Ed Gein: The Inspiration for Buffalo Bill and PsychoOn November 17, 1957, police in Plainfield, Wisconsin arrived at the dilapidated farmhouse of Eddie Gein, who was a suspect in the robbery of a local hardware store and disappearance of the owner, Bernice Worden. Gein had been the last customer at the hardware store and had been seen loitering around the premises.
Gein's desolate farmhouse was a study in chaos. Inside, junk and rotting garbage covered the floor and counters. It was almost impossible to walk through the rooms. The smell of filth and decomposition was overwhelming. While the local sheriff, Arthur Schley, inspected the kitchen with his flashlight, he felt something brush against his jacket.
When he looked up to see what it was he ran into, he faced a large, dangling carcass hanging upside down from the beams. The carcass had been decapitated, slit open and gutted. An ugly sight to be sure, but a familiar one in that deer-hunting part of the country, especially during deer season.
It took a few moments to sink in, but soon Schley realized that it wasn't a deer at all, it was the headless butchered body of a woman. Bernice Worden, the fifty-year-old mother of his deputy Frank Worden, had been found.
While the shocked deputies searched through the rubble of Eddie Gein's existence, they realized that the horrible discoveries didn't end at Mrs. Worden's body. They had stumbled into a death farm. The funny-looking bowl was a top of a human skull. The lampshades and wastebasket were made from human skin.
A ghoulish inventory began to take shape: an armchair made of human skin, female genitalia kept preserved in a shoebox, a belt made of nipples, a human head, four noses and a heart.
The more they looked through the house, the more ghastly trophies they found. Finally a suit made entirely of human skin. Their heads spun as they tried to tally the number of women that may have died at Eddie's hands.
All of this bizarre handicraft made Eddie into a celebrity. Author Robert Bloch was inspired to write a story about Norman Bates, a character based on Eddie, which became the central theme of the Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho.
In 1974, the classic thriller by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has many Geinian touches, although there is no character that is an exact Eddie Gein model. This movie helped put "Ghastly Gein" back in the spotlight in the mid-1970's.
Years later, Eddie provided inspiration for the character of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Like Eddie, Buffalo Bill treasured women's skin and wore it like clothing in some insane transvestite ritual.
The BeginningHow does a child evolve into an Eddy Gein? A close look at his childhood and home life provides a number of clues.
Edward Theodore was born on August 27, 1906, to Augusta and George Gein in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Eddie was the second of two boys born to the couple. The first born was Henry, who was seven years older than Eddie.
Augusta, a fanatically religious woman, was determined to raise the boys according to her strict moral code. Sinners inhabited Augusta's world and she instilled in her boys the teachings of the Bible on a daily basis. She repeatedly warned her sons of the immorality and looseness of women, hoping to discourage any sexual desires the boys might have had, for fear of them being cast down into hell.
Augusta was a domineering and hard woman who believed her views of the world were absolute and true. She had no difficulty forcefully imposing her beliefs on her sons and husband.
George, a weak man and an alcoholic, had no say in the raising of the boys. In fact, Augusta despised him and saw him as a worthless creature not fit to hold down a job, let alone care for their children. She took it upon herself to not only raise the children according to her beliefs but also to provide for the family financially.
She began a grocery business in La Crosse the year Eddie was born, and it brought in a fair amount of money to support the family in a comfortable fashion. She worked hard and saved money so that the family could move to a more rural area away from the immorality of the city and the sinners that inhabited it. In 1914 they moved to Plainfield, Wisconsin to a one-hundred-ninety-five-acre farm, isolated from any evil influences that could disrupt her family. The closest neighbors were almost a quarter of a mile away.
Although Augusta tried diligently to keep her sons away from the outside world, she was not entirely successful because it was necessary for the boys to attend school. Eddie's performance in school was average, although he excelled in reading. It was the reading of adventure books and magazines that stimulated Eddie's imagination and allowed him to momentarily escape into his own world.
