As psychopathic killers go, Ed Gein has to be up there as one of the sickest ever. Murder and mutilation wasn't enough for Ed. He wanted to BE his victims - fashioning masks, belts, leggings, and countless other items out of their flesh for him to wear. And when there were no victims to be had? Why Ed just dug up freshly buried bodies from the local graveyard and used their skin instead! The inspiration behind horror characters Hannibal Lecter, Norman 'Psycho' Bates, and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gein was a man who was truly monstrous.
Ed Gein was born in 1906 and raised in the American town of Plainsfield, Wisconsin. The youngest of two sons born to domineering bible-thumper Augusta Gein and her alcoholic husband George, young Ed was quiet and shy. Some might say, a mummy’s boy even. Hardly surprising when you consider his mother’s personality. A devout Lutherian, Augusta drummed into her boys that the world was full of bad and wicked people. Including their father. Believing alcohol to be immoral, Augusta despised her boozy husband, and would regularly berate him in front of their sons. It wasn’t just alcohol Augusta hated. She utterly loathed her own gender.
In Augusta’s mind, women were naturally evil – they were harlots, and prostitutes sent by the devil to test the will of men. Every day, little Ed and his brother Henry would receive a rabid sermon from their mother, who would read passages from the Old Testament about death, murder, and the vengeance of the lord. It’s widely believed the fanatical behaviour and rampant misogyny of Ed’s mother – herself a schizophrenic – contributed largely to the twisted personality Gein later developed. So concerned was Augusta about her sons being ‘corrupted’ by the outside world, that friendships were forbidden – with Gein and his brother only allowed out of the house to go to school. All their other time was spent working on the farm where they lived.
And for decades, that’s how Ed’s life remained – living and working on his parent’s farm along with his brother Henry. After their father finally died of alcohol induced heart failure when Ed was 33, Henry did something unspeakable – he spoke of moving out of home, to live with another woman. Worse, he started criticising their mother as wicked and unstable. Ed was horrified. He worshipped his mother. How dare Henry speak like that?
Mummy’s boy gone bad
Four years passed, with Henry and Ed still working side by side on the farm. But then, in May 1944, when Ed was 38, he and his brother began burning dead vegetation on their land. But somehow the fire got out of control. Worse, Henry was missing. Eventually, later that day, Henry’s body was found lying face down in the dirt, with not a burn on him. The official cause of death was a heart attack, and despite police noticing he also had bruises to his head, foul play was ruled out.
Now, it was just Gein and his beloved mother living on the farm. A mummy’s boy, Gein dedicated himself to looking after her, particularly when she suffered a severe stroke after Henry’s death. Finally, in December 1945, Augusta died leaving Ed all alone at the farm. He was devastated. He saw his mother as his only friend, and the perfect specimen of womanhood. How would this virginal, and some said effeminate, man-child ever cope without her?
The first thing Ed did was to board up all the rooms used by his mother – including the whole of the upstairs of the farm, the living room and parlour – as a way of trying to preserve her spirit forever. He lived in the remaining downstairs rooms, which soon fell into filth and chaos. To the outside world however, Gein seemed the same as ever. Quiet, polite, and either working hard on the farm or as a local handyman.
Then, in 1957 – 12 years after Gein’s mother passed away, the people of Plainsfield suffered a shock. The owner of the local hardware store, Bernice Worden, vanished. As he was her last recorded customer, Gein immediately fell under suspicion, and police were despatched to the farm to carry out a search. What the officers found there would haunt them until the end of their days.
Inside Ed Gein’s house, police discovered numerous skulls and body parts, displayed in the most sickening way. Female skulls adorned the posts of Gein’s bed, in the kitchen human skulls had been used as bowls. But worse were scores of items Gein had fashioned out of human flesh. Using his skills as a tanner, Gein had made masks out of the flesh of female corpses’ faces, a pair of leggings from the skin of a woman’s legs, a belt from female human nipples, and a corset from a female torso. The police also found numerous body parts, and items of furniture made from human flesh, including a lampshade from a woman’s face.
If that weren’t horror enough, they found Bernice Worden’s decapitated body in Gein’s shed. She’d been shot dead, then hung upside down by her ankles, and her internal organs removed. Police also found the remains of Mary Hogan – a bar owner who’d gone missing three years earlier. Gein had turned her face into a ghoulish mask.
The shell-shocked officers arrested Gein, who admitted shooting both Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan. But where had the other body parts come from?
Gein confessed between 1947 and 1952 he’d made nine trips to the local graveyard in the dead of night, so he could dig up the bodies of recently buried women. But not just any woman would do. Gein kept a close eye on the obituaries so he could dig up the bodies of middle aged women. Women he thought resembled his mother.
After digging up the corpses, Gein would drive them home then set about removing the flesh and fashioning them into an array of macabre items.
Wanting to become Mummy
As police listened with pure horror to Gein’s confession, the true extent of his madness became clear. He denied having sex with the bodies, saying they smelt too bad. But sex wasn’t really what this was all about.
The flesh leggings and corset, the face masks – they were all part of his plan to make an entire ‘woman suit’ – a costume of stitched together flesh he could wear to become a woman. Or, according to psychologists, so he could become his mother. It’s believed Gein’s adoration for his mother hid a deeper, darker emotion – pure hatred for her domineering and abusive ways.
Gein on Trial
In November 1957, Gein, who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia, pleaded not guilty to the murder of Bernice Worden on the grounds of insanity. Unfit to stand trial, he was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane where he spent the next 11 years. Then, in 1968, Gein was declared fit to stand trial. There he was found guilty of Bernice Worden’s murder. Though he admitted killing Mary Hogan he wasn’t charged with this due to the high costs involved in the trial. Once again, the judge declared Gein insane, and he was ordered to spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Ed Gein died age 77 of lung cancer.
Interestingly, despite his truly macabre history, Ed Gein is not technically counted as a serial killer, as his official murder toll is two. However, it’s widely believed Gein murdered his brother, and may have been responsible for several unsolved murders in the area. Whatever his true death toll, there’s no doubt Ed Gein was one of the sickest human beings ever to have lived!