Ed Gein: The Man Who Changed Horror

Welcome to Freaky Friday.  As I promised during Wednesday’s review of the Psycho remake, I’ll talk about Ed Gein today.  We’re going to discuss both Ed’s crimes and his contributions to pop culture.

Warning: today’s content is a little more graphic than usual.  Ed’s crimes were gross.

Let’s start at the end.  I like to do that.

November 16, 1957–The End

Plainfield, Wisconsin, Population 680

Bernice Worden’s son entered his family’s hardware store and found his mother, Bernice Worden, missing.  The son remembered Ed Gein coming in the day before to look at antifreeze.  Gein said he’d be back the next morning to purchase the antifreeze.

Sure enough, a sales receipt—the last one Bernice wrote before her disappearance—sat on the counter.  On the sales receipt was Ed Gein’s name.

The Gein Farm

Law enforcement went out to the Gein farm, a 200 acre spread a few miles outside Plainfield.  They found the front door locked but entered an outbuilding.

The Gein farm had no electricity, so the policemen were doing their best to see by the light of flashlights.  They literally bumped into Bernice Worden’s body, which was hanging from the ceiling by her feet.  She had been gutted in the same fashion a deer hunter would gut a deer.

The police officers searched the interior of the house and found Mrs. Worden’s head in a burlap sack.  It had been affixed with nails as though Gein intended to hang it as an ornament.  Mrs. Worden’s intestines had been rolled into a man’s suit.

[Note: The Bernice Worden crime scene photos can be viewed here.  Click at your own discretion.  This is gross.]

Ed’s Murders

Police would later learn that Ed shot Mrs. Worden in her place of business.  Gein loaded a display rifle with a cartridge he brought from home and used it to commit the murder.  Once Mrs. Worden was dead, Ed loaded her into his vehicle and took her home with him.

At the Gein Farm, police found a paper sack which contained what appeared to be human hair.  Upon further examination, they discovered the hair was attached to a head that belonged to Mary Hogan.  Mary had been missing for close to three years.  It was commonly believed the tavern owner had met foul play, but Ed was not a suspect.

Ed Gein’s Interior Design Skills

Police also found artifacts created out of human remains.  There were skull bowls, nipples threaded together, a box of vulvas that had been decorated, lampshades made of human skin, nine face masks made of human skin, and a female body suit made of human skin.

In addition to all the stray body parts in the Gein home, the house resembled something from the Hoarders TV show.  There were piles of garbage, magazines, newspapers amidst what can only be described as total filth.

Ed sat in a jail cell for more than thirty hours, refusing to speak to any law enforcement.  Finally, police confronted Ed with Bernice Worden’s corpse.  At this point, Ed agreed to talk if the police would get him a slice of apple pie with cheddar cheese on top of it.

He admitted everything.  He killed Bernice Worden.  He killed Mary Hogan.  He had been visiting the Plainfield Cemetery and taking home souvenirs for about twelve years.  The court ordered a month-long psychiatric evaluation.

Ed’s History

During this evaluation, it was discovered that Ed’s mother was at the root of Ed’s problem.

To summarize, Augusta Gein was a devoutly religious and domineering woman who isolated her her sons, controlled their lives, and filled their heads with her own version of the gospel.  For the long version, keep reading.

When Ed was born, his family owned a grocery store in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Around the time Ed was 8-years-old, Augusta insisted they sell the grocery store and move somewhere more secluded.  Augusta didn’t want her sons to be corrupted by the outside world.  The Gein family bought a 200 acre farm outside Plainfield, Wisconsin.

Augusta Gein created a world of isolation for her sons in which she determined all rights and wrongs.  A very religious woman, Augusta developed her own interpretations of the Holy Bible.  She taught her sons that all women—aside from herself, one would assume—were dirty tramps.

Ed went to school through the seventh or eighth grade.  He was considered odd, but he was not suspected of any wrongdoing.  After Ed left school, his only interaction was with his parents and his brother, Henry.

In 1940 Ed’s father (George Gein) died of a heart attack.  Ed and his brother (Henry) began taking odd jobs to make ends meet.  Ed often babysat, finding he related better to children than to adults.  Henry began to become aware of his mother’s negative influence in he and Ed’s lives.  When he told Ed his thoughts, Ed was hurt and confused.