His schoolmates shunned Eddie because he was effeminate and shy. He had no friends and when he attempted to make them his mother scolded him. Although his mother's opposition to making friends saddened Eddie, he saw her as the epitome of goodness and followed her rigid orders the best he could.
However, Augusta was rarely pleased with her boys and she often verbally abused them, believing that they were destined to become failures like their father. During their teens and throughout their early adulthood the boys remained detached from people outside of their farmstead and had only the company of each other.
HenryEddie looked up to his brother Henry and saw him as a hard worker and a man of strong character. After the death of their father in 1940, they took on a series of odd jobs to help financially support the farm and their mother. Eddie tried to emulate his brother's work habits and they both were considered by townspeople to be reliable and trustworthy. They worked as handymen mostly, yet Eddie frequently babysat for neighbors. It was babysitting that Eddie really enjoyed because children were easier for him to relate to than his peers. He was in many ways socially and emotionally retarded.
Henry was worried about Eddie's unhealthy attachment to their mother. On several occasions Henry openly criticized their mother, something that shocked Eddie. Eddie saw his mother as pure goodness and was mortified that his brother did not see her in the same way. It was possibly these incidents that led to the untimely and mysterious death of Henry in 1944.
On May 16th Eddie and Henry were fighting a brush fire that was burning dangerously close to their farm. According to police, the two separated in different directions attempting to put out the blaze. During their struggle, night quickly approached and soon Eddie lost sight of Henry. After the blaze was extinguished, Eddie supposedly became worried about his missing brother and contacted the police.
The police then organized a search party and were surprised upon reaching the farm to have Eddie lead them directly to the "missing" Henry, who was lying dead on the ground. The police were concerned about some of the things surrounding Henry's death. For example, Henry was lying on a piece of earth that was untouched by fire and he had bruises on his head.
Although Henry was found under strange circumstances, police were quick to dismiss foul play. No one could believe shy Eddie was capable of killing anyone, especially his brother. Later the county coroner would list asphyxiation as the cause of death.
The only living person Eddie had left was his mother and that was the only person he needed. However, he would have his mother all to himself for a very brief period.
On December 29th, 1945, Augusta died after a series of strokes. Eddie's foundations were shaken upon her death. Harold Schechter in his book Deviant, explained that Eddie had "lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world."
He remained at the farm after his mother’s death and lived off the meager earnings from odd jobs that he performed. Eddie boarded off the rooms his mother used the most, mainly the upstairs floor, the downstairs parlor and living room. He preserved them as a shrine to her and left them untouched for the years to follow. He resided in the lower level of the house making use of the kitchen area and a small room located just off of the kitchen, which he used as a bedroom.
It was in these areas that Eddie would spend his spare time reading death-cult magazines and adventure stories. At other times, Eddie would immerse himself in his bizarre hobbies that included nightly visits to the graveyard.
Seriously WeirdAfter the death of his mother, Eddie became increasingly lonely. He spent much of his spare time reading pulp magazines and anatomy books. The rooms he inhabited were full of periodicals about Nazis, South Sea headhunters and shipwrecks. From his readings Eddie learned about the process of shrinking heads, exhuming corpses from graves and the anatomy of the human body. He became obsessed with these weird stories and he would often recount some of them to the children he babysat. Eddie also enjoyed reading the local newspapers. His favorite section was the obituaries.
It was from the obituaries that Eddie would learn of the recent deaths of local women. Having never enjoyed the company of the opposite sex, he would quench his lust by visiting graves at night. Although he later swore to police that he never had sexual intercourse with any of the dead women he had exhumed ("they smelled too bad"), he did take a particular pleasure in peeling their skin from their bodies and wearing it. He was curious to know what it was like to have breasts and a vagina and he often dreamed of being a woman. He was fascinated with women because of the power and hold they had over men.
He acquired quite a collection of body parts, some of which included preserved heads. On one occasion a young boy that he sometimes looked after visited Eddie's farm. He later said that Eddie had showed him human heads that he kept in his bedroom. Eddie claimed the shriveled heads were from the South Seas, relics from headhunters.
