Ed Gein (UPI)

The Deviant Life & Times of Ed Gein

A beautiful blond undresses and steps into the shower, only to be attacked a few moments later by a man in woman's clothing, who stabs her to death...

Lost teenagers stumble onto a terrifying family of cannibals who dress in human skin and create furniture and ornaments from human bone and flesh...

A vicious serial killer kidnaps and slaughters young girls so that he can create a suit from human skin and thus, transform himself into a woman...

Sound familiar? Of course it does. These are portions of the plots from three chilling films called PSYCHO, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. They are three films after which you can leave the darkened theater and tell yourself "thank god, it's only a movie". Or can you? Because, you see, elements of each of these blood-curdling films actually occurred. In real life though, the killer's name was not Norman Bates, Leatherface or Jame Gumb -- but Edward Gein.

Ed Gein grew up on a farm a few miles outside of the town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. His father, George, was a hard-luck farmer with little talent for working the soil and with a taste for alcohol. He also had a tendency to be quick with his fists after he had been drinking, but as rough as he was, he was no match for his wife, Augusta.

Augusta had been raised in a fiercely religious home and with this sort of influence, developed into a raving opponent of anything related to sex. All around her, she saw nothing but filth and depravity and how she managed to become pregnant with her two sons, Eddie and Henry, remains a mystery. Shortly after Ed's birth, she forced her husband to leave the "sinkhole of filth" called LaCrosse and moved to what she believed to be a more righteous location, Plainfield. However, this small, God-fearing town turned out to be no better, at least in Augusta's eyes. She considered the place to be a "hellhole" and kept her two sons on the farm and away from anything she considered dangerous or of a sinful influence, namely whorish women and the wickedness of carnal love.

In 1940, George Gein dropped dead from a heart attack. Most likely, he was not sorry to go. The years spent with Augusta had undoubtedly taken their toll on him. The two boys were left alone with their mother and soon Ed was even deeper under her terrible spell. Henry however, attempted to break away and have a normal life, but his brother would have nothing to do with it. Henry's rebelliousness would have a price though. In 1944, he was found dead on the Gein property. It was reported that he had suffered a heart attack while trying to put out a brush fire, though this did not explain the bruises discovered on the back of his head.

Ed finally had his mother all to himself, although a year later, Augusta had a stroke and was confined to her bed. Ed tended to her day and night, although even his constant attentions were found lacking. She screamed and cajoled him at all hours, calling him a weakling and a failure. He would never be able to survive without her, she constantly railed at him. Then at other times, Augusta would call him to her side and allow Eddie to crawl into bed with her. She would whisper and speak softly to him and allow him to stay beside her throughout the night. Ed prayed that his mother would not die, would never leave him to face the world alone.

The Gein farmhouse near Plainfield (Wide World)

Augusta died in December 1945 after suffering another, more serious stroke. Ed Gein, now 39 years old, was left alone to fend for himself. It was at this point that he began his descent into dark and unfathomable madness. For some time, no one seemed to notice. Even in a town as small as Plainfield, Ed Gein was a loner and rarely ventured off the farm. Hidden behind the ramshackle walls of his old farm house, he only appeared in town when he needed to run an errand, perform some handyman chores or stop for an occasional beer at Mary Hogan's tavern. No one seemed to think that he was any stranger than before -- he had always been an odd little man, in need of a bath, but he seemed no different than he had before his mother's death.

Looking back, Ed's oddities stood out in hindsight. Local folks would later recall his barroom discussions of articles that he had read in the pulpy men's magazines, stories of Nazi atrocities, island headhunters and sex-change operations. His jokes seemed to be a little on the cruel side as well. When Mary Hogan, the oversized tavern owner, suddenly disappeared, Ed began kidding that she was staying overnight at his house. Mary had vanished from the roadhouse, leaving nothing but a puddle of blood behind, and many thought Gein's jokes about the poor woman were tasteless. Even the stories about the strange things going on at Ed's house didn't faze anyone. Some local kids, peeking in Gein's windows, spread rumors that they had seen shrunken human heads in his living room. Ed laughed and explained that his cousin had served in the South Seas during World War II and had sent the heads to Ed as souvenirs.

Old Ed Gein would never hurt anybody, it was thought. He was a strange little guy who didn't even like the sight of blood. He wouldn't even go deer hunting with the other fellows in town. That's what everyone in Plainfield said -- until Bernice Worden disappeared.

