Real Life Horror: Ed Gein

Ed Gein, “The Butcher Of Plainfield”, was an American murderer and body snatcher.

Edward Theodore Gein was born in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, USA, on August 27, 1906, the second of two boys of George Philip (August 4, 1873 – April 1, 1940) and Augusta Wilhelmine (née Lehrke) Gein (July 21, 1878 – December 29, 1945). Gein had an older brother, Henry George Gein (January 17, 1901 – May 16, 1944). Augusta despised her husband, an alcoholic who was unable to keep a job; he had worked at various times as a carpenter, tanner, and insurance salesman. Augusta owned a local grocery shop and sold the location in 1914 for a farm to purposely live in isolation near Plainfield, Wisconsin, which became the Gein family’s permanent residence

Augusta took advantage of the farm’s isolation by turning away outsiders from influencing her sons. Edward left the farm only to attend school. Outside of school, he spent most of his time doing chores on the farm. Augusta was a fervent Lutheran. She preached to her boys about the innate immorality of the world, the evil of drinking, and the belief that all women were naturally prostitutes and instruments of the devil. She reserved time every afternoon to read to them from the Bible, usually selecting graphic verses from the Old Testament concerning death, murder, and divine retribution.

Edward was shy and distant and classmates and teachers remembered him as having strange mannerisms, he would often abruptly start chuckling during a quiet period in class at a funny thought he had and kept those thoughts to himself not sharing the humour. His classmates would often tease him calling him a “milk-sop” and poke fun at his appearance. To make matters worse, his mother punished him whenever he tried to make friends. Despite his poor social development, he did fairly well in school, particularly in reading.

He had only marginal luck dating, his first real girlfriend didn’t share the same views as Eddie did on the love of his mother, so that “sinner” had to go. Mother was a saint and always number one in his priorities. So when he failed at asking a woman out on a date, as he often did at any attempt, he would have to sneak a Detective magazine past mother’s eye to the bedroom and ogle the cover and pictures inside.

There is speculation that Augusta Gein was pregnant with Henry while out of wedlock and that she had lied as to the date of Henry’s birth on certain documents to cover up what would have been scandalous in her town creating gossip that would taint her reputation as a religious woman. Census records support such a theory.

George Philip Gein died of heart failure caused by his alcoholism on April 1, 1940, aged 66. Subsequently, Henry and Ed began doing odd jobs around town to help cover living expenses. The brothers were generally considered reliable and honest by residents of the community. While both worked as handymen, Ed also frequently babysat for neighbours. He enjoyed babysitting, seeming to relate more easily to children than adults.

After Ed Gein’s father died, Ed’s brother Henry started to observe a strange relationship between Ed and his Mother Augusta get even stranger.  Each night Augusta Gein would gather up the boys to preach to them from the Bible about the wickedness of women and while Ed was fully attentive, Henry was becoming more aware that she was being obsessive and he often became bored and detached from her radical views. One day Henry had observed Ed coming out of his mother’s bedroom after she had changed clothes.

Henry began dating a divorced, single mother of two and planned on moving in with her; Henry worried about his brother’s affection for their mother and often spoke ill of her around Ed, who responded with shock and hurt. On May 16th Eddie and Henry were fighting a brush fire that was burning dangerously close to their farm. According to police, the two separated in different directions attempting to put out the blaze. During their struggle, night quickly approached and soon Eddie lost sight of Henry. After the blaze was extinguished, Eddie supposedly became worried about his missing brother and contacted the police. The police then organized a search party and were surprised upon reaching the farm to have Eddie lead them directly to the ‘missing’ Henry, there was his brother Henry, curled on on his side, dead. The police were concerned about some of the things surrounding Henry’s death. They noticed the scorched ground all around him but no burns on this clothes or body, he did have bruises on his head.

