The SERIAL KILLER Serial
ED GEIN: IN THE FLESH
by Jessie Horsting (This article first appeared MG#5: Killers)
Oh , the poor tarnished fifties. Once revered as the decade of peace and prosperity, demand driven consumerism, 2.5 children with Howdy Doody futures and Davy Crockett hats, the decade has lately been revealed as an age of hype, hypocrisy, arrogance, and indifference to the world community. While Coca Cola exported America's goodwill beverage to the world's hinterlands, the government's atomic testing exported clouds of radioactive dust throughout the atmosphere, carrying a different if deadlier message to our global brethren. We're still discovering the poisons spawned in that era both geographically and socially but there is one story above all which crystallizes what was festering beneath the Saturday Evening Post image of America in the 1950s: Ed Gein In 1957 America learned a new word -- Psycho. Ed Gein's name has grown in legend but the deeds have become distilled by time, muddled by faulty memories and confused in the telling and retelling It is the story that "shocked the nation.'' It forced a whole new generation of aphorisms for female genitalia while every newspaper and magazine in the country tried to relate the horror of the events, editorial constraints presented them from using the words necessary to describe them. Ed Gein was and remains, the inspiration for countless books and film stories, notably Robert Bloch's (and Alfred Hitchcock's!)Psycho and Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs, but even these well-known stories pale at the truth revealed in Plainfield, Wisconsin.
Ed Gein was the second son of Augusta and George Gein (pronounced Geen) on August 27, 1906 near La Crosse Wisconsin. The family owned and ran a grocery store in the small town while Eddie and brother Henry attended school. During interviews conducted at the Central State Hospital after his arrest and commitment, Eddie stated he remembered very little of his childhood at La Crosse, but did share two incidents that he recalled very strongly. He told the psychologist that one afternoon while standing at the head of the basement stairs in his home, something that felt "almost like a push" nearly caused him to tumble down the steps. He recalled that his mother was in the kitchen as the time, and it was she who prevented him from falling. He was horrified at the obvious suggestion that his mother may actually have tried to push him down the stairs. He would insist, in testimony and interviews that, "My mother was a saint" though every psychologist who interviewed Ed over the years of his confinement would later assert August was a dominating rigid, and very likely, abusive head of the household.
Eddie's second recollection is certainly the more chilling. The family lived behind their grocery store and often prepared their own meat for resale, which was common at the time. The slaughter shed stood some distance behind the main house but both Eddie and Henry were forbidden to enter. Naturally, Eddie was filled with an intense curiosity about the shed and one afternoon, his parents nowhere to be seen, he recalled sneaking back to the building and peeking through the unlocked door. There stood his mother and father, wearing ankle-length leather aprons splattered with blood. A pig carcass hung upside down from a chainfall bolted to the ceiling, blood and offal spilling into a pan on the floor of the shed. He watched while his mother pulled the viscera from the slit belly, and vividly remembers her head turning toward the door, her arms still elbow deep in the belly of the pig, to meet his gaze of stunned surprise.
The rest of Eddie's childhood was fairly uneventful When he was right years old, the family moved to a 195-acre farm just outside the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Eddie attended school and was recalled by those who knew him as a very small and quiet child, unusual only for his drooping left eyelid and his habit of laughing at inappropriate times. Eddie quit school after eighth grade and stayed in Plainfield to help his family run the farm. He often did odd jobs for other farmers and townspeople, and was thought by the people of Plainfield to be a likable, thought quirky, member of the community.
From 1914 to 1940, the Geins lived anonymously in Plainfield, surviving the Depression, being untouched by World War II because both sons were too old for military duty by the time the U.S. entered the war. On April Fool's Day of 1940, Ed's father George died, the first death in the tight-knit family that seemed to prompt a series of tragedies in Ed's life. At the time of his father's death, Ed was an adult, still a virgin and still strangely attached to his mother. That attachment only grew firmer after George's death and caused a rift between the brothers. Henry thought the relationship was "unwholesome." Eddie retaliated by insinuated Henry was responsible for the death of their father. Three years later, Henry's mysterious death marked the first time Eddie came under suspicion of murder.