When the young boy told people of his experience, his story was quickly dismissed as a figment of the young boy's imagination. Then somewhat later, the boy was vindicated when two other young men paid a visit to Eddie Gein's farm. They too had seen the preserved heads of women but thought them to be just strange Halloween costumes. Rumors began to circulate and soon most of the townspeople were gossiping about the strange objects Eddie supposedly possessed.
However, no one took the stories seriously until Bernice Worden disappeared years later. In fact, people would often joke with Eddie about having shrunken heads and Eddie would just smile or make reference to having them in his room. No one thought he was telling the truth or maybe they just didn’t want to believe it was true.
VanishedDuring the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Wisconsin police began to notice an increase in missing persons cases. There were four cases that particularly baffled police. The first was that of an eight-year-old girl named Georgia Weckler, who had disappeared coming home from school on May 1, 1947. Hundreds of residents and police searched an area of ten square miles of Jefferson, Wisconsin, hoping to find the young girl. Unfortunately, Georgia would never be seen or heard of again. There were no good suspects and the only evidence police had to go on were tire marks found near the place where Georgia was last seen. The tire marks were that of a Ford. The case remained unsolved and wouldn’t be opened again until years later when Eddie Gein was convicted of murder.
Another girl disappeared six years later in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Fifteen-year-old Evelyn Hartley had been babysitting at the time she had vanished. Evelyn's father repeatedly tried to phone the girl at the house where she was babysitting and there was no answer.
Worried, the girl’s father immediately drove to where she was babysitting. Nobody answered the door. When he peered through a window, he could see one of his daughter's shoes and a pair of her eyeglasses on the floor. He tried to enter the house, but all the doors and windows were locked. Except for one -- the back basement window. It was at that window where he discovered bloodstains. Petrified, he entered the house and discovered signs of a struggle.
Immediately he contacted police. When police arrived at the house they found more evidence of a struggle including blood stains on the grass leading away from the house, a bloody hand print on a neighboring house, footprints and the girl's other shoe on the basement floor.
A regional search was conducted but Evelyn was nowhere to be found. A few days later police discovered some bloodied articles of clothing that belonged to Evelyn, near a highway outside of La Crosse. The worst was suspected.
In November of 1952, two men stopped for a drink at a bar in Plainfield, Wisconsin before heading out to hunt deer. Victor Travis and Ray Burgess spent several hours at the bar before leaving. The two men and their car were never to be seen again. A massive search was conducted but there was no trace of them. They had simply vanished.
In the winter of 1954, a Plainfield tavern keeper by the name of Mary Hogan mysteriously disappeared from her place of business. Police suspected foul play when they discovered blood on the tavern floor that trailed into the parking lot.
Police also discovered an empty bullet cartridge on the floor. Police could only speculate about what might have happened to Mary because like the other four missing people, they had no bodies and little useful evidence. The only other common tie among these cases was that all of the disappearances happened around or in Plainfield, Wisconsin.
Skeletons in the ClosetOn November 17, 1957, after the discovery of Bernice Worden's headless corpse and other gruesome artifacts in Eddie's house, police began an exhaustive search of the remaining parts of the farm and surrounding land. They believed Eddie may have been involved in more murders and that the bodies might be buried on his land, possibly those of Georgia Weckler, Victor Travis and Ray Burgess, Evelyn Hartley and Mary Hogan.
While excavations began at the farmstead, Eddie was being interviewed at Wautoma County Jailhouse by investigators. Gein at first did not admit to any of the killings. However, after more then a day of silence he began to tell the horrible story of how he killed Mrs. Worden and where he acquired the body parts that were found in his house. Gein had difficulty remembering every detail, because he claimed he had been in a dazed state at the time leading up to and during the murder. Yet, he recalled dragging Worden's body to his Ford truck, taking the cash register from the store and taking them back to his house. He did not remember shooting her in the head with a .22 caliber gun, which autopsy reports later listed as the cause of death.When asked where the other body parts came from that were discovered in his house, he said that he had stolen them from local graves. Eddie insisted that he had not killed any of the people whose remains were found in his house, with the exception of Mrs. Worden.
