Long before Norman Bates had mommy issues and Leatherface fashioned décor out of human flesh and bone, there was Ed Gein. Who was the man who inspired these horror movie villains? Find out more in this edition of True Crime Corner.
Ed Gein was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on August 27, 1906, the second of two sons for George and Augusta Gein. The family soon moved to an isolated farm near Plainfield, Wisconsin, which would one day become a house of horrors, eventually earning the youngest Gein the title of The Butcher of Plainfield or The Plainfield Ghoul.
His father was an abusive alcoholic who died in 1940. The only reason the couple stayed married was because Augusta’s religion didn’t condone divorce. Augusta wore the pants in the household with her domineering personality. A fanatical religious zealot, she preached to her boys about the sin of premarital sex and the wild ways of women. The boys rarely left the sheltered property except to go to school, and any friendships were discouraged by their over protective mother. Ed idolized her, while his older brother Henry tired of her constant preaching. (Descriptions of Augusta remind me of Carrie White’s mother in Carrie). Augusta was stricken with cancer and suffered two strokes, the second claiming her life in 1945. Devastated, Ed sealed off her room in the house after her death.
Prior to her passing, Henry hadn’t been as cooperative with his mother as Ed had been. Henry died under mysterious circumstances in a brush fire in 1944. However, he was found with unexplained injuries to his head. Did he really die of asphyxiation, or was Ed offended by his treatment of their mother? With his father and Henry out of the picture, Augusta could focus all her attention on her youngest son. No one bothered to investigate the death, and it remains unclear if Gein murdered his older brother Henry.
Ed began to go off the deep end now that his immediate family was gone and he was alone in the farmhouse. Never entirely comfortable being a male, he had considered gender reassignment surgery, but had concerns over the cost and risks involved in such a procedure. He would find another ghoulish way to turn himself into a female when he wished.
He scoured obituaries in the papers to find fresh bodies. Gein trolled cemeteries, digging up several graves over several years. Some say he had a helper in the beginning of his grave robbing. He wasn’t searching for valuables; instead he was interested in the corpses themselves. He occasionally returned bodies after he took what he needed, but most were utilized in his macabre decorations.
For his home he made lampshades out of human skin, belts from nipples, and bowls from skulls. He was able to become a female from the disgusting costume he put together. He wore a woman’s face over his own, and had a vest made from a female’s chest. He wore her private parts as well. Some say when he wore this he was expressing his desire to be female while others suggest he did this because he missed his mother.
No longer content to use the bodies of the recently deceased, Gein graduated to killing people for their parts. Tavern manager Mary Hogan went missing: blood and a shell casing were found where there had been signs of a struggle. Gein confessed to Hogan’s death, but was never charged with the crime, even though the murder weapon was later traced back to him.
Bernice Worden suffered a similar disappearance from the hardware store where she worked. When investigators searched the Gein property, they made a horrific discovery. In a shed they found Worden’s body, gutted and decapitated, hanging from the ceiling. This was the beginning of several disgusting discoveries on the farm, leading to Gein’s arrest. There were likely other victims, as remains were found that didn’t belong to the two murdered women.
Gein was originally deemed unfit to stand trial and spent almost a decade in a mental health facility before going on trial for murder. He was found not guilty because he was insane, and he was confined again to institutions until his death. Ed Gein succumbed to complications related to cancer on July 26, 1984.
Gein was interred between his beloved mother and brother in the very cemetery he frequented for material for his sick creations, surrounded by some of his victims. His headstone has been a target of vandals and theft. It was once stolen and recovered on the West Coast. It hasn’t been returned to the gravesite, and it’s believed to be in storage at a museum.
As for the farmhouse that was the scene of such atrocities, it was burned down. It was most likely the work of arsonists, as it was destroyed just prior to an auction to sell it. From what I understand, the property no longer has any buildings situated on it.
For further reading, there’s Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho by Harold Schechter. There’s also The Ed Gein File: A Psycho’s Confession and Case Documents by John Borowski.
If you’re looking for a film about Gein, there’s Ed Gein The Butcher of Plainfield with Kane Hodder starring as the killer. If you would prefer a documentary, Biography has a DVD available on Gein as well as other serial killers.