In May of 1944, Henry and Ed attempted to burn off a marsh on their property.  Ed claimed he lost sight of Henry.  However, when Ed summoned police to the farm, he led them right to Henry’s body.  It has been noted that there were bruises on Henry’s body that were inconsistent with being caught in a fire.  These bruises were never explained.

After that, it was just Ed and his mother.

Augusta Gein died in December of 1945 after suffering several strokes.  Police would discover that Ed had closed off her room, leaving it exactly as it was when she lived in the house.

Ed’s Mental Deterioration

Without this small amount of interaction, Ed deteriorated mentally.  He admitted to police that in the years following his mother’s death, he made many trips to the graveyard to exhume corpses.

He even had a system for collecting corpses.  Ed watched obituaries for women who reminded him of his mother.  On the day the body was interred, Ed would slip into the cemetery and dig up the corpse.  The ground was still loose, and it was an easier job than if he waited.

Ed, it turns out, wanted a sex change so he could be female.  That was why he made the female body suit out of human skin.  He would wear this suit around the farm house and pretend to be a woman, perhaps his mother.  Psychological evaluations said that Ed was trying to bring back or replace his mother.

The Aftermath

After his month of psychiatric evaluation ended, Ed was determined unfit to stand trial.  He was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  In 1968, it was decided that Ed was fit to stand trial.  He was tried for the murder of Bernice Worden and found guilty by reason of insanity and sent back to Central State Hospital.

Employees remembered Ed as being compliant and gentle.  He worked as a carpenter, a mason, and a hospital attendant.  The only time he wasn’t a model patient was during the full moon.  He tended to talk a lot during the full moon, especially about what he’d like to do to women.

Ed sought a sanity hearing in 1974 and was denied.  He died in Central State Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1984 of respiratory failure, which was related to cancer.

I promised to talk about Ed Gein’s influence on pop culture, and that’s what we are going to do now.

Ed’s car:

Because Ed was the last of his family, his belongings were sold at public auction.  His car was bought by a man who later took it to fairs and charged people admission to see it.

Of note: The Gein farmhouse burned down right before the auction was set to happen.  Arson was suspected.

Gein humor:

It is well known that people in certain professions develop a kind of sick humor to help them cope.  People were so shocked after learning about Ed’s secret life that a sort of humor concerning Ed himself developed.  An Ed Gein joke might took like this:

What did Ed Gein say to the sheriff who arrested him?

Have a heart.

Ed in the movies:

Psycho

  • Both Ed Gein and Norman Bates were momma’s boys.
  • Norman Bates had an extremely domineering mother.  So did Ed.
  • Norman exhumes his mother after her murder her and brings her back home.  Ed exhumed bodies of women who reminded him of his mother and brought them home.
  • Norman dresses as his mother and kills people.  Ed dressed as a woman when he was home alone and is reported to have wanted a sex change.
  • Norman kills women to whom he is attracted.  Ed killed women who reminded him of his mother so he could keep them forever.
  • Norman had kept his mother’s room as it was when his mother was alive.  Ed did the same thing, boarding up Augusta’s room and leaving it way it was the last day she used it.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

  • Leatherface’s family is the epitome of dysfunction.  They kill people and eat them.  Ed’s family life was dysfunctional.  His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was a domineering zealot.
  • Leatherface wears a human skin mask.  Ed made human skin masks.  It would make sense that he wore them.
  • The interior of Leatherface’s house was extremely filthy and cluttered.  This is how Ed Gein lived after his mother died.
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre family cannibalized their victims.  Though there’s not proof Ed did this, he made bowls out of human skulls.  Whether or not he ate out of them…who really wants to think about that?

The Silence of the Lambs

  • Buffalo Bill wanted to be a woman, so he made a woman suit.  Ed Gein made a woman suit, too.

Ed Gein did not qualify as a serial killer because he only had two known victims.  Yet he broke so many human taboos that his crimes have been immortalized in pop culture.  As I researched this post, I found websites where people claimed that the hospital where Ed lived out his final years is haunted…by Ed’s ghost, of course.

Thank you for your interest in this article. I often receive requests for further information on these articles. Please understand my knowledge of this topic is limited to what you’ve read in this article. I have no plans to update or expand these articles. I am currently focusing on my fiction writing career and am no longer writing or researching for non-fiction articles. If you’re interested in seeing what else I write, please check out the My Fiction page on this website or visit my Amazon Author Page on amazon.com. 