However, after days of intense interrogation he finally admitted to the killing of Mary Hogan. Again, he claimed he was in a dazed state at the time of the murder and he could not remember exact details of what actually happened. The only memory he had was that he had accidentally shot her.
Eddie showed no signs of remorse or emotion during the many hours of interrogation. When he talked about the murders and of his grave robbing escapades he spoke very matter-of-factly, even cheerfully at times. He had no concept of the enormity of his crimes.
A Sexual PsychopathGein's sanity was in question and it was suggested that during trial he plead not guilty, by reason of insanity. Gein underwent a battery of psychological tests, which later concluded that he was indeed emotionally impaired. Psychologists and psychiatrists who interviewed him asserted that he was schizophrenic and a "sexual psychopath."
His condition was attributed to the unhealthy relationship he had with his mother and his upbringing. Gein apparently suffered from conflicting feelings about women, his natural sexual attraction to them and the unnatural attitudes that his mother had instilled in him. This love-hate feeling towards women became exaggerated and eventually developed in to a full-blown psychosis.
While Eddie was undergoing further interrogation and psychological tests, investigators continued to search the land around his farm. Police discovered within Eddie's farmhouse the remains of ten women. Although Eddie swore that the remaining body parts of eight women were those taken from local graveyards, police were skeptical.They believed that it was highly possible for the remains to have come from women Eddie may have murdered. The only way police could ascertain whether the remains came from women's corpses was to examine the graves that Eddie claimed he had robbed.
After much controversy about the morality of exhuming the bodies, police were finally permitted to dig up the graves of the women Eddie claimed to have desecrated. All of the coffins showed clear signs of tampering. In most cases, the bodies or parts of the bodies were missing.
There would be another discovery on Eddie's land that would again raise the issue of whether Eddie did in fact murder a third person. On November 29th, police unearthed human skeletal remains on the Gein farm. It was suspected that the body was that of Victor Travis, who had disappeared years earlier. The remains were immediately taken to a crime lab and examined. Tests showed that the body was not that of a male but of a large, middle-aged woman, another graveyard souvenir.
Try as the police did, they could not implicate Eddie in the disappearance of Victor Travis or the three other people who had vanished years earlier in the Plainfield area. The only murders Eddie could be held responsible for were Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan.
Media FrenzyWhen investigators revealed the facts about what was found on Eddie Gein's farm, the news quickly spread. Reporters from all over the world flocked to the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. The town became known worldwide and Eddy Gein reached celebrity-like status. People were repulsed, yet at the same time drawn to the atrocities that took place on Eddie Gein's farm.
Psychologists from all over the world attempted to find out what made Eddie tick. During the 1950’s, he gained notoriety as being one of the most famous of documented cases involving a combination of necrophilia, transvestism and fetishism. Even children who knew of the exploits of Eddie began to sing songs about him and make jokes in an effort to, as Harold Schechter suggests in his book Deviant, "exorcise the nightmare with laughter." These distasteful jokes became known as "Geiner’s" and were quick to become popular around the world.
Back in Plainfield, residents endured the onslaught of reporters who disrupted their daily life by bombarding them with questions about Eddie. However, many of them eventually became involved in the mania surrounding Eddie and contributed what information they had. Plainfield was now known to the world as the home of infamous Eddie Gein.
Most residents who knew Eddie had only good things to say about him, other than that he was a little peculiar, had a quirky grin and a strange sense of humor. They never suspected him of being capable of committing such ghastly crimes. But the truth was hard to escape. The little shy, quiet man the town thought they knew, was in fact, a murderer who also violated the graves of friends and relatives.
After Gein spent a period of thirty days in a mental institution and was evaluated as mentally incompetent, he could no longer be tried for first degree murder. The people of Plainfield immediately voiced their anger that Eddie would not be tried for the death of Bernice Worden. Yet, there was little the community could do to influence the court's decision. Eddie was committed to the Central State Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin. Soon after Eddie was sentenced to the mental institution, his farm went up for auction along with some of his other belongings.
