[Note: In anticipation of finally completing Famous Serial Killers in the way I originally intended, I penned this last night, my second article on Gein (another is published in the book Midwest Maniacs.)]
Ed Gein has gained a sort of lasting infamous notoriety as the single individual whose crimes have inspired more bad movies than anyone else, save for Jack the Ripper. He was, admittedly, the inspiration for Norman Bates, the dress-wearing, mommy-fixated Freudian freako from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie Psycho (based upon the book by Robert Bloch). Ed also inspired the leather-faced loonies in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, the dual characters of Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and numerous adaptations of his own sordid saga in countless comic books, movies, and even collector cards. Ed is a sort of celebrity necrophiliac. We’re certain that, if he were alive today, he’d have his own reality program. Not too shabby for an obscure little man from Plainfield Wisconsin who most likely died a virgin.
Ed was born roundabout the year 1906 to George and Augusta Gein. His mother, as if anyone needed any reminding, was a religious zealot who obsessed over the evils of women and inculcated a deep fear of Hell and the “Whore of Babylon” in both of her young sons (Ed’s brother Henry included).
She did this by forcing them to listen as she read from Revelations, and by forbidding them to have much of anything in the way of social interaction. They were both expected to tolerate the stultifying drudgery of farm life with no reprieve, no safety-valve, no education in the ways of the wicked world.
Carnival goers pay money to view Ed Gein’s car.
As she aged, Augusta became more and more tyrannical, controlling; more of a religious fanatic. Obsessed with the perceived sin of sexual congress in general (and the sexual chastity of her sons in particular), Augusta reportedly began to lose interest in the pathetic, often drunkenly volatile George, who, at any rate, died quite unexpectedly in 1947.
This left Augusta alone with her two boys–one of which, Henry, had had just about enough of the suffocating drudgery of his lot in life, and was, according to legend, getting ready to flee the coop. This must have unaccountably troubled Augusta, and, in turn, troubled the devoted 34-year-old son Ed.
Henry was unexpectedly killed in a brush fire, while out with Ed. The exact circumstances of his death are peculiarly suspicious. Did Ed coax his brother into a circle of burning trees out of spite for his brother’s plan to “desert” the little family? Who knows.
At any rate, Ed now had Augusta all to himself. Both of them lived out the remainder of their marginal existences in a lonely old farmhouse where the wind wailed, the moon glowered, and (we may be reasonably certain) ghosts walked the creaking floorboards at all hours of the night. (Ah, the poeticism of our romantic vision.)
Ed was just a little boy when the idea of macabre butchery and death first crystallized itself in his mind. An apocryphal tale goes something like this:
The Geins ran a little store on Main Street, a down-at-the-heels small town grocery where they doubled as butchers. Ed (And presumably Henry) was forbidden to look in the room in back, where George and Augusta both helped in the slaughtering of animals and the cutting of fresh meat.
But, damn it, Ed did it anyway.
The little boy must have crept over to the door one boring, interminable day, and slowly opened it. Just a peek inside, he thought, to satisfy his curiosity. Of course, like Bluebeard’s luckless wife, his curiosity cost him greatly.
He was astounded by the image of his parents–particularly his mother–clothed in dripping leather aprons, pulling the flesh from the body of a freshly-killed hog which was hanging suspended by a hook in the ceiling. Ed recoiled, but was filled, we must assume, with a curious mixture of loathing, fascination…and weird, forbidden arousal. A psychologist might be able to tell you what sorts of neural associations the wildly schizophrenic Ed (who beyond having a sinister “sleepy eye” was, reportedly, given to laugh at the most inappropriate moments) must have gained from seeing his sainted mother covered in blood and a leather apron, pulling the muscles and flesh off of a butchered pig…but we’re certain we can’t.
It was not long before trouble began to plague Ed’s peculiar paradise. Augusta suffered a series of strokes. She died. Ed was alone, teetering on the brink of sanity.
He began to formulate a wall between himself and his past, the outside world, delving deeper and deeper into the macabre kingdom of his own fantasies and fixations, closing off Augusta’s bedroom and keeping it in pristine, virginal condition. The rest of the decrepit house fell into sordid squalor.
