It's November 1957, just before Thanksgiving, and we are headed to grandmother's house in central Wisconsin. From the backseat I hear my parents speaking in low tones about some horrible murders. I want to know more, but Mom just says, "A man did a really bad thing." I'm only 7, and they won't tell me anything else. We'll all learn a lot more, though, soon enough.
Events were unfolding fast in Plainfield that week, 50 years ago this month, leaving an unwelcome legacy that resonates today. People in Plainfield still get asked, "Where's the graveyard?" and "Is this the store where he killed Mrs. Worden?"
Debby Cave, a longtime employee at True Value Hardware - where Gein killed his last victim - is often reminded.
"My mother's sister was one of those he exhumed," says Cave, who was 7 when Gein was arrested. "It bothers me when I visit my mother's grave...my aunt's grave is nearby, and so is Gein's, although his gravestone is gone."
In 1957, this was known as Worden Hardware Store. On the evening of Nov. 16, authorities searched the rural Plainfield farmhouse of Edward Theodore Gein, 51, an eccentric but well-known local resident. Inside, they found the decapitated body of Bernice Worden hanging by her heels in his "summer kitchen," dressed out like a deer, her head in a nearby pan. Further shocks awaited as they searched the debris-laden farmhouse. Gein had amassed a ghoulish collection of heads and body parts, and he had upholstered furniture and fashioned masks and costumes from human skin.
Two rooms, however, were perfectly neat. There was a fine coat of dust on everything, and the door was boarded shut. It appeared that no one had been in there in years. It was the bedroom and sitting room of Gein's late mother.
Before it was over, the farm community of about 600 people, 80 miles north of Madison, would be the focus of international attention. Gein's crimes would spawn a whole genre of horror films - notably Hitchcock's Psycho - as well as numerous books, scores of jokes, a large Internet presence, a fan club, markets for memorabilia and more.
The year is 1960, and everyone is talking about Psycho. The movie ads urge viewers not to reveal the ending. My big sister is allowed to go, but I am not. I'm only 10. "But I saw The Blob," I tell my mother. It doesn't work.
"People still come in asking questions," says Cave, "especially the summer tourists and again in the deer season. You see them out on the street, taking pictures of this place. I understand it's part of history, and it's changed now with newer and younger people here. But people for the most part don't want to talk about it, and we're tired of it being dredged up."
A few years ago, recalls Cave, a high school class visited with their teacher, arriving in vans. "They were terribly rude, and no one said anything to them," she says. Every new movie or book brings a surge in visitors.
"This is still real personal for me and a lot of others," Cave says. Gein was a neighbor and frequently in her home. He was arrested in the home of another aunt, Irene Hill, while eating dinner on the same day he had murdered and eviscerated Bernice Worden.
"What I hate to see now is kids idolizing him," Cave says. "They're not local, but they come to the graveyard and stay there at night, or party there, and we'll find broken glass or bottles. I know that styles change, but they might have the odd clothing and spiked hair."
To them, there's something cool about Gein's legacy. Even something funny.
Mom hated the jokes, but all the kids were telling them:
Q. Why did they keep the heat on in Ed Gein's house?
A. So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.
Nov. 16, 1957, was a Saturday, and opening day of deer season. The town of Plainfield was mostly deserted.
John Worden, owner of the Worden Hardware Store, was hunting while his mother, Bernice, watched the store. When he got back she was gone; there was an empty shell casing on the floor and a trail of blood leading to the back door. Worden immediately called the sheriff.
The circumstances matched those of an unsolved disappearance three years earlier. Mary Hogan had vanished while tending bar in a nearby rural tavern; there was an empty shell casing and a blood trail to the door.
Worden thought of Ed Gein, a quiet local bachelor who earned his living doing odd jobs. Gein, on a recent visit, had jokingly asked Bernice Worden if she wanted to go roller skating. On Friday, Gein asked Worden if he would be deer hunting, saying he might stop in for some antifreeze.
