Why you should care
After a prolific run as a serial killer, this death row–dwelling inmate turned to painting.
In one of the almost dozen books written about serial killing kids’ clown John Wayne Gacy, there’s one story that sticks. Cruising through the suburban Chicago neighborhood where Gacy lived and worked, a cop stumbled on a dirt-smeared Gacy digging in a side yard a few hours before dawn. The cop slowed, surveyed the scene and asked Gacy if he was getting an early start on his planting.
Gacy cracked a joke, and the cop drove off. But soon enough, the world would know that this owner of a bustling contracting business, a member of the civic-minded Jaycees, a Democratic organizer who had been famously (and embarrassingly) cleared by the Secret Service to be photographed with first lady Rosalynn Carter, was also one of this country’s most prolific serial killers. On Friday, Dec. 22, 1978, Gacy was arrested and eventually thought to be behind a death toll of at least 33. It’s widely held to be more, but that’s how many dead people they found, the vast majority of them buried beneath his house in a crawlspace or stowed in his attic.
The tasteless jokes about the temperature at his house — “33 below” — were just the start of people trying to process what the hell had happened. And how it could have happened that a twice-married father — who was also fond of dressing up as a clown named Pogo to entertain kids at fairs and parties — had so steadfastly managed to murder so many. So many in a very specific crime scene: his house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in Des Plaines, Illinois.
“For $300 I will send you a Pogo painting!” The letter Gacy sent me was businesslike but also — and it’s weird to use this word here — ebullient.
“You have to remember how cold it gets in Chicago,” said Des Plaines resident, Edie Crowe, who is an artist and unofficial historian of horror. “Back then it got cold in September and stayed cold until April sometimes.” Plenty of time for the bodies to settle in the lime, under the dirt, leaving the neighbors and their noses none the wiser. At least in regards to the house’s dark secret.
Post-arrest, the Gacy killings were big news, and this continued through the carnival atmosphere of the trial, in which Gacy’s lawyers tried for an insanity defense and Gacy maintained that he was innocent. He claimed others had murdered those he had just been trying to save from desperate lives of male prostitution. Gacy was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death for his crimes — which, due to a long appeals process, meant that he now had the luxury of time on death row.
That’s where he not only embraced his newfound infamy but began to get letters from others who were fascinated by it. Many wrote to Gacy, only to discover that he would write back. More than that: Gacy embraced his artistic side, creating dozens of paintings depicting skulls, fairytale characters and his own clown alter ego. The paintings would not have attracted notice at your local Goodwill or garage sale — despite their garish strangeness — where such things typically find their homes. But tied to Gacy’s crimes? They became a must-have for people who wanted seats as close as possible to a certain kind of horror. People like me.
“For $300 I will send you a Pogo painting!” The letter Gacy sent me was businesslike but also — and it’s weird to use this word here — ebullient. His dark celebrity seemed to suit him as his eventual date with death kept getting pushed off by appeals. While I had written to him to request an interview, the paintings had come up. The price was too rich for my blood but not too rich for the founder of Feral House publishing, the late Adam Parfrey. Back in 1990, Parfrey drove a hard bargain and got some work from Gacy that involved two Roman soldiers and a bound victim for $150.
The occasion for this publisher of the Apocalypse Culture book series? An art show in Los Angeles called “Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs” planned to kick off his publication of another book. Parfrey also showed work done specifically for this series by spree killer Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, as well as Charles Manson.
“I found Gacy to be quite pleasant,” Parfrey confided by phone. “The art is not the most sophisticated, but it’s great if you like clown art.” And with his eye on dollars, Gacy had price points for any budget and did paint more than clowns. He painted skulls, witch heads, and whatever struck his fancy, usually for a flat fee of $300. None of which gave any hints at the person or personality that had created them. With the famous exception of Johnny Depp, who owns a Gacy original and spoke of it quite openly after having bought it, the killer’s clientele is mostly anonymous, for obvious reasons.
But on the morning of May 9, 1994, Gacy, having exhausted all appeals, had his last meal. That night after a confab with a priest, he took the needle and 18 minutes later lay dead. His last words? “Kiss my ass.”
And his paintings? Obtainable via a U.K. auction house that claims to offer the “world’s premier auctions” for a cool $9,000. A respectable growth delta for an “artist” who deserves much less.
“I’d like to talk to Depp and find out in what way his Gacy paintings speak to him,” concluded Crowe. ”Beyond the 33 dead boys behind them.”