|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 1334 - July 31, 2006 - ISSN 1539-5065 3 of 5|
Victims' rights advocates are outraged with two Web sites specializing in the online sale and auction of "murderabilia." MurderAuction.com is a kind of eBay of the macabre. The site auctions the autographs, letters, photos and artwork of serial killers and other notorious criminals. Supernaught.com offers similar items for direct online sale.
Both sites came under fire in mid June for offering papers allegedly signed by convicted murderer Mark Hacking. According to reports in Utah's Deseret Morning News, MurderAuction.com was offering for auction an autographed tracing of Hacking's hand, his signed prison canteen slips, and an autographed note that reads, in part, "Thank you for being my friend." Supernaught.com was offering a letter from Hacking for $75.
When notified of the auctions by the newspaper, Utah State Prison officials quickly launched an investigation. Under pressure from authorities, Hacking subsequently "voluntarily discontinued trying to sell anything on the Web," said Utah Department of Corrections spokesperson Jack Ford, according to an article in the Utah Daily Herald.
According to Reuters, more than 30 states, including Utah, ban or tightly regulate the sale of murder memorabilia. The so-called "Son of Sam" laws prohibit criminals from profiting from their crimes. Utah and other states require criminals to donate profits to reparation funds for victims of crime. Andy Kahan, director of crime victims division of the Houston Mayor's office, is lobbying states to pass a federal statute, known as the "Notoriety for Profit Law," that would prevent criminals from selling murderabilia through third parties on the Web.
Legal or illegal, Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away The Key, a national victims' rights advocacy group, says the sale of murderabilia is deeply offensive.
"It is, needless to say, disgraceful for people to subsidize killers for their sick hobby," Paranzino wrote in a recent email. "Even if some killers are not financially rewarded by this, it still glorifies their crimes and encourages copycat killers who think it would be neat to be immortalized by some pathetic collector. These collectors should talk to some crime victims, and then ask themselves if their hobby is still cute."
Paranzino says he favors passage of the statutes banning murderabilia sales. "Collectors of this garbage beware," he wrote. "Wherever possible, we will do our best to get laws passed to prohibit such sales, driving this segment of collectibles into the gutter, where it belongs."
It is unclear what, if any, impact the brouhaha has had on Supernaught.com's sales. Supernaught.com's FAQ says its owner does not give interviews. The negative publicity has not, however, affected MurderAuction.com's ecommerce operations.
"Tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of pieces have sold through the site in the last year," said Tod Bohannon, MurderAuction.com's founder and Webmaster, in a recent interview. "There have been numerous pieces that have sold for over $1,000."
Bohannon says he founded MurderAuction.com because eBay bans the sale of murderabilia. "I believe," says Bohannon, "that the people who are interested should be able to get together."
According to its listing policies, "eBay will judiciously disallow listings or items that promote or glorify … violence … ." The online auction site's policy also states that "eBay may also, in its discretion and out of respect for the families of murder victims, remove listings of items closely associated with individuals notorious for committing murderous acts within the last 100 years, such as personal belongings of such criminals, letters or artwork created by such criminals, or novelty items that bear the name or image of the criminal."
eBay's penalties against sellers who violate the site's ban on selling murderabilia range from cancellation of listings and limitation on account privileges to account suspension, forfeiture of fees on cancelled listings and revocation of eBay PowerSeller status.
MurderAuction.com does not charge sellers listing fees or collect final value fees. The Web site does require a $5 registration fee for buyers and sellers. According to Bohannon, the site had more than 450 registered members as of March 2006.
Bohannon's fascination with serial killers started more than 15 years ago when as a teenager he saw Helter Skelter, the TV movie chronicling the serial murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his followers.
"I was really intrigued by the power that (Charles) Manson had over people," says Bohannon. "After watching that, I'd seen him do an interview with Geraldo (Rivera). I was amazed by him, and his power that he had over people."
In response to his questions about Manson, Bohannon's mother, a criminal attorney, and father, a police detective, suggested their son write to the convicted murderer. Manson eventually replied, and Bohannon was hooked.
"The hobby, for me, has evolved," says Bohannon. "I started getting autographed letters and then art work." His personal collection now contains thousands of pieces, including, he says, artwork from numerous serial killers, grave stone rubbings, photos, and fragments of murderers' fingernails and hair.
Bohannon refers to the pieces in his collection as "true crime artifacts."
Whatever one calls them, Bohannon's morbid fascinations are hardly unique. He estimates that the number of people in the United States who collect true crime artifacts is somewhere "in the low thousands."
The group is large enough, in fact, to have attracted the attention of sociologists. In a recent Boston Globe article, Kennesaw State University sociology professor Lana Wachniak dubbed murderabilia collectors "serialphiles."
Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communication at Syracuse University, says he isn't shocked by people's fascination with high-profile criminals.
"Extreme interest in these people, of course, is no surprise," Thompson explained in an email. "As macabre and pathological as it may seem to some, the boom in serial killer collectibles was probably absolutely inevitable.
"Perfectly good, normal human beings can find stories about the depths of depravity to which the human species is capable fascinating," writes Thompson. "Many movies (Silence of the Lambs), TV series (Helter Skelter) and books (take your pick in the true crime section of any bookstore) demonstrate the voracious appetite we have for these stories. Once you've created such celebrity of these characters, the desire by some to have something that was owned or touched or near these people is an inevitable next step."
Joshua Platt is a freelance writer. A contributing editor for Autograph Collector magazine, he has authored "Auction Action," a monthly column covering autograph auctions, for more than three years. Email him at jrplatt2000 (at) yahoo (dot) com.
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About the author:
Joshua Platt is a freelance writer who lives in Westerville, Ohio. A contributing editor for Autograph Collector magazine, he has authored "Auction Action," a monthly column covering autograph auctions, for more than three years. Email him at jrplatt2000 (at) yahoo (dot) com.
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