The last receipt that Saturday was for antifreeze.
Gein wasn't home when two deputies arrived at his farm five miles from town; they left after a superficial search. Waushara County Sheriff Art Schley returned with a deputy several hours later. Gein still wasn't there, but they decided to do a more thorough search.
It was after dark, and Gein's house had no power. They entered the summer kitchen and shone their flashlights around. Worden's strung-up body was suddenly illuminated, giving them the shock of their life. The deputy went outside and threw up.
They say he was real popular with the ladies - there were always a lot of women hanging around the place. "You kids stop it with those jokes," Mom said.
After the first gruesome discovery, lawmen from surrounding counties arrived, as did crime lab personnel from Madison. A portable generator was obtained, and flood lamps exposed the interior of the nine-room house, filled with piles of rubbish, bottles, newspapers, tools and other junk.
What followed was a night of surreal and unspeakable horror. An odd-looking soup bowl on the kitchen table, on closer examination appeared to be a human skullcap. A pair of intact skulls were found on Gein's bedposts.
Things only got worse as the night progressed. Some of the furnishings looked peculiar, and closer inspection revealed that the cane seats on a chair had been replaced by human skin; the undersides still had residual lumps of fat. Three similar chairs were found.
As the stunned investigators forged ahead, they found human upholstery on lampshades, a wastebasket, a tom-tom and bracelets.
Gein's property was cordoned off as a growing crowd of newsmen gathered outside. Sheriff Schley inflamed their curiosity with his only public comment, other than that Worden's body had been found. He said it was "just too horrible. Horrible beyond belief."
A crime lab specialist found a shoebox containing nine female genitalia; another box had four human noses. There was a rolled-up garment made from the upper torso of a middle-aged woman, with straps in the back so it could be worn like a vest. Gein later admitted wearing this, along with several pairs of human leggings, on moonlit nights.
Perhaps the most gruesome discovery was a collection of human masks, made from the faces of nine women. Years earlier, Gein had shown two of these to neighbor children, saying they were "shrunken heads from the South Seas." No one took it seriously at the time because replicas could be purchased at traveling carnivals.
As the night wore on, so many body parts were found it would be impossible to determine the total number of victims. These included a shade-pull decorated with human lips, and a belt of female nipples.
One deputy found a horsehair robe wrapped around a paper bag. Inside was the head of Mary Hogan.
Q: What did Ed Gein give his girlfriend on Valentine's Day?
A: A box of farmer fannies.
Gein was arrested while eating supper at the home of Lester Hill, several miles away. Hill owned the local grocery store, and Gein, a friend of his, would help out with odd jobs. Gein, who related to children more readily than adults, used to take Hill's 16-year-old son to the movies or drive him to school events.
Due to the large volume of body parts, authorities initially thought they were dealing with a dozen or more murders. Midwestern lawmen with unsolved disappearances began contacting Sheriff Schley.
Gein at first admitted only to the Worden killing, but when Hogan's head was identified he acknowledged that as well. Most of the body parts, he said, came from fresh graves. This was met with disbelief, and the Portage County Sheriff said Gein "never robbed a grave in his life."
But Gein insisted he had made as many as 40 visits to graveyards, most of them in Plainfield. He purportedly did not always exhume bodies, and on several occasions returned unneeded parts, out of a sense of guilt.
There was only one way to check his story out, in those days before DNA. This was controversial, because many relatives did not want to know.
In the end, only two graves were opened from the list of nine that Gein provided. What wasn't found was enough to satisfy authorities that, on this point at least, Gein was telling the truth.
Q: What did Ed Gein say as the hearse went by?
A: "Dig you later, Baby."
Plainfield was soon the focus of worldwide attention. The following Sunday, an estimated 4,000 cars passed through town, and local businesses were inundated with requests for directions to the Gein homestead, where police waved on bumper-to-bumper traffic. A seven-page spread in Life magazine generated coast-to-coast interest. Time devoted three pages to the spectacle, and scores of reporters, including European correspondents, descended on Plainfield.
