Would You Buy Art Created by a Serial Killer?
Serial Killers Ink Original painting by serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley
Ever wanted to buy a half-eaten bag of Reese's Pieces, owned by Charles Manson?
Well, for $425 they're yours, from a black market in serial killer memorabilia that has sprung up online. Now you can log on and buy charming watercolor paintings by child killers and hand-written letters from cannibals on death row, or even a chilling Santa costume pre-loved by serial killer John Edward Robinson. It's bad taste. It's wrong. But they accept all major credit cards.
So-called "murderabilia" has been slammed recently by victim's charities, which say the trade destroys the dignity of crime victims. The main offender, they claim, is Serial Killers Ink, a Florida based website that sells autographs, artwork, documents, locks of hair, photos and clothing from killers such as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, and "Killer Clown" John Wayne Gacy.
"People have a fascination with monsters," owner Eric Gein tells LA Weekly. "I don't condone their crimes. But I have a right to sell these pieces."
As a crime journalist, I've interviewed a few death row residents over the years (and I found them more personable than any rapper or soccer player I've profiled). Ergo, I've got a secret box of controversial correspondence I'm going to have appraised by Eric Gein, as we explore this new, dark corner of the Internet and the inevitable moral dilemmas it creates.
Lot 1. CHARLES BRONSON. Armed robber, notorious British prisoner.
Pastel and pencil postcard, hand-written by Charles Bronson
Jeff Maysh/ Coleman-Rayner
I interviewed Bronson via mail just before his life story was turned into the 2008 Hollywood movie Bronson, starring Tom Hardy. Afterwards, the bearded monster demanded £500 ($790) be sent to his mother in exchange for the troubling interview. I later received this threatening postcard, with a pastel and pencil self-portrait, reading: "I still haven't got the monkey [slang for £500], don't worry, I'll collect it when I get out."
Gein: "Very few people have Charles Bronson art and this is a very prestigious piece. He's the meanest prisoner in the UK, and this piece would be snapped up in minutes online. There is an incredible market for anything Bronson related, and this is a fine example of his unique art."
But what about the victims? When Gein's website sold a letter written by serial killer John Charles Eichinger, who brutally murdered three women and a 3-year-old girl, a victim's family member wrote: "I was stunned. I was disgusted there was a market for anything attached to him. I felt sickened." Andy Kahan, a victim advocate for the city of Houston calls the sale of murderabilia "one of the most egregious things I've seen after being involved in the criminal justice system for 25 years." But Gein claims he can sell these items under the First Amendment, and says he enjoys the money he makes.
Serial Killers Ink Polaroid of Charles Manson
As I lurk among the various shadowy sites offering murderabilia, the dark corners of the web that include supernaught.com and murderauction.com, it becomes apparent that the more heinous the crime and the more notorious the killer, the more valuable his work. Richard Ramirez was convicted in 1989 of 13 horrific murders. The residents of Los Angeles County lived in fear as the newspapers nicknamed him the "Night Stalker," because he always attacked at night, like a vampire. And today his charming pencil interpretation of a happy unicorn is yours for $274.99 plus shipping. It's amazing what a prison sketch can fetch.
Lot 2. RANDY HALPRIN. Member, Texas 7. Killer on death row.
Hand-written notes and signature
Jeff Maysh/ Coleman-Rayner
I contacted cop-killer Randy hoping to ghost a first person account of his life and crimes for a men's magazine. I expected the former America's Most Wanted star would send me his thoughts on death row for me to turn into a short memoir. What came back were ten pages of hand-typed words -- some of the most electrifying prose I have ever read. The magazine printed the whole thing un-edited.
Gein: "This is a very unique piece. While Texas 7 memorabilia isn't highly sought after, what is important here is that this is a very, very personal letter. If that is hand-signed, it's worth even more.
Soon after the Randy Halprin letter was published, other journalists started bothering inmates. A writer at the Toronto Star wrote so many prisoners at the Kingston Penitentiary that authorities started to intercept media letters, later changing the prison's policy on unsolicited letters. "I would absolutely recommend writing to prisoners in jail," Gein advises. "Who knows what you'll get back?" But here's a pro-tip: get a P.O. box. Don't write to the Sunset Strip Slayer and tell him your home address. Like I did...
Lot 3. DOUGLAS C. CLARK. Serial killer known as Sunset Strip Slayer.
Hand-written notes and signed poem
Jeff Maysh/ Coleman-Rayner
I was reporting on the 2010 Long Island serial killer case, and the cops were increasingly baffled about the bodies and modus operandi of the killer (who is still on the loose today). For an American tabloid, I wrote to Douglas Clark -- a killer convicted of similar crimes -- for a unique insight. Douglas wrote straight back in his own crazy hand from San Quentin prison, calling me "a hit-and-run journalist." (It was a career high, so I kept the note). I never did get the quotes, just a beautiful hand-signed poem, entitled "a cold sun never sets." How much is this stuff worth?
Gein: "Bad news. Douglas is a prolific writer, he will reply to anyone, often sending this same poem. For that reason, his memorabilia is more reasonably priced. I have locks of his hair and autographs on the website, and they're all affordable."
Douglas Clark's memorabilia pales in comparison to the work of Charles Manson. "Manson is the 20th Century boogie man," boasts Gein, "and he hardly ever writes." Charlie does, however, sit in prison making scorpions out of sock yarn. One of these creations could fetch up to $5,000, according to Gein. But regardless of their surprising value, I won't be selling any of my items. I have also moved from the house where I last wrote to serial killer Douglas Clark (don't tell him), and Charles Bronson hasn't paid me his promised visit...yet.
Jeff Maysh/ Coleman-Rayner Threatening postcard from Charles Bronson to journalist Jeff Maysh
It is clear that the criminally insane produce predictably terrible artwork that deserves to be exhibited only in the interest of medical science and criminal history. I can't imagine anyone genuinely wanting to exhibit these items at home. What happens when the boss and his wife come round for dinner, and you have to explain, "Ah, this is by the Night Stalker. It's from his blue period. After he gouged that lady's eyes out."