Ed Gein (pronounce ‘Geen’ with a hard G) was born on August 27, 1906 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His father was a timid alcoholic, and his mother was fanatically religious. Gein and his older brother, Henry, grew up in a household ruled by their mother’s puritanical preachings about the sins of lust and carnal desire.
Ed ran the family’s 160-acre farm on the outskirts of Plainfield, Wisconsin after his brother died in 1944. When his mother died in 1945, Ed was a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor, still emotionally enslaved to the woman who had tyrannized his life.
The house soon degenerated into a madman’s shambles. He remained alone in the enormous farmhouse, haunted by the ghost of his overbearing mother, whose bedroom he kept locked and undisturbed, exactly as it had been when she was alive. He also sealed off the drawing room and five more upstairs rooms, living only in one downstairs room and the kitchen.
He developed a deeply unhealthy interest in the intimate anatomy of the female body, an interest that was fed by medical encyclopedias, books on anatomy, pulp horror novels and pornographic magazines. He became particularly interested in the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II and the medical experiments performed on Jews in the concentration camps.
Soon he began digging up decaying female corpses by night in far-flung Wisconsin cemeteries. He would dissect them and keep some parts, such as heads, sex organs, livers, hearts and intestines. Then he would flay the skin from the body, draping it over a tailor’s dummy or even wearing it himself to dance and cavort around the homestead, a practice that apparently gave him intense gratification.
On other occasions, Gein took only the body parts that particularly interested him. He was especially fascinated by the excised female genitalia. Not surprisingly, he quickly became a recluse in the community, discouraging any visitors from coming near his decaying farm.
Gein’s fascination with the female body eventually led him to seek out fresher samples. His victims, usually women of his mother’s age, included 54-year old Mary Hogan, who disappeared from the tavern she ran in December 1954, and Bernice Worden, a woman in her late fifties who ran the local hardware store, who disappeared on the 16th November 1957.
Mrs. Worden’s son Frank was a sheriff’s deputy, and upon learning that weird old Ed Gein had been spotted in town on the day of his mother’s disappearance, Frank Worden and the sheriff went to check out the old Gein place, already infamous amongst the local children as a haunted house.
There, the gruesome evidence proved that Gein’s bizarre obsessions had finally exploded into murder and worse. In the woodshed of the farm was the naked, headless body of Bernice Worden, hanging upside down from a meat hook and slit open down the front. Her head and intestines were discovered in a box, and her heart on a plate in the dining room.
The skins from ten human heads were found preserved, and another skin taken from the upper torso of a woman was rolled up on the floor. There was a belt fashioned from carved-off nipples, a chair upholstered in human skin, the crown of a skull used as a soup-bowl, lampshades covered in flesh pulled taut, a table propped up by a human shinbones, and a refrigerator full of human organs. The four posts on Gein’s bed were topped with skulls and a human head hung on the wall alongside the skinned faces of women, and decorative bracelets made out of human skin.
The stunned searchers also uncovered a shoebox full of female genitalia, faces stuffed with newspapers and mounted like hunting trophies on the walls, and a “mammary vest” flayed from the torso of a woman. Gein later confessed that he enjoyed dressing himself in this and other human-skin garments and pretending he was his own mother.
Gein was ultimately found guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He was confined in various criminal psychiatric institutions, including the Central State Hospital in Wisconsin and the Mendota Mental Health Institute, where he died of respiratory failure on July 26, 1984, at age 77. His killings live on as the inspiration for such film characters as Norman Bates (Psycho), Jame Gumb (The Silence of the Lambs) and Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre).