If you were to ask anyone that I know- family, close friends; what my favorite holiday is, they would immediately tell you that it’s Halloween… by far. (Even though, Christmas is a very, very, very close second.) If I could, I’d watch a horror movie every day… and I’m completely obsessed with all things spooky. I would say, it’s a healthy addiction. This all, kind of goes hand in hand with what I’m trying to do during the month of October (when it comes to this blog) – since it’s more socially acceptable to focus on all things… dark. So, in that spirit, let’s focus on someone who embodies all things… scary. Someone who has inspired some of the most iconic horror movie films, like ‘Psycho’ (1960), ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991). That someone is none other than Ed Gein.
Ed Gein was born in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, on August 27th, 1906. He was the second born of two boys to parents George Philip Gein (1873-1940) and Augusta Wilhelmine (nee Lehrke) Gein (1878-1945). Ed’s older brother was Henry George Gein (1901-1944).
Augusta hated her husband. I’m sure that she probably thought about leaving him multiple times throughout their marriage- but, “back in the day” a woman without money and good social standing couldn’t afford to do that. In other words, Augusta was stuck in a loveless marriage. George was an alcoholic, and couldn’t hold a job to save his life. He had, however, worked at various times as a carpenter, tanner (tanning hide into leather), and insurance salesman. At one point, George owned a local grocery shop- just for a few years, but eventually sold it. He did so, to basically pack up the family and move them to live in isolation on a 155-acre farm in the town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. This farm became the Gein family’s permanent residence.
Augusta took full advantage of the farm’s isolation, by turning away outsiders who could have influenced her two children. Ed and his brother would only leave the farm so that they could attend school. Outside of school, Ed spent most of his time doing chores on the farm. Augusta was fervently religious- and nominally Lutheran. She preached to her boys about the innate immorality of the world, the evil of drinking, and belief that all women (except herself) were naturally promiscuous, and instruments of the devil. She reserved time every afternoon to read to them from the Bible- usually selecting verses from the Old Testament concerning death, murder and divine retribution.
Ed was shy, and classmates and teachers remembered that he had strange mannerisms. (Such as seemingly bursting with random laughter, as if he was laughing at his own personal jokes.) To make matters worse, Augusta punished him whenever he tried to make friends. But, despite his poor social development, Ed did fairly well in school- particularly in reading.
On April 1st, 1940, Ed’s father, George, died of heart failure caused by his alcoholism. He was just 66 years old. Henry and Ed began doing odd jobs around town to help cover living expenses. The brothers were generally considered reliable and honest by residents of the community. While both worked as handymen, Ed also frequently babysat for his neighbors. He enjoyed babysitting- seeming to relate more easily to children than adults.
Henry began dating a divorced mother of two, and was planning on moving in with her. Henry started to worry about his Ed’s attachment to their mother. He often spoke ill of her around Ed, who always seemingly responded back with shock and hurt.
On May 16th, 1944, Henry and Ed were burning away marsh vegetation on the property. But, the fire got so out of control, drawing attention from the local fire department. By the end of the day- the fire having been extinguished and the firefighters gone- Ed reported his brother missing. With lanterns and flashlights, a search party searched for Henry. After some time, the body was found lying face down. It appeared that the cause of death was heart failure since he had not been burned or injured in any other way.
Ed and his mother were now alone. Augusta had a paralyzing stroke shortly after Henry’s death, and Ed devoted himself to taking care of her.
Sometime in 1945, Ed and his mother visited a man named Smith, who lived nearby, so that they could purchase straw. At this visit, Augusta witnessed Smith beating a dog. A woman came outside from inside the Smith home to yell at Smith for beating the dog, and begged for him to stop. Augusta was extremely upset by this scene; however what bothered her did not appear to be the brutality toward the dog, but rather, the presence of the woman. Augusta told Ed that the woman was not married to Smith, so she had no business being there. “Smith’s harlot”, Augusta angrily called her. Augusta had a second stroke shortly after, and her health deteriorated rapidly. She eventually passed away on December 29th, 1945 at the age of 67.