Sources:

“Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield” — This was an extra feature that came with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD.  It is on You Tube.  Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

A & E’s Biography presentation on Ed Gein.  It is available on You Tube here.

“Eddie Gein” by Rachel Bell and Marilyn Bardsley

47 thoughts on “Ed Gein: The Man Who Changed Horror

  1. Being from Wisconsin, I heard a lot of Ed Gein jokes. Everyone laughed about how gross it was…..I think it was so many years later and it was so horrific it was a way to make sense of it all. Of course there wasn’t the TV coverage nor the graphic depictions to make it all worse and personal.
    Great post!

    • Sometimes it’s either to laugh about something that isn’t really funny than to cry about stuff so horrifying you can’t even comprehend it. Sometimes I wonder if the 24/7 barrage of images and information is helpful or hurtful. So glad you enjoyed the post, and I loved hearing your perspective.

  2. Ok, have the creepiest of comments. I worked with someone who had a jar of dirt from Ed’s grave. Try conversing with a straight face after that revelation. She had other jars of dirt from infamous and equally chilling places; I imagine some type of shrine in her apartment; a true weirdness of hoarding, I am sure.

    • Okay. That is somewhere between creepy and interesting. I’ve known people who collected some odd things, but this one takes the cake. I can just imagine standing face to face with this individual and trying to keep a normal expression on your face. It sort of makes you want to visit them at home to see what all else they have…or not. Thanks for your comment.

    • Ewwww….very weird. It would definitely be hard to talk with a straight face to someone after finding out about that. If that’s something they willingly tell about — what are they hiding?

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  4. So. Creepy. Catie. Oh. My. I am SOOOO glad you wrote this post. I can’t believe with all of my obsessions with watching true crime stories on TV that I didn’t know Ed Gein. My mom either. She’s really been looking forward to your post this week. As always, your blog had me on the edge of my seat. Mr. Gein was clearly crazy enough to have three such popular cinematic killers based on his real-life story.

    • Tiffany, this stuff really grossed me out. While I researched, I had to take frequent breaks. When I read about the box of vulvas (one was painted silver), I stopped for the day. I do think Mr. Gein was very mentally ill. A lot of the stuff I read said the mindset of the 50s (nothing bad can happen) allowed him to operate for so many years undetected. But I really think someone equally mentally ill could be living right beside us and we’d never know.

      And I do think it is a dubious honor for Ed Gein to have three cinematic psychos based on him. :D

  5. on ,
    Emma said:

    Fascinating and disturbing. I hadn’t heard of Ed until now. Sounds like his mother has a lot to answer for. Re the “woman suit”, just gross. Ick!

    • It will take me a while to wash this stuff out of my mind. I enjoy looking at true crime cases. I use them as fodder for my fiction. Usually, I’m looking for a way into my villain’s mind. Ed Gein repels me. It would be a real challenge to write someone with such deep mental illness. Because, as you so eloquently put it…ick!!

  6. Creepy! Here’s my six degrees story for you. My best friend while growing up, it was his great aunt that was one of the people who interviewed Ed Gein in the psych ward. Crazy, huh? I always envision her as Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs now.

    • Oh wow, I’ll bet. I’ve read he was very docile and cooperative. I would be horrified talking to him because I’d wonder if he was thinking about cutting off my skin. My imagination gets the best of me. :D

  7. on ,
    Coleen Patrick said:

    I remember reading a book about him for a course in college. Some of the images I got while reading have stayed with me all these years. So twisted and creepy!
    Great post!

    • I’ve known for a while where the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs came from. I’ve never looked this deeply into Ed Gein’s crimes, though. This was quite an education and will stick with me for a while.

  8. on ,
    Jeff Armstrong said:

    i have been a reader of true crime and serial killer types forever. Ed and most of the others are all harmelss looking smallish men who one would never suspect. I am fascinated by what drives them to the point of becoming a monster. The one who stayed with me the longest was the Night Stalker in LA. That was one scary dude.

    • Richard Ramirez was one weird, sadistic dude. Though I do not condone vigilante justice, I love the way he was mobbed. From what I understand, Police kept the mob from killing Ramirez. He may have even been glad to see them.