She vanished on November 16, 1957. Late that afternoon, Frank Worden returned to town from an empty day of deer hunting and stopped by the hardware store that was owned and operated by his mother, Bernice, a 58 year-old widow. Strangely, his mother was not there. She had left, leaving the door unlocked and the back door open. Frank then discovered something terrifying -- a trail of blood leading from the storefront to the back door. A quick search revealed a receipt that had been left behind. The receipt was for a half-gallon of antifreeze. It had been made out to Ed Gein.

Frank notified the police and they went to Gein's farm house to question him about Mrs. Worden's whereabouts. When they arrived, they came upon the body of Bernice in the summer kitchen behind the house. She was naked, hanging by her heels from an overhead pulley. She had been beheaded and disemboweled -- and dressed out like a butchered deer.

The stunned and sickened officers immediately called for reinforcements. A short time later, more than a dozen lawmen were combing the farm and exploring the contents of what would become known as Ed Gein's "house of horrors". What they found that night was like nothing that had ever been recorded in the annals of American crime.

(Above) One of the rooms that once belonged to Augusta Gein. Ed sealed it off from the squalor in the rest of the house. (Right) The horrific state of Gein's kitchen.
(Life Magazine Time Inc.)

Soup bowls had been made from the sawed-off tops of human skulls. Chairs had been upholstered in human skin. Lamp shades had been fashioned from flesh, giving off an eerie and putrid glow. A box was discovered that contained nothing but human noses. A belt had been made from female nipples. A shade pull had been decorated with a pair of woman's lips. A shoe box under a bed contained a collection of dried, female genitalia. The faces of nine women, carefully stuffed and mounted, were hanging on one wall.... and there was much more, including a bracelet of skin, a drum made from a coffee can and human flesh, and more. A shirt of human skin, complete with breasts, had been fashioned from the tanned torso of a middle-aged woman. Gein would later confess that he often put the shirt on at night and pretended to be his mother.

To make matters worse, the refrigerator turned out to be stocked with frozen human organs and a human heart was found in a pan on the stove. The local sheriff estimated that the various body parts added up to 15 women, maybe more. Around 4:30 in the morning, after hours of sifting through the hideous and horrifying debris, the investigators discovered a bloody burlap sack. Inside of it was a freshly severed head. Inserted into the ears were large nails connected with twine. The head belonged to Bernice Worden. Gein had planned to hang it on the wall as a decoration.

During the many hours of confession that followed, Gein admitted to the murders of two women, Bernice Worden and the tavern owner, Mary Hogan (although his confession to the Hogan murder would not come until later). The rest of the gruesome remains in the house had been scavenged from the local cemetery. For the past 12 years, following the death of his mother, Gein had been stealing into the Plainfield cemetery at night and robbing graves. His macabre collection had been gathered from the bodies of the dead. In his quest, Gein had enlisted the aid of a dim-witted farmer named Gus, who had helped him to dig up the bodies. Once back at the house though, the work had all been Ed's. When Gus had been committed to an old-age home, Gein became desperate for fresh trophies. At this point, he was driven to murder.

For months after Ed was taken away, neighbor boys threw rocks at his abandoned farm house. To many, the building was seen as a symbol of evil and depravity. The place was avoided at all costs. Eventually, notice was posted that the contents of the house and the farm itself would be auctioned off. The towns people were in an uproar, but little could be done about it -- or so it seemed. On the night of March 20, 1958, Gein's home was mysteriously set on fire and it burned to the ground. Arson was suspected but no matter how it had burned, the people of Plainfield were delighted to see it gone. When Gein, who was incarcerated at the Central State Hospital, learned of the loss, he only uttered three words in response. "Just as well," he said.

Some would insist that even greater horrors may have vanished in the fire, along with the house.

The destruction of the home assured many Plainfield residents that their town would not become a showplace for the madness of Ed Gein. However, it did not stop the procession of cars or the curiosity seekers who came to witness the auction of the remaining property. Much of the rusting machinery was purchased by scrap dealers and the land itself was sold to a Sun Prairie real estate developer named Emden Schey. Within months, he would raze the charred remains of the building and re-forest the property with more than 60,000 trees.

The only oddity from the sale came with the auction for Ed Gein's car, which he had been driving on the day of Bernice Worden's murder. This item started a bidding war with 14 different people competing. In the end, the 1949 Ford sedan sold for the amazing sum of $760. The buyer was a mysterious bidder identified variously as "Koch Brothers", "Cook Brothers" and even "Kook Brothers" from Rothschild, Wisconsin. The buyer later turned out to be an enterprising carnival sideshow operator named Bunny Gibbons from Rockford, Illinois. The "Ed Gein Ghoul Car" made its first appearance in July 1958 at the Outgamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. It was displayed in a canvas tent with huge sign on it, painted to say:


More than 2,000 people paid a 25 cent admission to see the car over a two-day period.

