Guest Author - Donna Johnson
National Geographic Channel’s documentary series entitled Taboo focuses on a wide variety of behaviors and practices that many people may find distasteful, disgusting, or horrific. “Living with the Dead”, the fifth episode of Season 8, focused on practices concerning the dead, including “murderabilia,” the collection of items associated with killers and their crimes.
One part of the episode featured Eric Gein, a dealer of murderabilia via his website. Gein sells pictures, letters, artwork, and other items. Gein lives in Florida, and his segment opened with him traveling to Long Island, New York to visit a site where the so-called “Craigslist Killer” dumped the body of one of his victims. While there, Gein collected dirt from the scene, describing himself as “excited” to have been there and obtain the soil.
Throughout the piece, Gein frequently referred to collecting murderabilia in a tone that others might use to speak about an upcoming trip to Disney World. In fact, while viewing items that belonged to Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, Gein said “…might as well say I’m in Disney World.” On the other hand, victims’ family members who appeared on the show described murderabilia as “devastating”, with one noting the idea of convicted murderers making money from their heinous crimes was “appalling.”
However, Gein defends his murderabilia business by noting that he has a right to sell the items, so long as the killers do not profit from the sales, a point in which he is correct. Currently, Federal laws, as well as those in eight states, prohibit criminals from using their crimes for financial gain, but do not limit the ability of third parties to profit from murderabilia. However, victims’ advocates estimate that up to half of killers may benefit from money placed into their commissary accounts or given directly to their loved ones on the outside. Princeton University Professor Peter Singer also points out that there is a non-monetary reward realized by killers when their letters, artwork, or other items are sold – recognition and celebrity.
Regardless of how distasteful many may find murderabilia, others are drawn to it. Gein estimates that there are four to five other dealers of murderabilia, and approximately 100 U.S.-based collectors that he would classify as “serious.” His website receives 2,000 hits per day, and items as simple as a greeting card from Charles Manson can go for $250. The U.S. government also deals in murderabilia, as evidenced with the auction of the Unabomber’s items. Kaczynski’s infamous hoodie and sunglasses reached $20,000 in pre-auction bids, and eventually sold for $20,005, while items such as his typewriter, manifesto, and journals went for $22,003, $20,053 and $40,676, respectively. Proceeds from that auction went to Unabomber victims and their families.
Join the discussion thread devoted to this episode on my Crime forum.