Ed began to obsessively collect sensational popular magazines, mostly featuring subjects of murder, crime, and “true detection.” He also liked books on Nazi atrocities (think: lampshades made from human skin, ashtrays made from pelvic bones, that sort of thing), as well as books on anatomy, embalming, funeral customs…pleasant bathroom reading, to be sure.
Ed subsisted on cans of pork and beans, heated directly in their can on the stove. He did odd jobs, sold his fields, and even babysat (the reader is forgiven a shudder at the thought). Of course, some of the local children began to gossip that Fast Eddie had shown them “shrunken heads” he claimed a relative had sent him from the South Pacific during the war.
Ed was also courting,. Or, at the least, was making a rather comic attempt to do so. He was interested in middle aged women that looked like his mother; no surprise there. One such woman was a buxom, foul-mouthed barmaid named Mary Hogan.
(Note: During the ensuing ten years after all of Ed’s close relations died, a number of peculiar disappearances, most notably that of a babysitter named Weckler, occurred in close proximity. It has been suggested that Ed may very well have perpetrated these murders. If so, he never confessed to doing so.)
There was also talk that the grounds around Ed’s house were haunted–by the mysterious apparition of a woman with long flowing hair. The titular ghost wa said to cavort madly near the moonlit road. There may, in point of fact, have been some truth to this.
Mary Hogan disappeared in 1954, leaving only a trail of blood at her workplace. It would be three long years before another middle aged woman, the hardware store owner Bernice Worden, would also mysteriously vanish.
It was November 16th of 1957, to be exact, and two eyewitnesses had seen a funny little man go into Bernice Worden’s store the day she came up missing–a little fellow that bore a striking resemblance to the Elmer Fudd-like Eddie Gein. Bloodstains were found in the store; the cash register was missing.
Sherriff Shley went to hunt up Ed. He found him having dinner with some friends in town. (More likely, they were less “friends” than folks that felt a certain amount of pity for the lonely, eccentric little man.)
When confronted by the lawmen, Ed slipped up badly, said “If someone is pointing the finger at me being responsible for the kidnapping of Bernice Worden, they’re trying to frame me!” This made the policemen mighty suspicious, as they had yet to even tell Ed why they were there.
The rest, of course, is horrifying history. Ed was taken in for questioning. Meanwhile, the sheriff and his deputies went out to the Gein homestead. What they found out there would haunt them (or anyone else who was unlucky enough to actually see it) to their dying days.
The headless body of Bernice Worden was trussed up, like a deer, in a disused shed, hanging upside down. She had been decapitated, and was split from her groin to her neck.
As if this hideous discovery was not enough, the officers that ventured into the macabre filth of the decayed Gein farmhouse also discovered Ed’s grisly collection of sick relics, the products of his demented craftsmanship and grave robbing excursions.
A knife with a handle of human bone.
Skulls on the bedposts.
Lampshades covered in human skin.
Human lips on a drawstring.
A heart in a sauce pan.
Leggings made from female skin.
A torso with strings made from a female corpse.
Several “skin masks” (some lovingly oiled to preserve their flexibility) with lipstick applied. These were obviously made to wear.
A rocker with human femur bones for armrests.
Bernice Worden’s severed head with nails hammered into it.
Various fleshly odds and ends.
The lawmen were physically sick. Ed became an overnight psycho celebrity.
In the wake of the ghoulish discoveries, jokes began to circulate, “Geiners”, so named because they poked what seemed like harmless fun at the hideous doings of the Plainfield maniac. Not only that, but Ed’s car (in which he presumably, transported the bodies he exhumed from Plainfield cemetery as well as his two living victims) was bought and put on tour!
The farmhouse itself burned to the ground, quite mysteriously. Arson was suspected. (But, if it was local residents that committed the arson, could they really be blamed?)
Ed was found unfit to stand trial. He was committed to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he died July 26th, 1984. Further examination by psychiatrists over the years yielded interesting information, such as Ed’s off-the-cuff answer to the old saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Ed replied, “If you have a bird in your hand, you might squeeze it too hard, and kill it.”