia – Our Fascination With Serial Killers

by Diane Dimond on July 1, 2013

Kahan: One Man’s Fight Against Glorifying Murderers

Do you collect anything? My dear Aunt Isabel used to collect little spoons that she proudly displayed in a wall cabinet. Grandma collected tea cups. I began a collection of beautiful hand bells.

Well, some people collect items that are much more macabre – items that have a connection to notorious serial killers. 

How macabre? Would you believe these collectors buy serial killer’s autographed photos, artwork and handwritten letters sent to people outside prison walls? Even an envelope bearing a handwritten return address commands a pretty penny. The murderer’s fingernail clippings , dirty socks or any other object that can be authenticated as genuine ranks a place of honor on some people’s mantle.

But those are not the most shocking serial killer items up for sale on the internet.  

Andy Kahan, the Houston Police Department’s victim rights advocate, has dedicated much of the last 15 years to following – and fighting – this bizarre form of commerce.  Kahan told me he got interested in making sure serial killers could never profit from their crimes after reading an article about Arthur Shawcross who sold paintings and poems out of his cell in upstate New York.   This serial killer had sexually abused, mutilated and killed at least 14 people (including two children) in the 70’s and 80’s.  Some Shawcross paintings sold for nearly $600. 

Shawcross Paintings Sold for Hundreds

“I thought to myself, ‘this just not right,’” Kahan said. His research led him to eBay where items from several notorious killers were being sold. Kahan vowed to spread the word about the morbid practice and actually bought up some of the most bizarre offerings to use during lectures on why there should be a law against the practice. He called these odd collectibles “Murderabilia” and the name has stuck. 

Would You Buy Manson’s Hair?

Kahan bought hair from Charlie Manson that had been fashioned into a swastika, dirt from a crawlspace-tomb at John Wayne Gacy’s house and an action figure of cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer that is marketed with this little ditty: “Open me up for a sure delight and see what I ate for dinner last night.” Unzip the doll and mock body parts fall out. Among the most disgusting thing for sale, according to Kahan, was a bag of rocks and dirt taken from the Texas road where in 1998 a black man named James Bryd was dragged to his death by three White Supremacists. 

“From a victims perspective selling murderabilia is about the most nauseating and disgusting thing that could happen,” Kahan told me. “It is like being gutted all over again by the justice system.” 

Won’t Sell Murderabilia Anymore

Kahan has made it his life’s calling to rid the internet of this ugly profit-making booty. eBay finally gave in to his persistent calls and lobbying and has now banned the sale of murderabilia from its site.

Kahan works hard to get states with the most serial killers in prison to pass “Notoriety for Profit” laws to make sure none of the money goes to the criminals. So far, Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Utah and Texas have done so. 

Many people think the so-called Son of Sam laws prohibiting murderers from profiting by selling their life stories are still in effect but they were declared an unconstitutional violation of free speech by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. The Notoriety for Profit laws are designed to follow the money and, therein, lies the difference. 

Murderabilia from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski

In the meantime, there are still grisly offerings out there: Calendars, trading cards, T-shirts and even snow globes glorifying the grisly crimes of these killers.

A handwritten recipe card from Dorthea Puentes for her tuna casserole is one of the coveted finds. Puentes ran a rooming house in Sacramento, Ca. in the 80’s and killed at least nine of the elderly boarders who dared to complain that she was cashing and keeping their social security checks.

Then there are the gravestone chips from Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein’s final resting place. His repulsive story was the inspiration for the movies Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. 

After the purveyors of murderabilia found the eBay door closed sellers simply started their own websites and their ghastly business flourishes.

As Kahan says, “I have no problem with those who are collecting the stuff. My problem is someone profiting from it. It is blood money plain and simple.” 

Berkowitz Condemns Murderabilia

While some of the convicts have entered into shady “trades” with sellers – mailing out their personal items in return for small gifts or money deposited into their prison accounts – many of the killers had no clue that what they were sending from prison was then being sold at auction sites. 

“(David) Berkowitz had no idea his things were being sold and is violently opposed to it,” Dr. Scott Bonn told me. “After having been born-again in 1987 … he thinks it is a sacrilege.” As an author and professor of criminology Bonn befriended the so-called Son of Sam Killer as part of his research for an upcoming book called, “Why We Love Serial Killers.” 

So why are we so fascinated by them? And what prompts people to collect these awful souvenirs? Dr. Bonn believes the media elevates these larger-than-life ghouls to morbid rock stars status. They become celebrity monsters. 

“It’s an adrenalin rush and we love to have the crap scared out of us.” Bonn said. “That, and we’re riveted to the dark side of humanity… they define the outside parameters of what one human being can do to another.” 

Indeed, but I still don’t want a bag of dirt from a crime scene on the shelf with my bells.



{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond July 1, 2013 at 9:34 am

Twitter Pal 9Kittens writes:

“Serial killers interest us as I believe normal people have no way to relate to such cold killing !!!”


Diane Dimond July 1, 2013 at 10:50 am

Facebook Friend Andrew Siegel writes:

“Interesting article. However, Charles Manson was not a serial killer and should never be included in any piece on this subject.”


Diane Dimond July 1, 2013 at 10:52 am

Dear Mr. Siegel:
As you’ll note in paragraph 5 where I mention Manson I write:

“I thought to myself, ‘this just not right,’” Kahan said. His research led him to eBay where items from several notorious killers were being sold.”

