When police went to Ed Gein's Plainfield, Wisconsin, farm to investigate the disappearance of a local woman, they had no idea they would discover some of the most grotesque crimes ever committed. Gein and an accomplice had been robbing graves to find bodies for his experiments, but he decided he needed fresher corpses and began killing and dismembering women.
The Gein Family
Ed, his older brother, Henry, his father, George, and his mother, Augusta, lived on a farm a few miles outside Plainfield. George was an alcoholic, and Augusta, a religious fanatic, was a demanding and overbearing woman. She loathed George, but due to her deep religious beliefs, divorce wasn't an option.
Augusta had run a small grocery store until she purchased the farm. She picked it because it was secluded and she wanted to keep outsiders from influencing her sons. The boys left the farm only for school, and Augusta blocked their attempts to have friends. As far back as Ed could remember, Augusta either delegated farm work for the boys or quoted the Gospel. She labored to teach them about sin, especially the evils of sex and women.
Ed was small and appeared effeminate. He often laughed randomly, as if at his own jokes, which resulted in bullying.
In 1940, when Ed was 34, George died as a result of his alcoholism. Four years later Henry died while fighting a fire. Ed was now responsible for the welfare of his domineering mother, tending to her until her death in 1945.
Ed, now alone, sealed off all but one room and the kitchen of the farmhouse. He no longer worked the farm after the government began paying him under a soil conservation program. Local handyman jobs subsidized his income.
Fantasy of Sex and Dismemberment
Ed stayed to himself, spending hours obsessed with sexual fantasy and reading about female anatomy. Human experiments performed in Nazi camps also fascinated him. As his mental images of sex and dismemberment merged, Ed reached gratification. He told Gus, another loner and longtime friend, about experiments he wanted to perform, but he needed bodies, so together they began robbing graves, including that of Ed's mother.
Over ten years, experiments with the corpses became more gruesome and bizarre, including necrophilia and cannibalism. Ed then returned the corpses to their graves, except for parts he kept as trophies.
His obsession centered on his overpowering desire to turn himself into a woman. He constructed items from women's skin that he could drape on himself, such as female masks and breasts. He even made a body-size female-like jumpsuit.
Grave robbing was his only source of bodies until Ed decided that perfecting his sex change required fresher corpses. On Dec. 8, 1954, Ed killed tavern owner Mary Hogan. Police couldn't solve her disappearance, but evidence at the tavern indicated foul play. Gus wasn't involved in the murder, having been institutionalized beforehand.
On Nov. 16, 1957, Ed entered Bernice Worden's hardware store, a place he had been hundreds of times, so Bernice had no reason to fear him, even when he removed a .22 rifle from the display rack. After putting his own bullet into the rifle, Ed shot Bernice, placed her body into the store truck, returned to get the cash register, and drove to his home.
An investigation into Bernice's disappearance began after her son, Frank, a deputy sheriff, returned late that afternoon from a hunting trip and discovered his mother missing and blood on the floor of the store. Although Ed had no criminal history, Waushara County Sheriff Art Schley felt it was time to visit the odd loner.
Unfathomable Crimes Uncovered
Police found Ed near his home, then went to his farmhouse hoping to find Bernice. They started with the shed. Working in the dark, Waushara County sheriff Art Schley lit a torch and found Bernice's naked corpse hanging upside down, disemboweled, the throat and head missing.
Turning to Ed's house, they found evidence more horrific than anyone could have imagined. Everywhere they saw body parts: skulls made into bowls, jewelry made from human skin, hanging lips, chairs upholstered with human skin, facial skin that resembled masks, and a box of vulvas including his mother's, painted silver. The body parts, it was later determined, came from 15 women; some could never be identified. Worden's mother's heart was found in a pan on the stove.
Ed was committed to Waupun State Mental Hospital for the rest of his life. It was revealed that he killed older women because of his love-hate feelings for his mother. He died of cancer at 78, and his remains were buried in his family plot in Plainfield.
Ed Gein's crimes as a serial killer inspired the film characters Norman Bates ("Psycho"), Jame Gumb ("The Silence of the Lambs") and Leatherface ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre").
- "Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein," by Harold Schechter