Ed was devastated by her death; in the words of author Harold Schechter, he had “lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world.”
Ed held onto the farm, and continued to earn money from odd jobs. Ed was a handyman and received a farm subsidy from the federal government starting in 1951. He occasionally worked for the local municipal road crew and crop-threshing crews in the area. Sometime between 1946 and 1956, he also sold an 80-acre parcel of land that his brother had owned.
Ed eventually boarded up the rooms in the house that his mother frequented or used the most- including the upstairs, downstairs parlor, and living room. He left them untouched; while the rest of the house became increasingly squalid, the boarded up rooms remained pristine. Ed lived thereafter in a small room next to the kitchen. It was also around this time, that Ed became interested in reading pulp magazines and adventure stories- particularly ones involving cannibals or Nazi atrocities.
On the morning of November 16th, 1957, Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared. A Plainfield resident reported that the hardware store’s truck had been driven out from the rear of the building at around 9:30 a.m. The hardware store was closed the entire day; some area residents believed this was because of deer hunting season. Bernice Worden’s son, Deputy Sheriff Frank Worden, entered the store around 5:00 p.m. to find the store’s cash register open and blood stains on the floor.
Frank Worden told investigators that Ed Gein had been in the store the evening before his mother’s disappearance, and that he would return the next morning for a gallon of antifreeze. A sales slip for a gallon of antifreeze was the last receipt written by Worden on the morning she disappeared.
That very evening, Ed was arrested at a West Plainfield grocery store. The Waushara County Sheriff’s Department made their way to the Gein farm, and searched the property.
A Waushara County Sheriff’s deputy discovered Worden’s decapitated body in a shed on Ed’s property, hung upside down by her legs with a crossbar at her ankles and ropes at her wrists. The torso was “dressed out like a deer”. She had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle, and the mutilations were made after her death.
After continuing to search the house, authorities found:
- Whole human bones and fragments
- A wastebasket made of human skin
- Human skin covering several chair seats
- Skulls on his bedposts
- Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
- Bowls made from human skulls
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
- Leggings made from human leg skin
- Masks made from the skin of female heads
- (Mary Hogan’s) face mask in a paper bag
- (Mary Hogan’s) skull in a box
- Bernice Worden’s entire head in a burlap sack
- Bernice Worden’s heart “in a plastic bag in front of Gein’s pot bellied stove”
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box
- A young girl’s dress and “the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years old”
- A belt made from female human nipples
- Four noses
- A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
- Fingernails from female fingers
These artifacts were photographed at the state crime laboratory and then “decently disposed of”. Investigators were so taken aback from what they’ve seen at the Gein farm. Besides the countless body parts which seemed to be from the floor to the ceiling, the inside of the house was full of filth and decay. Cartons, tins, and piles of moldering garbage covered every nook and cranny of space, cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and the counters in the kitchen were encrusted with filth. Roaches scurried to escape the beams of the flashlights and from underfoot came the scuttling of rodents. The whole house gave off the sickening stench of damp and filth and human waste. And underpinning it all was another smell, the dull coppery aroma of freshly butchered meat.
When questioned, Ed told investigators that between 1947 and 1952, he made as many as 40 nocturnal visits to three local graveyards to exhume recently buried bodies while he was in a “daze-like” state. On about 30 of those visits, he said he came out of the daze while in the cemetery, left the grave in good order, and returned home empty handed. On the other occasions, he dug up the graves of recently buried middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother and took the bodies home, where he tanned their skins to make his paraphernalia. Ed admitted to stealing from nine graves from local cemeteries and led investigators to their locations. Allan Wilimovsky, of the state crime laboratory participated in opening three test graves identified by Ed. The caskets were inside wooden boxes; the top boards ran crossways (not lengthwise). The tops of the boxes were about 2 feet below the surface in sandy soil. Ed had robbed the graves soon after the funerals while the graves were not completed. The test graves were exhumed because authorities were uncertain as to whether the slight Ed was capable of single-handedly digging up a grave during a single evening; they were found as Gein described: two of the exhumed graves were found empty (one had a crowbar in place of the body). One casket was empty; one casket Gein had failed to open when he lost his pry bar; and most of the body was gone from the third grave, yet Ed had returned rings and some body parts, thus apparently corroborating his own confession.
