We’ve listened obsessively to Serial and binged on TV shows like Making a Murderer and The Case of JonBenet Ramsey. In 2016, it seems like we’re more obsessed with true crime than ever. But one American woman has taken this fascination with real-life murder mysteries to new extremes – by amassing a vast collection of serial killer souvenirs. In this extract from a new book, Morbid Curiosities, ‘Jessika M.’ explains why she can’t get enough murderous memorabilia.
Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Jessika M., 34, now resides in a small city in Indiana, where she splits her time between selling real estate and curating true crime collectibles. Her childhood years spent in the Windy City were the catalyst that led to her amassing such a large collection of serial killer memorabilia.
“I started reading true crime books at a fairly young age and found myself being particularly fascinated by certain cases—primarily crimes involving serial-killer activity,” she says. “The more I read, the more I began to question the objectivity of some authors. I felt I was being given a very one-sided account of what actually happened.”
Jessika wanted to hear these stories from the point of view of the accused killers. She decided to start writing to the murderers themselves – and to her surprise, they wrote back.
“Eventually, every time I purchased a new book, I would begin writing to the inmate the book was based on and keeping the first response letter inside the book,” she says. “So my large true crime book collection slowly turned into a book and correspondence collection.”
Fast-forward to the present day, and Jessika says she has become one of a select few “go to” people for collectors looking for specific true crime items. And thanks to her years of collecting genuine “high-profile” prisoner art and handwritten letters, she has become “pretty astute” when it comes to identifying fake signatures and counterfeit art.
Over the years, Jessika’s private collection has seen many pieces come and go – each harbouring its own fascinating and macabre story.
When asked if there were a specific piece she would save if she could only rescue one, she inhales deeply.
“I’m going to cheat a bit here, because the piece I would save is actually a two-piece set,” she replies. “It’s [an] artwork entitled Big League Dreams and it was done by Bobby Ray Gilbert.”
Gilbert is a convicted murderer in the Alabama Department of Corrections, sentenced to life in prison after admitting to the killing of Walton Edison Brewer in 1985. Since entering jail, Gilbert has racked up more and more felony convictions – including two sentences for attempted murder and one for murder, after stabbing another inmate to death in 1990.
“He was shown on the TV show Lockup drawing these particular pieces and they eventually made their way to me,” says Jessika. Somewhat unexpectedly, the paintings now hang on her son’s bedroom wall.
There are two other pieces of serial killer memorabilia that Jessika considers “very special”. The first is a “shank” [prison knife] that was used to kill someone inside prison. After buying the blade, she realised that she already owned a prison identification card belonging to the stabbing victim.
I don’t know why he would have bleached the hammer unless he was trying to wash away evidence.
“I keep those depressing items together,” she says.
Jessika’s other favourite piece “actually creeps [her] out… and that is pretty hard to do.” A hammer, it once belonged to the serial killer, con man and kidnapper John Robinson.
“When he was first arrested, this hammer was found in his possessions and it was wrapped in a white towel,” Jessika explains. The hammer was taken in as evidence, but when tested by a forensics team, it was discovered that it had been cleaned in bleach – making the results inconclusive.
The tool was given back to the Robinson family, but it was later discovered that Robinson’s victims were killed by one or more blows to the head with a hammer.
“I don’t know why he would have bleached the hammer unless he was trying to wash away evidence,” says Jessika. “I’ve never smelled anything quite like that hammer and the towel it was wrapped in. It definitely creeps me out!”
Pieces that have gone missing in action, been destroyed or outbid on, or simply seem to be ever-elusive are just part of the collector’s world – and Jessika’s macabre universe is not immune to these frustrations.
She is quick to recount, in almost cathartic fashion, the “nice painting by Henry Lee Lucas that got destroyed”, and the hand tracing by Richard Ramirez that was “ruined”. Lucas, who died in 2001, was convicted of murdering 157 people; it was later concluded that many of these were based on false confessions, but Lucas remained convicted of 11 homicides.
Ramirez, meanwhile, was dubbed the “Night Stalker” in the mid-1980s, after going on a terrifying rape and murder spree throughout Los Angeles and San Francisco. He died in 2013 while awaiting execution on death row.
“I told [Ramirez] about [his artwork being ruined] and he was kind enough to send me another, which I promptly misplaced, never to be found again,” says Jessica ruefully. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The general public [believes] there’s something inherently wrong with people who collect things considered ‘dark’.
Her ultimate Holy Grail of memorabilia, however, is a letter or piece of art by murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was the first person to be executed in the United States after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 (it had been suspended in 1972), and gained international notoriety for demanding to be executed by firing squad, rather than by hanging.
“At this point I would settle for anything,” says Jessika. “I’ve always found [Gilmore’s] life and crimes extraordinarily fascinating.
“I know that he was a prolific letter writer. In fact, he frequently would write letters to entire classrooms. He also did a considerable amount of artwork, but I rarely ever see it. So, yeah, that’s a piece I am still searching for.”
But there are some items of true crime paraphernalia that Jessika would never want to add to her collection. She says she is regularly offered the chance to buy underwear belonging to female prison inmates, but always declines.
“I suppose it’s sort of odd for me to be morally conflicted by those pieces, but I just can’t bring myself to purchase such things,” she says.
She also thinks it’s “sort of odd” when people steal tombstones belonging to infamous murderers – a practice that she says isn’t as uncommon as you might think.
“It’s incidents like that which receive a lot of press and sway the general public into believing there’s something inherently wrong with people who collect things considered ‘dark’,” Jessika says. “I used to do news interviews regarding my collection and nine times out of ten, I would see ‘She’s probably going to be a serial killer herself one day’ in the comments section.
“I think a lot of people misconstrue interest with some sort of hero worship,” she continues.
“I will be the first to admit that some items in my collection can be considered offensive. I don’t take any issue with anyone having that opinion. It’s certainly not a collection for everybody, and I wouldn’t disagree that some of the items are offensive – but sometimes that’s what makes the item so interesting.”
This is an edited extract from Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre by Paul Gambino (Laurence King Publishing, £19.95), out now. All photos courtesy of Jessika M.