I made a point there to differentiate different types of killers with the phrase “NOTORIOUS KILLERS” vis a vi serial killers. My fascination is with anyone who is attracted to murderabilia from any type of killer. ~ DD


Diane Dimond July 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Innovative Journalism connection Emmett “Bubba” McClary writes:

“How sick can people get? Maybe the prisons can start selling “An evening with a cold blooded murderer “ What is on the menu tonight? Steak Tartar, extra bloody or sautéed calf liver with favaa beans and a nice Chianti? Maybe we should not joke about this because the people who run the private prisons may really do something just as disgusting as I’ve just suggested. Of course they couldn’t do it were it not for the sick minds that would pay for this sort of access or grisly souvenirs. Next thing you know that organization “National Association for Man/Boy Love” will want to have “Spend the day with a child molester! This sort of thing is almost enough to make one lose their hope for humanity, if there is any left.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Huffington Post Reader Doc Bonn writes:

“Making a killing by selling the booty of killers is
simultaneously callous, morbid and good business. Quite a
paradox and moral dilemma.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Huffington Post Reader Jack E Jett writes:

“Interesting article. Curious as to how someone becomes interested enough in an object to collect it..
I have never heard of someone collecting hand bells.
I use to collect lunch boxes as they reminded me of my early school days….and people would always ask…how much are they worth.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Huffington Post Reader Iclasticons writes:

“I don’t collect memorabilia but I read the books, dare I say, voraciously. I watch the tv series and shows and the movies. Someone makes money off all those activities. And now I have clicked on this story, feeding the Post’s advertising revenues and any remuneration to its blogger, Ms. Dimond. 50 shades of grey would not cover the spectrum of culpability on this or any other moral issue. Those who pretend to occupy moral high ground typically have more than their shoes wet. To expect otherwise in a would occupied by billions of imperfect beings would be fatuous.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Huffington Post Reader SterlingArcher writes:

“Dexter rules, but real serial killers suck.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Huffington Post Reader tj3usa writes:

“Our entertainment of movies and TV exalts serial killers. Anthony Hopkins went from star to superstar with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. Javier Bardem rose in star status as serial killer in No Country for Old Men.

The actors who kill a lot may not portray serial killers but they massacre hordes of “bad guys”.

I would guess as to why. There is a lot of powerlessness and people want to have the power to strike out. Tony Soprano did what a lot of people would like to do, which is to take on people who hurt him or merely annoyed him with death.

Real life serial killers are not so glamorous. They are mentally ill. But popular culture imbues these sick individuals with a star status that is undeserved and alarming.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Huffington Post Reader YOKEL13 writes:

“There is also a positive aspect to curiosity about serial killers (and other dangerous people) in that it informs us that they exist and what their methods are, which helps us to recognize the kinds of people we should avoid.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Huffington Post Reader scififan7 writes:

“Curiosity is one thing. Glorifing these monsters is quite another. I prefer to leave the analysis to professionals. I would NOT pay one red cent or have this garbage in my home.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Huffington Post Reader marleyma77 writes:

“Good article. its not just serial killers. Look at the love letters Hernandez (NFL player from NE) or the terrorist in Boston is getting. its sick.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Huffington Post Reader WaldoForever writes:

“US culture has a morbid fascination with outré death and violence because by now we’ve all spent the majority of our lives living with apocalyptic rhetoric. Start with the nuclear annihilation ideal that fueled the Cold War, move on to the cultural destruction ideal that pervaded the 60’s and 70’s, then the political catastrophe ideals that created the militia movements of the 80’s and 90’s, now the ideal of the all-encompassing threat of terrorism. Nuclear Winter and Global Warming, The Millennium, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar, the signs of the Rapture or of the Book of Revelations… We’ve gotten to the point where ubiquitous fear seems so natural to us that we keep looking for new potential horrors to validate it.

The fascination with serial killers is part of the trend towards ever-more violent ideation, which is itself a response to that ubiquitous fear. It’s a kind of sympathetic magic: we gain a sense of control over that fear by latching onto a concrete symbol of it. Serial killer memorabilia lets us simultaneously build up killers as an ultimate evil and remind ourselves that we conquered that evil; putting that material into circulation has the same cathartic effect as watching an action hero tear through impossible numbers of ruthless, malevolent opponents and save the day.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Huffington Post Reader Andrew Kamadulski writes:

“What else would you expect in a culture that glorifies violence?”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Huffington Post Reader thinkingwomanmillstone writes:

“It seems a bit hypocritical of a media personality who makes her living off of telling the details of notorious crimes to the public to be critical of others’ obsessions with crime and crime figures. The collectors are indeed bizarre but it is little different than someone who collects every detail and sells those. We go to museums to see famous historical figures that often have killed more than serial killers….kings, generals, dictators, etc.. We visit prisons, concentration camps, places of great battles and gladiatorial exhibitions. People display figures of the crucified Christ crafted in minute detail. It’s all akin to scary campfire stories and whistling past the graveyard.”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Huffington Post Reader fifiwereking writes;

“i don’t think she IS criticizing the fascination with serial killers, just those who profit from the sale of serial killer memorabilia… the U.S. supreme court has already differentiated “speech” from the type of commerce she’s writing about… your examples of exhibitions, museums, etc. are more apt examples than her authorship…”


Diane Dimond July 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Thank you for your comment THINKINGWOMANMILLSONE – But, by this line of thinking the political reporter who has experiencing covering Capitol Hill should not write or speak about aberrations found in the political system. Following your criticism then the journalist who concentrates on economics should not report on irregularities or oddities – like, say, the Madoff case? To think that journalists should not communicate about all aspects of their expertise seems self-defeating to me. I believe readers and viewers want more, good, in-depth coverage that helps them put the state of affairs in perspective. ~ DD


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