Word spread of the macabre attraction and controversy erupted. Plainfield residents, along with officials for the Wisconsin Association for Mental Health were outraged. Gibbons however, most likely thrilled with the free publicity, was unfazed by the uproar. Soon though, his display began to run into trouble. At the Washington County Fair in Slinger, Wisconsin, the death car had been on display only a few hours before the sheriff arrived and closed Gibbons down. Soon, county fairs all across the state banned the attraction and Gibbons headed south to Illinois, where he hoped to find more open-minded (and perhaps ghoulish) crowds. Whatever became of the car is unknown.

This was not the last that anyone had heard of Ed Gein. Back in 2002, I was contacted by a man named John Fischer, who had worked for the Wisconsin State Crime Lab in 1959-1960. John was a graduating senior at the University of Wisconsin and worked at the lab for a year under Dexter Haney, the photo lab chief. John first met Ed Gein in 1960 when he went to work at the lab one day and recognized several sheriff's deputies from Waushara County standing around a short man that he didn't know. John inquired of Charlie Wilson, the lab director, as to who the man was and he told him that the short man was Ed Gein. He had been brought into the lab and hooked up to the polygraph machine to try and get him to confess to Mary Hogan's murder. Her heirs wanted to settle her estate and couldn't as long as she was still listed as a "missing person".

John told Wilson that when he had come in, Gein had looked at him and had winked. Charlie knew that he was soon leaving the lab for a position in Washington D.C. and joked, "I think he likes you. Do you think Washington is far enough away?"

John went on to tell me that the "trophies" that had been removed from the house in Plainfield were stored at the Crime Lab in a closed room under a stairwell. There were of too bizarre a nature, John explained, to keep in the regular evidence enclosure. "I finally got used to the idea that heads and other body parts were on the other side of my photo darkroom," he told me, "even when the room was bathed in red or amber safelights."

In June 1960, the Lab got clearance to dispose of the evidence and remains. The Lab wanted to incinerate all of it but the word came down that since some of the remains were Catholic, they could not be burned. Instead, a wooden box was constructed and the remains received a common burial -- closing a chapter in the horrific Ed Gein case forever.

By the time Ed Gein died in 1984, he had become a legend even though he spent the rest of his days locked in an institution. He died on July 26, 1984 and his body was taken to Plainfield and buried in the local cemetery. As far as Ed Gein was concerned, he was probably right back where he belonged.

But his story did not end there, for Ed Gein lives on still . Even during his lifetime, Gein had become a creature of nightmarish myth, thanks to local legends, stories and his Central Wisconsin reputation as the "Mad Butcher of Plainfield". This dark creature of children's imaginations was immortalized first in 1960 by director Alfred Hitchcock in his film, PSYCHO. However, the film had been inspired by a book of the same name by Wisconsin author Robert Bloch, who had fashioned the "bare bones" of the story from the Ed Gein case.

Gein returned (in a fashion) to the big screen again in 1974 with a low-budget cult film called DERANGED. The story is the effective and chilling look into the private world of a maniac. Gein is disguised here as a killer named Ezra Cobb who keeps his mother's mummified body when she dies, brings home other bodies to keep her company and then turns to murder when he feels the urge to make suits of skin.

That same year (1974), Gein's influence was felt again in the THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, directed by Tobe Hooper, who had been exposed to the real-life case by Wisconsin relatives when he was a boy. This disturbing film is considered a horror classic and portrays an entire family of lunatics and cannibals who delight in wearing human skin and creating bizarre adornments from the bodies of their victims.

Gein's story lived on in 1991 with the release of the Academy Award winning film THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Based on the book by Thomas Harris, the story featured a serial killer called "Buffalo Bill," so-named because he skinned his victims. He was attempting to make a suit of human skin and turn himself into a woman.

The Ed Gein story has also inspired documentary films, plays and even a comic book. The case was unlike anything else in the history of America, and some would say that it began a new era -- creating a thirst for death, depravity and a voyeuristic fascination with the actions of the killers among us.  Who can say? Regardless, the "strange little man" from Plainfield, Wisconsin has never been forgotten and its sure that his presence will continue to be felt for many, many years to come.

Return to Dead Men Tell No Tales

Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

Sources & Bibliography:
Hardy, Phil - Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror (1993)
Nash, Jay Robert - Bloodletters & Badmen (1995)
Schechter, Harold - Deviant (1989)
Sifakis, Carl - Encyclopedia of American Crime (1982)
Personal Interviews & Correspondence (Thanks to John Fischer)