Items of crime memorabilia are collectible objects relating to famous crimes, criminals, and law enforcement. This can include, for example, people such as gangsters, outlaws and lawmen, and events such as homicide, bank heists, investigations, and capital punishment.
Crime memorabilia can date from any era. One popular area of crime memorabilia is often termed ‘murderabilia’ or ‘murderbilia’, indicating collectibles relating to murder crimes and murderers. This area of collectibles is much debated, thought by many to be bad taste. It can touch on sad, disturbing, and taboo subject matters, yet it is a vastly popular area of collectibles worldwide.
Crime memorabilia can range from items relating to history’s worst perpetrators of genocide and depravation of human rights, down to notorious American Wild West outlaws. The demand for crime memorabilia in America has also sparked a fierce counter movement to prevent criminals profiteering.
Crime memorabilia encompasses mementos, souvenirs, or products associated with criminals and crimes, past and present. This can include items from murder scenes, investigations, from the term of imprisonment, the execution of capital punishment, mementos of famous prison escapes, or any other items relating to the life of the criminal, such as objects owned by them previous to their crimes and conviction. It can also encompass items surrounding unsolved crimes and cold cases.
There are a wide variety of collectible items relating to criminals still living available, offered by websites such as Serial Killers Ink. These are items produced by the criminals in prison, some of them purely in order to be sold on.
The most valuable items of crime memorabilia tend to be those connected with very high profile crimes, the ones most reported in the media, such as assassinations of American presidents.
The auction website eBay banned sales of muderabilia items on their website in 2001. There are several websites that deal exclusively in selling true crime memorabilia and murderabilia, however, these are generally items produced by living criminals. If searching for items connected to historic crimes and criminals, auction houses are generally the place to find them.
The history of crime memorabilia can be traced right back to early hangings, when people would take an item of clothing or even a piece of skin from a dead criminal as luck or to confirm their identity. A notable example from the history of crime memorabilia collectibles, comes from the infamous and unsolved Jack the Ripper killings. Members of the public were known to collect objects belonging to each of the several suspects while the killer was still at large. This was the first documented serial killing case, and indicative of the joint fascination and repulsion evoked in the general public when a murder investigation was extensively reported.
Collecting crime memorabilia suggests the presence of this dual fascination and repulsion. It has been explained as a public fascination with those that live outside the laws and norms adhered to by the rest of us, and a desire to understand the psychology of what drives people to take such unthinkable actions.
Criminals as celebrities
Much of the fascination with crimes and violent crimes arises from the wide coverage given them by the media. It is considered by many as a sociological problem that the media make stars of serial killers. There have been several cases in the past of criminals elevated to celebrity status by the coverage given them, and the cult following they gathered. One example of this is Bonnie and Clyde. From the days of their crime spree, signed photographs of the charismatic couple were considered highly desirable. After they were gunned down by police, the scene of their deaths was combed for mementos by the public, some people even attempting to cut off the fingers and ears of the criminals as keepsakes.
Several sales of crime memorabilia have suffered attempts to be blocked or thwarted in the past, due to the sensitive subject matter, considered offensive, in bad taste, or detrimental to the dignity of crime victims and their families.
A law called the Son of Sam Law was implemented in 1977, named after the murders committed by David Berkowitz who called himself ‘son of Sam’. It is designed to keep criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes, for example by selling their stories to publishers, or selling their belongings and artwork. This law stands in eight American states. However, many murderabilia dealers now befriend criminals inside prisons in order to gain items of their artwork, letters and possessions, and profit by selling them online.
In some cases, such as the auction of murderer Ted Kaczynski’s personal belongings, the proceeds from the sale go to victims and their families.
Campaigners against crime memorabilia campaign against the outlets selling items produced by criminals who are still alive and serving time. Items connected with historical criminals and crimes, for whom items may be more generally considered of historical interest rather than morbid or profiteering, are not as contested. The further into the past these sensitive and shocking events become, the more accepted it is to collect items relating to them.
Types of crime memorabilia
Crime memorabilia most often relates to the criminals themselves. These criminals can be gangsters like the Kray brothers, serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, assassins or hit men like Lee Harvey Oswald, mass murderers, spree killers like Bonnie & Clyde, body snatchers and murderers like Burke & Hare, cannibals like Issei Sagawa, public enemies like John Dillinger, and gunman and outlaws of the American West, like Billy the Kid.
Items can range from weapons, autographs and letters, to hair, toenail clippings, the refrigerator where victim’s body parts were kept, and any manner of innocuous items owned by the criminal during their lives such as jewellery, clothing, sports equipment, etc.
Art and poetry produced by criminals while in prison is a growing area of interest in the world of crime memorabilia. This art is often produced for therapy purposes, to shed light on disturbed psyches for psychological evaluation, or just out of boredom, to kill time. However, more and more, these pieces are produced specifically for the collector’s market by living prisoners currently doing time. Famous examples of killer art include the clown paintings of neighbourhood murderer John Wayne Gacy, that apparently generated $100,000 of income for the killer before his execution, Charles Manson’s sketches and toy animals made out of socks, and items by Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas, the Kray brothers, and Perry Smith (the murderer featured in Capote’s novel In Cold Blood).
The other side of crime memorabilia is less publicised, but equally fascinating. This is when the interest lies in the crime itself and the mystery surrounding its investigation, rather than the criminal. Items connected with law enforcement, detectives, police officers and investigators, from Victorian police truncheons to whole archives of case files connected to a specific case, are also collectible.
One example is memorabilia relating to Wyatt Earp, the US frontier lawman known as the toughest gunman of his day. His sketch of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral when he, along with his brothers and Doc Holliday, took on the outlaws Clanton, McLaury, and Billy the Kid, sold for $380,000 at an Alexander Autographs auction in October 2010.
Another example is the Pierrepoint collection, an archive of memorabilia connected to the Pierrepoint family of British hangmen, in particular Albert Pierrepoint, the longest serving hangman in Britain and the one to execute Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in the UK. The collection includes plaster casts of his face and hands, a cigar holder, a silver watch chain, and documents and photographs, letters, the execution books of Henry and Albert Pierrepoint.
The world’s most expensive item of crime memorabilia
An extremely rare tintype photograph of 19th century American gunman and outlaw Billy the Kid sold for $2,000,000 at Brian Lebels Old West Show and Auction in June 2011.
If that isn’t ‘crime memorabilia’ enough, Lee Harvey Oswald’s blood-stained toe tag and lock of hair sold for $67,500 at Guernsey’s in March 2008, and his signed Guidebook for Marines sold for $72,500 at Heritage Auctions in June 2008.
The gun used to shoot bank robber and US public enemy number one John Dillinger fetched $95,600 at Heritage Auctions in 2009.
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