The police dismissed the possibility of foul play and the county coroner later officially listed asphyxiation as the cause of death. The authorities accepted the accident theory but there was no official investigation and an autopsy was not performed. At the funeral Ed was acting odd around mother proclaiming how Henry would have been a disappointment if he had lived, being a sinner in thoughts and all, and how it was just him and her now. Some suspected that Ed Gein killed his brother. Questioning Gein about the death of Bernice Worden in 1957, state investigator Joe Wilimovsky brought up questions about Henry’s death.

Dr. George W. Arndt who studied the case wrote that, in retrospect, it was “possible and likely” that Henry’s death was the ‘Cain and Abel’ aspect of this case”. Gein and his mother were now alone. Augusta suffered a paralyzing stroke shortly after Henry’s death, and Gein devoted himself to taking care of her. Sometime in 1945, Gein later recounted, he and his mother visited a man named Smith who lived nearby to purchase straw. According to Gein, Augusta witnessed Smith beating a dog. A woman inside the Smith home came outside and yelled to stop. Smith beat the dog to death. Augusta was extremely upset by this scene.

What bothered her did not appear to be the brutality toward the dog but the presence of the woman. Augusta told Ed that the woman was not married to Smith and so had no business being there. “Smith’s harlot”, Augusta angrily called her. She suffered a second stroke soon after, and her health deteriorated rapidly. She died on December 29, 1945, at the age of 67. Ed 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 on to the farm and earned money from odd jobs. He boarded up rooms used by his mother, including the upstairs, downstairs parlor and living room, leaving them untouched; while the rest of the house became increasingly squalid, these rooms remained pristine. Gein lived thereafter 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 Nazi atrocities. Sometime between 1946 and 1956, he also sold an 80-acre parcel of land that his brother Henry had owned.

Gein was a handyman and received a farm subsidy from the federal government starting in 1951. He occasionally worked for the local municipal road crew and crop threshing crews in the area. He would baby sit for the locals. Some boys he babysat for discovered some of his shrunken heads that were not very ‘shrunken’ and Ed played it off as a gift from overseas. The parents dismissed what their kids had seen and Ed was off the hook from suspicion of any wrongdoing.

Some of Ed’s neighbour’s were not as trusting and some had feared him. One time Eddie had dinner with a local family when they had a female guest relative over. Eddie would stare at the young girl as though he were undressing her. A stranger had broke in their house one night when the folks were sleeping and a young boy in the house was choked out from the attacker who was asking him questions of the whereabouts of the young girl visitor. The boy later said the attacker looked like Eddie Gein when questioned by his parents. Ed was never invited back to their house for dinner or any other event and the incident went unreported to authorities. Other women told stories of hearing noises outside of their window and thought they had seen Eddie as a peeping tom.

Ed was now living in complete filth, like a hoarder. Gein would sink his fingers in a can of pork and beans to check to see if it were warm enough to eat. He would light his oil lamps and read up on the female anatomy and started doing experiments. He had a mentally ill friend (identified only as Gus) who helped him dig up some graves in the graveyard, Ed explained that he needed them for experiments and would put them back when he was done.
It was believed that the first woman Ed Gein took from the grave was his mother. Eddie would carve out the vagina and anus and skin the breasts from the torso and the rest he would cut up for meat, except the face. Ed painted momma’s vagina silver because her’s was special. He would peel off the face or save the entire head to keep him company and he would put lipstick on them, that way they would be dressed up for dinner. Eddie would use the skin to make lampshades, upholster chairs, decorative masks for the wall and even had full body suits to wear. His friend Gus finally was committed to a hospital for the mentally ill, so Eddie was on his own but by then he had a system down. Eddie would read the obituaries in the local paper and get them late at night just after they were buried that way the dirt was softer and easier to shovel.

Georgia Jean Wreckler was last seen near her farm home in rural Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin at approximately 3:30 p.m. on May 1, 1947. A neighbour gave her a ride part of the way home from the Oakland Center school, where she was a third-grader, and dropped her off at the entrance to the half-mile-long driveway leading up to her home.

