This case has fascinated and horrified people for decades, it has inspired some of the most iconic horror movie killers of all-time including Norman Bates from the novel and Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho, “Leatherface” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “Buffalo Bill” in Silence of the Lambs and the horrors in Rob Zombie’s House of a 100 corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. Edward Theodore Gein aka “The Butcher of Plainfield” isn’t technically a serial killer if we’re talking numbers, as only two murders have ever been solidly linked to him, and he was only ever tried for one.
Ed Gein was born in La Crosse County, Wisconsin on 27th August 1906, he was the youngest of two boys. His parents were Augusta Wilhelmine Gein and George Phillip Gein, their marriage was rocky as George was an alcoholic that was unable to hold down a job and over the years he worked as a carpenter, tanner, insurance salesman and he owned a grocery store for a few years, Augusta was said to despise her husband. George sold the business and the family moved to a 155-acre farm in the isolation in Plainfield, this became the Gein family’s permanent residence and would become the scene of Ed Gein’s crimes.
Augusta was extremely religious and followed a branch of Protestant Christianity known as Lutheranism. The farm was so isolated that she would take advantage and turn away any outsiders she believed would influence her sons, they only left the farm to attend school. Most of the time they worked on the farm, but Augusta would also preach to her sons about the innate immorality of the world, the evil of drinking and that all women were prostitutes and instruments of the devil. She would read to them from the bible (Old testament) including verses about death, murder and divine retribution.
Teachers and classmates described Gein as behaving strangely in class by doing things like laughing randomly as if laughing at his own personal jokes, he did rather well in school and was particularly good with reading, but his home life made his social development difficult as his mother would punish him if he tried to form friendships.
Gein’s father passed away on 1st April 1940, he died of heart failure caused by his alcoholism at 66 years of age. Ed’s and his older brother did more work on the farm to help with living expenses. The community considered the brothers to be reliable and honest locals while they were handymen, Ed would also babysit for some neighbours, it is believed that Gein related better with children and enjoyed babysitting. Henry started to break away from his mother and the farm when he started dating a local single mother, he planned to move in with her and during this time he began to express concern for Ed’s relationship with their mother. He started to speak ill of her around Ed and was often met with a shocked or hurt response.
Jut over 4 years later on 16th May 1944, Henry and Ed were burning marsh vegetation away when the fire got out of control, it was reported to the fire department and they came to extinguish the fire, once it was all under control and the fire department gone, Ed reported Henry missing. A search party was formed, and they used lanterns and flashlights to search the area. Henry’s body was found lying face down in one of the fields. Henry had not been burned and there was no immediate evidence of injury, but it has been reported that Henry had bruises on his head. The police however dismissed foul play and the county coroner officially ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation, so no official investigation was launched. It seems convenient for Augusta that as Henry was starting to rebel and break away from his mother he would die, it’s been speculated that Ed killed his brother in a sibling rivalry situation, but I think the years of mental abuse the sons had suffered left them completely under her control, Henry started fighting the control she had over him. When Henry felt he was in a position where he was “completely out” with his relationship with the local woman progressing he started trying to “turn” Ed in a bid to help his brother. That wouldn’t have sat well with Augusta, not only has she lost a husband, she feels she’s losing a son, losing a person she’s been able to control for decades, so she manipulated Ed to kill him as she wouldn’t have been physically strong enough to do it herself. This sort of behaviour is often seen in abusive relationships e.g. a woman finally leaves an abusive partner, the partner will see this a betrayal and that loss of control makes them snap and kill the person they’ve been abusing “if I can’t have you, no one can”. Augusta’s extreme religious views on women, Henry moving on with a woman would have felt like a betrayal to her, when he started to try and get Ed to see the truth she probably convinced Ed that he was trying to come between them, he was already hurt when his brother would speak ill of their mother because of her hold over him so it wouldn’t have taken much to get him to fall on her side and kill for her.
The isolation went even further after Henry’s death, Gein and his mother were now alone on the farm. Augusta suffered a paralysing stroke and Gein took care of her. When interviewed years later Gein recounted that sometime in 1945 when his mother was ill, they both visited a man named Smith to buy straw, while they were at Smith’s property Augusta witnessed Smith beating a dog. A woman came out of Smith’s house and shouted at him to stop beating the dog, but he continued until he had beaten the dog to death. When they got home, Augusta talked about how much this had upset her, but it was nothing to do with the death of the poor dog she was upset about the woman on the property, as Smith was not married to this woman. She would rant at Ed about “Smith’s Harlot”. Augusta suffered another stroke and her health deteriorated quickly, she died on 29th December 1945 at 67 years of age. Gein was said to be devastated by this, she made sure she was the only person in his life, he had no one else when she died.
