Editor’s Note: This article contains content about a real world serial killer that some readers may find disturbing or upsetting, including cannibalism, necrophilia, and incest. It includes details of a nature that may be especially upsetting to transsexual or transgender readers.
You may think you’ve never heard of Ed Gein, but chances are you’re more familiar with his gruesome legend than you know. That’s because countless popular horror movies (including Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, and Psycho to name just a few) drew their real-world inspiration from this twisted, mother-obsessed serial killer’s deranged spree. Each captures only a sliver of the actual homicidal lunatic, a consumnate loner whose bone chilling depravity included grave robbing, mutilating corpses, necrophilia, torture, cannibalism, and the coldblooded murder of innocent victims. And, as if having sex with corpses and eating human organs wasn’t grisly enough, he also enjoyed the disturbing hobby of sewing together dismembered body parts, as well as creating jewelry, clothing, furniture, and other household items from the preserved skin and bones of his victims.
Edward Theodore “Ed” Gein was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1906, the son of an alcoholic father, George, and domineering, religiously overbearing mother, Augusta. Augusta openly despised Ed’s father for his alcoholism and inability to keep gainful employment. A devout Lutheran, she feared the outside world’s influence over her two sons, Ed and Henry, which lead her to sell the grocery store she owned and relocate them to an isolated 160 acre farm in nearby Plainfield. Ed and Henry spent most of their time doing chores and working the land, all the while absorbing their fanatic mother’s religious rants about the dangers of sin, in particular the evils of drinking and women, whom Augusta believed were inclined to become prostitutes and sexual instruments of the devil intended to destroy her sons’ natural virtues. In the afternoons she read to her boys from the Old Testament, picking the most shocking stories of murder and divine retribution. Edward was shy and strange but bright, drinking in all the theology his mother had to offer.
Before long, tragedy struck the Gein family. Henry perished in a fire, and the loss of his oldest son caused George to withdraw and drink himself to death. Soon after Augusta suffered a paralyzing stroke. Ed responded by becoming ever more devoted to his twisted mother, fawning over her, fulfilling every need and whim as she grew more bitter and angry about the state of harlotry she perceived in local community women. Her constant ranting and excited state lead to a second stroke, causing her health to take a nose dive. Augusta died on December 29, 1945, at the age of 67. Ed was utterly devastated by the loss of his mother. He later admitted to author Harold Schechter, that he had “lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world.”
Left utterly destitute and heartbroken on the isolated farm, he survived off the meager farm subsidy he collected from the federal government and by doing odd jobs around town. He boarded up his mother’s room, along with several others he associated with her, and kept them like a shrine while the rest of the house fell into absolute squalor. When he wasn’t working he indulged his dark fantasies by reading about Nazi death camp experiments, South Seas headhunters, and other cannibals or by studying the female anatomy.
It wasn’t long before Gein began visiting local cemeteries late at night, where he’d dig up the corpses of newly buried, middle-aged women hoping they resembled his dearly departed mother. During later questioning Gein told investigators that he made 40 nocturnal visits to 3 local graveyards, taking remains of the bodies back to his home, where he tanned their skins to make his various gruesome designs. Like a child at play in a mud puddle, Gein took pleasure in mutilating the corpses, cutting off body parts, preserving some and fashioning others into objects like a belt made from human nipples, a corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist, skull soup bowls, and furniture upholstered with human skin.
Gein also kept a shoebox of female genitalia in his closet, including his own mother’s. From time to time he would stuff them into panties and wear them around the house as he grappled with his confusion about his sexual orientation. Meanwhile Gein began construction on a “woman suit” made from the skinned corpses, stitching together a jumpsuit complete with breasts that he would wear around the house so that he could become his mother by crawling into her skin – or at least know what it felt like to be a woman.
Prosecutors later described Gein’s sexualized killing fantasies as an “insane transvestite ritual” during his subsequent trial, but for nearly a decade Gein lived without hurting anyone. That changed in 1954 when he killed 54 year old tavern owner Mary Hogan. Cops had no idea what happened when Mary vanished but suspected foul play after finding blood in the tavern around the time of her disappearance. A few years later, in November 1957, Gein shot to death hardware store owner Bernice Worden. Her son Frank, a deputy sheriff, recalled that Gein, who he referred to as a “local weirdo”, had visited his mom’s store several times the previous week. The authorities decided to drop by Gein’s house to see what they could find out, unaware that what they would stumble upon would give them graphic nightmares for the rest of their lives.
The first victim they discovered was Bernice Worden. Her remains had been hung upside down on a meat hook in a shed, dressed like a deer that’s been gutted after being hunted and killed. Her head had been carelessly hacked off at the base of the neck. Her torso was slit down the front. Her head and intestines had been tossed in a box, except for her heart, which they later found sitting in a saucepan by the stove. But that was just the tip of the creepy iceberg. Cops also found human organs in the refrigerator, newspaper stuffed heads hanging on walls like prized hunting trophies, and scores of other grisly items scattered throughout the house of death, including a lampshade made from the skin of a human face, skulls on his bed posts, masks made from the women’s faces, and missing tavern owner Mary Hogan’s skinned face in a paper bag. All the ghoulish artifacts were photographed at the state crime laboratory before being destroyed.
Gein eventually admitted to killing both Hogan and Worden, but denied having sex with any dead bodies due to the smell. During many hours of interrogation he remained calm and helpful, as he joyfully described his gut wrenching murders and other fiendish exploits. On November 21, 1957, Gein was arraigned on one count of first degree murder in Waushara County Court, where he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ultimately found mentally incompetent and sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin, and later transferred to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin where he was diagnosed with advanced schizophrenia.
Gein’s house and property were scheduled to be auctioned March 30, 1958, amid rumors the house was to become a tourist attraction. The sensational nature of the crimes captivated people from around the globe, spawning a new subgenre called “black humor” as a series of tasteless jokes known as “Geiners” became popular. Gawkers flocked to Gein’s nightmare house of horror, and the company handling the property floated the idea of charging 50 cents admission for a tour. It’s a well-known fact that the townspeople were not happy about the notoriety they received over Gein’s heinous crimes, which might explain for the house mysteriously burning down on March 27, 1958. Arson was suspected but the cause of the fire was never officially determined, or investigated for that matter. The people just wanted the nightmare in their backyard to be over. Upon learning of his loss Gein shrugged and said, “just as well.” The serial killer’s car, which he used to haul the bodies of his victims, was sold at public auction for $760 to carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons, who later charged carnival goers 25 cents admission to see the vehicle.
While authorities could only ever definitively attribute 2 murders to Gein, they found body parts from no less than 15 women on his property. They believe some of those remains came from other missing persons who may have come into contact with Gein or been in the vicinity of his farm. The so-called “Mad Butcher of Plainfield” spent the remainder of his life locked up in high security mental institutions, where he was said to be a model patient that got along well with others and never needed to be tranquillized, although he often stared with disturbing ferocity at female nurses who wandered into his presence. Gein died at age 77 in 1984 after an extended battle with cancer. After his passing one of his doctors from the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane told reporters “if all our patients were like him, we’d have no trouble at all!” His victims and their relatives would surely disagree with the doctor’s assessment of the man who killed and defiled their loved ones remains as docile and cooperative. For them, as well as countless others who’ve become enthralled by the horrific tale of his crimes, Ed Gein is and always will be nothing but a depraved monster that haunts their worst nightmares.