Edward Theodore "Ed" Gein (August 27, 1906- July 26, 1984), nicknamed 'The Plainfield Ghoul' and 'The Mad Butcher Of Plainfield', was an American murderer and body snatcher. His crimes, committed around his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, gathered widespread notoriety after authorities discovered Gein had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin. After police found body parts in his house in 1957, Gein confessed to killing two women- tavern owner Mary Hogan in 1954, and a Plainfield hardware store owner, Bernice Worden, in 1957. Gein is widely known to have inspired the modern slasher genre of horror films and influenced countless films, including 'Psycho' (1960), 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974), and the Oscar-winning 'Silence Of The Lambs' (1991).
Despite the insistence of the town and its law enforcement, Gein was tried and initially found insane, thus unfit to stand trial. He was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (now the Dodge Correctional Institution), a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin, and later transferred to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1968, Gein's doctors determined he was rehabilitated and sane enough to stand trial. The high-profile trial began on November 14, 1968, and lasted only one week. Gein was found guilty of first-degree murder by Judge Robert H. Gollmar, but because he was again determined to be legally insane, he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Gein died of respiratory and heart failure in 1984 at the age of 78.
The details of Gein's crimes swept across America like wildfire. Never before had such horrific acts terrified America, whose wholesome "white-picket fence" image of the 1950s was arguably the way an ideal life is imagined, even today. On November 16, 1957, after Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared, police began a massive search to find her. Worden's son led investigators to Gein, saying that he had been in the store the evening before, telling Bernice he would return the following morning for a gallon of anti-freeze. A sales slip for a gallon of anti-freeze was the last receipt written by Worden on the morning she disappeared. Upon searching Gein's property, investigators discovered Worden's decapitated body in a shed, hung upside down by ropes at her wrists, with a crossbar at her ankles. The torso was "dressed out" like that of a deer. She had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle, and the mutilations were made after death. He was immediately arrested.
For several years, Gein admitted to police that he made as many as 40 nocturnal visits to three local cemeteries to exhume recently deceased bodies while in a "daze-like" state. He told authorities that on about 30 of those visits, he came out of the daze and left the cemetery empty-handed, having restored the graves to their original state. However, the other times, he stole the bodies and took them home, where he proceeded to tan their skins and make his sadistic paraphernalia, including lampshades, bowls, and even chairs. Gein insisted he robbed nine graves and even took the investigators to their locations. They weren't totally sure Gein was even capable of such a thing, but they got all the answers they needed when they exhumed two of the graves and found them empty.
What the authorities found on the Gein farmstead was an unimaginable journey into the mad and macabre:
*Whole human bones and fragments
*Nine masks of human skin
*Bowls made from human skulls
*Ten female heads with the tops sawn off
*Human skin covering several chair seats
*Mary Hogan's head in a paper bag
*Bernice Worden's head in a burlap sack
*Nine vulvae in a shoe box
*A belt made from female human nipples
*Skulls on his bedposts
*A pair of lips on a draw string for a window-shade
*A lampshade made from the skin from a human face
When taken in for questioning, Gein blamed a dog he had seen beaten to death as a young kid as motivation for his acts. He said he was with his mother, who lectured him about the fact that the woman they were visiting was unwed and living in sin with a local farmer. They witnessed the farmer beating the dog to death, and did nothing about it. This had apparently scarred Gein for life. Not convinced, Waushara County sheriff Art Schley, who witnessed Gein holding the crime scene photos "like some men hold Playboy centerfolds", reportedly physically assaulted Gein during questioning by banging Gein's head and face into a brick wall; as a result, Gein's initial confession was ruled inadmissible. Schley later died of a heart attack in December 1968, at age 43, only a month after testifying at Gein's trial. Many who knew him said he was traumatized by the horror of Gein's crimes and that this, along with the fear of having to testify (especially about assaulting Gein), led to his death. One of his friends said: "He was a victim of Ed Gein as surely as if he had butchered him".
There was even a time where a 16-year-old youth whose parents were friends of Gein and who attended ball games and movies with him reported that he knew about Ed Gein's collection of shrunken heads, which Gein had described as relics from the Philippines sent by a cousin who had served in World War II. Upon investigation by the police, these were determined to be human facial skins, carefully peeled from corpses and used as masks by Gein.
Gein's house and property were scheduled to be auctioned March 30, 1958, amid rumors the house was to become a tourist attraction. On March 27, the house was destroyed by fire. Arson was suspected, but the cause of the blaze was never officially solved. When Gein learned of the incident while in detention, he shrugged and said, "Just as well". Gein's car, which he used to haul the bodies of his victims, was sold at the public auction for $760 to carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons. Gibbons later charged carnival goers 25¢ admission to see it before being shut down by police as he tried to venture across the state and the country with it.
