Milwaukee’s most notorious resident was murdered in prison 25 years ago this month, but “dark tourists” frequent his former haunts. Is that right?
The six-block stretch on Second Street in Walker’s Point is much different now than it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Jeffrey Dahmer picked up seven of his 17 victims there. Most of the gay clubs and drag bars are now brunch places, ice cream shops and better-lit pubs. It’s also the launching point for Shaker’s Cigar Bar’s controversial Cream City Cannibal tours, which lead gaggles of tourists six times per week on a foray through one of Milwaukee’s darkest episodes – for $30 a pop.
The tours began in 2012 and were quickly met with outcry from victims’ families, who protested outside of the bar. Despite this controversy – Shaker’s proudly notes on its website it was banned from Groupon twice – the tours have continued. Speaking with MilMag, owner Bob Weiss deflects questions about sensitivity to the victims, claiming the tours serve a justified, historical purpose. Tour guides constantly reiterate that sentiment: that their purpose is to present historical fact, not to sensationalize Dahmer.
But questions of morality begin even before the tours do. Before setting off, participants are encouraged to buy a $20 Dahmer T-shirt emblazoned with his jail mugshot on the front and 17, the number of young men and boys he killed, and his name on the back, sports jersey style. As the tour proceeds, weaving between Indulgence Chocolatiers and La Cage, guides provide alarmingly specific details bout Dahmer’s murders: the weapons used, his necrophilia and dismemberment of the victims’ bodies, how he disposed of the remains.
For those affected by Dahmer’s crimes, the tours are a blatant attempt to capitalize on the cultural fixation with gruesome murders.
“What this company is doing is so inhumane; it’s clear that all they care about is money,” says Billy Capshaw, who survived a year and a half of sexual assault at Dahmer’s hands when they were Army roommates stationed in Germany. Capshaw often speaks on behalf of Dahmer’s victims and their families.
“These people survived their family being murdered and now have to relive everything.”
The Cream City Cannibal tour has been profiled by media like the BBC and Netflix as an example of “dark tourism” centered on the gruesome and ghastly. Such attention appears to shape the demographics of tour-goers, who Weiss says mostly hail from out of town.
Dahmer’s violence hits too close to home for most Milwaukeeans, according to Anne E. Schwartz, who broke the Dahmer story for the Milwaukee Journal and wrote a book about his murders and trial. The tours stir up trauma not just for victims’ loved ones but for a community eager to heal after the way Dahmer targeted vulnerable men and, abetted by racial prejudice, escaped police attention.
“I’m not surprised that the tours attract mostly out-of-towners,” says Schwartz. “People from Milwaukee just want to move on. The people affected by this – especially the gay community and people of color – have other issues they want to focus on today.”