The following article contains some graphic descriptions of crimes that some people may find disturbing. Please do not continue if you have a heart condition or relative issues (But then again you probably shouldn’t even be on this site if that is the case).
When Arthur Schley arrived at a Wisconsin farmhouse on the evening of 17 November 1957 he was in for a very nasty surprise…
Mr Schley, a sheriff from the nearby town of Plainfield, was investigating the disappearance of 58-year-old shopkeeper Bernice Worden. Evidence from her store, a receipt found on the floor near a trail of blood and a missing cash till, had led him to the farmhouse.
The owner, 51-year-old Ed Gein, was not in but Sheriff Schley had a warrant to search the premises. As he walked through the trash in the darkened kitchen he brushed into something hanging from the ceiling.
He turned and shone his torch on the object.
It was a naked human carcass, beheaded, disembowelled and hung upside down from a ceiling beam. Mr Schley gagged at the sight of it but managed to avoid throwing up. The carcass turned out to be the freshly gutted remains of Mrs Worden and police found her head in a burlap sack in another part of the house.
Nails had been hammered through each ear and tied together with twine, as if in readiness for the head to be hung up as a trophy. Detectives spent the entire night, and the next day, trawling through the house. What they found marked a horrific new low in the annals of American crime.
Somebody had been using female body parts to fashion a series of ghoulish artefacts. A belt had been studded with nipples, a soup bowl had been created out of the top of a skull and lampshades and chairs had been fashioned out of human skin. Police found a box full of noses, a curtain pull with a pair of women’s lips sewed into it.
A shoebox under the bed contained dried female genitalia and hanging up in the closet was a “shirt” made of human skin, complete with a pair of breasts. On the wall were the faces of nine women, carefully preserved and mounted like the bizarre collection of a human hunter.
Ed Gein had some serious explaining to do.
He was arrested and taken to Wautoma County jailhouse, where police interrogated him. Gein initially denied everything. But gradually he cracked.
He admitted killing Mrs Worden, who was shot in the head with a .22 calibre rifle and then dragged outside to his car and transported back to the farmhouse. Later he confessed to the murder, three years earlier, of Plainfield innkeeper Mary Hogan, who had vanished in mysterious circumstances.
But he said most of the body parts had actually been taken from the corpses of women he had dug up in the local cemetery. Detectives were unsure if Gein was telling the truth on this and thought he may be responsible for four other murders in central Wisconsin dating back to 1947.
Eight-year-old Georgia Weckler had gone missing on her way home school and Evelyn Hartley, 15, had been abducted while babysitting. Also listed as missing were two deer hunters, Victor Travis and Ray Burgess, who vanished in December 1952. But all the body parts in the house came from female adults, including Mrs Hogan, and no trace was ever found of the four missing people. Police exhumed the bodies of eight women at Plainfield cemetery and discovered they had all been mutilated. Body parts, including faces, breasts, genitalia and strips of skin, had been removed by someone who had carefully placed the bodies back in their coffins and replaced the earth to avoid suspicion.
It transpired that Gein and a trusted friend identified only as Gus, had made these nocturnal raids only hours after these women’s funerals after reading their obituaries in the local newspaper. It appears he only began killing when Gus was moved to an old people’s home and Gein was unable to carry out his nocturnal exertions alone.
Gein told detectives, in a conversational almost chatty way, how he would wear the human skin shirt around the house at night and often placed the female genitalia over his naked groin as if he were a woman.
Although he was almost certainly a virgin, Gein was obsessed by women and the sexual power they had over men. Psychiatrists later concluded he was clinically insane. But what had driven him mad? The answer, as is often the case, lay in his childhood.
Edward Theodore Gein was born on 27 August 1906 in the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin to George and Augusta Gein. He had an elder brother, Henry, who was seven years older. George Gein was a timid, weak character. He was a farmer and a feckless waster with a serious drink problem. But the more dominant influence in Ed’s upbringing was his mother.
A powerful character with a puritanical view of life based on her fanatical Christianity, Augusta dominated the family and drummed into her sons the innate immorality of the world and the twin dangers of alcohol and loose women. She preached endlessly to her boys about the sins of lust and carnal desire and depicted all women, apart from herself, as whores.
Augusta’s strict view of life sowed the seeds of sexual confusion in adolescent Ed. His natural attraction towards girls clashed with his mother’s warnings of eternal damnation. A naturally shy and slightly effeminate boy, Ed never dated girls or had any healthy interaction with anyone of the opposite sex. Instead her nurtured a bizarre, almost Oedipal, devotion to his harridan of a mother.
