Saturday, August 29, 2009


True Crime Memorabilia:
Preserving Dark History, or Celebrating Madness?


As instinctual, curious human beings, it is in our nature to be fascinated by extreme acts of human aggression and deprivation….it’s what makes us devour newspaper stories and huddle around the water cooler at work, speaking in shocked and hushed tones whenever a new act of human deviance is uncovered for the masses to try and comprehend and digest. And no one really seems to question the motives of someone who merely reads true crime books, or watches the rash of crime documentaries and reality shows which flood our television screens

Why is it then that many of these same people look down with horror and disgust at someone who takes their interest in true crime that one step further by collecting memorabilia and artefacts relating to their favourite cases and/or criminals? Is it because the thought of true crime collectables conjures up misguided images of sick and disturbed kids sitting around trading serial killer cards the way we once swapped football player cards?

“I’ll trade you two Dahmer’s for a Manson.”

While true crime cases have been the occasional subject of mass-market paperbacks since the early 1950s, it wasn’t until the Tate-La Bianca murders, perpetrated by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969, that the modern crime collectibles genre was born and became a big financial commodity. The extreme violence of the crimes, the involvement of a Hollywood starlet, the fact that the killers were members of society’s so-called ‘peace and love’ movement, and the enigmatic magnetism of Manson himself, all helped to galvanise the public, and publishers were quick to cash in on the case, rushing an avalanche of titles into print, all of which purported to tell the ‘true, full story’ behind the murders. The early wave of Manson books would range from the engrossing and revealing (prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, John Gilmore’s The Garbage People and Ed Sanders’ The Family) to the bizarre and ridiculous (Reflections on the Manson Trial by Rosemary Baer and Ray Stanley’s fictionalized 1970 paperback The Hippy Cult Murders).

Magazine editors also clamoured over each other to cash in on the case, with publications such as Life and Rolling Stone running cover features on Manson, and trashy tabloids and detective rags covered the more salacious aspects of the killings and subsequent trial (as perfectly demonstrated in the August 1971 issue of Uncensored, whose cover screamed: ‘Sex Capers of the Manson Jury!’ ).

Exploitation film producers also began to realise that dollars could be made from the public’s fascination with true crime during this period, and the early 1970s saw a number of sleazy, violent (and again, highly fantasised) low-budget movies emerge, devoted not only to Manson (1970’s The Helter Skelter Murders, 1971’s The Love Thrill Murders with former teen idol Troy Donahue in the Manson-like role of Moon, and Kentucky Jones’ rare The Manson Massacre from 1972), but other high profile cases that had the public fascinated (and living in fear) at the time (such as the The Zodiac Killer from 1971, about the still-unsolved series of shootings in San Francisco which would also inspire the first classic Dirty Harry film).

The seeds of true crime’s prominence in pop culture had been well and truly sown, although it would be almost twenty years before the crops would sprout into some strange and very bizarre directions.


It was Andrew Kahan, Director of the Mayor’s Office in Huston, who is said to have first coined the term ‘murderabilia’, used to describe the new wave of true crime collectibles which began to hit the market in abundance in the early 1990s. For a while, it even became fashionable amongst some of Hollywood’s elite young actors to be in possession of serial killer artefacts (Johnny Depp at one point had a huge collection of original John Wayne Gacy art, but later sold it when he garnered negative criticism for it).

Modern true crime memorabilia invariably does focus on that produced in connection with infamous serial or ‘spree’ killers – those crimes which always fascinate and terrify us the most, due in no small part to the often complete randomness of the acts. A rundown of some of the more controversial true crime collectables would include:

Original Art

The most contentious of true crime memorabilia, original artwork by convicted serial killers also brings in huge sums of money because of their uniqueness (although the artists themselves are unable to profit from any of their work due to the ‘Son of Sam’ law).

Among the most popular – and accomplished – serial killer art are the works painted by notorious Chicago boy killer John Wayne Gacy, who managed to sell over $100,00 worth of his original painting before he was executed by lethal injection (which naturally saw the value of his art increase even more). Gacy’s colourful, surreal and often disturbing portraits encompassed subjects such as Snow White’s seven dwarfs, other notorious killers and even self-portraits of himself in his Pogo the Clown persona, which he would often don to entertain sick children in hospital wards (wouldn’t that be a story to pass on to your grandkids – being a sick child and laughing at the antics of one of the world’s most perverted killers).


