The Plainfield Ghoul
"they smelled too bad"
On November 16, 1957, Bernice Worden disappeared from her local Plainfield hardware store under suspicious circumstances. When her son, Deputy Sheriff Frank Worden, entered the locked store he found blood stains on the floor. He told investigators he knew that a local man by the name of Ed Gein had been in the store the previous evening and said he would return the next morning.
The Waushara County Sheriff’s Department arrested Gain at a local grocery store and then decided the search his home at the family farm. What they found there would be the stuff of nightmares. The body of Bernice Worden was found strung up in Gein’s wooden shed, with horrific mutilations. Inside the delapidated house, Sheriff’s deputies came across even more ghastly discoveries, such as skull and bone fragments, clothing made from human skin and furniture made from human body parts.
After the death of his mother, Gein had visited local graveyards and exhumed recently buried bodies, taking them back to his farm where he used the skin from their corpses to fashion himself a “woman suit”. Declared criminally insane, he would spend the rest of his life confined to a mental institute. The ghoulish crimes of “The Butcher of Plainfield” would eventually serve as the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s most memorable villains.
Edward Theodore Gein was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin on August 27, 1906, to Augusta and George Gein. He was the second of two boys born to the couple, with the first born Henry some seven years older than his brother. Their mother Augusta was a fanatically religious woman, who was determined to raise her boys according to a strict moral code.
She considered the world to be inhabited by sinners, and instilled in her sons the teachings of the Bible on a daily basis, repeatedly warning her sons of the looseness and immorality of women, hoping such rhetoric would discourage any sexual desires the boys might have had, and promising them such impure thoughts would see both cast down into hell.
Mrs Gein was a domineering and hard woman who believed her views of the world were absolute and righteous. She had little difficulty in forcefully imposing her beliefs on her sons, as well as her husband George, who she considered a weak man. Indeed their alcoholic father had little to no say in the upbringing of the boys. Augusta despised him, and saw him as a worthless creature who failed to even hold down a decent job.
Believing he was unfit to care for their children, she took it upon herself to raise them according to her own beliefs, as well as to provide financially for her family. She began a grocery business in La Crosse the same year Eddie was born, and it prospered and brough in enough money to support and keep the family in comfortable circumstances.
She was a hard grafter and eventually saved enough money so that the family could move to a more rural area, as part of her plan to seclude her boys from the immorality of the city and the sinners that inhabited it. In 1914, the Gein family moved to Plainfield, Wisconsin to a one-hundred-and-ninety-five-acre farm that was isolated from any un-Godly influences that could disrupt her family, with the closest neighbors almost a quarter of a mile away.
Augusta’s diligent efforts to keep her sons away from outside influences was not always successful, because it became necessary for the boys to attend school. Eddie was shunned by his schoolmates, who considered him effeminate and shy. He had no friends, and when he attempted to make them his mother would scold him. Although he was upset by her opposition to his making friends, he always obeyed his mother’s rigid orders, considering her to be the epitome of everything that was good and virtuous.
His performance at school was considered average, however he excelled at reading, and enjoyed adventure books and magazines in particular that stimulated his imagination and allowed him to momentarily escape into his own fantasy world. Although both Henry and the younger Eddie tried to adhere to their mother’s strict values, she was rarely pleased with her boys and often verbally abused them.
She believed they were destined to become failures like their father, and throughout their teens and early adulthood, they remained detached from people outside of their farmstead, relying on each other for company. Eddie looked up to his older brother, and considered him to be a hard worker, dependable and a man of strong character.
When their father died at the age of 66 on April 1, 1940, the boys took on a series of odd jobs to help financially support the farmstead and their mother. Both were considered reliable and trustworthy by the townsfolk, and Eddie would often try to emulate his brother’s work habits. Although they worked mostly as handymen, Eddie would frequently babysit for neighbours, which was something he really enjoyed because he found it easier to relate to children than his peers, and is explained by his emotional and social insecurities that made him dependent on Augusta.
Henry become worried by his younger brother’s unhealthy attachment to their mother, and on several occasions Henry openly criticized their mother, something that shocked his younger sibling. Eddie was firmly within his mother’s grasp, and was upset his brother did not see her in the same way. It may have been this reason that led to the mysterious fate that befell Henry Gein.
On May 16, 1944, the Gein brothers were fighting a brush fire that was burning dangerously close to their farm. According to the subsequent police report, the two became separated as they attempted to put out the blaze in different directions. During the struggle, night had approached quickly and Eddie lost sight of Henry. Once the blaze was extinguished, Eddie became worried when he failed to find his missing brother and contacted police.
