Kill some people, and you’re a murderer.
Have police find the remains of dead people on your homestead, and you’re a serial killer.
Wear the skin of dead people as you dance in the moonlight, and you’re in a whole other world of weird, baby.
And that’s just the beginning. When police began searching the farm of Wisconsin loner Ed Gein (pronounced ‘Geen’) in 1957, they found lots of other horrors, and the world discovered that although bad people have always been with us on this Earth, some of our neighbors can turn out to be murderous, batshit-crazy old bastards who belong only in nightmares and works of horror fiction.
Ed Gein was raised by an embittered, alcoholic father and crazy religious mother (surprise, surprise), and had a brother named Henry. Little Ed was a solitary child, pretty good in school, but often picked on by bullies; his mother doted on him. Besides making sure the boys received Bible instruction every day, she made sure they knew that all women except herself were filthy whores and that any sexual thought or deed on their part made baby Jesus cry.
After Ed’s father died, the two boys lived with their mother on a farmland the family had purchased some years before, which was somewhat away from town so that the boys could be spared the sinful influence of the local townspeople. A fire on the farmstead in 1944 caused Henry’s death – which the coroner ruled was due to asphyxiation, even though there were signs of blunt trauma to his head. Ed got to live alone with his mother for only about ten months, however, as she died from a series of strokes the following December.
Ed’s last several months alone with the older woman must have been blissful, if we can assume that he had an unhealthy fixation upon her (and I think we can). He got to tend the woman hand and foot, suffering her psychological abuses one minute then having her fawn over him the next. Apparently Ed got to stay with his mother all night on several occasions, possibly sleeping in the same bed with her. In any case, his entire world (he was about 39 at this time) revolved around his farm duties and doting upon his insane, dying mother.
After her death, Ed simply lived a solitary life on his farm outside Plainfield, Wisconsin. When they remembered him at all, people knew him as a quiet, small, strange guy who only came into town to buy provisions or stop by the tavern occasionally. He was polite but definitely a loner; he did the odd chore or handyman job for a couple of local folks. Although known to have a morbid sense of humor, the guy seemed perfectly harmless. Then people started disappearing.
On November 16, 1957, local hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared; when her son Frank returned from hunting that night, he found her store deserted, the front door unlocked – and a trail of blood leading through the place to the open back door. The police were called, and an investigation quickly found a lead: a receipt for antifreeze made out to customer Ed Gein.
When the cops went out to Ed’s farm to question him about Bernice, they made an unbelievably shocking discovery: they found the woman hanging by her heels in Ed’s summer house, her head removed and her torso sliced open as though she were a deer being gutted and cleaned.
Reinforcements were called in, and the farm was searched. The men found more horrible stuff to give them plenty of nightmares for years to come, including:
-A belt made of female nipples
-A box containing nothing but human noses
-A drum made from human skin stretched over a coffee can
-A lamp shade made from human skin
-Human organs in the refrigerator
-Bowls fashioned from the tops of human skulls
-Chairs upholstered in human skin (he was big on skin, apparently)
-A shoe box – under Ed’s bed – that contained the remains of various women’s genitalia
-The faces of women, stuffed and mounted on the wall like trophies.
-Oh, and a vest made from a woman’s tanned & cured skin, which Ed often wore at night pretending to be his dead mother.
…And there was plenty more. Ed Gein was brought in for a lengthy interrogation, while the town of Plainfield went into shock as local newspapers recounted the gruesome discoveries. Interestingly, however, Ed admitted to only two murders: Bernice Worden, and another woman, the owner of the tavern where Ed often stopped for a beer. Where did he get the other corpses? Why, he dug them up from the local cemetary, of course – a hobby he had been pursuing for a few years, perhaps as far back as his mother’s death.
Ed was put away, not in prison, but in a mental institution. Not long after his arrest, somebody burned his home to the ground (much to the delight of the local townspeople). His property was auctioned off to a developer. And Ed’s car – the trunk of which had apparently been used to haul some of his projects – was bought by a carnival entrepreneur, who displayed it to paying crowds for years afterward, to his great profit. For a while, anyway – before long citizen protests had run him out of fairs and carnivals all over the state, forcing him to head to parts unknown (probably the South) to stay in business.
Ed Gein died in a sanitarium in 1984, having spent the previous few decades locked away from polite society. In that time, however, his legend grew, and he became something of a poster child for the macabre – even if most folks didn’t quite remember his name, or know all the details of his story. Ed’s misdeeds inspired plenty of pop culture fare: novel Psycho by fellow Wisconsinian Robert Bloch, which was made into the celebrated Hitchcock movie; Tobe Hooper’s film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and later, the character of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal genius from the film Silence of the Lambs. Among others, of course. For writers and creators of horror fiction, Ed’s nocturnal career has been a rich goldmine of death and terror and depravity.
Ed Gein was a monster, and more disturbingly, he was a monster who lived a quiet, anonymous life among the people of his hometown. Ultimately, Ed’s legacy rests with the unease we all have about the strange, the outcasts, the quiet loners. Certainly, the great majority of these people are completely decent, harmless folks. But… we dare not examine their doings too closely, because what we discover may be horrible enough to fuel our nightmares for many years to come.