      I, too, am fascinated by what goes wrong in the minds of killers. I wonder what event caused them to really cross the line.

      Thank you for your comment.

  9. on ,
    Dave said:

    Great post but it amazes me how you can get through this stuff. I wonder how a guy can be so messed up in the head and function……somewhat with a veneer of normalcy. Yes. Ed Gein did contribute to pop culture mythology be he erodes the culture as a whole. I don’t know what to think about that for sure. I find it disturbing that these movies were made with a true story as an influence if that in fact is how it went down. This story reminds me of a girl I knew who had a relationship with a lunatic. She suffered but she survived. The guy didn’t spend near enough time behind bars. I haven’t seen this woman in a very long time but I wish her well.

    • Confession: After I read about Ed’s collection, my stomach gave a lurch. I had to shut down for the day. It was just too much to process. Though I research these cases in hopes of getting ideas for villains in my fiction, I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that I can’t write someone who does…that.

      As to whether Ed’s contribution to pop culture erodes society, you’re probably right. But I think spinners of tales have always taken inspiration from the things that horrify them. I have long suspected that the Elizabeth Báthory crimes inspired at least part of the vampire myth. If you don’t know who I mean, Elizabeth was another horror of a human being.

      I feel for the girl who got mixed up with the lunatic. They masquerade as regular people. By the time you realize something isn’t right, it is often far too late to escape completely unscathed.

      Thanks of your comment.

  10. I am curious to know what Ed Gein’s mother’s childhood was like. What crazy family did SHE come from? Where did the pathology begin, and who and how can we end it? I think these are questions we ask in our own families, whether your ancestors were serial killers or alcoholics or whatever.

    Anyway, Ed Gein was one seriously creepy man. There is some extra crazy in taking human body parts and doing the things you described. I think that’s why we find such criminals as Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer to be a cut above–or really, a step below–the typical serial killer.

    Interesting post. (And yes, this time I looked at the crime pics–disgusting, but I handled them just fine. You did a good job of explaining and warning about them, Catie.)

    • I can’t believe you looked at the crime scene photos! They do have sort of a siren call for me, but I’m not especially squeamish.

      You have a good comment about Ed’s mother. Mental problems often can be traced back generations. I could give a million examples, but I won’t do it on my blog. :D

      Ed Gein was a special kind of crazy. Perhaps that’s why his story isn’t quickly forgotten and is still on the edge of public conscious.

  11. This dude just creeps me the heck out. I research some true crimes and villains occasionally but for some reason I just could never get my mind around delving deeper into Geins. I couldn’t even bring myself to click on the link you provided to the crime scene photos and I don’t get weirded out too easily. But I just don’t want that in my head. Thanks for doing the hard work, Catie. I hope you’ll tell us more about Elizabeth Bathory sometime.

    • I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have clicked on those crime scene photos. :D

      I would not have talked about Ed Gein today had I not talked about Psycho on Wednesday. I like to do two-fer weeks where I tie both posts together. Usually, I can get into the head of whoever I’m researching and sort of figure out what was going on his or her mind. Not on this one.

      From what I’ve read, Ed never progressed emotionally. When he was caught, many of his reactions were the way a small child would respond. I don’t know what to make of this, but I do keep thinking about it.

      Are you putting in a formal request for an Elizabeth Bathory post? I’ll think about it. I’ve read about Elizabeth for a few years now. But I’d have do some serious, formal research for a blog post. I could do it if there’s a true interest.

      • I loved to know more about her, but if it’s going to take away from your writing…I’d rather have your book to read. Can’t wait for it. :-)

  12. I’m sure more songs were written about Gein, but probably most known is Dead Skin Mask by Slayer. Well, known by me.

    I knew a lot of this from my own curiosity of what makes killers tick, but I still read through your whole post and enjoyed it. Well done.

    • I had never heard that song. I do know who Slayer is, so I’m going to have to look up this song and listen to it.

      I am so happy you enjoyed this post. That I kept your interest even though you were familiar with the material is quite flattering. :D

  13. So glad I got the chance to read this (in the hotel right now). You did an excellent job with such a creepy and loaded subject. I can’t imagine being the police who find those bodies and first went through those house. Or the psychiatrists who studied Gein. I do think it’s interesting that so many diabolical characters were created from one truly sick individual.