Augusta Gein was not only a mother, wife and domestic rule-maker, but also the family breadwinner. She ran a grocery store in La Crosse, a growing metropolis on the banks of the upper Mississippi halfway between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But in 1914 disgusted by the “depravity” of the town she decided to move the family to a 195-acre farm deep in rural Wisconsin, where the family lived quietly for a quarter of a century.
In 1940 George Gein died of a heart attack but his widow continued to live in the farmhouse with her grown-up sons, who worked as handymen in nearby Plainfield to pay the household bills. Henry hankered after a “normal” life, maybe a wife and children of his own, he would frequently bad-mouth his mother within earshot of Ed, who remained a stalwart devotee of the matriarch. In May 1944 a fire broke out in the brush near the Geins’ farm.
When the fire department turned up Ed said his brother was missing but he led them directly to the spot where Henry lay, covered in soot. The police chose to ignore two marks on the back of his head and put Henry’s death down to him being asphyxiated by fumes as he fought the fire. Whether Ed had anything to do with his brother’s death remains a mystery to this day.
For a year Ed and his mother lived alone together in the big old farmhouse. Her health deteriorated and her moods would blow hot and cold. Sometimes she would berate him and accuse him of being a useless failure like his father. But at other times she would talk softly to him, tell him he was a “good boy” and even let him sleep in the same bed as her.
So when Augusta developed cancer and died on 29 December 1945 after a series of strokes Ed was devastated. He became increasingly deranged after her death. Gein left the rooms in the house, those he most closely associated with his mother, such as the sitting room and her bedroom, completely untouched, as shrines.
He confined himself mostly to the kitchen and a small utility room that he converted into a bedroom. These two rooms he filled with his reading material - anatomy books and pulp fiction, (mostly stories about wartime atrocities and South Sea cannibals). Ed went further and began to prowl the local cemetery, robbing the bodies of women after reading about their funerals in the local paper.
Mostly he chose older women, some of whom he knew vaguely, and went for plumper mature ladies who reminded him of his dear departed old mom.
Instead he cut faces, strips of skin, whole breasts and genitalia from the dead and fashioned them into hideous trophies, which were later found in his home. Visitors to the farmhouse, and there were few, occasionally caught glimpses of these morbid ornaments. But Ed, who continued to potter around town doing handyman chores, managed to laugh it off or claimed they were wartime souvenirs his cousin had found while fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
His grave-robbing antics went unnoticed for years but in 1954 he was forced to give it up when his accomplice moved into a home. It was only then that he took to murder. After Ed Gein’s arrest he was assessed as mentally unfit for trial and was committed to the Central State Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin.
With Gein away from the farm, the people of Plainfield were able to wreak their vengeance on his home, which had come to embody evil in their community. On the morning of 20 March 1958 firefighters dashed to the Gein farmhouse but were unable to save it from being razed to the ground by a blaze, which had almost certainly been started deliberately.
When told about the fire, Gein simply said: “Just as well”.
Some of his possessions, including his 1949 Ford sedan, survived the fire and were sold off at auction. The car was bought by an entrepreneur who exhibited it at state fairs under the banner: “Come and see the Ghoul Car, in which Ed Gein transported his victims”. It was not the only Gein commodity that made money.
His own story was the basis of the film Psycho, in which loner Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) murders women out a deranged sense of loyalty to his dead mother. The film was an instant hit, became a classic, led to sequels and made the studio, which made it millions.
Parts of Gein’s character were also an influence on Tobe Harris’s classic 1973 horror movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the killer Leatherface wears a mask made out of human skin, just like Gein did.
Then there was Silence of the Lambs, which featured a transvestite serial killer called Buffalo Bill who murders women for their skin and then dresses himself up in it. Finally, in 2000, came Ed Gein The Movie, which became a minor box office hit.
As for Gein himself, he was finally declared mentally competent to stand trial in November 1968. He was found guilty of the first degree murder of Bernice Worden but was found to have been insane at the time of the killing and was sent back to hospital in Waupun, much to the chagrin of the Worden family.
Gein was a docile and amenable patient who spent his time doing occupational therapy, rug making and stone polishing and developed an interest in being a radio ham. The head nurse said: “If all our patients were like him, we’d have no trouble at all.” But some female members of staff recall feeling discomforted when they found Gein staring at them.
On 26 July 1984 Ed Gein died of cancer and was buried in Plainfield cemetery, right next to his mother and only yards from the graves he had robbed 30 years earlier. Ironically vandals later desecrated his grave.
This profile of Ed Gein was written by BBC News Online’s Chris Summers.