The landscape of horror cinema as we know it today was highly influenced by one infamous midwestern serial killer. His crimes were so horrendous that they inspired the some of the most notorious horror film villains of all time including Norman Bates for Psycho, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lamb. Although his body count was much smaller than other American serial killers, Ed Gein fascinated and horrified the entire world when his crimes were uncovered.
Edward Theodore Gein was born August 27th, 1906, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Ed was the youngest of two boys born to George and Augusta Gein. George was an abusive alcoholic who owned a grocery store in La Crosse. Augusta was a devout Luthern who preached her extreme religious views to her husband and sons. Augusta moved her family from La Crosse to Plainfield Wisconsin to get them away from what she considered an impure atmosphere. With the money the family received from selling the grocery store, they purchased a 155-acre farm in Plainfield.
Once living in Plainfield, Augusta isolated her sons from the outside world. Ed stopped going to school after seventh grade and worked on his family’s farm. Augusta taught her sons, Ed and Henry, that women were naturally promiscuous and evil. She spent every afternoon reading to her sons from the Old Testament and Book of Revelations. She preached to them about evil, death, murder, and divine retribution. Despite his lack of education and socialization, Ed was of average intelligence and a good reader. He did not develop social skills, however, as his mother forbade him from having friends or socializing.
On April 1st, 1940, George Gein died of a heart attack secondary to his alcoholism at age sixty-six. To help cover the expenses of the farm, Ed and Henry started doing odd jobs around Plainfield in addition to their farm chores. Ed also frequently babysat for neighbors. Although he was somewhat strange, neighbors trusted Ed to watch their children and work as a handyman in their homes.
Following George’s death, Henry began to speak out against his mother. He shared his feelings with Ed, who was shocked and hurt. Ed worshipped his mother and did not appreciate his brother’s comments and disrespect towards their mother. On May 16th, 1944, Ed and Henry were burning away marsh vegetation on the farm when the fire got out of control. When the fire department arrived, Ed told them that he did not know where his brother was. However, he then led fire fighters directly to Henry’s dead body.
Henry Gein was found face down and appeared to have been dead for some time. He was not burned, but bruising was noted around his head. The cause of death was ruled as accidental without an autopsy being performed, although many speculate that Ed may have killed his brother for disrespecting and rebelling against their mother. Henry Gein was forty-three years old when he died. Following his death, Ed and his mother lived alone out on the farm.
Augusta Gein did not handle Henry’s death well and suffered a stroke shortly after Henry’s death. Following her stroke, Augusta was paralyzed and required total care. Ed was devoted to his mother and cared for her. Augusta suffered yet another stroke, however, and her health deteriorated rapidly. Augusta died on December 29th, 1944. Now Ed was all alone on the family farm. He continued to live in the farmhouse which did not have running water or electricity.
Ed supported himself by performing odd jobs around town as a handyman, babysitting, and selling parts of the large property. He additionally received farm subsidies from the federal government. At home, Ed kept a shrine to his mother by keeping her bedroom exactly as it was when she was alive and boarding up the room. He lived in squalor, with trash and junk occupying most of the home.
Fast forward to November 16th, 1957. Fifty-eight-year-old Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden was working alone in her store. It was the start of hunting season, so nearly every male in the town of 700 residents was out hunting. Hunting was more than a hobby in Plainfield, it was a way of life. When Bernice’s son came to the store at the end of the day, Bernice was nowhere to be found. However, there was blood found in the store indicating a violent struggle.
On the counter, investigators found a sales slip for a gallon of antifreeze purchased that day by Ed Gein. Bernice’s son speculated that Ed may have had something to do with the disappearance as she had been hanging out around the store frequently. Investigators headed out to Gein’s farm to look for signs of the missing woman. It was dark and the home was locked up. With only flashlights, the investigators searched an outbuilding on the property where they found a grisly scene.
One officer felt something brush against him, so shined his light on the object which was the hanging corpse of Bernice Worden. Bernice had been decapitated and hung upside down by her legs with a crossbar at her ankles and ligatures on her wrists. The body had been dressed like a deer after being shot with a .22-caliber rifle. Soon, police located Ed Gein in town and took him into custody on suspicion of murder.