Soon after his mother’s death, Ed began to create a “woman suit” so that “…he could become his mother—to literally crawl into her skin”. He denied having sex with the bodies he exhumed, explaining: “They smelled too bad.” During state crime laboratory interrogation, Ed also admitted to the shooting death of Mary Hogan, a tavern owner missing since 1954 whose head was found in his house, but he later denied memory of details of her death.
A 16-year-old youth, whose parents were friends of Ed’s and who attended ball games and movies with him, reported that Ed kept shrunken heads in his house, which Ed had described as relics from the Philippines, sent by a cousin who had served on the islands during World War II. Upon investigation by the police, these were determined to be human facial skins, carefully peeled from corpses and used by Gein as masks.
It was later reported, by biographer Harold Schechter, that Ed’s brother, Henry, had bruises on his head when his body was found. At the time, the police dismissed the possibility of foul play and the county coroner later officially listed asphyxiation as the cause of death. The authorities accepted the accident theory, but no official investigation was conducted and an autopsy was never performed. Some later suspected in retrospect that Gein killed his brother. Questioning Gein about the death of Bernice Worden in 1957, state investigator Joe Wilimovsky brought up questions about Henry’s death. George W. Arndt, who studied the case, wrote that, in retrospect, it was “possible and likely” that Henry’s death was “the ‘Cain and Abel’ aspect of this case”. Ed was also considered a suspect in several other unsolved cases in Wisconsin, including the 1953 disappearance of Evelyn Hartley, a La Crosse babysitter.
During questioning, Waushara County sheriff Art Schley reportedly assaulted Ed by banging his head and face into a brick wall. As a result, Gein’s initial confession was ruled inadmissible. Schley died of heart failure at age 43 in 1968 before Ed’s trial. Many who knew Schley said he was traumatized by the horror of Gein’s crimes, and this, along with the fear of having to testify (especially about assaulting Ed), caused his death. One of his friends said: “He was a victim of Ed Gein as surely as if he had butchered him.”
On November 21st, 1957, Ed was arraigned on one count of first degree murder in Waushara County Court, where he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Ed was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and found mentally incompetent, thus unfit for trial. He was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (now the Dodge Correctional Institution), a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin, and later transferred to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
In 1968, doctors determined Ed was “mentally able to confer with counsel and participate in his defense”. The trial began on November 7th, 1968, and lasted only one week. A psychiatrist testified that Ed had told him that he did not know whether the killing of Bernice Worden was intentional or accidental. Ed had apparently also told him that while he examined a gun in Worden’s store, the gun went off, killing Worden. Ed testified that after trying to load a bullet into the rifle, it discharged. He said he had not aimed the rifle at Worden, and did not remember anything else that happened that morning. At the request of the defense, Ed’s trial was held without a jury, which Judge Robert H. Gollmar presided over. Ed was found guilty by Gollmar on November 14th, 1968. A second trial dealt with Ed’s sanity; after testimony by doctors for the prosecution and defense, Gollmar ruled Gein “not guilty by reason of insanity” and ordered him committed to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Ed spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Judge Gollmar wrote, “Due to prohibitive costs, Ed was tried for only one murder—that of Mrs. Worden. He also admitted to killing Mary Hogan.”
