The controversial world of crime memorabilia
The tradition of crime memorabilia
Many collectors of historical crime memorabilia are labelled eccentric, or believed to have a particularly macabre disposition.
However, crime collectibles have always had a fan base since the earliest days of corporal punishment and making criminals into a spectacle. Medieval crowds used to gather to watch hangings, burnings, people put in the stocks, to join witch hunts, and to gossip about the crimes committed.
In these early superstitious times, it was common practice to collect a piece of clothing or even pieces of the body from the executed individual for luck, or to take tattooed pieces of skin to the criminal’s family to confirm their identity.
The first documented serial killing case in England, that of Jack the Ripper, fostered this age-old fascination with the criminal mind. Despite the crime never being solved, it was not unusual for people to collect objects relating to each of the suspects in the case.
Collectible historic criminals
Items such as photographs of Wild West outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid, the Colt revolver of 1920s gangster Al Capone, the saxophone of Clyde Barrow, the lipstick of Bonnie Parker, hangman Albert Pierrepoint’s noose, and the blood-stained toe tag of Lee Harvey Oswald, are considered dark yet fascinating examples of ‘crime through time’.
The most popular criminals to collect include:
- John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). A signed letter sold for $65,000 in November 2004.
- Billy the Kid (1859-1881). A rare tintype photograph sold for $2 million in June 2011.
- Jesse James (1847-1882). A signed letter sold for $175,500 in December 2004.
- Wyatt Earp (1848-1929). Manuscript document of his first homicide case sold for $26,290 in December 2003. - John Dillinger (1903-1934). The Colt Revolver used to shoot Dillinger sold for $95,600 in 2009. - Bonnie & Clyde (1910/1909-1934). Clyde’s revolver sold for $25,850 in June 2001, and a signed photograph of the couple for $21,850 in April 1996. - Al Capone (1899-1947). His revolver sold for £67,250 ($109,080) in June 2011. - Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963). His coffin sold for $87,000 in December 2010.
This list is comprised of outlaws, bank robbers, political assassins, organised gangsters and lawmen, all of them at large half a century ago or more. The highest values for crime memorabilia remain within the realm of historical interest, but also with criminals whose motives were fairly innocuous compared to those collected by many enthusiasts.
For example, some tastes tend towards the much more controversial modern 'murderabilia': items connected to criminals whose crimes hit the newspaper headlines far more recently and that are still alive in prison or on death row. This collecting often has to be more clandestine. The majority of auction houses refuse to sell such items, and they are banned from eBay. Collectors of murderabilia seek items through private sales and a growing number of specialist dealers.
Some noteworthy examples include:
- Ted Bundy (the Campus Killer)
- Charles Manson (the Helter Skelter cult leader)
- David Berkowitz (Son of Sam, the .44 Caliber Killer)
- John Wayne Gacy (the Killer Clown)
- Issei Sagawa (the Godfather of Cannibalism)
- Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker)
- Danny Rolling (the Gainsville Slasher)
- Jeffrey Dahmer (the Milwaukee Monster)
- Dennis Nilsen (the Muswell Hill Murderer, the Kindly Killer)
- Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (the Moors Murderers)
- Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper)
Many muderabilia dealers make contact with the incarcerated individuals, befriending them through letter writing, thus directly obtaining items of prison art, possessions, and autographs to pass on to collectors. Items offered by these specialist dealers include:
- Michael Bruce Ross’s watch, worn until his execution in 2005, available at for sale at $1,650
- The shirt worn by Richard Ramirez at his trial available for $1,750
- An x-ray of Charles Manson's spine available for $9,500
- A letter handwritten by Danny Rolling available for $120
The market for artwork by notorious serial killers is also a booming (if disturbing) business. Examples include John Wayne Gacy, known as the Clown Killer, whose paintings brought him an estimated $100,000 whilst he was incarcerated on death row, and Issei Sagawa (known as the ‘Godfather of Cannibalism’) whose work has a huge cult following from collectors in Japan.
Criminal or celebrity?
While mementos relating to such freshly committed crimes horrify the majority, it must be noted that they will inevitably eventually become historical themselves. The recently deceased Kray twins’ prison artwork is raking in surprisingly high sums at relatively prestigious auction houses. The taboo of collecting murderabilia may well fade with time.
It is a long debated sociological problem that the media turn criminals into celebrities. When the most notorious criminals and their actions are reported on so extensively, it’s hardly surprising that an X-ray of Charles Manson’s spine is given the same worth as Paul McCartney’s autograph.
As far back as Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, even further, with the elusive Jack the Ripper killings, coverage of criminals, as well as crime based literature, television, and film, has kept crime at the forefront of the public consciousness. This presence both generates, and is evidence of, a fascination with the workings of the criminal mind.
This long-standing public fascination with the darker side of human nature ensures that the market for crime memorabilia – whilst often controversial – continues to inspire passionate collectors around the globe.