I can already feel you yelling at me…WidowC… this guy isn’t an artist, he was a terrible American serial killer. Why are you dubbing him as an artist?? Much like everyone else, lockdown has presented me with the time to look at all the weird, wonderful and terrible things that are out there, and I stumbled across “murderabilia”. This is a small online market which buys and sells items related to serial killers.
I find serial killer psychology so interesting, so I figured I could perhaps create an article where I blend the two. Obviously this is not me condoning murder in any way, neither is this me glamourising a serial killer, but I do think it is interesting to look at the vein of the crimes that were committed and then look at the artwork created once incarcerated. I am also not saying that the artwork is very good…but it is something that has been created by someone with a different outlook on the world to the vast majority of us. I am also in what feels like the never ending lockdown with Netflix and Discovery+ for inspiration.
Firstly I want to say that my heart goes out to the families that this monster impacted – and that is exactly what he was, a monster. I think that it is very easy for people to become detached from the act when watching a documentary or reading an article, as we find it very hard to think that ‘John from across the road’ could possibly have 26 bodies buried under his house. As you read this article, try and think about why I have explained how others saw Gacy, in comparison to his true personality, as I think that is the key to understanding his somewhat primitive art work.
Gacy was born in Chicago, March 1942. His parents, John and Marion were a catholic family of Polish/Danish decent. Growing up, Gacy was close to his mother and two sisters, but had a difficult relationship with his father, who was physically and mentally abusive towards him. While his mother tried to shield him from the abuse, this would only result in his father further belittling young Gacy, calling him names such as “Mama’s boy”, “Sissy” and “Queer”. Gacy was an overweight and unathletic child. Due to a heart condition he had been told to avoid sports activities.
In 1949, Gacy’s father was informed that his son has been caught sexually fondling a young girl, with another boy. His father proceeded to whip him with a razor strop as punishment. In the same year, Gacy was molested often by one of his father’s friends in his truck, although he never told his father as he thought he would get the blame.
Between the ages of 14 and 18, Gacy started to suffer blackouts. He was hospitalised on occasion for seizures and he suffered a burst appendix. While his mother, sisters and close friends had no doubt that Gacy was ill, his father openly would scorn Gacy, saying that he was making his illness up for attention. Due to this his medical condition was never conclusively diagnosed.
In 1960, Gacy took a job working as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party, which just led to more criticism from his father. In 1962, his father bought him a car, but wouldn’t allow the car to be put in Gacy’s name until he had paid his father back for it. He would also confiscate the keys to the car if Gacy didn’t do what he wanted. After 2 years, Gacy purchased an extra set of keys for the car, so his father would then confiscate the distributor cap instead.
As soon as his father replaced the distributor cap on his car, Gacy drove to Las Vegas and found work within the ambulance service. He would then transfer to be an attendant in Palm Mortuary. Gacy slept behind the embalming room, and one night, clambered on top of a deceased male, embracing and caressing the body, until finally overcome with shock. The next day, he called his mother and asked if his father would allow him to come home. He drove home that day.
When returning home, Gacy attended Northwestern Business College and graduated in 1963. 1964 was a big year for Gacy, he became a manager for the department he worked and he got engaged to Marlynn Myers. He also had his second sexual encounter with a man in this year. According to Gacy, he went for drinks with a colleague, and he was invited to go back and sleep on his colleagues sofa. While there, oral sex was performed on Gacy, while he was drunk. Later this year, Gacy would marry Marlynn.
By 1965, Gacy had risen to be Vice President of Jaycees (the United States Junior Chamber – a leadership training organisation for people between the ages of 18-40), but he received a lucrative offer from his father in law, who had purchased three KFC franchises. The offer was that if Gacy and his wife moved to Waterloo, Iowa to manage the restaurants, they could live in Marlynn’s parents vacated house, and Gacy would received £15K per year (approx. £124K by todays standards) and a share of the restaurants profits. Gacy accepted the offer and moved to Iowa.
