Murderabilia is defined by thefreedictionary.com as “objects that are regarded as valuable because of their connection with murders or other notorious crimes” and comes in many different forms such as possessions of the killer, locks of the killer’s hair, items used by them after the crime (whilst in prison for example), prisoner letters, or even dirt from a murder victim’s grave. Arthur John Shawcross – the Genesee River Killer who murdered eleven women in late 1980s, full profile can be found here – took advantage of his fame and the art supplies available in prison to sell paintings and poems from his cell. One of these paintings sold for nearly $600. When his actions became well known, there was an outcry and he was prevented from continuing.
In 2019, Kurt Cobain’s cigarette stained cardigan from Nirvana’s iconic MTV Unplugged show was sold for $334,000. Kurt Cobain was no angel, but he wasn’t a serial killer, and Nirvana are still very influential in the music world today. What makes murderabilia problematic is it elevates murderers to the same celebrity status, somebody sought after and glamorises their crimes. It encourages the desirability of murderers. This isn’t exclusive to murderabilia, it also occurs in films and TV shows that encourage sympathy or sexualise the killer, for example the 2019 film ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ about Ted Bundy which does both. Serial killers have ruined lives and it’s irresponsible to forget or overlook that.
The victims must also be remembered, and their families who have to live with the consequences. It’s disrespectful that people are making money and celebrating the death of innocent people. But in reality, it’s never the victims who are remembered, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, The Zodiac Killer, Charles Manson are all names we know well, but can you name any of their victims?
In 1977, American introduced The Son of Sam law to prevent killers from profiting from their crimes through books, films, magazine articles etc as a result of David Berkowitz – aka the Son of Sam who believed the neighbourhood dogs were telling him to kill, full story here – selling the rights to his story, instead the profits can be obtained by the victims. This law did, however, spark some free-speech debates, and isn’t enforced in all states. This isn’t the only move taken to curb the trade, as “Following negative publicity, trading in murderabilia was banned on eBay in 2001” (researchgate.net) . However, there are many independent websites that aren’t regulated where it has continued freely.
I would personally rather that the industry didn’t exist, that these items were disposed of, and forgotten about as if their owners weren’t famous. However, if it must exist, I personally draw the line when the killer themselves is profiting from their crime, for example, Arthur John Shawcross. The Son of Sam law that prohibits killers from profiting from their crimes is an important stance taken by the American legal system, but unfortunately it can easily be circumvented by a third party collecting the money and ‘gifting’ it to the killer by way of commissary if they’re in prison. In 2010, congress tried to introduce the Stop the Sale of Murderabilia to Protect the Dignity of Crime Victims Act of 2010 but it was unsuccessful.
Should more laws be introduced to restrict the trade? What do you think?