Thousands of curiosity seekers diverged on the small town to see what possessions of Eddie's would be auctioned. Some of the things to be auctioned off were his car, furniture and musical instruments. The company that handled the business of selling Eddie's goods planned to charge a fee of fifty cents to look at Eddie's property. The citizens of Plainfield were outraged. They believed Eddie's home was quickly becoming a "museum for the morbid" and the town demanded something be done to put it to an end. Although the company was later forbidden to charge an entrance fee to the auction, residents were still not satisfied.
In the early morning of March 20, 1958 the Plainfield volunteer fire department was called to Eddie's farm. Gein's house was on fire. The house quickly burned to the ground, as onlookers watched in silent relief. Police believed that an arsonist was responsible for the blaze because there was no electrical wiring problems with the house. Although police carried out a thorough investigation, no suspect was ever found.
When Eddie learned of the destruction to his house he simply said, "Just as well."
Although the fire destroyed most of Eddie's belongings, there were still many things that were salvaged. What was left of Eddie's possessions would still be auctioned off, including farm equipment and his car. Eddie's 1949 Ford sedan, which was used to haul dead bodies, caused a bidding war and was eventually sold for seven hundred and sixty dollars. The man who purchased the car later put it on display at a county fair, where thousands paid a quarter to get a peek at the Gein "ghoul car." It seemed to the people of Plainfield that the public’s fascination with Eddie would never end.
Perfect PrisonerAfter spending ten years in the mental institution where he was recovering, the courts finally decided he was competent to stand trial. The proceedings began on January 22, 1968, to determine whether Eddie was guilty or not by reason of insanity, for the murder of Bernice Worden. The actual trial began on November 7, 1968.
Eddie looked on as seven witnesses took to the stand. Several of those who testified were lab technicians who performed the autopsy on Mrs. Worden, a former deputy sheriff and sheriff. Evidence was heavily stacked against Eddie and after only one week the judge reached his verdict. Eddie was found guilty of first-degree murder. However, because Eddie was found to have been insane at the time of the killing, he was later found not guilty by reason of insanity and acquitted. Soon after the trial he was escorted back to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
The families of Bernice Worden, Mary Hogan and the families of those whose graves were robbed would never feel justice was served. They believed Eddie escaped the punishment that was due to him, but there was nothing more they could do to reverse the court's decision.
Eddie would remain at the mental institution for the rest of his life where he spent his days happily and comfortably. Schechter describes him as the model patient:
Eddie was happy at the hospital -- happier, perhaps, than he'd ever been in his life. He got along well enough with the other patients, though for the most part he kept to himself. He was eating three square meals a day (the newsmen were struck by how much heavier Eddie looked since his arrest five years before). He continued to be an avid reader. He like his regular chats with the staff psychologists and enjoyed the handicraft work he was assigned -- stone polishing, rug making, and other forms of occupational therapy. He had even developed an interest in ham radios and had been permitted to use the money he had earned to order an inexpensive receiver.
All in all, he was a perfectly amiable, even docile patient, one of the few in the hospital who never required tranquilizing medications to keep his craziness under control. Indeed, apart from certain peculiarities -- the disconcerting way he would stare fixedly at nurses or any other female staff members who wandered into his line of vision -- it was hard to tell that he was particularly crazy at all…
Superintendent Schubert told reporters that Gein was a model patient. 'If all our patients were like him, we'd have no trouble at all.'
On July 26, 1984, he died after a long bout with cancer. He was buried in Plainfield cemetery next to his mother, not far from the graves that he had robbed years earlier.
BibliographyVery little survives in print about Eddie Gein. Of the few books that are available, the Crime Library recommends Harold Schechter's Deviant.
Martingale, Moira, St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1995.
Schechter, Harold, Pocket Books, 1989.
Woods, Paul Anthony, St. Martin's Press, 1995.