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Murder Tourism

Where do we draw the line between curiosity and disrespect?

Over the weekend, BAM Marketing and Media offered a tour of the Milwaukee haunts of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Two decades ago, he was arrested for the murders of seventeen boys and men. The tour designers believe that sufficient time has passed to heal the city's wounds and now it's all just history.

The apartment building where Dahmer dismembered victims and stored body parts is long gone, but for $30 you can still see places where he went to look for them, and some people are willing to pay the price.

"Guides march guests through the grisly corridors of Jeffrey Dahmer's life and killing spree," the tour ad states, "as they narrate the triggers of his psychosis and the heinous crimes he committed."

Plenty of Milwaukee residents reacted, staging protests and calling the tour offensive to families and friends of the victims. They're forced to endure the idea that people find the source of their greatest pain entertaining. They also must watch others profit from their loved ones having been trapped, drugged, and killed.

Amanda Morden, a spokesperson for the tour company, insists that the hour-long walk is educational. In fact, school programs have contacted them to set up a tour. It's imperative, she's been quoted as saying, that we learn about our dark history so we don't repeate it.

Regardless of how one might feel about her philosophy, murder tourism is nothing new. Crime scenes and murder trials have attracted gawkers since the 1800s. In fact, the idea of touring murder sites got its start from the impetus to educate.

Positivist theories during the nineteenth century inspired the first criminological museums as teaching institutions. Objects and pictures were displayed that showcased theories about crime and its perpetrators.

When Austrian criminologist Hans Gross attested to how quickly knowledge about criminology grew obsolete, museum developers in several European cities found a solution. They decided that displays of objects would establish a visual history senseitive to change.

Into these museums went murder weapons, poisons, blood samples, crime scene photographs, criminal disguises, and even human remains. Criminals' skulls and preserved brains were placed on prominent display.

The Italian prison administration acknowledged that "the public is enormously interested in the vicissitudes and the phenomena of criminal life" when it set up the Museo Criminologico. Tableaus of torture implements, executions, and criminal escapades were created to show the general public what investigative science brought to the treatment of crime. Thus, ordinary people might grow wiser about their own safety. (This sounds like what Morden said.)

Although these exhibits did educate, they also introduced viewers to the raw experience of getting close to acts of murder, enhanced by titillating tales about dangerous people. The public wanted more, so observant vendors devised morbid products to sell.

Once the market was established, its content was difficult to control. Newspapers fanned the flames with salacious stories about crime and criminals. More people became murder tourists. In some eras, it was quite the fashion.

In Chicago, for example, after the public learned about the "murder castle" that H. H. Holmes had built during the 1890s for the clandestine murders of many young women (sliding their bodies into the basement for experimentation and defleshing), a police officer acquired the building's lease and sold entrance fees (fifteen cents). Before he got his business off the ground, however, the building went up in flames. (Chicago, too, had residents who disliked profit from murder.)

In 1908, when Bell Gunness' pig farm was investigated after a fire, over a dozen bodies were unearthed. Within a few days, thousands of curious people arrived to see the sights. Many looked at bodies laid out in the pig shed and walked through the makeshift cemetery. Entrepreneurs hawked grizzly postcards alongside food for picnic lunches, and tourists grabbed burned bricks and charred wood from the decimated house to take home.

A double homicide in 1922 occurred on a clandestine lover's lane in New Jersey. A married minister and his mistress were executed and then posed. People came at once, and for weeks afterward, to strip branches from a nearby crab apple tree, pose for photos where the bodies had lain, and look for morbid souvenirs.

Lizzie Borden's house, where the double axe homicide of her father and stepmother occurred in 1892, drew tourists back then as it still does today.

Does the element of time make one group worse than the other? Is there a definable buffer that separates those who want to just gawk and get chills from those who truly wish to learn?

In a way, murder tourism is similar to the allure of battlefields. There's a rush at the idea of getting close to the intense energy of disturbing past events. We can't blame people for being curious. We also can't say that the impetus to visit morbid sites cancels an interest in history. Really, where can we draw the line?