A search party was organised by police, who were surprised when they reached the Gein farm and Eddie lead them directly to the “missing” Henry, who was found lying dead on the ground. There were several factors surrounding the death of Henry Gein that police became concerned about. For instance, he was found lying on a piece of earth that was untouched by fire, and there were unexplained bruises about his head.
Despite the strange circumstances in which Henry was found, police were quick to dismiss foul play. No one suspected Eddie would be capable of killing his brother, or anyone for that matter. The cause of death was ruled as asphyxiation and there the case rested. Eddie Gein was now left with the only person he ever cared for, his mother. And he would have her all to himself, if only for a very brief time.
On December 29, 1945, she died after a series of strokes. Eddie was now left alone, his very way of life was shaken. He had lost the only person he ever cared about, his friend and one true love. Ed Gein was now truly alone in the world. After Augusta’s funeral, Eddie remained at the farm and lived off the small earnings from the odd jobs he performed. At the house he boarded off the rooms his mother used the most, mainly on the upstairs floor, the living room and downstairs parlour. He preserved those rooms, leaving them as a shrine to his late mother, and they remained untouched for years. He resided in the lower levels of the house, using the kitchen area and a small room located just off from the kitchen as his bedroom. There he would spend his time, reading anatomy books, adventure stories and death-cult magazines, while at other times he would indulge in other bizarre hobbies that included night-time excursions to the local graveyard.
After his mother’s death he became increasingly lonely, and spent much of his spare time in his room, which were full of books and articles about South Sea headhunters, shipwrecks and Nazis. It was from reading these tales that he first learned about the process of shrinking heads, exhuming corpses from graves and about the anatomy of the human body. He soon became obsessed with these weird stories, and would often recount them to the children be babysat. One of his other favourite pastimes was reading the local newspapers, in particular the obituaries. This was how he learned of the recent deaths of local women.
With little to no experience of enjoying the company of the opposite sex, Gein would satisfy his curiosity and lust by visiting graves at night. Despite his morbid interest in the dead, he would claim to police that he never had sexual intercourse with the bodies of any of the women he exhumed commenting “They smelled too bad”. But he did take a particularly un-natural interest in peeling the skin from their bodies and wearing it. He became curious to know what it would feel like to have breasts and a vagina, and often dreamed of being a woman. He held a fascinated view of women, and knew from his own experience the power and hold they had over men.
Because of his nightly visits to the cemetery, he soon amassed quite the collection of body parts, some of which included preserved heads. When on one occasion a young boy he looked after visited the Gein farm, and later said that Eddie had shown him human heads that he kept in his bedroom. Eddie claimed the shrivelled heads were from the South Seas, relics from headhunters he read about.
When the young boy relayed this to others, he was quickly dismissed as a teller of tall tales and his story merely a figment of his imagination. When two other young men paid Gein’s farm a visit, the boy was somewhat vindicated, however when they saw the preserved heads, they believed them to be strange Halloween masks.
Soon rumours started to circulate, and most of the townsfolk were gossiping about the strange artefacts that Eddie Gein supposedly possessed. To those who joked about him having shrunken heads, Eddie would just smile or acknowledge he had them in his room. No one believed he was telling the truth, and most just didn’t want to believe it was true.
During the 1940’s and early 1950’s, several disappearances came to the attention of the Wisconsin police, and four cases in particular baffled detectives. The first was that of missing eight-year-old Georgia Weckler, who vanished on her way home from school on May 1, 1947. A search was conducted by hundreds of residents and police across an area of ten square miles across Jefferson, Wisconsin, in the hopes of finding the young girl.
Nothing to indicate her whereabouts dead of alive was ever found, and with no suspects either, all the police had to go on were tire marks that belonged to a Ford, found near the place where she was last seen. With such little evidence, the case remained unsolved. Six years later, on 24 October 1953, another young girl vanished from La Crosse, Wisconsin.
At the time of her disappearance, the father of fifteen-year-old Evelyn Hartley attempted to phone her at the residence where she had been babysitting, but there was no answer. The worried father then drove down to where she was babysitting but nobody answered the door. When he looked inside through the window, he could see his daughter’s shoe and a pair of eyeglasses on the floor.
When he tried to enter the house, he found all the doors and windows locked, except for one, the back basement window. It was there he discovered bloodstains, and upon entering the house he could see signs of a struggle. When police arrived they found more evidence of a struggle, including bloodstains on the grass leading away from the house, along with a bloody handprint on a neighbouring house, footprints, and the missing girl’s other shoe on the basement floor.