Gacy opened a “club” house in the basement of his house, which was a place where employees could drink and play pool. While Gacy hired teenagers of both sexes, he only socialised with the young men. Once the young men were drunk, Gacy would make sexual advances. If he was rebuffed he would claim it was either a joke or a test of trust.
Between 1966 and 1967 Gacy and his wife had two children, a boy and a girl. Gacy would describe this time in his life as perfect as when his parents visited to see the children, his father apologised for all the mental and physical abuse.
In Iowa, Gacy joined the Jaycee chapter and put in a lot of extra work into it. He would often bring chicken to meetings, earning him the the nickname “The Colonel”. While he was considered to be an ambitious bigot, he was held in very high regard because of his charity work. In 1967 Gacy was named “outstanding Vice President” of the Jaycee Chapter in Waterloo and he served on the board of directors. Gacy along with other members of the Waterloo chapter were heavily involved with wife swapping, prostitution, pornography and drug abuse.
At the moment, I realise that Gacy doesn’t sound much like a serial killer… ok, he was into some shady things, but who isn’t in some form? On the face of his life though, he was an ambitious and successful business man with a family and worked for charitable causes. I also know, that I am going into great detail about the man, as I think it is important to understand, so that his art can be thought about in terms of his personality and actions.
In the August of 1967 Gacy sexually assaulted Donald Voorhees, a 15 year old who was the son of a fellow Jaycee. Gacy plied Voorhees with alcohol while showing him pornography which was played at Jaycee meetings. Gacy then persuaded Voorhees to engage in mutual oral sex, telling him that he had to have sex with a man before he could have sex with a woman. Gacy abused other teenage boys in much the same way over the following months, and managed to encourage one to have sex with his own wife, prior to blackmailing him to perform oral sex on him. Gacy also managed to trick several teenagers into conducting homosexual experiments in the interest of scientific research, paying them $50 for their involvement.
In 1968, Voorhees told his father about the abuse, and Gacy was arrested. Gacy publicly denied that these events happened and that he was subject to political foul play from Voorhees father, who had not wanted Gacy as the VP of Jaycees. Gacy took a polygraph test and the results indicated that he was nervous when answering. While Gacy gained support from his community, he was incited on the charge of oral sodomy. Gacy payed another teenager to attack Voorhees to stop him testify at the trial, which he did, but Voorhees reported the attack and they arrested the perpetrator the next day. He very quickly told police that Gacy had paid him to attack Voorhees.
Gacy was ordered to undergo psychiatric tests. He was examined for seventeen days and the outcome was that he suffered an antisocial personality disorder and it was likely that he would constantly clash with society. No treatment was felt necessary and he was mentally competent to stand trial. Gacy pled guilty to one act of sodomy, saying that Voorhees had offered himself up, but still denied the other charges. Gacy was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. On the same day he was incarcerated, his wife petitioned for divorce and requested that she be awarded the family home, property and custody of the two children. Eleven days later, her divorce was granted and Gacy would never see his wife or children again.
While in prison, Gacy was the model prisoner. He rose to head chef in just a few months, he gained a pay rise for prisoners, supervised projects to improve conditions for inmates and he joined the inmate Jaycee chapter, increasing its membership from 50 to 650 within 18 months.
Gacy only served 18 months of a 10 year sentence, and he was then released with a 10 pm curfew. He moved back to Chicago, and got a job as a short order chef. Another charge was filed against Gacy in 1971, by a teenage boy who said that Gacy had lured him in to his car. The case was dropped when the teenager failed to turn up in court.
8 months after Gacy’s release the curfew on him was lifted and his criminal convictions became sealed. It was at this time, with his mothers assistance that he purchased the ranch house in the village of Norridge. Gacy’s mother lived with him until he remarried. The marriage only lasted 3 years, as Gacy confessed to her about being bisexual, and she found homoerotic pornography. She also observed him bringing teenage boys in to the garage of their shared home. She found wallets and various forms of identification around the house, and when she asked who they belonged to, she was told it was none of her business.
