Edward Theodore “Ed” Gein (August 8, 1906 – July 26, 1984) was an American murderer and body snatcher. His crimes, committed around his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, gathered widespread notoriety after authorities discovered Gein had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin.
Gein confessed to killing two women – tavern owner Mary Hogan on December 8, 1954, and a Plainfield hardware store owner, Bernice Worden, on November 16, 1957. Initially found unfit for trial, he was tried in 1968 for the murder of Worden and sentenced to life imprisonment, which he spent in a mental hospital.
His case influenced the creation of several fictional killers, including Norman Bates of the movie and novel Psycho and its sequels, Leatherface of the movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) of the novel The Silence of the Lambs, Ezra Cobb of the movie Deranged, Bloody Face of the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum and Eddie Gluskin of the video game Outlast.
The 2000 film Ed Gein (also known as In the Light of the Moon) starred Steve Railsback as the serial killer. Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007) cast Kane Hodder (best known for playing Jason Vorhees in four Friday the 13th movies and Victor Crowley in the Hatchet trilogy) as the eponymous murderer.
Gein’s father was an alcoholic who died in 1940. His mother died on December 29, 1945, at the age of 67. He was devastated by her death; in the words of author Harold Schechter, he had “lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world.” Gein held onto the farm where they lived and earned money from odd jobs. He boarded up rooms used by his mother, including the upstairs, downstairs parlour and living room, leaving them untouched; while the rest of the house became increasingly squalid, these rooms remained pristine. Thereafter, Gein lived in a small room next to the kitchen. It was around this time that he became interested in reading death-cult magazines and adventure stories, particularly those involving cannibals or Third Reich atrocities.
On November 16, 1957, Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared, and police had reason to suspect Gein. Worden’s son told investigators that Gein had been in the store the evening before the disappearance, saying he would return the next morning for a gallon of antifreeze.
Upon searching Gein’s property, investigators discovered Worden’s decapitated body in a shed, hung upside down by ropes at her wrists, with a crossbar at her ankles. The torso was “dressed out like a deer”. She had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle, and the mutilations were made after her death.
Searching the house, authorities found:
- Whole human bones and fragments
- A wastebasket made of human skin
- Human skin covering several chair seats
- Skulls on his bedposts
- Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
- Bowls made from human skulls
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
- Leggings made from human leg skin
- Masks made from the skin from female heads
- Mary Hogan’s face mask in a paper bag
- Mary Hogan’s skull in a box
- Bernice Worden’s entire head in a burlap sack
- Bernice Worden’s heart in a saucepan on the stove
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box
- A young girl’s dress and “the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years-old”
- A belt made from female human nipples
- Four nose
- A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
- Fingernails from female fingers
When questioned, Gein told investigators that between 1947 and 1952, he made as many as forty nocturnal visits to three local graveyards to exhume recently buried bodies while he was in a “daze-like” state. On about thirty of those visits, he said he came out of the daze while in the cemetery, left the grave in good order, and returned home empty-handed.
On the other occasions, he dug up the graves of recently buried middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother and took the bodies home, where he tanned their skins to make his paraphernalia.
Gein admitted robbing nine graves, leading investigators to their locations. Because authorities were uncertain as to whether the slight Gein was capable of single-handedly digging up a grave during a single evening, they exhumed two of the graves and found them empty (one had a crowbar in place of the body), thus apparently corroborating Gein’s confession.
Soon after his mother’s death, Gein apparently decided he wanted a sex change and began to create a “woman suit” so he could pretend to be female. Gein’s practice of donning the tanned skins of women was described as an “insane transvestite ritual.” Gein denied having sex with the bodies he exhumed, explaining: “They smelled too bad.”
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Waushara County sheriff Art Schley reportedly assaulted Gein during questioning by banging Gein’s head and face into a brick wall. As a result, Gein’s initial confession was ruled inadmissible. Schley died of heart failure in 1968, at age 43, before Gein’s trial. Many who knew Schley said he was traumatised by the horror of Gein’s crimes and this, along with the fear of having to testify (especially about assaulting Gein), caused his death. One of his friends said: “He was a victim of Ed Gein as surely as if he had butchered him.”
Gein’s house and property were scheduled to be auctioned March 30, 1958, amid rumours the house was to become a tourist attraction. On March 27, the house was destroyed by fire. Arson was suspected, but the cause of the blaze was never officially solved. When Gein learned of the incident while in detention, he shrugged and said, “Just as well.” Gein’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. He later charged carnival goers 25¢ admission to see it.
On July 26, 1984, Gein died of respiratory failure due to lung cancer at the age of 77 at the Mendota Mental Health Institute. His grave site in the Plainfield Cemetery was frequently vandalized over the years; souvenir seekers chipped off pieces of his gravestone before the bulk of it was stolen in 2000. It was recovered in June 2001 near Seattle and is now in storage at the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department.
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