A regional search produced no leads, and Evelyn was nowhere to be seen. Several days later police discovered some bloodied articles of clothing that belonged to Evelyn, near a highway outside of La Crosse. Investigators suspected the worst. In November 1952, two men arrived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where they stopped for a drink at a bar before heading out to hunt dear.
Ray Burgess and Victor Travis would spend several hours at the bar before leaving. Neither of the two men or their vehicle was ever seen again. A large search was undertaken, but no trace of either was ever found, they had simply vanished. The disappearances continued, and some two years later, during the winter of 1954, a Plainfield tavern keeper by the name of Mary Hogan mysteriously disappeared from her place of business.
When police discovered blood on the tavern floor that trailed into the parking lot, they suspected foul play. There was an empty bullet cartridge on the floor, and officers had little clue about what happened to Mary Hogan, or the four other missing people who mysteriously vanished. There were no bodies, little evidence, and the only thing connecting the disappearances was that all happened in or around Plainfield, Wisconsin.
On November 16, 1957, a Plainfield resident reported that the local hardware store had been closed the entire day, and that the store’s truck had been driven out from the rear of the building at around 9:30am. Some locals believed this was due to the deer hunting season, however when Deputy Sheriff Frank Worden entered the locked hardware store owned by his mother at around 5:00pm, there was no sign of 50-year-old Bernice Worden, except for bloodstains on the wooden floor. It appeared a robbery had taken place, with the store’s cash register left open.
Frank Worden told investigators that Eddie Gein had been the last customer at the store the evening before his mother’s disappearance, and had said he would return the next morning for a gallon of antifreeze. He was seen by locals loitering around the premises that morning, and a sales slip for a gallon of antifreeze was the last receipt written by Worden on the morning she disappeared. During the evening that same day, Gein was arrested at a West Plainfield grocery store under suspicion of robbery and suspected kidnapping. Officers of the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department then set off to search the Gein farm.
When police arrived at the dilapidated farmhouse on November 17, 1957, little did they realise the chaos that was contained within. It was almost impossible to walk through the rooms due to junk and rotting garbage that covered the floor and counters. The smell of filth and decomposition was almost overwhelming. Outside, local Sheriff, Arthur Schley inspected the wooden shed with his flashlight, and felt something brush against his jacket. As he looked up he saw a large, dangling carcass hanging upside down from the beams. The carcass had been decapitated, cut open and gutted. It was a shocking sight, but one that would be all too familiar during deer-hunting season, but after a few moments it sank in, and Schley realised that it wasn’t a deer at all, but the headless butchered body of a woman.
They had found the missing Bernice Worden, “dressed out like a deer”, having been shot with a .22-caliber rifle, with grotesque mutilations that were made after her death. As the shaken deputies searched through the ruinous farmhouse that was Ed Gein’s existence, they came to realise that there were more ghastly discoveries besides Mrs. Worden’s mutilated body.
They had stumbled into a museum of death. An odd looking bowl was the top of a human skull, while a wastebasket and lampshades were fashioned from human skin. As they found more human remains, they began a ghoulish inventory of what was inside the Gein farmstead. An armchair was found to be made from human skin, a belt made of nipples, a pair of lips on a window shade drawstring, nine female genitalia kept preserved in a shoebox, as well as four noses.
As they continued their search, more ghastly discoveries were made. There were human bones and bone fragments, fingernails from female fingers, skulls that were afixed to Gein’s bedposts, female skulls with the tops sawn off, a young girl’s dress and “the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years old”.
In a burlap sack was Bernice Worden’s head, along with her heart “in a plastic bag in front of Gein’s potbellied stove”. While in a paper bag they found a mask made from the skin of woman’s face, along with her skull that was kept inside a box. Perhaps most shockingly of all they finally came across a suit made entirely of human skin, that consisted of a corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist and leggings made from human leg skin.
As they stood there in the slaughterhouse that was the Gein farm, they wondered just how many women had died at the hands of Eddie Gein. All these remains were photographed at the state crime laboratory and were eventually “decently disposed of.” After the horrifying discovery of Bernice Worden’s headless corpse, and the other gruesome artefacts found in the Gein home, police began an exhaustive search of the other parts of the farm and the surrounding land.
