They’re immortalized in pop culture and ingrained in film fans’ minds as the ultimate, terrifying villains: Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs have been triggering nightmares for decades.
The evil characters perpetrated the most abhorrent of crimes, from skinning victims and making suits to eating human flesh.
But what many people don’t know is that the men were all inspired by a real-life killer – a diminutive, unassuming bachelor from Wisconsin who committed murders, and other crimes, that were just as atrocious and unspeakable as his cinematic counterparts.
His name was Ed Gein, and he was the type of eccentric bachelor who, despite being liked and sometimes pitied by local families, inspired rumors amongst local teenagers – who shared what seemed like tall tales of his haunted farmhouse and collection of shrunken heads.
No one paid attention – until it was too late.
Ed Gein was known in his Wisconsin town as a harmless eccentric bachelor with a lopsided grin who did odd jobs and babysat for local children – before his murders came to light
Authorities were horrified by the filth and stench when they entered Gein’s dilapidated farmhouse after he was implicated in the disappearance of a local woman
Gein had hoarded body parts after murdering at least two women and digging up graves; he made death masks, soup bowls out of skulls and even upholstered chairs with human skin
Amidst the grotesque disarray of the rest of the farmhouse, Gein kept the bedroom of his dead mother – a fervently religious, domineering force in his life – as a neat, untouched shrine
Gein was the second of two sons born to a Bible-bashing mother and alcoholic father in La Crosse County, Wisconsin. The household was dominated by Augusta Wilhelmine Gein, who bullied her husband George and instilled Ed and his older brother, Henry, with fire-and-brimstone religious lectures, warning them especially against the lasciviousness of women. She moved the family to an even more rural area when Ed was about seven years old, relocating to an isolated farm in the town of Plainfield in Waushara County, Wisconsin.
Ed, who had a trademark ‘peculiar lop-sided grin,’ looked up to his brother and worshiped his mother, according to crime writer Robert Keller in his new book Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield – but had few friends. His main, but secret, other interest was in macabre literature ‘like “Tales from the Crypt” and for stories of headhunters, cannibals and Nazi atrocities,’ Keller writes.
‘His mother, of course, would have been horrified at her son consuming such “evil works” but Eddie was able to keep that knowledge from her. Had Augusta discovered his taste in reading material and forbade him from it, his life might well have taken a different trajectory.’
Sadly, however, that was not to be. Augusta discouraged her sons from having friends and warned against ‘other people,’ and Ed worked on the family farm and at odd jobs after school, increasing his work load following the 1937 death of his father. He also made money from odd jobs and babysitting.
Perhaps unexpectedly for a killer, Keller writes: ‘Ed was good with kids and he was popular with their parents, always polite, always diffident. The kids loved him and he seemed to have a real rapport with them, more so than he’d ever had with people of his own age. He was particularly skilled as a story teller and would enthrall his young charges with creepy tales of South Sea cannibals and headhunters. Ed knew a lot of about the subject, of course.’
Less than a decade after his father’s death, however, Ed also lost his brother – in suspicious circumstances. Allegedly, he and Henry were attempting to stop a runaway brush fire in their property when they became separated by the smoke and the blaze. Ed eventually sought help; Deputy Sheriff Frank Engle turned up and a search party was assembled. Though Ed claimed he’d been unsuccessfully looking for Henry for some time, Keller writes, he led the party within minutes to his brother’s body.
‘The patch of ground on which he lay was scorched black and yet Henry appeared unharmed by the flames’, Keller writes. The only marks on him appeared to be an array of peculiar bruises that may or may not have been inflicted by someone wielding a shovel.’
The medical examiner declared the cause of death as accidental, however, and he was buried next to his father in Plainfield Cemetery. But death was not yet done with the Gein family.
Local youths had joked about the Gein farmhouse being haunted and containing a collection of shrunken heads, but no one paid heed to the rumors
Gein admitted to killing two women, claiming the deaths were accidental, but insisted the rest of the human remains in his house were taken from graves he dug up
A sketch of evidence in the case against Gein appears to be a death mask; he mounted several on the wall and another, in a bag, was recognized as victim and tavern keeper Mary Hogan
Gein’s crimes served as inspiration for the character of Buffalo Bill, who skinned victims, in the 1991 horror film The Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins
The Gein family moved to the small town of Plainfield when Gein was a boy; he lived alone in their farmhouse following the deaths of his father, mother and brother
Not long after Henry was buried, Ed’s mother had a stroke; he took care of her lovingly – sometimes crawling into bed next to her – before she suffered a second stroke six months later and died on December 29, 1945.
‘To say that Ed was distraught at the death of his mother would be a massive understatement,’ Keller writes. ‘He was destroyed by his loss, consumed by it. At the sparsely attended funeral he wailed so loudly that he drowned out the vicar. Later, at the cemetery, he stood with tears and snot running down his face as the casket was lowered into the ground. Then he said a tearful goodbye to the few family members who had bothered to show up and retreated back to the sanctuary of his farmhouse.’
He continued taking odd jobs, however, and supplemented his meager income by renting out some land. He also began visiting a tavern in Pine Grove, seven miles away, that was run by Mary Hogan – a stout, middle-aged woman who seemed to remind him of his mother and engendered a weird fascination in the lonely bachelor.
No one thought to finger Ed when Mary Hogan disappeared on December 8, 1954 – leaving behind no trace but blood at the scene of her business. They didn’t even pay attention when Ed joked: ‘I loaded her into my pickup and drove her home.’ They dismissed it as the ramblings of the daft local oddball.
Three years later, however, another woman disappeared – and this time there were more direct links that brought Ed to the attention of authorities. Bernice Worden disappeared from her general store, where Ed had recently been hanging around, pestering her to go out with him. Her son, who discovered the store unattended and located blood, noticed that the final receipt had been for a purchase by Gein.
