Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive


Those who oppose the sale of items from murderers say that the profit made is "blood money" and that people ought to be ashamed of making money off violent crimes. It revictimizes the victims and their families. In fact, sometimes the family members attend the exhibits, purchase the art, and immediately destroy it. A few do so as a clear protest, burning a painting in the streets. In June 1994, over three hundred people gathered in Naperville, Illinois to participate in, or support, the destruction of 25 paintings that Gacy had done. The family members of nine of his victims attended. Newton states that when Elmer Wayne Henley's work was hung in a Texas gallery in 1998, protesters showed up with signs reading, "Hang Henley, not his art."

Keith Jesperson
Keith Jesperson

 In Oregon, Happy Face Killer Keith Jesperson, murderer of eight, got into trouble when he reproduced one man's copyrighted photographs with colored pencils to make wildlife drawings to sell. In 2002, he made about $1,000 from drawings that went for $25 a piece. Not only that, Jesperson had failed to get permission from the prison superintendent to pursue this trade. He was subjected to a disciplinary hearing, as well as chastised by the owner of the photographs, who insisted that he stop.

Andrew Kahan, Director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office in Houston, is an outspoken opponent of collectors of serial killer art. He wants states to enact laws blocking offenders from making such profits, and he managed to get a "Son of Sam" ruling in Texas. He views the work not as true art but as a symbol of notoriety—evidence that they have murdered someone. He mounted a crusade against eBay for its sale of "murderabilia"—a term he coined, pointing out that they were selling an oil painting by Henry Lee Lucas, dirt from Gacy's crawl space, and a newspaper clipping signed by Railroad Killer Rafael Resendiz. However, eBay is allowed to sell anything that is legal to sell, although some items are restricted from minors. Kahan urges families of victims to be more outspoken about pressuring their representatives.

The Supreme Court certainly saw merit in the argument, as it turned down an appeal in 2004 on an Arizona decision to award the families of eight victims of mob underboss Sammy "the Bull" Gravano with the royalties from his autobiography. They split the $420,000 he had received, and any further profits from film or sub-rights. While this may apply only to crime-related art or literature, at least some families were satisfied.

Many people who see such pieces as part of an art exhibit call it tasteless, sensationalistic, obscene, and exploitive. They say it poisons the memory of the victims and that it's a sign of a culture in spiritual decline. "What people have found so reprehensible about art produced by serial killers," says Harold Schechter, "is not the subject matter itself… What inspires such widespread disgust is the mere notion that convicted lustkillers are allowed to be treated like minor celebrities and enjoy the ego gratification of having their work put on display." Be that as it may, Schechter himself points out that collecting items that killers have touched or owned has a sort of talisman effect. From John Dillinger's blood to dirt from Ed Gein's grave to Ted Bundy's Volkswagon, there will always be an audience for items associated with violent death, and that includes artifacts created by the killers themselves.

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