THE Smith Corona typewriter went for $22,003. The hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses fetched $20,025. The 20 personal journals were a steal at $40,676.
Altogether, in an online auction that ended Thursday, the United States Marshals Service sold 58 lots of property that belonged to Theodore Kaczynski, a k a the Unabomber, who during a 17-year terror spree sent package bombs that killed three people and injured 23. The sale, ordered by a Federal District Court judge in Sacramento, Calif., yielded $232,246.
The items put to auction were the latest high-profile examples of “murderabilia” — artifacts of notorious killers that end up in private hands. In the case of the Unabomber, the auction’s proceeds will go to his victims and their families.
But that is not typical. Almost always, the sellers are in the business for their own profit. And that makes for some strong feelings.
“It’s a sick and despicable industry,” said Andy Kahan, director of the Crime Victims Office for the City of Houston and the individual who coined the word murderabilia to describe it.
Acquiring the physical artifacts of convicted killers is nothing new. In 1958, a carnival barker paid $760 for the 1949 Ford sedan of Ed Gein, the inspiration for the Norman Bates character in “Psycho.” In 1991, Anthony Pugliese III, a Floriday real estate developer, plunked down $200,000 for the .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver that Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.
But these were rare, isolated examples. Now, propelled by the Internet, the murderabilia market is growing. Mr. Kahan estimated that there were perhaps half a dozen murderabilia vendors in the United States who advertise online. They include serialkillersink.com, murderauction.com, and supernaught.com.
Just type in the address and behold: A holiday card signed by Joel David Rifkin, convicted of the murders of nine women in New York City, available for $350. A shirt worn by Richard Ramirez, a k a the Night Stalker, can be yours for as little as $1,400. Paintings by the executed serial killer John Wayne Gacy are especially popular and pricey; a portrait of his alter ego, Pogo the Clown, is currently going for $19,999.
Why would anyone want this stuff?
“Each piece tells a story,” Joe Turner, a British collector who owns a Gacy painting and a lock of Charles Manson’s hair, wrote in an e-mail. “At some point these killers were normal people who were children and were loved by people, then somewhere along the line they changed.”
The families of murder victims are generally appalled by this ghoulish trade. “I’m totally against it,” said Harriett Semander of Houston. In 1982, her 20-year-old daughter, Elena, was murdered by Coral Eugene Watts, a confessed serial killer . Years later, she discovered that a letter written by Mr. Watts was being sold online.
“It glorifies the criminal,” she said. “It brings back the grief.”
For the moment, however, survivors can do little to combat the trend. So-called “Son of Sam” laws are designed to prohibit criminals from profiting directly from the sale of their personal effects or stories. But there are few prohibitions against vendors who sell murder-related material on the secondary market. According to Mr. Kahan, only eight states — Texas, California, Utah, New Jersey, Florida, Alaska, Michigan and Montana — forbid the vending of murderabilia. An anti-murderabilia Senate bill sponsored last year by John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, is languishing.
That’s fine with Eric Gein of Jacksonville, Fla., who is the proprietor of serialkillersink.com. Mr. Gein (a nom de plume in “an homage to Ed Gein”) disputes the notion of a difference between the court-ordered Kaczynski auction and private vendors.
“I believe in this business there is no gray area, only black and white,” he said. “It’s O.K. for the government to sell this stuff but we can’t? I don’t understand anyone who would say, ‘Well, these proceeds are going to the victims’ families.’ They’re going to be sold and sold and resold.”
Mr. Kahan acknowledged the problem. “This is the ultimate catch-22,” he said. “Yes, it’s going to happen. The murderabilia industry is growing by leaps and bounds despite attempts to clamp it down. But as long as it’s going to happen, let it be done with the primary benefit of it going to the victims.”