Gacy’s neighbours said that he was a helpful and considerate member of the community. He would often loan out construction equipment and remove snow from driveways for people in the village for free. He also held summer parties which hundreds of people would attend. Through his membership of a local Moose Club, Gacy became aware of the “Jolly Jokers” clown club. This had been set up for people to volunteer to entertain hospitalised children. Gacy joined and created two characters for himself; Pogo and Patches. Pogo was a happy go lucky character, while Patches was more serious. Gacy started to perform at local parties as either of his characters, and was often known to remain in his clown costume and drink in a local bar. It was this which earned him the nickname “Killer Clown”.
Gacy had a part time construction business, and most of the employees were high school boys, and there were numerous reports of unhealthy behaviour between Gacy and his employees.
Gacy murdered at least thirty three young men and boys. Twenty six where buried in the crawl space of this house. Gacy would lure boys/men to his house either with the offer of a job with his construction company, or just on the premises of alcohol and drugs. Once they were drunk, he would “play a trick on them”. The trick was that he would use handcuffs in an act where he first cuffed himself and then managed to open the handcuffs so that he was released. He would then bet with the boys that they couldn’t escape from the handcuffs. Of course they couldn’t. Gacy would then proceed to rape and torture the boys. Some of the victims he dragged to the bathroom and partially drowned and then would revive them before continuing in his horrendous torture.
The final “trick’ Gacy would play on his victims was the “rope trick”. Where he would place a rope around their neck and tighten it with a hammer handle. He would often tell them that this was the last trick they would ever see. Once they were dead (in his confession he stated that the bodies would convulse for an hour or two before they finally died) he would store the body under his bed for 24 hours, occasionally taking it out and laying along side it. He then would bury them in trenches under his house. He only actually dug graves for his first five victims and then employees would dig the remaining trenches, on the premise he had pipe work to lay.
Gacy’s final victim would be the one to bring him down. In December 1978, Gacy visited a pharmacy where he was to discuss a potential remodelling job. While there, he offered a 15 year old Robert Piest a part time job with the construction company. Later that day Piest mother arrived at the pharmacy to pick up her son, so that they could celebrate her birthday together. Piest asked his mother to wait while he went to see “some contractor” about a job, and he promised to return soon. He left the store at 9pm. Gacy killed Piest a little after 10pm, pulling the handcuff trick on him and telling him that he was going to rape him and there was nothing he could do about it.
When Piest failed to return, his mother filed a missing persons report, and initially it was thought that Piest had run away. On questioning his employer at the pharmacy, they were told that the most likely person he could have visited over the construction job was Gacy. A routine check of Gacy’s background showed that he had an outstanding battery charge in Chicago and he had spent time in prison for sodomy of a 15 year old boy. Police visited Gacy, and while he admitted talking to two youths at the pharmacy he adamantly denied offering either of them a job. Gacy promised to go to the station later that evening to make a statement, but he couldn’t come at the moment as his uncle had just died. When the police asked when he thought he would be able to attend to give the statement, Gacy told them that they were very rude and had no respect for the dead.
Gacy arrived at 3:20am covered in mud, claiming he had been in a car accident. Gacy gave his statement, but some of the details he gave did not match up with others of that day. Suspecting Gacy could be holding Piest against his will, police obtained a warrant to search Gacy’s house. The search turned up a number of suspicious items. The police confiscated Gacy’s car and his work vehicle and put Gacy under surveillance. During this time, more reports of missing boys came in, and how one had turned up drowned in the river earlier that year.
During the surveillance, Gacy became friendly with the police involved and would often ask them to go to dinner at a restaurant or drinks at a bar. Over one meal, he talked with the officers about business, his ex-wives and his activities as a clown – even joking “clowns can get away with murder”.
Gacy started to show signs of the strain of being under constant surveillance and began to drink heavily. His appearance deteriorated, as he was noted to become unshaven and tired looking. He made an appointment with his lawyer to prepare a civil suit against the police to demand that they cease their surveillance. While Gacy was with his lawyer, a receipt that had been found in Gacy’s kitchen was traced back to the pharmacy, which had been in the pocket of a girl who had leant her coat to Piest while he went to see the contractor. This sparked police to file for a second search warrant.