The morning of May 16, 1944, the brothers started a fire to clear some marshland on their farm, but the fire grew out of control. They separated in order to contain the blaze. According to Eddie, Henry failed to return to the house after the fire was put out. Eddie asked some men to help him search for Henry, but they were unsuccessful. However, later in the day, when Sheriff Frank Engle came to Eddie with a second search party, Eddie was able to lead them almost directly to where Henry's body was discovered. Eddie's only remark was, "Funny how that works." Although Sheriff Engle noted at the time that the body was sooty, but unburned, and the head showed bruising, Coroner George Bader declared asphyxiation as the cause of death, and no inquest was held.
Eddie and his mother continued to manage the farm until, after a series of strokes, Augusta died on December 29th, 1945. The effect of her death on Eddie was profound he blamed her death on the hardship of farm life and the moral degeneracy of the citizens of Plainfield, about whom Augusta complained ceaselessly. Ed also stated that he believed his mother's fatal stroke was caused by the stress of witnessing a neighbor beat a puppy to death.
In the space of five years, Ed had lost his entire family and at the age of 40 was alone for the first time in his life. After sealing off his mother's room and parlor from the rest of the house, Eddie began his descent into madness, perversion and murder.
The citizens of Plainfield, Wisconsin, saw nothing sinister in Ed Gein's eccentricities. He was described as "helpful" and "reliable" by those who knew him. He was not overly sociable, but would occasionally be seen at Mary Hogan's tavern in nearby Pine Grove, and would often have supper with neighbors Irene and Lester Hill, and do errands for whoever asked. He had no known intimate relationships with local women, though he had reportedly asked both Mary Hogan and shopkeeper Bernice Worden on different occasions to go out for a movie or dancing. Mary and Bernice were both fairy robust, middle-aged women who Ed would later confess "reminded" him of his mother.
In the period between 1946 and 1958, the communities surrounding Plainfield suffered a number of unexplained disappearances. On May 1, 1947, eight-year-old Georgia Weckler disappeared after a babysitter dropped her off in the driveway of her home. In 1952, Victor Travis, his dog, and a companion failed to return from a local deer hunting outing. Thought the dog and pieces of clothing were eventually recovered, the hunters and car had vanished from the area. On October 24, 1953, 15-year-old Evelyn Hartly was apparently abducted from the house where she was babysitting. All that remained of her in the house was her glasses, one shoe, and a bloody trial that led out through a basement window. None of the bodies were ever found.
The disappearance that alarmed the community was that of Mary Hogan. On December 8, 1954, local Portage County farmer Seymor Lester was the first to discover her missing when he walked into her usually busy tavern to find the place empty but for a pool of blood in the floor and a spent .32 cartridge shell nearby. Tracks of dried blood indicated Mary had been dragged to the back of the shop and loaded into a vehicle, Portage County Sheriff Harold Thompson had no leads or suspects and the case of Mary Hogan remained unsolved until 1957, when evidence of the most damning sort was discovered in the possession of Ed Gein.
Later, a neighbor reported that shortly after the disappearance of Mary Hogan, he was kidding Ed about her, saying, "if you'd spent more time courting Mary Hogan, she'd be cooking for you instead of being missing." Eddie was reported to have smiled and said, "She's not missing. She's down at the house now."
Between 1954 and 1957, the rumors in and around Plainfield regarding Eddie Gein grew stranger and stranger. Neighbors noticed his farmhouse had fallen into disrepair after the death of his mother. Although he survived by leasing parcels of land to surrounding farmers, and at one time made an effort to sell the property, word got around that her wouldn't allow prospective buyers to see any more of the onside of the house that the parlor and the upstairs rooms. Children in the are reported being shown "shrunken heads" that Eddie told them had been purchased through mail order. And there were persistent rumors of a "ghost" which had been seen at night in Eddie's yard: it appeared as a naked woman dancing, hair streaming in the moonlight. Two children reported, after actually visiting Ed's house, that he had "a bunch" of heads in his bedroom and that they didn't appear to be shrunken at all, but appeared to be dry, full-size heads. (Strangely, these and many other incidents involving Eddie prompted nothing more than gossip on the part of Eddie's neighbors.)
On Saturday, November 16, 1957, the first day of deer hunting season, most of the shops in Plainfield were closed as the local residents took to the woods. Opening day was a big event in the north woods. Bernice Worden, owner of the local hardware store, opened early and told her son Frank that she expected a busy day.
