Murderabilia: When Does a Fascination With Crime Go Too Far?

Inside the minds of those involved in collecting and selling murderabilia.

Objects collected by "murderabilia" fans can vary from cars and houses to letters from killers like Charles Manson. Pictured, police escort Manson in 1999.
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John Schwenk's computer room at home is covered in a quilt-like pattern of serial killer artwork. Some drawings depict ghoulish skulls, others portray nature and animals.

Schwenk, 46, cares deeply about the quality of the artwork he has been collecting during the past eight years.

"Every [artist] has a different style," he says. "The art is an expression of the person and who they really are ... It amazes me that so many of these people have a real art talent and could have made something of themselves if they hadn't committed the crimes they did."

Schwenk is among what experts estimate to be thousands of collectors of "murderabilia," or items linked to crimes and criminals. Objects collected can vary from cars and houses to clothing and weapons, from letters and drawings to crafts and killers' strands of hair.

"In my eyes my hobby is no different than collecting salt and pepper shakers, coins, stamps or even mortuary items," Schwenk says. "In many people's eyes it is a taboo, but in reality these items are a part of our history, things that have happened throughout the years and will never be forgotten." He has received some artwork from his correspondence with murderers, but he buys most of it online from a third-party vendor.

Victims' rights advocates are opposed to the open market of murderabilia. There are laws barring convicted felons from profiting from their crimes, but opponents say the transaction alone gives murderers notoriety they don't deserve. They also argue that the presence of a murderabilia market is gut-wrenching for victims' families, who should be the only ones to profit from the sales.

Meanwhile, defenders of murderabilia sales cite their right to free speech and say the transactions are no different from the sales of true-crime novels or documentaries. Underneath the debate lies a brazen reality: Crime sells. And the murderabilia market exists because humans are fascinated by serial killers.

Serial killer artwork in John Schwenk’s home. (Courtesy of John Schwenk)

The collector's testimony

Schwenk, who lives outside Philadelphia, is a true-crime aficionado. His collection is comprised of about 100 pieces of pencil and marker drawings, about 70 of which are not yet framed or hung. Other items he has collected include hair samples, clothing, a Christmas stocking and dentures.

Inmates call Schwenk about five times a week and write him letters. He has corresponded with Charles Manson, a criminal who led and manipulated a cult-like group to commit brutal murders during the 1960s; Jeremy Jones, a man on death row who was convicted of murder; and Martin Kipp, a convicted rapist and murderer.

"They talk about "normal everyday things," Schwenk says.

Schwenk searches the Internet daily for new collectibles and watches crime shows religiously. 

"My wife gets annoyed with me someteimes because that's all I want to watch," he says, although his fascination has rubbed off – his wife also corresponds with some inmates.

Sharon Talbot is another collector, though she keeps her 100-piece assortment of artwork, pictures and letters private, filed in individual plastic sleeves in a binder. She declined to share her real last name out of concern for harassment by those who may disagree with her hobby, which she hasn't even shared with her parents. Collecting murderabilia is something she does only for herself, she says.

Talbot, who works in a hospital in Boston, has been collecting true-crime pieces for eight years because she is fascinated by why people commit horrendous acts. She wants to know about their backgrounds, understand them as part of history and make herself aware of the signs of being in danger.

 A drawing of Elvis by John Wayne Gacy, part of Sharon Talbot’s collection of serial killer artwork. (Courtesy of Sharon Talbot)

She knows some serial killers blend easily into society: John Wayne Gacy, for example, was a businessman with a family who was active in his Chicago community. He also killed 33 young males, burying most of their bodies under his home. He became a prolific artist while in prison awaiting his execution -- which occurred by lethal injection in 1994 -- and Talbot has a marker drawing Gacy did of Elvis.

Another drawing in Talbot's collection is a hand tracing by Richard Ramirez, who was known as the "Night Stalker." He raped and tortured more than 25 victims over two years, and was convicted of 13 murders .