Ed Gein’s house and property were appraised at $4,700 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2019). His possessions were scheduled to be auctioned on March 30th, 1958, amidst rumors that the house and the land it stood on might become a tourist attraction. Early on the morning of March 20th, the house was destroyed by fire. A deputy fire marshal reported that a garbage fire had been set 75 feet from the house by a cleaning crew tasked with disposing of refuse; further, that hot coals were recovered from the spot of the bonfire, and fire from the bonfire’s location did not travel along the ground to the house. Arson was suspected, but the cause of the fire was never officially determined. When Ed learned of the incident while in detention, he shrugged and said, “Just as well.”
Ed’s 1949 Ford sedan, which he used to haul the bodies of his victims, was sold at public auction for $760 (equivalent to $6,700 in 2019) to carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons. Gibbons charged carnival goers 25¢ admission to see it.
Ed died at the Mendota Mental Health Institute due to respiratory failure secondary to lung cancer on July 26th, 1984, at the age of 77. Over the years, souvenir seekers chipped pieces from his gravestone at the Plainfield Cemetery, until the stone itself was stolen in 2000. It was recovered in June 2001, near Seattle, and was placed in storage at the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department. The gravesite itself is now unmarked, but not unknown; Ed is interred between his parents and brother in the cemetery.
The story of Ed Gein has had a lasting effect on American popular culture as evident by its numerous appearances in film, music, and literature. The tale first came to widespread public attention in the fictionalized version presented by Robert Bloch in his 1959 suspense novel, Psycho. Gein served as the inspiration for myriad fictional serial killers, most notably Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs) and the character Dr. Oliver Thredson in the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum.
The character Patrick Bateman, in the 1991 novel American Psycho and its 2000 film adaptation, mistakenly attributes a quote by Edmund Kemper to Gein, saying: “You know what Ed Gein said about women? … He said ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right … [the other part wonders] what her head would look like on a stick’.”
At the time, the news reports of Gein’s crimes spawned a subgenre of “black humor”, called “Geiners”. Since the 1950’s, Ed has frequently been exploited by transgressive art or “shock rock”, often without association with his life or crimes beyond the shock value of his name. Examples of this include the song titled “Dead Skin Mask” (1990) from Slayer’s album Seasons in the Abyss, “Nothing to Gein” (2001) from Mudvayne’s album L.D. 50, and, “Ed Gein” (1992), from the Ziggens’ album Rusty Never Sleeps. There was also a band named Ed Gein.
Like I’ve previously stated, I love horror movies, or anything having to do with serial killers. I find the stories/plots are almost always intriguing. Stories of who, what, when and where when it pertains to serial killers fascinate me because I’m always curious to know why. Why did they resort to such extremes? I find that, most of the time, they are a product of their environment- of their childhood. ‘Cause let’s face it, some children are just born with a bad deck of cards. In cases like Ed, they are never given the chance to get out from under the hellish umbrella that they’re stuck under. I really do believe that Ed was born to someone who was mentally unstable. His father wasn’t there for him emotionally, or physically for that matter. And it sounds like anyone who tried to help, or give advice to Augusta about Ed, was turned away. Because of her own mental instability, Augusta couldn’t see what was right in front of her. And because of that, it’s very believable that Ed murdered his own brother, especially after Henry started to talk rudely about his mother to Ed. I really do believe that once Ed killed his own brother, he got a taste of death. And once he lost the one person who kept him semi-grounded, he went off the deep end. No one in their right mind would turn around, weeks after losing their mother, and begin grave robbing and stealing corpses, to then turn around and make furnishings and clothing, among other things- out of skin. As grotesque as it is, it’s still so fascinating to me. (Does that make me crazy? Maybe, but I don’t care.)
I hope that this blog doesn’t scare you away from future readings. In all honesty, I was apprehensive of even covering this case because of the graphic nature of the crimes. But I realized, that ALL murder cases are grotesque in their own way. Sure, Ed Gein went too far in his crimes, but does that make him any worse than someone like Christopher Watts, who murdered his pregnant wife and two very young daughters? ‘Cause I would argue that Chris Watts is worse than Ed Gein. (But that’s a whole other conversation.)