Bernice's first customer was Ed Gein. Ed had been there the day before, inquiring about antifreeze, and as he had promised, he had returned this Saturday morning just before 9:00 AM with a container. Bernice sold him the antifreeze wrote up the receipt and watched him leave. A few moments later, her returned. Could he try the Marlin .22 rifle? He had some shells in his pocket and wanted to see in the rifle could accommodate both the short and long .22.
Across the street, Bernard Muschinski was pumping gas at his Phillips 66 station, and recalled seeing the Worden delivery truck leaving the back of the store sometime between 8:45 and 9:30, but didn't think much of it at the time. Eddie's neighbor Elmo Ueeck was tying down the deer he shot when he saw Ed returning home. Hoping to apologize for hunting without permission on Ed's property, Elmo tried to wave Ed down, but Eddie just waved and smiled without slowing his car.
Bernice Worden's son Frank returned home from hunting that afternoon. He was surprised to find his mother's store with the lights on but locked, with no one in sight. His mother had said she was going to keep the store open all day. Frank hurried home to get a key and came back, entering the store. The delivery truck was gone.
Frank immediately called Sheriff Art Schley who, with Deputy Arnie Fritz, sped to the store. When they arrived, Frank Worden blurted out, "He's done something to her."
"Who?" Shley asked
Frank had been at the store on Friday when Eddie had been in. On the counter this Saturday morning was Bernice Worden's receipt for the sale of one quart of antifreeze.
Outside of town, Elmo Ueeck was troubled that Eddie would be angry about the deer he shot. Late on Saturday, he drove to the Gein farmhouse to apologize. Eddie was out front, changing the tires on his Ford. Eddie said not to worry about the incident, but Elmo was later struck by the fact that Eddie had begun taking the snow tires off his Ford, before winter had even begun.
Eddie had one more visitor that afternoon. Bob Hill the son of his neighbors Lester and Irene Hill, who owned the next farm over. Bob wanted Eddie to give him a ride into town to get a car battery. He came into the yard calling for Eddie, Eddie hurried out of the house, his arms bloody. He explained that he had been dressing a deer, but would wash up and give Bob a hand, He drove into town with Bob, picked up the battery and returned to the Hill farmhouse with the Hill's son. He stayed for dinner. That evening, Eddie was taken into custody by Deputies Dan Chase and Poke Spees in the Hill's driveway for the murder of Bernice Worden.
Even though he was on his way to pick up Ed Gein for questioning, Deputy Dan Chase was not convinced that the quiet little man could have had anything to do with the violent act at Worden's. However, when Chase questioned Gein, whom he found sitting in the Hill's driveway, he immediately got different versions from Gein of his activities that day. When questioned further, Gein abruptly blurted out, "Somebody framed me."
Deputy Chase asked, "Framed you for what?"
"Well, Mrs. Worden."
"What about Mrs. Worden?" asked Chase, who hadn't yet mentioned why he was questioning Gein.
"Well, she's dead, ain't she?" Gein said.
Chase asked, "How do you know she's dead?"
"Well, they were talking about it in there," said Gein, indicating the Lesters. Gein's stuttering reply was all the convincing Chase required. Chase radioed to Schley that he had Gein in custody. The Sheriff and other officials proceeded to Gein's farmhouse to look for evidence. Nothing could have prepared them for what they found.
At about 8:00 PM, using flashlights in the dark, the men entered the house through the summer kitchen, a screened-in shed attached to the house. Caught in the flashlight beams, suspended upside down from the ceiling by a length of wood threaded through her tendons, hung the body of Bernice Worden. She was naked, slit from her pubic mound to just under her collarbone, disemboweled and decapitated. The cavity had been washed clean, in the manner of dressed livestock. The men continued the search of the house with flashlights and kerosene lamps. Entering the kitchen, (pictured left) they were staggered by the smell, the filth and the accumulation of rubbish. A small path led through piles of newspapers, old cartons, bits of food, empty tins and unwashed dishes. The washbasin was filled with sand. Boxes of pulp magazines, feed sacks and dirty clothing were piled helter-skelter around the room. On a shelf above the stove was a coffee can filled with old wads of chewing gum, surrounded by half-filled containers of moldy liquid near a set of dentures. On the stove itself were several unwashed tin bowls. In front of the stove, wrapped in a plastic bag, was the heart of Bernice Worden. Nearby, wrapped in newspaper, were her entrails.