They suspected Gein had been involved in more murders, and that these bodies might be buried on his land. They hoped to find the remains of Georgia Weckler, Evelyn Hartley, Victor Travis, Ray Burgess and Mary Hogan. Whilst these excavations were undertaken at the farmland, Ed Gein was interviewed at the Wautoma County Jailhouse by investigators.
Although he did not admit any of the killings at first, after more than a day of silence he began to reveal his horrific story about how he killed Mrs. Worden, and where he acquired all the body parts found inside his house. He had difficulty remembering all the details, because he claimed to have been in a dazed state of mind during the time leading up to and during the murder.
But he did recall dragging Mrs. Worden’s body to his Ford truck, taking the cash from the store and returning to his house. He did not remember shooting her in the head with a .22 caliber gun, the confirmed cause of death from the autopsy report. When detectives asked him where the other body parts came from that were discovered in his house, he said he had stolen them from local graveyards.
He insisted he did not murder any of the people whose remains were found in his house, with the exception of Bernice Worden. However, after several more days of intense interrogation he finally admitted to the murder of Mary Hogan, whose head had been found in a box, while the skin from her face had been made into a mask. Once again, he claimed to have been in a dazed state at the time of the murders, and he could not remember the exact details of what transpired.
He said the only thing he could remember was that he accidentally shot her. During the many hours of interrogation, Eddie showed no signs of emotion or remorse for his actions, and when he talked about the murders, and of his grave robbing exploits, he spoke with a particular matter-of-fact expression, and was even cheerful at times in an almost child-like manner. He failed to realise the enormity of his crimes.
There now remained the question of Gein’s sanity, and his lawyer suggested that during the trial he plead not guilty by reason of insanity. The authorities ordered he undergo a battery of psychological tests, which later concluded that he was, as some suspected, mentally and emotionally impaired. The psychiatrists and psychologists who examined him asserted that he was schizophrenic and a “sexual psychopath.”
This condition he suffered from was attributed to the unhealthy relationship he had with his mother, as well as his upbringing. It was determined that Gein apparently suffered from conflicted emotions towards women, along with his natural sexual attraction to them, contrasting with the unnatural attitudes his mother systematically instilled in him from a young age.
He had developed love/hate feelings towards women, which became exaggerated and eventually evolved into the terrifying psychosis that led to his crimes. While Eddie was subject to further interrogation and psychological tests, investigators continued to search the land surrounding his farm. Police eventually discovered the remains of ten women in the Gein farmhouse, however, Eddie claimed that the remaining body parts of eight women were from those taken from local graveyards, but police remained sceptical.
They believed it was possible those remains came from other women Gein had murdered, and it was eventually decided the only way police could ascertain the truth, would be to examine the graves that he claimed to have robbed. After much discussion and controversy about the ethical morality of exhuming the dead, police were finally permitted by the state to dig up the graves of the women Eddie claimed to have desecrated. All of the coffins showed clear signs of having been tampered with, and in most cases, the bodies or parts of the bodies were missing.
On November 29, there would be another discovery on the Gein farmland, that would again raise the issue of whether he had in fact murdered a third person. Police unearthed human skeletal remains on the farm, and it was suspected that the body was that of Victor Travis, who had vanished years earlier along with his friend Ray Burgess. The remains were taken to a crime lab for examination, and tests showed the body was not that of a male, but of a large, middle-aged woman.
Police believed this was yet another graveyard souvenir of Gein’s. Investigators attempted to implicate Gein in the disappearance of Victor Travis, as well as that of the other three missing people who had vanished years earlier in and around the Plainfield area. But in the end the only murders Eddie could be held responsible for were those of Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan.
When the police revealed details of what was found on the Gein farm, the news quickly spread through Plainfield, the surrounding areas and beyond. Reporters came from all over the world to the small town in Wisconsin, which became infamous worldwide. Eddie Gein received almost celebrity-like status, and although people were repulsed by his alleged crimes, they were at the same time drawn to the terrible atrocities that took place at the isolated farm.
During the late 1950’s, Gein achieved notoriety as being one of the most famous of documented cases involving a combination of necrophilia, fetishism and transvestism. Psychologists from all over the world attempted to diagnose what made Eddie commit such ghoulish crimes. In his book Deviant, Harold Schechter recounts how even children became aware of the exploits of Eddie Gein, and would sing songs about him and make jokes in an effort to “exorcise the nightmare with laughter.” These distasteful jokes would become known as “Geiner’s” and quickly become popular around the world.
