Artwork By Paula Gonzáles
Are you familiar with the crimes of Norman Bates’ character in the movie Psycho? Do you know of the killer ‘Leatherface’ from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Have you seen The Silence of the Lambs? Or perhaps you’re familiar with the second season of American Horror Story and remember the character Dr. Oliver Thredson who kidnapped and skinned women he believed had skin that felt like that of a mother?
On August 27th, 1906, in a small town in Wisconsin, Edward Theodore Gein (a.k.a. Ed Gein) was born. He would soon go down in history as ‘The Butcher of Plainfield,’ inspiring the creation of each of the aforementioned fictional characters.
Gein’s childhood was rough. He was raised by a verbally abusive and fanatically religious mother alongside an alcoholic father. But he admired his mother, unlike his older brother Henry. When Ed was nine years old his family moved to a farm which he rarely ever left, except for school. The constant isolation, in addition to his mother’s preaching about the sins of lust and carnal desire, most likely influenced his repressive behavior and mental health deterioration.
Fast forward to 1940, when Gein was 34. Gein’s father dies from a heart attack, making both brothers the “men of the house.” Consequently, the two brothers had to work more jobs in order to support the household. Four years later in 1944, Ed and Henry were burning brush on the farm when the fire spread uncontrollably and Henry suspiciously died. Even though Ed had reported his brother as missing after the fire broke out, Gein was able to lead the police directly to the dead body. Henry was found face down, supposedly dead from smoke poisoning. However, following investigation discovered bruises on Henry’s head suggesting he had died before the fire. But due to the lack of evidence, no charges were filed. One year later, Gein’s mother passed away after suffering a stroke, leaving Ed alone to fend for himself. During the grieving process, he moved into a single room and completely isolated himself from the world. He allowed everything to become filthy, and instead of taking care of his personal hygiene, Ed developed a rather concerning interest in anatomy books. This marked the beginning of his descent into madness.
On the 16th of November 1957, Bernice Worden, an older woman who was working at a convenience store, was reported missing. The cash register was gone and the police found a trail of blood leading from the counter to outside the back door. Her son Frank – the town’s deputy sheriff – immediately suspected Gein and told the investigators that Ed had been in the store the night before, having said he would be back the following day to buy antifreeze. The cash register showed that Bernice’s last sale had indeed been antifreeze, leaving the police rushing to Gein’s house, and not much later Ed was caught at a neighbor’s place.
The officers that were sent to his home were met with a sight they probably won’t forget in their lifetime: Bernice’s body hanging from the ceiling, headless and gutted. Her heart was found packed in a plastic bag near the stove and her head in a burlap sack.
On top of all that, officers also found various organs in jars, skulls that Gein had turned into bowls, a basket covered in human skin, dismembered body parts such as fingernails, noses and genitals of nine women in shoe boxes, nine masks made from faces, a human-skin suit, ten female heads with the tops sawed off, chairs covered in human skin, and skulls on his bed posts.
During interrogation, Ed admitted digging up women’s graves and using their bodies for his creations, as well as confessing to the murder of Mary Hogan whom he had killed three years before. He explained how he cut off body parts, had sex with the dead bodies, and later made suits and masks out of their skin which he would wear at home. One of the items police found was a belt made of human nipples. Authorities tried to link more unsolved murders to Gein with little success due to lack of evidence.
Despite every confession and piece of evidence, Ed’s lawyer entered a not guilty plea, reasoning that his actions could have been the result of mental health issues. Shortly thereafter, Gein was deemed unfit to stand in trial and sent to a state hospital, where he had previously (and perhaps ironically) worked various jobs. Ten years later, Ed Gein was ruled sane enough to stand trial and charged for the murder of Bernice Worden. However, due to the fact that he had been found insane during the original trial, he was sent back to Central State Hospital. In 1974, he tried to submit a release request which was swiftly rejected. He was later transferred to a mental health institute where he died of lung cancer ten years later.
Now, the question remains; why are his crimes so special?
The answer is that these events stand as the first time the American people heard about something so cruel, so vile, so horrifying. Just the thought of someone using a human skull as a bowl is sickening enough, yet, somehow equally so unbelievably interesting. The complexity of the situation caught the eyes of film writers and authors alike, helping to create the despicable characters we all paradoxically love.
Ed Gein’s spirit is said to still be present in Plainfield. When two ghost hunters visited his farm, they used a GeoPort (a popular ghost-hunting gadget) to communicate with the active spirits and heard a female’s voice communicating with them, whom they believed to be Gein’s mother. When a man bought a knife that once belonged to Gein, he mentioned a drastic change in his life. His birds started dying one after the other, but this was only a bad omen of the tragedies to come. Soon after, his mother, his father, and his wife died as well.
And so, the spirit and horrors of Ed Gein continue to haunt Plainfield. We can only hope that his crimes are those once in a lifetime stories we tell each other around the bonfire, instead of cautionary tales suggesting our skin could someday be worn by a serial killer.
Ed Gein | Biography, Story, Movie, Crimes, & Facts. (2021, July 22). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ed-Gein
Maloney, A. (2021, April 7). Killer Ed Gein made nipple belts & skull bowls from corpses & murdered women to make skin suit to honour. . . The Sun. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/14551624/real-psycho-ed-gein-murder-human-skin/
Margaritoff, M. (2020, June 22). The Ed Gein House: 21 Photos Of America’s Most Disturbing Crime Scene. All That’s Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/ed-gein-house#22
B. (2021b, April 15). Ed Gein. Biography. https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/ed-gein