After his mother’s death Gein boarded up the rooms in the house that his mother used frequently including the upstairs, downstairs parlour, and living room. These rooms remained untouched after her death. Gein managed to hold on to the farm by earning money from odd jobs, the parts of the house he lived in himself became squalid, he lived in a small room next to the kitchen.
Gein started to read death cult magazines and adventure stories involving cannibals and Nazi atrocities around this time as well.
Bernice Worden, a Plainfield hardware store owner disappeared on the morning of 16th November 1957, witness reported seeing the hardware store’s delivery truck drive out at 9.30am, the hardware store remained closed for the entire day. Deputy Sheriff Frank Worden, who was Bernice’s son entered the store at 5.00pm and found the cash register open and blood stains all over the floor. Frank Worden remembered that Ed Gein had been in the store the evening before and said he would return the following morning to buy antifreeze, a receipt for a gallon of antifreeze was the last receipt written by Bernice. Gein was found and arrested that evening in a West Plainfield grocery store and the Waushara County Sheriff’s department searched the Gein farm. When they searched the farm, they found Bernice Worden’s decapitated body in a shed hanging upside down by her legs, she had a crossbar through her ankles and ropes at her wrists. The torso had been dressed out like a deer, it was discovered that the cause of death had been a shot with a .22 calibre rifle, the mutilations had been done post mortem.
Several shocking items were found on the Gein farm, the items were photographed for evidentiary purposes and destroyed. Some of these items included:
– Whole human bones and fragments
– Skulls on his bedpost
– Female skulls with the tops sawn off
– Bowls made from human skulls
– A wastebasket made of human skin
– Human skin covers for several of his chairs
– Leggings made from human leg skin
– Masks made from the skin of female heads
– A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulder to waist
– Bernice Worden’s head in a burlap sack
– Bernice Worden’s heart in a plastic bag in front of Gein’s potbellied stove
– Nine vulvae in a shoe box
– A young girl’s dress with two vulvas that were estimated to have been from girls aged about 15 years old
– A belt made from female 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 singers
– Mary Hogan’s face in a paper bag
– Mary Hogan’s skull in a box
After Gein’s arrest, they began questioning him and Gein admitted that he had made up to 40 night time visits to the local graveyards to exhume recently buried bodies, he claimed to be in a “daze like” state, he said that during 30 of those 40 visits he came out of his “daze” and left the grave in “good order” and go home empty handed. In the later visits he would dig up recently buried middle aged women that he felt resembled his mother, he would take these bodies home and tan their skin in order to make his paraphernalia.
Gein seemed to be co operating with police, he admitted stealing from nine graves in one local cemetery and showed them the locations. Three graves were tested by Allan Wilimovsky from the state crime laboratory. The caskets were inside wooden boxes, the tops of the boxes were around 2 ft below in sandy soil. The graves were robbed by Gein soon after the funerals while the graves were incomplete. The authorities were uncertain whether Gein was capable of single-handedly digging up these graves in a single evening, The graves were found exactly as Gein described, two graves were found empty, this further corroborated Gein’s confession.
It was revealed that Gein’s plan had been to create a “woman suit” soon after his mother had died, he wanted to “become his mother” or literally “crawl into her skin”. During the State laboratory interrogation Gein denied having sex with any of the bodies saying “they smelled too bad”, he also confessed to the murder of Mary Hogan, she was tavern owner that had been missing since 1954 (her head was found in his house), Gein however denied memory of any of the details of her death other than she was shot.
The locals that knew and liked the Geins started to come forward with information, a 16 year old who’s parents were friends and socialised with the Gein family said that Gein kept shrunken heads in his house and said they were relics from the Philippines given to him by a cousin who had served there during WWII, they were however human facial skins that Gein had peeled from corpses, he used these as “masks”.
Gein was suspected in other unsolved cases in Wisconsin, one being the 1953 disappearance of Evelyn Hartley, a babysitter from La Crosse. He was questioned by Waushara County sheriff Art Schley, Schley reportedly assaulted Gein by hitting his head and face into a brick wall repeatedly, due to this Gein’s initial confession was inadmissible. The Gein case was said to have completely traumatise Schley, and he was starting to fear having to have to testify on the case (including his assault of Gein), al lot of people said that this is what killed him when he died of heart failure in 1968 at age 43, one friend of Schley said “He was a victim of Ed Gein as surely as if he had butchered him”.