Georgia told the neighbour that she might go into the woods and pick some flowers for a May Day basket before going home. She and her siblings normally rode their bicycles to school, but it had rained recently and the ground had been muddy, so Georgia’s father drove his children to school the morning of her disappearance. Georgia was released half an hour before her older brother and sister, and found a ride with the neighbour, who had gone to the school to pick up her own child.

The neighbour saw Georgia collect a large bundle of letters from her family’s mailbox and start walking up the driveway, but she never arrived at her house. She has never been heard from again and the mail she was carrying at the time of her disappearance has never been found. Georgia’s mother was initially not concerned when the child did not arrive home; she assumed Georgia was with her father. The parents began searching at 6:00 p.m. when Georgia’s father arrived at home without his daughter. Witnesses reported seeing a dark-colored, possibly black, four-door 1936 Ford sedan with a gray plastic spotlight in the vicinity that afternoon.

The car vanished at the same time Georgia did, and deep tire tracks were later found on the road, as if a vehicle had pulled out fast. At first investigators believed Georgia had been kidnapped for ransom, as her father was a public official and a man of means. Days passed and no ransom demands were made, however. Authorities now believe Georgia was taken by a sexual predator. Curiously, prior to her disappearance, Georgia had made several remarks indicating that she especially feared being kidnapped. Ed Gein is considered a possible suspect in Georgia’s disappearance as Gein did own a black 1937 Ford and was in the area at the time of her disappearance reportedly visiting relatives. Georgia’s disappearance remains unsolved.

Ed began making nocturnal visits to as many as 40 cemeteries, frequently leaving without any offense, but on at least 9 occasions Ed dug up the coffins of newly-buried middle-age women. He had scouted these women out in the obituaries. He would take what he wanted then recover the violated graves. Besides masturbation, Ed denies ever having has a sexual experience in his life and stated that he never had sex with the cadavers because “they smelled too bad”. His cravings and compulsions still fall under the category of necrophilia. An increase in missing persons in the area began at this time as well, stumping police.

Evelyn Hartley was babysitting a twenty-month-old girl at the home of La Crosse State College professor Viggo Rasmusen on the evening of October 24, 1953. Rasmusen and his wife, along with many other La Crosse residents, were attending the town homecoming game. The Rasmusen house was located in the 2400 block of Hoeschler Drive. The family had a regular babysitter, but she also planned to attend the homecoming game that night.

Evelyn was hired as a replacement. She brought four or five school books with her and planned to study while the baby slept. She was supposed to call her parents at 8:30 p.m. to check in, but she never did. Her father tried to call several times that day and never got an answer. He became worried and went to Rasmusens’ house to check on his daughter. Evelyn’s father found the house’s doors locked and the lights and radio on. The baby was unharmed, asleep in her crib, but there was no sign of Evelyn. The furniture inside the living room was disarranged and Evelyn’s textbooks were scattered.

One of her shoes and her eyeglasses, which were broken, were on the living room floor. Her other shoe was found in the basement. All the windows in the house locked except a basement window in the back of the house. The screen for that window had been taken out and was leaning against the outside wall.  A short stepladder was positioned at the window in the basement; it belonged to the Rasmusen’s and they’d been using it to help paint the basement.

In addition to the indications of forced entry, was a significant amount of blood of Evelyn’s type both inside the home near the basement window, and outside in the yard. There were two pools of blood in the yard; one stain was 18 inches in diameter. There was a bloody handprint about four feet off the ground on the wall of a garage 100 feet from the Rasmusens’ home, and stains on the home of a neighbour’s house. Tracker dogs traced Evelyn’s scent for two blocks, then lost the trail at Coulee Drive northeast of the Rasmusen home. Authorities believe whoever took her put her in a car.

