The frenetic energy of William Harder’s life is palpable before you even enter his home—with his dogs, their little heads crowding the front window to shout at visitors. Inside, Harder himself joins in, singing “Oh no!” in harmony with their excited cries.
At the Ouija board welcome mat—I'll learn later it matches the kitchen mugs—Harder asks me to take off my shoes, offers me coffee, then hurries into a back room to tie up loose ends from the four online stores he maintains. Soon thereafter, he’ll realize he’s made it to 4 p.m. without a meal and will fix himself a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.
It’s hard not to gape at the thousands of DVDs shelved in his living room, and the photos, band posters, fine art and miniature spoons that crowd every inch of his walls. “The three tiles in the middle, or four, are Pablo Picasso prints,” he says, compulsively straightening and arranging everything as we talk. “They’re from when I was living in Spain.”
The Lagunitas beer cap on the fridge has a story, too. It’s from the last time he drank alcohol, over a year ago. “I haven't had a drink since the day Manson died,” he says, talking about notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson. “When he passed, I wanted something good to come from it.”
Harder has a fascination with serial killers, particularly why they do what they do. He visited Manson regularly in prison, and over the span of a decade they built up a kind of trust. Manson wrote letters and sent artwork, much of which is now on Harder’s wall. “There's several string arts, there's two dolls, the earrings were beaded by Manson,” he says, then points to strings from a guitar Manson used to play and a letter he wrote to Harder and his wife.
Over time, Harder has come to be a collector of murder memorabilia, or what some refer to as “murderabilia.” And not just from Manson—in a display case, next to a Satanic Bible and a preserved slice of a human brain, Harder points to a little orange bottle. “I have a Dr. Jack Kevorkian, one of his old prescription bottles for his blood pressure medication,” he says.
On another wall, there's a childlike, colorful painting. “That's an actual John Wayne Gacy, Pogo the clown,” he says. Gacy dressed as Pogo to lure his victims.
Harder doesn’t just collect this stuff, he also deals in it: From his home, he runs an e-commerce site called Murder Auction—kind of like eBay, but for things related to, well, murders. It’s one of a handful of sites that sell clothing and letters and even fingernail clippings from murderers and victims. Harder says he doesn’t sell his personal collection.
This all led him to his newest venture. “So I got an email from this guy saying ‘hey, I'd like to make serial killer bobbleheads, I mean I think it'd be a great thing,’ and I'm like ‘yeah, that sounds like a great idea,’” he says.
They’re called Psycho Killer Bobbleheads: Extremely detailed figurines of 16 of the most notorious murderers. “That’s H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers,” Harder says, pulling a mustachioed man in a bowler hat out of a Styrofoam box. There’s also Charles Manson sticking his tongue out, Ted Bundy wearing a cast and crutch, and grey-haired Dorothea Puente holding a handful of papers—the social security checks she cashed after killing her renters for them. “I mean, these are kind of satirical,” Harder says. “Yeah, it's dark humor, but they're not meant to be taken super seriously. Like the Jeffrey Dahmer, he's wearing a t-shirt that says ‘bon appetit.’”
Harder’s spoken about his collections and auction websites dozens of times with the media. In 2015, when the host of the TV show Crime Watch Daily commented that he appeared to have more empathy for serial killers than for victims’ families, Harder replied, “that’s not my job.”
In that same show, he sparred with Andy Kahan, a victim’s advocate with Crime Stoppers in Houston, Texas. “Their loved one didn’t die so you could profit from selling personalized items,” Kahan said. “But everybody does, whether it’s books, documentaries, stuff like this,” Harder responded. Kahan asserted there’s a big difference, and that true crime writers tend to piece together only what’s publicly available from police and court records. “Big difference? It’s the same,” said Harder.
In drawing a straight line between murder memorabilia and true crime, Harder turns this into a business ethics discussion. If an industry exists, who’s more at fault: The suppliers of the product, or the customers clamoring for it?
Andy Kahan, the victim’s advocate, doesn’t care about the answer. He’s been trying to shut this industry down for years. “Quite frankly, there’s nothing more nauseating and disgusting to find than the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit,” he says. “It’s like being gutted all over again by our criminal justice system.”
In the early 2000s, Kahan’s lobbying led eBay to ban murder memorabilia and other items related to violent felons. One could argue that’s what led to independent sites like Murder Auction popping up.
But this industry didn’t just emerge in the internet era. One of the earliest documented cases occurred almost two centuries ago. “There was a famous case in the 1800s, a murderer called William Corder,” says Jack Denham, a criminologist with York St. John University in the UK who will soon be publishing a book on murder memorabilia. In 1827, Corder shot and killed his lover in a barn, and was hanged for it a year later. “People would sell fragments of the barn, and also would turn his murder into a stage production and a theatre production that toured around the United States,” Denham says.
Later, people would attend public executions in droves.
Denham agrees with Harder in that there is no solid distinction between murder memorabilia and true crime. And today, more so than in the 1800s, criminals get to be famous just for being famous—like many other modern celebrities. “If we’re going to celebrate criminals and turn them into celebrities in film and in popular culture, then you can’t expect people to treat them any differently to how they treat celebrities who weren’t criminals,” Denham says. “And people collect things associated with normal celebrities all the time.”
In late January, the streaming service Netflix debuted a docuseries about serial killer Ted Bundy. A few days later, enough people had tweeted about Bundy’s “hotness” that the service was compelled to urge its viewers to stop sexualizing him.
For his part, William Harder asserts he doesn’t glorify killers. He even likens these collectibles to war memorabilia—collecting a piece of the Berlin Wall, say, or a musket from the Civil War. And he has a message for those who don’t like his bobbleheads: “Don't come to my website. I'm not asking you to buy them,” he says. “If you think it's star killer worship, that's great—fortunately for me I don't seek validation from other people. I don't do this for anybody else. This I'm doing to make money, and believe me, there's plenty of people buying them.”
Plenty of people, he says, as he prepares five more bobbleheads to be shipped. He launched the site in December, and he estimates he’s sold at least 70 already.