Gein’s arraignment came on 21st November 1957, he was to face one count of first-degree murder in Waushara County Court, he pled guilty by reason of insanity and was diagnosed by doctors as schizophrenic and mentally incompetent thus unfit to stand trial. Gein was sent to the Central State Hospital for the criminally insane (now Dodge Correctional Institution), he was later transferred to Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Gein was re-examined in 1968 and doctors determined that Gein was “mentally able to confer with counsel and participate in his defence”. The trial the started on 7th November 1968, it lasted one week with a psychiatrist testifying that Gein had told him that the murder of Bernice Worden was unintentional saying that he was examining a gun when it went off and killed Worden, he testified himself saying that he had tried to load a bullet into the rifle and it discharged, he said that he had not aimed it at Worden and had no memory of what else happened that morning.
Gein’s Defence requested that the trial be held without a jury with Judge Robert H. Gollmar presiding. Gein was found guilty by Gollmar on 14th November, a second trial was then held to deal with Gein’s sanity. In this trial testimony was provided by doctors for the prosecution and defence, Gollmar then ruled Gein “not guilty by reason of insanity” Gein was then ordered to spend the rest of his life in the Central State Hospital for the criminally insane. Judge Gollmar wrote “Due to prohibitive costs, Gein was tried for only one murder-that of Mrs Worden, he also admitted to killing Mary Hogan”.
The aftermath of Gein’s crimes was felt in his local community, traumatising the people that knew Gein, the Gein house was scheduled to be auctioned on 30th March 1958 with rumours spreading that it was to become a tourist attraction. On 27th March, the house caught fire and was destroyed, arson was suspected, but no cause has ever been determined. Gein was told about the incident while incarcerated and said, “just as well”. Gein’s car was auctioned as well and that was sold for $750 to a carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons, Gibbons charged people 25 cents to go and see it.
On 26th July 1984 Gein died of respiratory failure, secondary to lung cancer, he was 77 years old. Gein was buried in Plainfield cemetery and is placed between his parents and brother, it is now an unmarked gravesite, because over the years tourists would go and see the Gein headstone and chip away pieces of it, the stone was also stolen in 2000, but was recovered in June 2001 near Seattle, it has since been placed into storage in Waushara County Sheriff’s Department.
Gein was diagnosed with schizophrenia by doctors, but plenty of people manage with this mental illness without making household and clothing items out of human flesh. I believe his mental illness left him vulnerable to be manipulated by his mother, from what is written about Gein’s mother it seems that she was displaying symptoms of schizophrenia, this is apparent in her extreme following of her religion that led to the delusion that all women are evil and her sons must be kept confined to the farm, genetics and environment are believed to be causes of schizophrenia, so it is possible that her mental illness was passed down to Gein. As the boys got older it’s clear that Henry tried to break away from his mother, but Ed seemed to be “under her spell” he was basically a follower of a cult instead of a respected equal in the relationship with his mother.
Gein’s reception in his community prior to the murders shows he wasn’t feared or even considered dangerous, the suspicious death of Henry and the circumstantial evidence surrounding it as I mentioned make me think that Gein’s mother pulled the strings there and talked him into or made him do it. Although, not particularly violent in his nature as it seems, to Gein the act of “choosing” his mother over his brother in such a violent way was probably really positively received by his mother, so with him being mentally ill and manipulated being praised for this by his mother made him think that is she would approve of it then it must be right. This need to please his mother became more intense after she died, and that’s what led him to kill, he killed women that his mother would see as “evil” making his mother’s beliefs his own delusion now.
Finally, although he did kill two women, in his “nocturnal activities” and how he kept the house after his mother’s death shows some sort of desire to preserve life, not save it just preserve a person like someone would with a relic. The house being kept exactly as it was when his mother was alive shows he was trying to preserve her presence, this is a small way of course and lots of people in various situations do it e.g. parents of a missing child may not touch their child’s bedroom, even decades after disappearance, it keeps a part of a person alive and present. In Gein’s case preserving his mother became an obsession, in the height of his obsession he started reading death cult magazines, which often include materials on reviving the dead, so he found a new delusion to go with his old obsessions. He had some belief that if he made a “woman suit” that looked similar to his mother he could literally crawl into her skin, not only does this show how unhealthily close they were, but it’s also a desperate attempt to get one of his only contacts in life back. On the subject of preservation, his “creations” are made in a way that preserves, he made clothing, household items and decorations, he clearly intended to keep them and look at/ use them, perhaps keeping them to look at how he somewhat kept someone alive while they were dead?.