    • Can you imagine that policeman who brushed up against Bernice Worden’s hanging body? He thinks, “Oh, Ed must have killed a deer earlier today.” Because it was deer season when this happened. But then to see what it really was. How horrifying. He probably had nightmares the rest of his life.

      I agree with you that so many evil characters came from Ed. He was a killer, but he was also a very mentally ill human being. Something had gone so seriously wrong in his mind that it does not surprise me he was declared insane.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Mudvayne did a song titled Nothing to Gein. Looking through the lyrics I’d say it’s pretty likely it was inspired by Ed.

    • I am going to look up this song, too. I know who Mudvayne is, but I’m not terribly familiar with their music. I’m sort of looking forward to my Ed Gein music fest.

  15. on ,
    Fraser said:

    I actually own Ed Geins signature :0

  16. Hi Catie! Nice article but you’ve forgotten one other movie based on Ed’s life… it’s called “Ed Gein, The Musical”. It had its national premiere on Retro TV Network and has been aired on PBS. It will be available at Family Video and Blockbuster by-mail this fall. Here are two wikipedia articles that mention the movie. Thanks!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Davies

    • Thanks for letting me know about the musical, Dan. I was completely ignorant of its existence. I love hearing about new things.

  17. on ,
    Donna Coe-Velleman said:

    You said “you’re fascinated by what goes wrong in the minds of killers”. You also said you sometimes have to “close down” for a while because of what you read. I have to ask does the info on such evil people ever disrupt your sleep? Does it visit in the middle of the night? You do such a great job researching and you’ve been doing it so long I can’t help but think it would come back to in some manner. How do you handle it?
    Thanks- best to you

    • I read somewhere that the subconscious never forgets anything. If that is so, I’ve got millions little horrors tucked away, just waiting for the right moment to surface. Put me in a dark room, and I can scare myself into a near panic. When I sleep, my mind puts on an awesome horror show for me. Sometimes I write down ideas from my dreams…or nightmares, depending on how you view such things. :D

  18. You nailed it, Ms. Rhodes. Back in the days, “such things didn’t happen.” One of my scariest childhood memories is an episode of THE RIFLEMAN, with Chuck Connors. There was a very handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman from back east traveling through the Wild West. (I am not certain but, as I remember, the part was played by Richard Anderson). He was slick, smooth talking, wealthy, a real charmer. Only problem was, in every town he stayed in, a woman was found strangled. He eventually ended up in the same town where Lucas McCain and his son lived, and Lucas was suspicious from the moment the guy came in. Of course, Lucas had to shoot him in the end.

    Point to all of the above is I asked my grandfather “Why didn’t they know about this guy?” He gave me an impromptu history lesson, and explained back in those days, news travelled very slowly; there were no national newspapers, no television, no radio, and my grandfather actually used the words, “Back then, this kind of thing didn’t happen.” Sorry, Grandpa, but yeah, this kind of thing did happen, we just didn’t know it.

    That’s one of the many reasons Ed Gein *was* so horrifying. People could not conceive of a monster like that walking around in their nice little town, but there he was, pretty much out in the open, doing what he did. The ‘monster next door’ is not a cliche.

    What is genuinely disturbing to me is, looking forward, there are people who have made Eddie look like an amateur. And that is scary….

  19. on ,
    Reetta Raitanen said:

    Gruesome story. It’s amazing that he has inspired people in so many different ways.

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  22. My husband’s grandparents knew Ed Gein. They owned a service station in Plainfield, WI and they played cards with Ed. My father-in-law remembers Ed. This is one person I have researched a lot.

  23. on ,
    hannah said:

    Im writing a research paper about ed, and am having trouble finding what type of killer he was. I can not seem to find the same answer. can you help any Catie?

    • I would guess since you are writing a research paper that you need to document your sources. Have you looked at the article written about Ed on TruTV? They actually document their sources on those articles. Here’s a link to the one on Ed.

      http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/gein/bill_1.html

      Thing is, some people say Ed was not a serial killer because he had only two documented kills. The minimum number of kills for a serial killer is three. Other people say that Ed was a serial killer (I suspect because of the pathology behind his crimes).

      So there’s my not-a-professional-in-this field answer.