This set of antique cabinet cards shows the outlaw Jessie James.
Recently, gangsters were in the news in many ways. Jimmy Hoffa was “unearthed”—or wasn’t—again. Respected actor James Gandolfini, who portrayed mob boss Tony Soprano, died. Whitey Bulger is on trial after a lifetime of killing and criminal behavior.
As one CNN headline read: “Mob Week: Why we can’t get enough of the gangster life.” It seems we really can’t.
Now we have the medical records of 1920s gangster Al Capone expected to go to auction on July 19 at RR Auction in Amherst, N.H. Capone’s death certificate, personal family photos and medical notes will be sold as a lot with an estimated value of $50,000. His personal revolver sold at Christie’s auction for $110,000 recently.
This guy was the mobster responsible for the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, among other nefarious crimes. Who would want his personal revolver and the records of his final days in insanity dying of syphilis? Apparently, many do.
The Capone family, including notorious mobster Al, poses for a photo in front of his Florida estate in the 1940s.
Throughout history, you see, we always had bandits, buccaneers, pirates, desperados, raiders, robbers and, of course, gangsters—all of whom “broke the peace” and became outlaws. Like Capone, all were hunted by the authorities. Many were hunted by citizens. Some were tracked by both. And a few were actually loved by the “regular folk” for their derring-do against the heartless whomever.
Whether they were the good, the bad or the ugly, they are all still remembered—maybe not always for what they did but certainly for the collectibles they left behind.
But is that a good thing?
Mexican general and quintessential desperado Pancho Villa poses for a portrait in 1910.
First, there are all kinds of people who were made “outlaws” but were considered to be only “social bandits” because they were appreciated by those who were powerless.
Pancho Villa, a 19th-century Mexican general who led a peasant revolt; Robin Hood (whether real or not) during the Middle Ages and even 19th-century killer Billy the Kid are all considered heroes to some. Folks believed they stood for something other than just to rob, pillage and plunder, even if that is what they did.
Along they way they “helped” the powerless, too. They are the “good” bandits. Their collectibles continue to do well; wanted posters or any personal effects, photos or official records usually are the most wanted, so to speak.
Then there are the real hardcore desperadoes who seriously wrecked hell and havoc wherever they happened to be: bank robbers, killers and gangsters.
Ma Barker, the Dalton Gang, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Al Capone, any city gang like the Latin Kings or Mexican drug cartels and others like them did and do nothing but rampage, shoot, kill, rob, steal and generally command fear on a grand scale. These and others like them are the “bad,” no matter how you look at them.
The car used by Bonnie and Clyde (the real ones; there are fakes), still with the bullet holes, is on display somewhere in a casino in Nevada (it moves around a lot). To see some of the weapons the notorious duo used have been put up for action, click here and here. For a more macabre Bonnie and Clyde souvenir, autopsy photos (scroll to the bottom) of the two were given away as prizes at a carnival.
This Dalton Gang Days banner, handpainted, sells for $70.
Here we can classify all manner of serious depravity from the serial killer to the mass murderer—all who, by their very existence, bruised the soul of a community. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jack the Ripper are just a few examples of the very ugliness of humankind.
Yet, their memorabilia, such as the clown paintings done by Gacy while in jail; movie and book deals; Internet sales and, in particular, personal belongings of well-publicized murderers continue to sell to collectors at online auctions on a regular basis. The collectors feel these items provide a sense of power or personal talisman, I’m told.
The sale of mobster memorabilia, or “murderabilia” as it is called, came under scrutiny from victims and their families beginning in the 1970s. Son of Sam laws, named for New York serial killer David Berkowitz, have been enacted in several states. These laws try to prevent criminals and their families from directly profiting from their crimes.
A rare 1876 copy of “Life and Adventures of Robert McKimie,” which tracks the stagecoach robberies, murders and jailbreaks of the desperado “Little Reddy,” sold for $2,185.
Originally, New York’s first Son of Sam law prohibited the sale of artwork, clothing or any personal property by anyone related to the lawbreaker, sometimes including friends and neighbors. It was struck down in 1991 on free-speech grounds, but a much more relaxed revision was adopted in 2002 that doesn’t outright prevent memorabilia sales or book deals, but puts some controls on them. This law, so far, has survived constitutional scrutiny.
Even so, police agencies and the US government now routinely add a provision preventing the profiting from crimes to any plea bargain. Under this agreement, if a mobster’s or serial-killer’s crimes are publicized, any and all profits are directed to the US Treasury or victims’ families.
Whether we approve or disapprove of collecting “outlaw-abilia,” it may be no different in some ways than collecting memorabilia of warfare, since that is another ugly side of nation and community. But at least Son of Sam laws do take away some of the ugliness from an otherwise sordid and destructive enterprise.
Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.
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