Several days after her disappearance, a pair of underpants and a brassiere that could have been Evelyn’s were found near the underpass on Highway 14, two miles south of La Crosse. They too were stained with blood. A bloodstained pair of men’s pants was found along the same road four miles away; it is unknown if the pants are connected to Evelyn’s case. Some people suspect Ed Gein may have been involved in Evelyn’s case. He was visiting relatives in La Crosse, just blocks from the home where she was babysitting, on the night of her disappearance. No trace of Evelyn was found on his property and he denied any involvement in her case. He has still not been completely cleared. Her case remains unsolved.

In the winter of 1954 Ed Gein, now aged 48 was now going to the tavern more often drinking and thinking about having a sex change and had even asked the other guys at the bar if they had ever thought of having a sex change. Everyone had a good laugh and dismissed it as just another random stupid thing from crazy Ed. At this time he was beginning to become more uncomfortable about how tavern owner Mary Hogan was talking to the other guys. She was everything his mom despised in a woman.  Mary Hogan mysteriously disappeared from her place of business. Police suspected foul play when they discovered blood on the tavern floor that trailed into the parking lot. Gein’s needs escalated into believing to perfect his desired sex change he would need fresher bodies.

The police were unable to solve the strange disappearance of Mary Hogan, but with the blood found at the tavern, they knew she was most likely a victim of foul play. Police also discovered an empty bullet cartridge on the floor. Police could only speculate about what might have happened to Mary because like the other missing people, they had no bodies and little useful evidence. The only other common tie among these cases was that all of the disappearances happened around or in Plainfield, Wisconsin.

The police questioned everyone that was at the tavern the night of her disappearance and it also included Ed Gein, but after they spoke to Ed they had thought that this simpleton couldn’t possibly be a suspect and moved on to other leads. Ed joked with the locals with “Mary isn’t missing… She is back at my farmhouse right now”.  Everyone laughed. Little did they know that Mary was at his farmhouse butchered up and her head was in a paper sack.On November 16, 1957, Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared. The previous evening Gein was in the shop to check on the price of antifreeze saying he would return the next morning for a gallon of antifreeze. Found at the crime scene was receipt from the last customer, Ed Gein. Blood was on the floor and the cash register was missing. Her son, a deputy rounded up some men and went to Ed’s farmhouse only to discover his mother’s naked and decapitated body, hung upside down by ropes at her wrists, with a crossbar at her ankles. The torso was “dressed out like a deer” in his summer shed and the missing cash register. 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
  • 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 plastic bag in front of Gein’s potbellied 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 noses
  • A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
  • A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
  • Fingernails from female fingers

These artifacts were photographed at the state crime laboratory and then destroyed.

When questioned, Gein told investigators that between 1947 and 1952, he made as many as 40 nocturnal visits to three local graveyards to exhume recently buried bodies while he was in a “daze-like” state. On about 30 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.

Though it is believed that he killed others during this time, Gein only admitted to the murders of Worden and Hogan and that was only after getting a piece of apple pie with some cheese on it as a reward for speaking.  He was describing the killings when he had a funny look on his face of disgust. The physiologist had thought that Ed was showing signs of remorse until Ed said: “This cheese taste dried out, it’s giving me a stomach ache”. He then smiled and continued to describe his gristly work as though he was telling how to change the oil filter on a truck.

