Ed Gein may be America’s most famous murderer, although his name is seldom heard and barely recognized today. Four decades have passed since he first made the headlines, but Gein is will with us, in spirit. His crimes inspired the movie Psycho and its sequels, spinning off in later years to terrify another generation as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then even more recently, Silence of The Lambs. (The latter film, billed as “a true story,” changed literally everything except the grim décor of Gein’s peculiar residence.) While other slayers have surpassed Gein’s body-count and notoriety, America has never seen his equal in the field of mental aberration.
Gein was born August 8, 1906, in LaCrose, Wisconsin, but his family soon moved to a farm outside Plainfield. His father held jobs as a tanner and carpenter when he wasn’t working the farm, and Gein’s mother emerged as the dominant parent, settling most family decisions on her own. Devoutly religious, she warned her two sons against premarital sex, but Gein recalled that she was “not as strong” in her opposition to masturbation. Ed’s father died in 1940, and his brother Henry was lost four years later, while fighting a marsh fire. His mother suffered a stroke that same year, and a second one killed her in 1945, following an argument with one of her neighbors. Alone at last, Gein nailed her bedroom shut and set about “redecorating” in his own inimitable style.
From childhood, Gein had been ambiguous about his masculinity, considering amputation of his penis on several occasions. With Christine Jorgenson much in the headlines, Gein considered transsexual surgery, but the process was costly and frightening. There must be other ways, he thought, of “turning female” on a part-time basis.
Between 1950 and 1954, Gein haunted three local cemeteries, opening an estimated nine or ten graves in his nocturnal raids. He might remove whole corpses or settle for choice bits and pieces; a few bodies were later returned to their resting place, but Ed recalled that there were “not too many.” Aided in the early days by “Gus,” a simple-minded neighbor, Gein continued excavations on his own when his assistant died. At home, he used the ghoulish relics as domestic decorations. Skulls were mounted on the bedposts, severed skullcaps serving Gein as bowls. He fashioned hanging mobiles out of noses, lips, and labia, sporting a belt of nipples around the house. Human skin was variously utilized for lamp shades, the construction of waste baskets, and the upholstery of chairs.
The choicer bits were specially preserved for Gein to wear at home. For ceremonial occasions, such as dancing underneath the moon, he wore a human’s scalp and face, a skinned-out “vest” complete with breasts, and female genitalia strapped above his own. By “putting on” another sex and personality, Gein seemed to find a measure of contentment, but his resurrection raids eventually failed to satisfy a deeper need.
On December 8, 1954, 51-year-old Mary Hogan disappeared from the tavern she managed in Pine Grove, Wisconsin. Authorities found a pool of blood on the floor, an overturned chair, and one spent cartridge from a .32-caliber pistol. Foul play was the obvious answer, and while deputies recall Ed Gein as a suspect in the case, no charges were filed at the time. (Three years later, the shell casing would be matched to a pistol found in Gein’s home.)
On November 16, 1957, 58-year-old Bernice Worden disappeared from her Plainfield hardware store under strikingly similar circumstances. There was blood on the floor, a thin trail of it leading out back, where the victim’s truck had last been seen. Worden’s son recalled that Gein had asked his mother for a date, and on the day before she disappeared, Ed mentioned that he needed anti-freeze. A sales receipt for anti-freeze was found inside the store, and deputies went looking for their suspect. What they found would haunt them all for the remainder of their lives.
Inside a shed, behind Gein’s house, the headless body of Bernice Worden hung from the rafters, gutted like a deer, the genitals carved out along with sundry bits of viscera. A tour of the cluttered house left searchers stunned. Worden’s heart was found in a saucepan, on the stove, while her head had been turned into a macabre ornament, with twine attached to nails inserted in both ears (by fisher). Her other organs occupied a box, shoved off to moulder in a corner. Deputies surveyed Gein’s decorations and his “costumes,” counting skins from ten skulls in one cardboard drum, taking hasty inventory of implements fashioned from human bones.
In custody, Gein readily confessed the Hogan and Worden murders, along with a series of unreported grave robberies. Confirmation of the latter was obtained by opening three graves: in one, the corpse was mutilated as described by Gein; the second held no corpse at all; a casket in the third showed pry-marks, but the body was intact, as Gein remembered.
On January 16, 1958, a judge found Gein insane and packed him off to Central State Hospital, at Waupun, Wisconsin. A decade later, Ed was ordered up for trial, with the proceedings held in mid-November 1968. Judge Robert Gollmar found Gein innocent by reason of insanity, and he returned to Waupun, where he died in 1984.
Gein willingly confessed the murders and was tried for one, but were there others? And, if so, how many?
Brother Henry was suggested, by Judge Gollmar, as a likely victim, inasmuch as there was no autopsy or investigation of his death. However that may be, there is a stronger case for murder in the disappearance of a man named Travis and his unnamed male companion, last seen at the time they hired Ed Gein to be their hunting guide. One victim’s jacket was recovered from the woods near Plainfield, and while Gein professed to know the whereabouts of Travis’s body – blaming his death on “a neighbor” – police never followed up on the case. The search of Gein’s home turned up two “fresh” vaginas, removed from young women, that could not be matched to existing cemetery record. Judge Gollmar suggests that one likely victim was Evelyn Hartley, abducted from LaCrosse on a night when Gein was visiting relatives, two blocks from her home. A pool of blood was found in the family garage after she vanished, with the trail disappearing at curbside. Mary Weckler was reported missing a short time late, from Jefferson, Wisconsin, with a white Ford seen in the area. When searchers scoured Gein’s property, they found a while Ford sedan on the premises, though no one in Plainfield could ever recall Ed driving such a car. No other evidence exists to name Gein’s victims, but if he did not dispose of Hartley and Wechler, he must have killed two other women, their names still unknown.