On the kitchen table, amid discarded clothing and old papers, was the top half of a skull Ed used as a soup bowl. He would later tell investigators that he got the idea from a magazine. One of the kitchen chairs, on closer inspection, had a seat rewoven from strips of human flesh. An investigator later commented that," It was not a very good job." Bits of dried fat hung from the underside where Ed had not cleaned the strips carefully.
A portable generator and floodlights were brought to the farmhouse. More chairs were found to have been reupholstered with flesh. In the room off the kitchen which Ed used as a bedroom, they saw two skulls impaled on his bedposts. A crude lampshade and wastebasket made of skin were near the nightstand, as well as a belt which appeared to be made of several female's nipples dried and sewn together. They found a knife with a handle fashioned from human bone and several more skull caps. In Ed's bedroom, they discovered a shoebox with eight dried vulvas and one fresh one. Some had string attached to each side and one appeared to have been painted with silver paint. The fresh vulva had been recently salted and was determined to fit the area missing from Bernice's body. They found a collection of four human noses in another container, sets of lips and other parts from various heads. The flesh from four faces were stuffed with paper and hung on the wall, and five other faces were found elsewhere in the room. The hair was still attached to these "masks" which had been carefully peeled from the skulls and preserved. Some had lipstick applied to the lips.
They discovered several pairs of leggings fashioned from skin and a complete female upper front torso that had been dried, with strings attached to the sides so it could be worn. Behind a kitchen door, bundled into a bag, was the dried face and hair of another female which was identified by one investigator as that of Mary Hogan. The rest of the house had been closed off and investigators now moved to search the other rooms. Opening the door to the downstairs parlor, they were stunned to find the room tidy and undisturbed. Other than a layer of dust over the furniture, nothing was out of order in the parlor nor in his mother's room. The upstairs of the house was virtually empty, and the investigators concluded that the remains of Gein's madness was confined to the two downstairs rooms.
Sifting through the rubble in the two occupied rooms, investigators discovered dozens of defleshed bones, assorted noses, breasts and lips from an inestimable number of bodies. Late in the night, Bernice Worden's head was discovered in a burlap sack hidden beneath a blanket in the summer kitchen. Two long nails, bent as hooks, protruded from her ears, with a length of twine attached to the nails so the head could be conveniently hung. The coroner's examination of the head revealed the entrance wound from a .22 caliber at the back of the head, just above the hairline, X-rays revealed the bullet lodged just behind the left eye, The mutilations, they determined, had all occurred after death.
Gein was questioned that night by Sheriff Schley and District Attorney Earl Kileen. Although Ed admitted being at Bernice Worden's store, and admitted seizing her body and butchering it, he insisted he did not recall the events of her death. Later, Ed would admit that he had loaded the Marlin rifle he had been handling, and that it had discharged, and that the bullet had struck Bernice Worden, but that the shooting had been unintentional. He would maintain that the shooting was accidental the rest of his life. He at first denied any involvement in the death of Mary Hogan, or the disappearances of Evelyn Hartly, Georgia Weckler or Victor Travis, but later confessed to the killing of Mary Hogan.
His explanation for the great number of bodies and body parts present in the home was that he had robbed nine graves in local cemeteries between 1947 and 1954, He could not recall all the graves he robbed, but did recall the name of Eleanor Adams, whose grave he claimed to have robbed on an August night a few hours after her burial. Mable Eversen was another, both in the Plainfield cemetery, Gein claimed to have made over forty visits to the Plainfield and Springfield Cemeteries, though he only took bodies on "nine or ten" occasions. Upon exhumation, the graves of Adams and Eversen had indeed been violated and the authorities ceased further exhumation.
Though Gein could only account for 12 bodies, including Bernice Worden, the coroner's office was able to identify a minimum of 15 different bodies, or parts of bodies, in the Gein home. Gein's ash heap was examined, as well as a trench where he disposed of garbage, and many other bones and pieces of clothing were discovered. The bits of bone and teeth that were sifted from his ash heap were impossible to identify positively as belonging to the known victims found on the premises.
Investigators also suspected there were several other victims buried somewhere on Gein's 195 acres, though only a few more bones were recovered from the grounds.