A thorough search of Gein’s property was performed which horrified the authorities. Inside the home, police found multiple human bones, a waste basket made of human skin, chair covers made of human skin, human skulls on his bedposts, several female skulls, bowls made of human skulls, a corset made from a female torso, a vest made of female breasts, leggings made of human skin, and masks made of human faces.
Police also found remains of a woman who disappeared from Plainfield three years ago. Mary Hogan was born in Germany in 1901 and immigrated to The United States of America in 1914. She settled in Plainfield, Wisconsin where she owned a bar. Mary looked very similar to Augusta Gein, but her behavior was very different. Mary cursed like a sailor. Before she disappeared in 1954, Ed Gein had been hanging out frequently at the bar.
Inside Gein’s home, Mary’s skull was found in a box and a mask made of the skin from her face was found. They also found Bernice Worden’s head and her heart was found in a plastic bag near the stove. The law men found even more horrific pieces of evidence in Gein’s home including nine vulvae in a shoe box, a dress from a young girl, a belt made of female nipples, four noses, a pair of lips on a window shade, fingernails and fingers of multiple women. The horrors that occurred on the Gein property were shocking to investigators and locals. Soon, the story made international news and drew media from around the world to the tiny Wisconsin town.
Confronted with the evidence, Ed Gein admitted to murdering Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. He also confessed to robbing at least nine graves, which is where he claimed to get the other body parts found in his home. He led investigators to the graves that he robbed, which were in fact empty. Ed explained that following his mother’s death, he would read obituaries and choose females to rob their graves. Inside one casket, they found a crowbar belonging to Ed Gein. Ed explained that he was trying to create a “woman suit”. He stated he wanted to create a suit to look like his mother so he could be “in her skin”.
Ed denied committing any murders other than Bernice and Mary, although many doubt that he only had two victims. In addition to his brother, Ed is suspected of possibly being involved in the disappearances or deaths of several others. These include eight-year-old Georgia Weckler who disappeared on May 1st, 1947. She was last seen in a gray or black Ford and Ed Gein had owned a vehicle matching the description at the time. No evidence conclusively linked him to the girl’s disappearance, however. Evelyn Hartley, age fifteen, went missing while babysitting in La Crosse on October 24th, 1953. Victor Travis, age forty-one, disappeared while deer hunting on November 1st, 1950. He was hunting on the property next to the Gein farm. James Walsh, age thirty-two, disappeared in June of 1954. He lived near Gein and Gein often helped his wife with household chores following his disappearance. No evidence conclusively linked Gein to the murders, but he is suspected in all of these cases.
On November 1st, 1957, Gein was arraigned on first degree murder charges for the deaths of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Gein was evaluated by mental health experts who diagnosed him with schizophrenia. He was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and sent to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1968, doctors determined he was now capable of standing trial. It was determined that he was guilty but insane, so he was sent back to the state mental hospital to live out the rest of his life.
The property became a tourist attraction as those obsessed with the story began to travel to the tiny town. Locals hated the attention and feared it would be worse after his home and belongings were auctioned off. The auction was scheduled for March 30th, 1958. On March 20th, a fire started in the house. No cause was determined, but the house was completely destroyed. Many believe the townspeople started the fire to avoid the home from being sold and used as a tourist attraction. The fire chief never determined the cause of the fire, but it should be noted the fire chief was Frank Worden, son of Gein’s victim.
Upon learning the home was destroyed, Gein said, “Just as well”. His vehicle was sold at auction for $760 and used in a carnival as a side show. Viewers would pay 25 cents to see the vehicle Ed Gein transported his victims in. The American obsession with true crime had begun. Ed Gein died in the mental institution at age seventy-seven of lung cancer on July 26th, 1984. He was buried next to his mother. His headstone was stolen in 2000.
Ed Gein was the basis for many horror movies, villains, and urban legends. The obsessively close relationship with his mother was the basis for the character of Norman Bates in Psycho. Psychologists believe that Ed lost touch with reality after the death of his mother and tried to recreate her using corpses of women. Gein was also the basis for Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, Garland Greene from Con Air, Dr. Oliver Thredson in the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum, and Rob Zombie’s film House of 1000 Corpses.