In other solitary confinement and death row prison cells across the United States, Charles Manson makes bizarre puppets out of socks and any other material he can get his hands on, Lawrence Bittaker (who tortured and killed teenaged girls in the back of his ‘Murder Mac’ van during the late 1970s) makes unique ‘pop-up’ greeting cards, Hong Kong born Charles Ng (who with his partner Leonard Lake tortured at least a dozen people to death) makes and sells origami, while Night Stalker Richard Ramirez entertains himself and his legion of (mostly female) followers by doing crude drawings of devils, stabbings and dismemberment.

Personal Effects

Incarcerated killers without an artistic streak can still satisfy the demands of their collectors by offering up anything from swatches of clothes to nail clippings and locks of hair (as does Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark). Nothing proves your loyalty as a fan more than owning an actual piece of your favourite serial killer.

Letters and Autographs

Correspondence is one of the favourite pastimes of the long term incarcerated, a means to pass the hours of boredom and maintain some social contact with the outside world, making letters, envelopes and other hand written material a relatively easy and affordable item to acquire (at least until the convicted is executed). There’s also something personal and an element of uniqueness in collecting correspondence, which can often reveal an insight into the author’s reasoning and state of mind.


Axl Rose transformed the Manson themed ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ t-shirt into a controversial fashion item by wearing it onstage at Guns ‘n’ Roses concerts in the early 1990s, when the thought of wearing a shirt emblazoned with the image of a mass killer would have been considered taboo. Now, companies such as Rotten Cotton proudly hawk their lines of serial killer t-shirts at comic book conventions, offering up fine cotton wear bearing the likes of Aileen Wournos, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones, O. J. Simpson and just about any other sociopath with anything resembling a cult following.

Comic Books

The Manson killings occurred at just the right time to be taken notice of by the burgeoning underground comics scene (headed by names like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez and Gilbert Sheldon).

One of the first and most compelling appearances of Manson in comic book form was in the 1971 one-shot The Legion of Charlies, published by Last Gasp. Written by Tom Veitch, and featuring the artwork of the late Greg Irons, the book begins with a four page prologue in which the Manson killings are compared to the horrific My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March of 1969 (in which US Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least 22 South Vietnamese civilians).

More recently, the early-1990s say a resurgence of independent comic books which focused on unique topics, including rock and porn star biographies. Comic Zone, a New Jersey based publisher, debuted their Psycho Killers title in December 1991, with the first issue devoted to Manson. Drawn by Stan Timmons and Blackie Neilson, from a Jack Herman script, the comic is presented in a very chaotic format, and does have a certain hallucinogenic feel to it, particularly in the sequences which illustrate the Family‘s life out in Death Valley.

The black & white artwork is generally sketchy, dark and abstract, with occasional photo images inserted into the panels for effect (the cover also consists of a number of photographs, assembled into a collage and tinted with green, pink and yellow, presumably for psychedelic effect).

Subsequent issues of Psycho Killers were devoted to Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, The Moors Murders and others.

One highly recommended true crime comic is My Friend Dahmer: A True Story by Derf, a disturbing and at times even poignant one-shot underground comic book, written and illustrated in 2002 by John Backderf, who recounts his experiences as a high school classmate (and superficial friend) of Dahmer's during the late-1970s.


Action Figures

Spectre Studios are an online company based in Denver, Colorado who specialize in creating hand painted action figures of some of the world’s most notorious criminals and serial killers, including Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (in his Pogo the Clown costume) and of course, Charles Manson, who is available in two versions - the long haired messiah and the shaven head prisoner with the swastika forehead.

Approximately six inches in height, the figures are packaged like most mainstream action figures on traditional backing cards with bubble plastic, but while novel they are not especially well-crafted (with the exception of the Gacy/Pogo figure), and with a price tag of US $40.00 each, make for a pretty expensive curio (sculptor David Johnson, who started the line when a friend commissioned him to produce a Ted Bundy figure, was auctioning his figures for as much as US $130.00 on the online auction site eBay, before they began to place restrictions on the selling of items which they felt glamorized violence and crime).

Naturally, this article only touches the tip of the iceberg (or should that be stiletto knife?) as far as true crime collectables go. Is it all in dubious taste? Probably. But time has a habit of changing society’s perception. People visit London’s infamous Black Museum and extol the virtues of preserving those dark instruments and mementos of murder from the 1800s. So too will future anthropologists come to appreciate – and learn from – the modern day artifacts inspired by the madness within man.


Copyright John Harrison 2009
(Note: Top portrait of Charles Manson drawn by Melbourne artist Matthew Dunn -