The news of the "Plainfield Butcher" broke on Sunday and, on the following Monday, Plainfield was overrun by reporters from all over the country. The most sensational headlines and radio reports only hinted at the facts. Rumors of cannibalism and a "murder factory" were reported as news, and the newsmen were so dogged in their attempts to speak to Gein that he was removed to Madison, the state capital, following his arraignment later in the week. He was questioned many times in both Plainfield and Madison, and eventually admitted to a variety of perversions, but only two murders.
His home and its contents, after all evidence was removed, was scheduled for auction on March 30, 1958. Ten days prior to the auction, the house was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin. The remaining property, including the Ford used to transport Bernice Worden, was sold for a total of $5,375.00. The car fetched $760.00 from a promoter who exhibited it around the country as "The Ghoul Car." Most of the proceeds went to settle a suit filed by the estates of Eleanor Adams and Bernice Worden for reparations. The balance went to the state and the county to cover the cost of the investigation.
At Ed's sanity hearing on January 6, 1958, he was found unfit to stand trial and was committed to the Central State Hospital until such time as he was judged able to assist in his own defense. Transcripts of Gein's questioning, psychiatric interviews and hearings, as well as his eventual trial are singular in that he rarely made a direct statement. Virtually every answer was prefaced by "I may have done..." or "I could have done...". Though he was indirect, he showed little remorse for the mutilations and murders he admitted to performing.
Gein confessed that many of the body parts he had preserved were meant to be worn. He would undress and strap on the preserved breasts and leggings, tie a vagina over his penis and don a face mask and "dance" in his yard on warm nights, or he would don a mask or vagina and wear it while indoors. He denied having intercourse with any of the corpses, saying, "they smelled too bad." He did admit, however, to selecting corpses that reminded him physically of his mother. One psychiatrist noted that Gein's denial conflicted with "hearsay" from earlier confessions in which he admitted to having sexual relations with some of the resurrected bodies. He denied eating any of the body parts, but admitted having made a study of cannibalism and seemed very knowledgeable on the subject. He said he would not eat any of the parts because, "they could make you sick."
He reported having suffered hallucinations, seeing faces in piles of leaves, and a flock of vultures in the trees near his home. He admitted having olfactory hallucinations often smelling what he described as "flesh" smells at his home and in the hospital where he was confined.
After ten years of confinement, Central State Hospital Director Dr. Shubert notified Wisconsin Supreme Court judge Robert Gollmar that Gein was fit to stand trial. Waushara County District attorney Howard Dutcher and Milwaukee attorney Robert E. Sutton would prosecute and Gein would be represented by the man who represented him at the time of his arrest, William Belter. The trial began November 7, 1968. Gein was charged only with the first-degree murder of Bernice Worden. The verdict was to be followed immediately by a determination of whether or not Gein was sane at the time of the murder.
Gein was found guilty, then not guilty by reason of insanity and returned immediately to Central State Hospital. In 1974 he applied to be released, but was denied. Had he been imprisoned for murder, he would have been eligible for parole by the late seventies, but he instead remained confined for the rest of his life. He was eventually moved to the low security Mendota Mental Health Hospital at the age of 72 (before such institutions were legislated out of existence during the Regan era.) He died July 26, 1984, of respiratory failure and was buried next to his mother in the Plainfield Cemetery.
Though the case of Ed Gein was a sensation at the time, the forces compelling him were never broadly examined either in print or in the films he inspired. They are almost clichés: a lonely little man, abnormally attached to his mother and influenced by her rigid world view, becomes incapable of forming relationships and perverts his need for companionship into murder, necrophelia and transvestitism. It seems evident that much of Eddie's behavior was enacting his wish to recreate his mother, to physically enter and become her.
Ed's story has obsessed filmmakers and writers since the time it made headlines, perhaps because the grisly nature of the crimes contrasted so sharply with the age. Or perhaps our interest can be attributed to the intimacy between this murderer and his victims, and his compulsion to collect everything. Almost every other killer in history disposed of their victims. Ed kept his. They were tended, preserved and worshiped.
You can never truly separate a boy from his mother.
© 2000 by Jessie Horsting and Midnight Graffiti. All rights reserved. All body parts preserved.
References include: transcripts and depositions on file in Washura County, Wisconsin, Deviant by Harold Schecter, Edward Gein, by Judge Robert Gollmar, True Detective, August 1958, Hunting Humans by Michael Newton and Life magazine, March 1958. Photos © Life Magazine.