There would be another discovery on Eddie’s land that would again raise the issue of whether Eddie did in fact murder a third person. On November 29th, police unearthed human skeletal remains on the Gein farm. It was suspected that the body was that of Victor Travis, who had disappeared years earlier.
The remains were immediately taken to a crime lab and examined. Tests showed that the body was not that of a male but of a large, middle-aged woman, another graveyard souvenir. Try as the police did, they could not implicate Eddie in the disappearance of Victor Travis or the three other people who had vanished years earlier in the Plainfield area.
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. Allan Wilimovsky of the state crime laboratory participated in opening three test graves identified by Gein.
The caskets were inside wooden boxes; the top boards ran crossways (not lengthwise). The tops of the boxes were about two feet below the surface in sandy soil. Gein had robbed the graves soon after the funerals while the graves were not completed. They were found as Gein described: One casket was empty, one Gein had failed to open when he lost his pry bar, and most of the body was gone from the third but Gein had returned rings and some body parts.
Soon after his mother’s death, Gein began to create a ‘woman suit’ so that “…he could become his mother – to literally crawl into her skin”. 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”. During state crime laboratory interrogation, Gein also admitted to the shooting death of Mary Hogan, a tavern owner missing since 1954 whose head was found in his house, but he later denied memory of details of her death.
A 16-year-old youth, whose parents were friends of Gein and who attended ball games and movies with him, reported that Gein kept shrunken heads in his house, which Gein had described as relics from the Philippines, sent by a cousin who had served on the islands during World War II. Upon investigation by the police, these were determined to be human facial skins, carefully peeled from corpses and used by Gein as masks.
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 traumatized 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”.
On November 21, 1957, Gein was arraigned on one count of first degree murder in Waushara County Court, where he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Found mentally incompetent and thus unfit for trial, Gein was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (now the Dodge Correctional Institution), a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin, and later transferred to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In 1968, doctors determined Gein was “mentally able to confer with counsel and participate in his defense”. The trial began on November 7, 1968 and lasted one week. A psychiatrist testified that Gein had told him that he didn’t know whether the killing of Bernice Worden was intentional or accidental. Gein had told him that while he examined a gun in Worden’s store, the gun went off, killing Worden. Gein testified that after trying to load a bullet into the rifle, it discharged. He said he had not aimed the rifle at Worden, and did not remember anything else that happened that morning.
Gein was found guilty of first-degree murder by Judge Robert H. Gollmar on November 14. A second trial dealt with Gein’s sanity; after testimony by doctors for the prosecution and defense, Gollmar ruled Gein “not guilty by reason of insanity” and ordered him committed to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Gein spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. “Due to prohibitive costs,” Judge Gollmar wrote, “Gein was tried for only one murder—that of Mrs. Worden. He also admitted to killing Mary Hogan”.
Gein’s house and property were scheduled to be auctioned March 30, 1958, amid rumors 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. Gibbons 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 in Stovall Hall 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.
The gravestone was recovered in June 2001 near Seattle and is now in storage at the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department.
The story of Ed Gein has had a lasting effect on American popular culture as evidenced by its numerous appearances in film, music and literature. The tale first came to widespread public attention in the fictionalized version presented by Robert Bloch in his 1959 suspense novel “Psycho”. In addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film of Bloch’s novel, Gein’s story was loosely adapted into a number of movies, including “Deranged” (1974), “In The Light Of The Moon” (2000) (released in the U.S. as Ed Gein (2001)), “Ed Gein: The Butcher Of Plainfield” (2007), “Hitchcock” (2012), and the Rob Zombie movies “House Of 1000 Corpses” and its sequel, “The Devil’s Rejects”.
Gein served as a model for several book and film characters, most notably such fictional serial killers as ‘Norman Bates’ (Psycho), ‘Leatherface’ (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), ‘Buffalo Bill’ (The Silence of the Lambs) and ‘Bloody Face’ from “American Horror Story”.
American filmmaker Errol Morris and German filmmaker Werner Herzog attempted unsuccessfully to collaborate on a film project about Gein in 1975–76. Morris interviewed Gein several times and ended up spending almost a year in Plainfield interviewing dozens of locals. The pair planned secretly to exhume Gein’s mother from her grave to test a theory, but never followed through on the scheme and eventually ended their collaboration. The aborted project was described in a 1989 New Yorker profile of Morris.
At the time, the news reports of Gein’s crimes spawned a subgenre of black humor. Since the 1950s, Gein has frequently been exploited in transgressive art or shock rock, often with no connection to his life or crimes beyond the shock value of his name. A biographical musical titled “Ed Gein: the Musical” premiered on January 2, 2010 in Menasha, Wisconsin.
“I had a compulsion to do it.” – Ed Gein
If you want to watch a documentary on Ed Gein then just check out the video below:

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