Meanwhile, the residents of Plainfield had to endure the herds of reporters who flocked to the small town and disrupted their daily lives to ask them questions about Eddie. Much of what was known about Eddie’s earlier life came from those who became involved in the phenomenon surrounding Gein, and contributed whatever they knew about him. Plainfield became synonymous as the home of the infamous Ed Gein.
Most residents had only good things to say about him, except that he was a little peculiar in his habits, and had a quirky sense of humour. Few would have suspected he was capable of committed such heinous crimes, but the truth was difficult to ignore. The shy and reserved man that most of the town thought was harmless, was in fact, a murderer who had also violated the graves of their friends and loved ones.
After spending a period of thirty days in a mental institution for evaluation, Gein was declared mentally incompetent and could no longer be tried for first degree murder. There followed immediate condemnation at the ruling from the people of Plainfield, who believed Gein should be tried for the death of Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan, but there was little the community could do to change the court’s decision.
He was committed to the Central State Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin, and not long after the sentence was handed down, his farm and some of his belongings went up for auction. The property and contents were appraised at $4,700, and on March 30, 1958, thousands diverged on the small town, curious to see what possessions of Eddie’s would be sold.
Some of the items to be auctioned off were his car, furniture and musical instruments, and the company who handled the business of selling Eddie’s goods planned to charge a fee of 50 cents to look at Eddie’s property. The residents of Plainfield were outraged, as they believed the Gein farm was fast becoming a “museum for the morbid”, and the town demanded something be done to put a stop to what was a money spinning venture.
Although the company was later forbidden to charge an entrance fee to the auction, residents were still not satisfied. During the morning of March 20, 1958, the Plainfield volunteer fire department was called to the Gein farmhouse. The building quickly burnt to the ground and many onlookers watched. Police suspected an arsonist was responsible for the blaze, because there was no electrical wiring problems inside the house.
Despite a thorough police investigation, no suspect was ever found. When Eddie was told of the destruction of his home, he simply said “Just as well.” Although most of Eddie’s belongings had been destroyed by the fire, there were still many things that were salvaged. The remainder of his possessions were still to 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 between several bidders and was eventually sold for $760. The man who bought the car, carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons, later put it on display at a county fair, and there thousands paid a quarter admission to get a peek at what he called the Gein “ghoul car.” It appeared to the people of Plainfield that the public’s fascination with Eddie would never end.
After a period of ten years spent in the mental institution where he was recovering, the courts finally decided Gein was competent to stand trial. These proceedings began on January 22, 1968, and would determine whether he was guilty or not by reason of insanity, for the murder of Bernice Worden. The actual trial began on November 7, 1968, and Eddie looked on as some seven witnesses took the stand to give evidence.
Several of those who testified were the lab technicians who performed the autopsy on Mrs. Worden, along with a former deputy sheriff and sheriff. After only one week the evidence seemed heavily stacked against Eddie, and 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.
The families of Bernice Worden, Mary Hogan and the families of those whose graves were robbed would never believe justice had been served, and thought Eddie had escaped the punishment that he deserved. But there was nothing more they could do to reverse the court’s decision. Soon after the trial he was escorted back to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and there he would remain for the rest of his life, where he would spend his days happy and comfortable.
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 Gein looked since his arrest five years before). He continued to be an avid reader.
He liked 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.” After a long fight with cancer, Eddie Gein died on July 26, 1984. He was buried in Plainfield cemetery next to his mother, not far from the graves that he had desecrated years earlier.
The crimes of Eddie Gein have had an enormous influence on popular culture and true crime fiction. His strong dependency upon his mother, who was the domineering figure throughout his life inspired author Robert Bloch to write a story about Norman Bates, a character based on Eddie Gein, which became the central theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho.
His murderous inclinations influenced the psychopathic family in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic thriller, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that has many themes from Gein’s crimes, but no direct influence on any single character. This movie helped put “The Butcher of Plainfield” back in the spotlight during the mid-1970’s. Made in 1974, but released in 1976, the horror thriller Deranged was based heavily on the crimes of Ed Gein. Starring Ezra Cobb, who played Roberts Blossom, a deranged rural famer who became a grave robber and murderer after the death of his possessive mother.
Much like Norman Bates, he keeps her corpse, digging it up after her death and taking it back to the house where it is displayed among others as companions in the decaying farmhouse. Gein’s bizarre handicraft became the inspiration for the character of another serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill, in the 1991 crime thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Much like Eddie, Buffalo Bill was a deeply disturbed killer with a savage pathology who treasured women’s skin, which he removed to fashion himself a woman suit in some insane transvestite ritual to become a real trans-sexual.