JD Healy and Cathee Shultz once built their own guillotine. The couple now runs the Museum of Death, in Los Angeles.
The museum features Suicide Hall, the California Death Room and an exhibit devoted to execution equipment. Digital Dying recently spoke with them about Death Row prison shanks, the art of serial killers and the logistics of mummification.
Other Great Reads: Famous Death Row last words and the weird art they inspired
What’s in the Museum of Death? [JD]
We have the Execution Room, Suicide Hall, the California Death Room, the mortician and funeral room. As an artist I like to create environments, that way I can fully immerse the viewer. The California Death Room deals with death that happened in California, like the Black Dahlia murder and the Manson murder. Suicide Hall is everything from Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown to individual suicides like Kurt Cobain. I just picked up five Death Row shanks from Oklahoma State Prison for the Execution Room.
What’s a Death Row shank? [JD]
A shank is a prison-made knife. This guy who was a guard in Oklahoma State Prison for 20 years had a huge collection of different shanks that were made on Death Row, and five were actually used in murders. I bought those five. These are handmade weapons, made from bed frames and stuff, so they all look totally different. They can be metal, they can be plastic. These guys can make a weapon out of almost anything. Over the weekend I also bought an executioner’s sword from the Boxer Rebellion, which occurred during the late 1890s to about 1900. The Chinese used the swords to execute westerners. We see these things as art, because we see everything as art.
Other Great Reads: Funeral customs from around the world
Tell me about other shows? [Cathee]
We started as an art gallery in San Diego in 1987. We had shows about exotic weapons; how to build a neutron bomb, how to make a guillotine, how to make a hangman’s gallows, or the little machine Kevorkian invented to kill people with. JD built an actual hangman’s gallows. There’s a chart put out by the Army about how long the rope should be based on body weight. If you don’t put the noose in the right spot on the rope the weight of the body will break your neck as opposed to just decapitate you. JD and I got in a harness and have a photo of us hanging in the gallows. We also built a working guillotine and chopped watermelons. We had another show on the art of serial killers.
How did you get artwork from serial killers? [Cathee]
We started writing to them and asking them about their lives. We would try to find out about the killings or the case, if we could. They became our pen pals. We spoke to Richard Ramirez, Ottis Toole, John Wayne Gacy. He used to call us collect in the middle of the night. We wrote to Charles Manson one time and he wrote back. We would ask them for art, some of them we even got started doing art.
Are visitors ever offended by your exhibits? [Cathee]
When we had the gallows up I had an Irish guy come in, they had just hung Westley Allan Dodd in Washington and he couldn’t believe we still hung people in this country. Another Irish guy got really angry at me for calling Jesus Christ a cannibal. Back before 9/11 we had five Israeli students, they came out of the museum and were so angry, particularly about the photos of Sharon Tate, one of the women killed in the Manson murders. They were like, ‘We live with this, how could you show this?’ My answer was, ‘We live in a country where we have laws, and they give me the ability to do this’. I appreciate when people challenge me, because I think everyone shouldn’t get it. Some of the more fascinating visitors are the Saudi Arabians and Iraqis. They still behead in Saudi Arabia, with an axe.
Given events like the Sandy Hook shooting, do you ever worry that showing violent things in the museum might lead to violence in real life? [Cathee]
Absolutely not, I believe in education. There is going to be copycat stuff, sure. I think a lot of the kidnappers and the shooters do it because they get so much press, but I also think these people are just mentally ill. They have problems that are way deeper than guns or other people talking about murder. Guns don’t kill people, people do. I was raised with guns. I wouldn’t date a boy in high school unless he had a gun in his car.
Have you ever gotten in legal trouble for exhibits? [Cathee]
We got in a lot of trouble for some of the sex stuff. We had these photos up by Charles Gatewood, a photographer from San Francisco. One was of a giant 300 pound nude woman lying in the forest. It was based on a famous painting. The other photo was of a tattoo artist holding a fetus by the head that he had just tattooed a little heart on. We had the photo of the nude in the forest up in our window and someone complained. The San Diego Police Department came and tried to take it down. The police officer was like you can put anything else up, just not this. And I pointed at the tattooed fetus photo and was like, ‘So, I can put this up.’ He said yes. It was crazy. We brought them to court. The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] in Washington was our lawyer.
Do you think there’s a lack of death education in this country? [Cathee]
When we started the museum in 1995 we had questions about death no one could answer. Our first Museum of Death shirt had our skull on it, I gave it to my niece and nephews and they were both kicked out of school for wearing it. Everyone is afraid to die and in general people are afraid that if you mention death it’s going to bring death. Most people don’t talk to their kids about it. ‘Oh no, grandma went to heaven, she is a bird singing.’ Come on! She is in the ground. ‘How come grandma got stuck in a box in the ground?’ They don’t have answers to those questions.
What country do you think deals best with death? [Cathee]
Mexico. I love their culture. Your grandma and grandfather usually live together at home, whereas in my culture you can’t wait to get away from siblings and on with life. They are so much more family oriented, so much more death oriented. As little kids you are watching your grandparents die. Then they have the Day of the Dead. You’re raised your entire life knowing that when you die, once a year you get to come back and party with your family. That’s brilliant. I want to be part of that culture.
What’s your dream exhibit? [Cathee]
One of my goals is to have a dead rotting corpse in the Museum of Death. That’s the Holy Grail. But you can’t just have a stinking rotting corpse, you have to have a refrigeration unit and ventilation. As long as I have that, I don’t think there is any legal reason I can’t do it. People donate their bodies to us all the time. Fortunately our clientele is young and they’re not going to die anytime soon. But also unfortunately our clientele is young and they’re not going to die anytime soon. Luckily I know the coroners. I think it would be fascinating for scientific reasons. The corpse would have to be embalmed too, so it would rot slowly.
Do you guys have something artistic planned for your own deaths? [Cathee]
JD wants to be mummified. There is a place in Utah that does it, it’s just really expensive. But hopefully he doesn’t die anytime soon. I want to be plastinated, which is a process to preserve the body after death by replacing water and fat with plastics that don’t smell or decay. But I think the guy who invented it has a patent on the process. I’m going to have to get to know him first. If I can’t be plastinated I’ll probably be mummified. And I want to be in the Museum of Death.