To the residents of Plainfield, it was clear who was really responsible for Gein's condition: his mother, Augusta. Mrs. Gein, a religious fanatic, despised her husband George but stayed with him only because of the family's belief against divorce. She was everything to a young Eddie. Augusta ran a small grocery store in La Crosse, Wisconsin, eventually earning enough to purchase the small homestead in Plainfield. She only allowed her sons, Eddie and Henry, to leave only when going to school or church. Augusta preached to her boys the innate immorality of the world, the evils of drinking, and the belief that all women (excluding herself) were prostitutes and instruments of the devil. She reserved time every afternoon to read the Bible to them, usually Old Testament passages that dealt with death, murder, and divine retribution.
A shy, effeminate boy, the younger Gein, who learned to worship his mother, became a target for bullies. Classmates and teachers recalled off-putting mannerisms, such as seemingly random laughter, as if he were laughing at his own personal jokes. To make matters worse, his mother punished him whenever he tried to make friends. Despite his poor social development, he did fairly well in school, particularly in reading. Eddie always did everything to try to make his mother happy, with little success. She often abused both Eddie and Henry, believing that they were destined to become failures like their father, an abusive alcoholic who died of a heart attack in 1940. During their teens and throughout their early adulthood, the boys remained detached from people outside of their farmstead, and so had only each other for company.
After their father's death, the Gein brothers began working at odd jobs to help with expenses. Both brothers were considered reliable and honest by residents of the community. While both worked as handymen, Ed Gein also frequently babysat for neighbors, something he enjoyed very much. He always seemed to relate to children much easier than adults. As they matured, Henry Gein began to reject his mother's view of the world and started to worry about the depths of his brother's attachment to her. He spoke ill of her around his brother, who was shocked and hurt by Henry's feelings, a harbinger of things to come.
On May 16, 1944, his brother Henry decided to burn off a marsh on the property. However, the fire got out of control and the local fire department was called to extinguish the fire and protect the family farm from flames. At the end of the day, once the fire was contained, the men returned to their homes- all except Henry. A search party, with lanterns and flashlights, searched the burned-over area all day long, and in the evening, they discovered the dead body of Henry lying face down. Investigators believed he had been dead for quite some time, and a heart attack was their only logical conclusion since Henry was not burned or otherwise injured. It was later reported that Henry had bruises on his head as well. The police dismissed the possibility of foul play and the county coroner later officially listed asphyxiation as the cause of death. Although some investigators suspected that Ed Gein killed his brother and used the fire as a cover-up, no charges were ever filed against him.
After his brother's death, Gein lived alone with his mother for over a year until her death on December 29, 1945, following a series of strokes. Gein was devastated by her death; in the words of author Harold Schechter, he had "lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world." Despite his loneliness, Gein remained on the farm, supporting himself with earnings from odd jobs. He boarded up rooms used by his mother, including the upstairs, downstairs parlor, and living room, leaving them untouched and pristine. He felt he wasn't "good enough" to live in the quarters of a "saint", so he confined himself to a small room next to the kitchen. To occupy his time, Ed became interested in reading death-cult magazines and adventure stories. It was also around this time that Gein decided he wanted a sex change, and began to create a "woman suit" so he could pretend to be a female. Gein's practice of donning the tanned skins of women was described as an "insane transvestite ritual". Despite the rumors, Gein denied having sex with the bodies he exhumed, explaining that they "smelled too bad". During his interrogation, Gein also admitted to the shooting death of Mary Hogan, a tavern operator missing since 1954.
Ed Gein, one of the most maniacal and sadistic men in history, had definitely left his mark. To date, several movies have been made about his life or inspired by his acts, including 'Psycho' (1960), 'Deranged' (1974), 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974), 'The Silence Of The Lambs' (1991), 'Ed Gein' (2001) and 'Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield' (2007). There were also several metal-inspired songs credited to him as well, including Slayer's 'Dead Skin Mask', and Mudvayne's 'Nothing To Gein'. His name has seemingly become synonymous with the black humor of horror. There was even a musical about him that premiered in Menasha, Wisconsin, in January 2010.
Whether he was aware of it or not, Ed Gein was single-handedly responsible for the slasher genre as we know it today. If not for his horrific crimes of the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Bloch and Alfred Hitchcock would have never been inspired to create 'Psycho' in 1960. And if there was never a 'Psycho', there may have never been a Leatherface, Jame Gumb, or Jason Voorhees, either.
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