Con artists crave fame: And
may they always find it elusive
By James Alan Fox
Monday, November 21, 2005
Disgusted by last week's revelation that a Springfield serial killer was to have his artwork auctioned on the Internet, Rep. Peter Koutoujian (D-Waltham) announced plans to file legislation barring convicts from profiting off the blood of their victims. The hurt and anguish expressed by relatives of the women murdered by Alfred Gaynor is understandable, as is the wider community outrage sparked by the art sale. Ironically, the backlash may do more to promote Gaynor and drive up the value of his pedestrian paintings than to limit it.
Having studied serial murder for longer than I'd like to admit, my initial reaction was: "Who is Albert Gaynor?" In fact, judging from the Herald archives, Gaynor has garnered more ink during the past week over his so-called art than he did surrounding his conviction for murdering four Springfield women in 1997-1998.
I must admit that I'm not terribly bothered by auctions of killer art. The profits are typically small (at least for the killers, if not the resellers), and there's not much an incarcerated killer can do with the money anyway.
Sure, John Wayne Gacy may have earned $100,000 from his paintings of clowns and Disney characters. But Alfred Gaynor is no John Gacy. Before his capture for murdering 33 young men in suburban Chicago, Gacy had been voted "Man of the Year" by the Jaycees, rubbed elbows with local politicians and was even photographed with first lady Rosalynn Carter. It was the curious paradox of a respected man who secretly killed boys that brought Gacy attention.
My concern is not about the small profits occasionally amassed by killers, but over celebrity, a much more powerful reward that these criminals hardly deserve. So who is to blame for promoting killer fame and creating a booming business in murderabilia, especially related to serial murder?
Maybe it's the California company selling serial killer trading cards, or the Denver studio that produces action figures of Jeff Dahmer and Ted Bundy. So what if Charles Manson has two CDs of his "greatest hits"; but why is Amazon.com selling them? And shame on Axl Rose for wearing a Manson T-shirt on his album cover, an album which included a tune written by the notorious murderer. Charlize Theron is a terrific actress, but when accepting an Oscar for her performance in "Monster," was she at all concerned about the sympathetic manner in which she had portrayed serial murderer Aileen Wournos?
Although the market for murderabilia is bigger than ever, no doubt aided by the Internet, it is hardly new. Forty years ago, while incarcerated at Walpole as the reputed Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo fashioned "Strangler chokers." The jewelry was sold to the public in the prison gift shop, along with more mundane inmate arts and crafts.
For controlling, manipulative, narcissistic serial killers like Gacy, it's not "show me the money" but "show me the fame." Why else would Gacy have inquired after his arrest who would play him in the movie? For the record, it was Brian Dennehy.
Ultimately, of course, the blame for killer fame rests not just with actors, producers and sellers, but with all of us. "The issue is not so much whether murderabilia is a bad thing," notes David Schmid, author of "Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture," "but why it is we care?"
So if Koutoujian is successful in pushing a Massachusetts version of a "Son of Sam" law through the State House - and I hope he is if only for its symbolic value - let's be careful not to label it "Gaynor's Law." That would surely immortalize the killer in ways he does not deserve.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at email@example.com.