Edward Theodore Gein was born to Augusta Crafter (1878–1945) and George P. Gein (1873–1940) on August 27, 1906, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His parents, both natives of Wisconsin, had married on July 7, 1900, and their marriage produced Ed and his older brother, Henry G. Gein (1901–1944).
George Gein was a violent alcoholic who was frequently unemployed. Ed and his brother rejected their violent, aimless father, as did Augusta, who treated her husband like a nonentity. Despite her deep contempt for her husband, the atrophic marriage persisted. Divorce was not an option due to the family’s religious beliefs. Augusta operated the small family grocery store and eventually purchased a farm on the outskirts of another small town, Plainfield, which became the Gein family’s permanent home.
Augusta moved to this desolate location to prevent outsiders from influencing her sons. Gein only left the premises to go to school and Augusta blocked any attempt he made to pursue friendships. Besides school, he spent most of his time doing chores on the farm. Augusta, who was a fanatical Lutheran, drummed into her boys the innate immorality of the world, the evil of drink and the belief that all women (herself excluded) were prostitutes and whores. According to Augusta, the only acceptable form of sex was for biological reproduction/procreation. She reserved time every afternoon to read to them from the Bible, usually selecting graphic verses from the Old Testament dealing with death, murder and divine retribution.
With a slight growth over one eye and an effeminate demeanor, the young Gein became a target for bullies. Classmates and teachers recall other off-putting mannerisms such as seemingly random laughter, as if he were laughing at his own personal joke. Despite his poor social development, he did fairly well in school, particularly in reading and the study of world economics.
By the time his father George died in 1940, Henry had begun to reject Augusta’s view of the world. He had even taken to bad-mouthing her within earshot of his mortified brother. In March 1944, the brothers found themselves in the middle of a brush fire on property they owned in a neighboring county. When Ed ran to get the police, he told them he had lost sight of Henry, but then led them directly to his brother’s corpse. Although there was evidence Henry had suffered blunt trauma to his head, the local county coroner decided he died of asphyxiation while fighting the fire. Gein then lived with his mother. Less than two years later, on December 29, 1945, Augusta died from a series of strokes, leaving her grief-stricken son alone on the isolated farmstead.
Police suspected Gein to be involved in the disappearance of a store clerk, Bernice Worden, in Plainfield on November 16, 1957. Upon entering a shed on his property, they made their first horrific discovery of the night: Worden’s corpse. She had been decapitated, her headless body hung upside down by means of ropes at her wrists and a crossbar at her ankles. Most horribly, the body’s trunk was empty, the ribcage split and the body “dressed out” like that of a deer. These mutilations had been performed postmortem; she had been shot at close-range with a .22-caliber rifle.
Searching the house, authorities found:
- Human skulls mounted upon the cornerposts of his bed
- Human skin fashioned into a lampshade and used to upholster chair seats
- Human skullcaps, apparently in use as soup bowls
- A human heart (it is disputed where the heart was found; the deputies’ reports all claim that the heart was in a saucepan on the stove, with some crime scene photographers claiming it was in a paper bag)
- The head of Mary Hogan, a local tavern owner, found in a paper bag
- A ceiling light pull consisting of human lips
- A “mammary vest” crafted from the skin of a woman’s torso
- A belt made from several human nipples, among many other such grisly objects
- Socks made from human flesh
Gein’s most notorious creations were an array of “shrunken heads.” Various neighborhood children — whom Gein occasionally babysat — had seen or heard of these objects, which Gein offhandedly described as relics from the South Seas, purportedly sent by a cousin who had served in World War II. Upon investigation, these turned out to be human facial skins, carefully peeled from cadavers and used by Gein as masks.
Gein eventually admitted under questioning that he would dig up the graves of recently buried middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother and take the bodies home, where he tanned their skin to make his macabre possessions. One writer describes Gein’s practice of putting on the tanned skins of women as an “insane transvestite ritual”. Gein denied having sex with the bodies he exhumed, explaining, “They smelled too bad.” During interrogation, Gein also admitted to the shooting death of Mary Hogan, who had been missing since 1954.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Gein decided he wanted a sex change, although it is a matter of some debate whether or not he was transsexual; by most accounts, he created his “woman suit” so he could pretend to be his mother, rather than change his sex.
Harold Schechter, an author of several true crime books, wrote a best-selling book about the Gein case called Deviant. In this book, Schechter mentions that Plainfield police officer Art Schley physically assaulted Gein during questioning by banging Gein’s head and face into a brick wall; because of this, Gein’s initial confession was ruled inadmissible. Schley died of a heart attack at the age of 43 shortly before Gein’s trial. Many who knew him said he was so traumatized by the horror of Gein’s crimes and the fear of having to testify (notably about assaulting Gein) that it led to his early death. One of his friends said, “He was a victim of Ed Gein as surely as if he had butchered him.”
Gein was found mentally incompetent and thus unfit to stand trial at the time of his arrest, and was sent to the Central State Hospital (now the Dodge Correctional Institution) in Waupun, Wisconsin. Later, Central State Hospital was converted into a prison and Gein was transferred to Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1968, Gein’s doctors determined he was sane enough to stand trial; he was found not guilty by reason of insanity by judge Robert H. Gollmar and spent the rest of his life in the hospital.
While Gein was in detention, his house burned to the ground. Arson was suspected. In 1958, Gein’s car, which he used to haul the bodies of his victims, was sold at public auction for a then-considerable sum of $760 to an enterprising carnival sideshow operator named Bunny Gibbons. Gibbons called his attraction the “Ed Gein Ghoul Car” and charged carnival-goers 25 cents admission to see it.
On July 26, 1984, Ed Gein died of respiratory and heart failure due to cancer in Goodland Hall at the Mendota Mental Health Institute. His gravesite in the Plainfield cemetery was frequently vandalized over the years; souvenir seekers would chip off pieces of his gravestone before the bulk of it was stolen in 2000. The gravestone was recovered in June 2001 near Seattle and is presently displayed in a Wautoma, Wisconsin museum.