The market for "murderabilia" is not new. In London during the late 1880s, British subjects paid to stand in the rooms where Jack the Ripper slashed his victims. These days, most murderabilia is sold online, making the shopping for serial-killer collectibles easier than ever.
According to the seller, the item is a Texas Instruments Ti-83 Plus calculator, similar to thousands of others used in college-level math classes. It usually retails for about $99. This one is listed at $3,700.
What makes it worth so much? It once belonged to the man who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.
The listing on the crime-memorabilia website Supernaught says it is “one of the few items that the Virginia killer Seung-hui Cho sold on eBay to raise money for the guns, clips and ammo utilized during the rampage.”
The calculator and hundreds of items like it — personal effects, paintings, letters and even fingernails of killers — are being peddled to collectors by at least a half-dozen websites as “murderabilia.”
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Cho’s calculator also is a rarity. Experts and murderabilia collectors say it is the first item with a connection to the gunman to be available for purchase in more than four years.
The market for murderabilia is not new. In London during the late 1880s, British subjects paid to stand in the rooms where Jack the Ripper slashed his victims.
In the 1950s, the Ford sedan driven by serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired the movie “Psycho,” was paraded around county fairs and promoted as “the car that hauled the dead from their graves.”
Murderabilia can command steep prices. The handgun Jack Ruby used to kill President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was sold in a 1991 auction to Anthony Pugliese, a Florida real-estate mogul, for $220,000. Paintings by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was executed for murdering at least 33 men and boys, have been purchased for up to $15,000.
These days, most murderabilia is sold online, making the shopping for serial-killer collectibles easier than ever.
“It’s an insidious and despicable industry,” said Andy Kahan, a Houston-based victims-rights advocate and law-enforcement official who has led a nationwide campaign to prohibit the sale of murderabilia.
Eight states — Alaska, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Texas and Utah — have laws that prohibit killers from profiting from their crimes. Efforts to push legislation through Congress have failed repeatedly.
Kahan has amassed a “smorgasbord of items,” including a lock of Charles Manson’s hair braided into the shape of a Nazi swastika, purchased for about $50, and fingernail clippings of Roy Norris, who is imprisoned in California for kidnapping, torturing and murdering teenage girls. The fingernails cost $12.99.
Kahan said he uses the murderabilia for testimony and lectures on how people profit off “heinous and diabolical crimes.”
Cho’s calculator went on the market three months before the Virginia Tech massacre. It was put up for sale by Cho, who sold it on the auction website eBay for $53, plus $9 for shipping.
Not long after the shootings, Kahan said, more than 100 items once owned by Cho, including textbooks he used in classes, appeared on eBay. To prevent dissemination of the materials, Kahan bought transcripts of a few of Cho’s violence-themed plays for about $20 each.
Tod Bohannon, who runs the website Murderauction.com, said he was offered the calculator a few weeks after the Virginia Tech killings. The seller had papers proving he had purchased it for about $280 on eBay from the person who originally bought it from Cho, Bohannon said.
Bohannon was convinced of the calculator’s authenticity and was interested in obtaining it. Instead of cash, he offered to trade letters written by Manson, he said. But the seller chose to accept a cash offer from Supernaught owner Ken Karnig, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Who buys murderabilia? Bohannon said he has sold items to educators, journalists and college students studying criminal justice. “It’s all walks of life,” he said.
Kahan said collectors often are younger men who purchase letters or artwork.
Government sometimes participates in the industry. In June, California auctioned a number of items once owned by the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, including a Smith Corona typewriter that sold for $22,003. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment in the District of Columbia bought a scale and tools Kaczynski used to build his bombs, spending about $1,100. Proceeds of the auction went to his victims’ families.
Meanwhile, not all are convinced of the Cho calculator’s appeal to collectors. “It doesn’t have any obvious connection with Cho or the crimes he committed,” said University of Buffalo professor David Schmid, who wrote “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.”
For now, the calculator remains unsold. Listed for months, it has had no takers.