If you’ve ever watched a movie about a serial killer, there’s a decent chance it was based on the life and crimes of Ed Gein. Ed Gein’s psychology was so unusual, and his crimes were so shocking, that his case inspired Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), among others.
Ed Gein’s actions were grisly in the extreme, to the point of shocking the officers who searched his farm in 1957. The details of what they found there, and of the statements Gein made after his arrest, motivated decades of speculation about Ed Gein and schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, multiple personality disorder and various other conditions he may or may not have had. No one has ever gotten to the bottom of the mind of Ed Gein, but some useful speculation has been made in the years since his crimes came to light.
The Early Life of Ed Gein
Ed Gein’s psychology, like almost everybody else’s, is rooted in his early experiences. Ed was born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1906, the second son of a very unhappy mother and father. Ed’s father was an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a job and barely eked out a living on the farm. Gein’s mother, Augusta, was a very strict and religiously devout woman who preached nightly sermons about sin and divine punishment. She would punish Ed for bringing friends around the farm or trying to make connections with the other children at school, which was the only place he and his brother were allowed to go besides the farm.
Other children remembered Ed as being strange and withdrawn. They later said Ed would suddenly burst out in laughter, as if he had his own private joke nobody else knew about. At school, Ed was an outstanding reader and generally well-behaved. Despite being tightly controlled at home, he seems to have revered his mother and had a hard time relating to his father, who died from possibly alcohol-related heart disease in 1940 at age 66.
What We Know About Ed Gein’s Psychology
It’s not uncommon for children to bond more with one parent than the other, and it’s not strange for a boy to be close with his mother. However, Ed Gein’s attachment went beyond the way most people feel toward their mothers. Ed would become very hostile when he felt the need to defend his mother’s reputation in front of other people.
In 1944, Ed was out burning some yard waste when the fire got out of control. The fire department came out to get the blaze under control and left without incident. Later that day, Ed reported his 41-year-old brother missing, and a search party started picking through the brush on the Gein farm. They found Henry dead, face down in the marsh, dead from apparent heart failure.
Reports later surfaced that Henry’s body had extensive bruises, but the family refused an autopsy and had the body cremated. Gein would never confess to murdering his brother, and there’s no obvious reason why he would have, though Ed did come into control of the farm with his brother’s death. Whether he killed his brother or not, Ed Gein didn’t publicly seem to be overly bothered by the unfortunate loss he’d suffered.
The real blow to Ed Gein’s psychology seems to have happened in 1945, when his mother died. At the age of 66, Augusta Gein had suffered a stroke, leaving Ed her sole caregiver. He took to the role with gusto, doting on his mother night and day. In December 1945, she had another stroke after a hostile confrontation with another local farmer and died soon after. The 39-year-old Ed Gein was devastated by the loss, going into an emotional tailspin he never recovered from.
The Many Crimes of Ed Gein
After his mother’s death, the house gradually decayed into an almost unlivable squalor. Ed worked on the farm and did odd jobs in town, but he rarely spoke and never brought friends to visit. To pass the time, he read pulp fiction, gory comics and several books about Nazi war crimes.
In 1957, a Plainfield shopkeeper named Bernice Worden suddenly disappeared from her general store. Investigators determined that Gein was probably the last customer in the place, so they obtained a warrant to search the Gein farm. A short list of what they found there:
- Human skeletal remains
- Mutilated female skulls and skulls used as bedposts
- A wastepaper basket made from human skin
- Bowls made from skulls
- Chairs upholstered in human skin
- A corset made from a woman’s skin, along with skin leggings
- Masks made from human faces
- Bernice Worden’s head in a sack and her heart in a bag by the stove
- The genitals of nine women in a shoebox, including from two teen girls
- Four noses
- A belt made from nipples
- A human-face lampshade
- A collection of women’s fingernails
- And quite a bit more
Not all of these were murders. During the interrogation from Sheriff Art Schley, Gein confessed to robbing local graves for the body parts he wanted. He also admitted to murdering Worden, but the violence of his interrogation later caused Gein’s statement to be ruled inadmissible.
Ed Gein’s Influence on Pop Culture
It’s fitting that Ed Gein has inspired 13 movies, each of which touches on different aspects of his crimes. Psycho was substantially about a man’s obsessive attachment with his mother, while The Silence of the Lambs included the detail about making a woman suit, which Ed was doing. Texas Chainsaw Massacre included Leatherface, who wore skin masks, while a young Steve Buscemi played the lead in Ed and His Dead Mother, a comedy that opened on one screen in 1993 and made less than $1,000.
Ed Gein’s Infamous Legacy
Gein’s trial was a circus. He declined a jury and appealed to the judge on an insanity plea. He was ruled competent to stand trial. However, this flip-flopped several times until it was finally determined he was not able to stand trial. In 1968, Gein was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Gein would die in a secure hospital from lung cancer in 1984.