The bachelor was just leaving a neighbor’s house after being invited to dinner when police approached him, and he soon implicated himself by insisting he had nothing to do with Bernice Worden’s death – even though no one had informed him the woman was dead.
That gave them reason enough to search Gein’s dilapidated, filthy farmhouse – which they found overrun with roaches and rodents and stinking of everything from damp and filth to human waste. Sheriff Arthur Schley, who had been in his position less than a month, was the first to come upon a scene that would soon make headlines around the country: a ‘decapitated and gutted carcass, suspended by its legs from the ceiling.
‘For the briefest of moments Schley’s brain registered an automatic response … deer,’ Keller writes. ‘But then the reality of what he’d seen hit him and he turned and ran, blundering into the dark. He barely made it outside before he dropped to his knees and ejected the contents of his stomach into the snow. Bernice Worden had been found.’
The horrific sight, however, was far from the only grotesque discovery that authorities would encounter.
‘One of the officers picked up a crudely shaped soup bowl, still bearing the congealed remnants of Ed’s last meal, then rapidly put it down when he realized what it was – the top half of a human skull,’ Keller writes. ‘There were other skulls, too, including some that were hung from the posts of Gein’s bed as decoration.’
Grandmother Bernice Worden, 58, was Gein’s last victim; her decapitated corpse was found hanging by the legs in the bachelor’s house and was initially mistaken for a deer
Gein had been hanging around Worden’s general store in the days before killing her; her son discovered the store empty, noticed blood and realized receipts showed Gein as the last customer on the day she disappeared – prompting authorities to search Gein’s house
Police investigators move a car as they search for evidence in a garage on the Gein property in November 1957; Gein had joked about transporting victim Mary Hogan in his truck but no one took him seriously
Other human trophies collected by Gein and kept in his house included a box full of noses, a belt made from female nipples, a shade pull made out of a pair of lips and a ‘skin suit’ made of a pair of leggings and a top piece that included a woman’s sagging breasts
Multiple human skulls were found in Gein’s house, including several that he had hanging from his bed as decorations in the roach- and rodent-infested home
In the kitchen, one officer ‘found a chair with oddly colored strips of leather forming the seat,’ Keller writes. ‘Closer inspection proved that the “leather” was in fact made from strips of human skin, the underside still lumpy with chunks of fat.
‘Four such chairs were found in the house. So too, were other artifacts made from skin – a waste basket, lampshades, a drum, the sheath of a hunting knife, a belt made from female nipples, a shade pull made out of a pair of lips. Even these paled in comparison with Gein’s most horrific creation – a “skin suit” consisting of a pair of leggings and a top piece that included a woman’s sagging breasts. It appeared that Gein had skinned one of his victims, tanned the hide and then constructed this hideous ensemble.’
Gein’s collection also included a box full of human noses – and, perhaps most horrifically, a number of death masks, four of which were mounted on the wall.
Others, stored in bags, would end up solving the mystery of Mary Hogan’s disappearance; one of the masks was recognizable as the missing innkeeper.
Despite the filth and horror in most of the farmhouse, however, authorities discovered a blocked-off, dusty yet tidy area: Augusta’s bedroom, which had been kept by Gein as a virtual shrine to his dead mother.
The amount of human trophies found in Gein’s home seemed to indicate that he had killed far more people than just Worden and Hogan, and he admitted to both of these murders, though he claimed each was accidental. But Gein insisted he had not killed anyone else, and the rest of the body parts were gathered in yet another grotesque manner: he had studied death notices, looking for woman of similar age and build to his dead mother, and then engaged in grave robbing. Authorities were skeptical, but Gein provided them with a list of graves he had dug up – and they were found to be either empty or containing mutilated remains, just as Gein described.
The case created a media frenzy, and Gein became a household name across the country. He was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent to the Central State Hospital, where he remained as his belongings were auctioned off and his farmhouse was destroyed in an arson attack; his reaction upon learning this was a dispassionate ‘Just as well,’ Keller writes.
Gein did so well in the mental hospital, in fact, that ten years after he was sent there, a court decided he was competent to stand trial for the murder of Bernice Worden.
His defense team waived the right to a jury trial, and the judge found him guilty – but ruled that he should be returned to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Gein died there of respiratory failure on July 26, 1984, at the age of 78 – and was buried in Plainfield beside his mother in an unmarked grave.
‘The butcher of Plainfield was gone but the enormity of his crimes was not forgotten. Over the years that followed he would continue to be the bogeyman that Wisconsin mothers warned their misbehaving children about. And he would continue to inspire writers and movie makers,’ Keller writes, citing the villains in The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as examples.
‘But perhaps the most famous of Ed Gein’s fictional incarnations was Norman Bates, the cross-dressing, mother-obsessed Psycho of Robert Bloch’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film,’ Keller writes. ‘Each of these characters, Buffalo Bill, Leatherface and Norman Bates draws on Ed Gein. And yet the atrocities committed by Gein were far more bizarre, far more extreme than those of his fictional counterparts.
‘Fact, in this case, really was stranger than fiction.’
A new book by writer Rober Keller details the life, crimes and death of Wisconsin killer and grave robber Ed Gein
Gein also inspired the character of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho; Bates famously keeps his dead mother in his house and murders a woman in the shower
Gein spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital following his arrest before dying at the age of 78 on July 26, 1984
Gein’s belongings were auctioned off while he was in the mental hospital, where he apparently thrived; about 2,000 people attended the auction
The Gein farmhouse was destroyed in an arson attack while Gein was incarcerated – prompting the dispassionate reaction of “Just as well’ from the infamous killer