Please note this article contains descriptions of a graphic nature which may cause offence or distress.
Ed Gein loved his mother but butchered women. He's not exactly a household name but his deeds reside in our collective consciousness. He was thought by many to be the inspiration for the Norman Bates character in Robert Bloch's bestseller, Psycho, although Bloch denied this. However, anyone who has watched Alfred Hitchcock's film based on the book will recognise some of Norman's strange ways in Ed's story.
Just a Normal Kid
Ed was born in Wisconsin in August 1906, and was the second child of Augusta and George Gein. The Geins' marriage was an unhappy one. Augusta treated her husband with contempt as he was unable to hold down a job. His failures were probably due to his alcoholism which made him violent and abusive, but their marriage trundled on regardless, since divorce was rarely an option in those times.
Augusta ran the family grocery shop until their purchase of a small farm on the outskirts of Plainfield. Here she tried to keep her boys away from the influences of the ever-changing world and they were only allowed off the farm to attend school. Being a fanatical Lutheran, she also filled their afternoons with fire and brimstone Bible readings.
The boys were discouraged from making friends in town and were taught that women were immoral and that the only valid reason for indulging in the sexual act was procreation. This behaviour ensured that the young Ed grew up as the stereotypical outsider and was the inevitable target for bullies. Still, his devotion to his mother never waned. Thus was nurtured the fledgling killer who later shocked the nation.
What a Regular Guy
Ed's elder brother Henry became disillusioned with their severe home life and began to rebel against their mother. This did not sit well with Ed. Following the death of their father in 1940, Henry became even more vociferous in his contempt for the matriarch and Ed could barely contain his anger.
Patience was Ed's watchword, however, and his opportunity to strike a blow for his mother came in 1944 when the farm suffered a brush fire. The brothers fought the fire valiantly, but only one of them returned to the homestead. Ed hurriedly summoned the police to advise them that he had lost sight of Henry while battling with the fire. Fortuitously, he was able to lead them directly to his body.
Henry had suffered a head trauma prior to his death, but had ultimately succumbed to asphyxiation due to the raging fire. The police, given the circumstances, barely noticed that Henry was probably Ed Gein's first victim.
Ed lived alone with his beloved mother until her death from multiple strokes in 1945. However, never one to let death destroy a loving relationship, he exhumed his dear mother and kept her at home with him until his eventual capture.
Ed didn't come to the attention of the authorities until some 12 years later.
On 17 November, 1957, just about everyone in the town of Plainfield was out in the countryside celebrating the beginning of the hunting season. Ed Gein, however, had other prey in mind. It transpired that despite his severely religious upbringing Mr Gein had developed a taste for the ladies. On that day he paid a call to the local store to purchase some antifreeze. He returned home with the antifreeze and the shopowner.
Frank Worden was the Deputy Sheriff; his Mum, Bernice, kept the local shop. When Frank returned from the hunting trip, he went to the shop to find his mother missing, and blood stains on the floor. A short investigation revealed that Ed Gein had been noticed loitering in the area. Being quick enough to put two and two together, Frank and the local constabulary headed off to the rather dilapidated Gein homestead. What they found there fed the imagination of a generation.
Those of a Nervous Disposition Should Look Away Now
Since they were hoping to find Bernice Worden alive, and Ed was showing little sign of nerves, they began the search in the shed. Working by torchlight in the late evening, they noticed what they thought was a deer hanging from a hook from the ceiling. What they had discovered was the corpse of Bernice, hanging by her feet from the ceiling with her body cut from throat to abdomen, headless and disembowelled.
Needless to say, Ed was arrested, but the search of the Gein residence continued. It was evident from the start that the house lacked a woman's touch. The floors were strewn with rubbish and the smell of decay caused strong stomachs to turn. The discoveries made during the search were to become the stuff of nightmares.
Ed had amassed quite a collection of human body parts, but the thrifty farmer ensured that no part of the female bodies went to waste. The house did not have electricity, so by the light of oil lamps the officers revealed Ed's hobby: upholstery, lampshades, chair seats - all made from human skin. Kitchen utensils made from bone, bowls from skulls, preserved faces as masks. A tailor's dummy clothed in human skin. A belt made from nipples, jewellery made from skin, strings of human lips, a bowl full of vulvas - including his mother's - painted silver. The horrors seemed endless and included the unfortunate Bernice Worden's heart in the frying pan on the stove.
The Death Toll
When the body parts were assembled it transpired that no less than 15 female bodies were in residence at the Gein place; however, Ed was only held accountable for two of the deaths.
In truth, Ed did not know how many women he had killed, but it was supposed that most of his bodies were liberated from the local graveyard. Ed owned a shovel and was not afraid to use it.
During interviews with local residents it became apparent that Ed was more than a little odd for most of his life; he was described as prone to inappropriate outbursts of laughter and vacant grins, and was lacking even the basic social skills. As a youth he was described as effeminate with a longing to become a woman, just like mother. Ed went about his transformation the only way he knew how.
An extensive collection of reading material was found in the Gein residence, but Ed's choice in literature was extremely 'specialist'. He maintained a considerable library of Nazi 'experiments' and pornography, but whether he was influenced by his reading or not is debatable.
Ed confessed to necrophilia with the bodies which he later skinned and mutilated. He also enjoyed sexual gratification while wearing his trophies, including the female 'body suit' he had sewn.
Initially, Ed was hospitalised and spent ten years in Central State Hospital until he was found fit to stand trial in 1968. At the trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity of the two murders with which he was charged1. Ed died of respiratory failure at the age of 77 years in 1984, still resident in Mendota State Hospital, Madison.
Ed's car was sold to a carnival for $760 in 1958 where it was to become the headline display across the country. The family home, however, failed to find a purchaser and was razed to the ground in what was believed to be an arson attack some years later.
Shockwaves crossed the continent following the discovery of Ed Gein's handiwork, but nobody could have guessed how powerful the impact of his crimes on modern culture would be. His life story has been told in the film In The Light of The Moon and various books. Apart from the Psycho connection already mentioned, Ed became the inspiration for the slasher-film genre. His story couldn't fail to bring to mind Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jeepers Creepers and countless other tales of country life in the USA.