At the same time, police reinterviewed employees of Gacy who were more helpful on the second round of interviews. Once explained how he had been told to spread bags of lime in the crawl space. Another informed the police of Gacy’s attempts to rape him years earlier, and then passed it off as a test of trust.
On the 20th December, Gacy drove to his lawyers and drunkenly confessed to murdering around 30 people. He dismissed them as prostitutes, liars and As he was so drunk, he fell asleep halfway through the confession, in which time, his lawyer called to arrange a psychiatric test on Gacy the next morning. Waking, Gacy disregarded the appointment that his lawyer had made for him, and said “I can’t think about this now”, and left. He then went and spoke to close friends – telling them that he was going away for a long time as he had killed around 30 people.
Gacy returned home, and police arrived with a second warrant, to search the house for Piest. On arrival, they found that Gacy had removed the plug from his sump pump, flooding the crawl space in a hope of removing evidence. The police simply replaced the plug and waited for the space to drain. The police very quickly found putrefied remains and an arm and Gacy was charged with murder.
From here the trial is pretty well known, as is the amount of appeals Gacy put in, trying to discredit the original search warrant, but none were successful (thank god). On 09/05/94 Gacy was put to death using lethal injection. His final words were “Kiss My Arse”. There was an issue with the injection which meant the whole process took 15 minutes, and some of it was behind closed blinds, due to a blockage in the IV tubes used.
While in prison, Gacy found his “love” of art. This is actually debatable as he is on record as saying the ultimate thrill is to kill, but being in prison sort of quashed that hobby… Gacy’s style has been described as “Pop Art” with its bright colours and use of prolific people/cartoon characters. I potentially would argue, this simplistic styling (let’s be honest, even if this was pop art… it’s not that great), is more telling of his mindset. Most of his art is very one dimensional, with little tonal contrast, almost as the way in which he lived his life: an apparent ambitious man, who was great with his neighbours, yet below the surface the base animalistic instinct to kill lingers. I also note that he did many self portraits, which, while is not particularly unusual for an artist as it is an easy model, not many painted their clown alter ego.
When asked why he had taken up painting, Gacy said “I just want to bring joy to people”, which seems like an odd thing to say when you have broken apart 33 different families in your life, but this feels like his cover up breaking through. Let’s remember he was a clown at many charity events and highly regarded in his community, yet this was all just a ruse as he lured in teenagers.
Gacy’s art has sold from anywhere from $200 to $20,000, and while Gacy was able to earn money from it, funds raised from the sales did get offered to charitable causes, but most declined the offers finding the origin of the money disconcerting. After his execution, several pieces were destroyed by families of the victims in a cathartic public burning.
To demonstrate these eerie paintings, I have selected as the cover image, a portrait of Gacy, dressed as Pogo – his happier clown self. I find this particularly disturbing, as the clown stares out to the audience. He is in a waving position, holding balloons. Perhaps because I know the background of Gacy and how he would stay in this costume to go drinking in, or how this was a veil to hide behind, gives the painting more mallace.
Clowns were definitely a recurring motif for Gacy, along with disney characters and skulls. Some of these can still be found for sale today. One of the most recent purchases was made by Zac Baggans of “Ghost Adventures” to display in his Las Vegas “haunted museum”. Baggans purchased a number of items in September 2020, explaining that he felt it showed the more loving side of Gacy. I would beg to argue this case, rather I feel this shows how well, someone who had been identified as having an antisocial behaviour disorder masked his activities so well.
Above is a selection of works by Gacy, as he created hundreds (as you can imagine with little else to do, being on death row and all), but this will give you a feel for the works that he produced.
A quick google search of John Wayne Gacy + Artwork will show you an array of his work, all just as eerie, especially now you know he was luring teenagers in and committing abhorrent acts on them.
How does this artwork make you feel? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?