Many residents initially cooperated with the media, in the tradition of small-town friendliness and, in some cases, the excitement of getting their names in the news. But the relentless scrutiny and freak-show atmosphere soon changed that. Residents felt exploited and realized this would be Plainfield's legacy for a long time to come.
Eccentric or not, Gein had been one of them - or so they thought. Milwaukee Journal reporter Robert Wells said Gein's oddball behavior had previously been deemed harmless or even amusing. New significance was now given to his quirks - like not allowing anyone in his house, even in the coldest weather.
"And did not the children, half-believing it while they laughed, say his old house was haunted?" wrote Wells. "And were there not tales, which seemed to have been fairly common among the youngsters, that he had a collection of shrunken heads?"
Small-town people tend to be trusting, and the ones in Plainfield were dumbfounded. He was a stranger in their midst, not simply a murderer but an insane ghoul who had for a decade been digging up their relatives and neighbors and performing unspeakable acts. This was personal, and a total betrayal of the community.
There once was a fellow named Ed
Who liked to take women to bed.
When he wanted to diddle
He'd cut out their middle
And hang up the rest in the shed.
Gein was questioned extensively.He admitted little about the murders, and his suspected link to other disappearances was never proven. He spoke freely about opening graves, and attention soon turned to his relationship with his mother.
He was diagnosed as psychotic, exhibiting a form of schizophrenia. Today, this is blamed mainly on neurochemical imbalances, with environment and social processes as contributing factors. In Gein's case, the shrinks had a field day with his upbringing and attributed much of his illness to his widowed mother, Augusta.
A controlling, religious fanatic, she taught her son that all women - besides herself - were instruments of the devil. He cared for her after she had several strokes, and lived alone following her death in 1945.
Gein told Dr. Schubert, an examining psychiatrist at Central State Hospital, that after his mother's death he felt he could arouse the dead through an act of willpower, and was disappointed when he failed with both his mother and some of the bodies he exhumed. Schubert concluded, "There is ample reason to believe that his violation of the graves was in response to the demands of his fantasy life, which was motivated by his abnormally magnified attachment to his mother."
Another examining psychiatrist, Dr. Warmington, perceived hostility and sexual repression in Gein's unusual attachment to his mother. Those feelings were kept in check when she was alive, but after her death Gein acted on a "desire for a substitute for his mother in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely."
It is speculated that her corpse is the first he tried to exhume, although he may have been frustrated by a concrete vault. It was never examined, although one of the verified exhumations was adjacent to his mother's grave.
Gein said he began opening graves in 1947, within two years of his mother's death. He blamed "a force built up in me," a kind of evil spirit, for his behavior.
He denied having sexual relations with any bodies or body parts. But the final psychiatric report noted "a very marked sexual preoccupation throughout most of his answers to questions."
And while Gein also denied cannibalism, he is known to have given various people "venison" - although he would later say that he never hunted deer.
It's 1977 and I'm a 26-year-old reporter knocking on doors in Plainfield, writing a long piece on the 20th anniversary of Gein's arrest. ("There must be something better to write about," my mother says.) A businessman tells me, "I didn't say anything when it happened, and I'm not saying anything now." Another resident, who was allegedly given "venison" by Gein, politely but firmly closes the door in my face.
Plainfield citizens remain friendly and nod greetings to strangers on the street, as is customary in small Wisconsin towns. Younger people and newcomers might talk about Gein, but their knowledge is secondhand.
Many of those who were adults at the time have died. Other lifetime residents in their 50s or older - those who were around when it happened - are generally polite but tight-lipped on the subject.
Larry Flyte, 59, raises cattle on a farm located between Plainfield and nearby Hancock. He remembers hearing about Gein when he was young, but most of what knows he learned when he got older.
"Like they say, some things are best not talked about," Flyte says. His mother Beryl, now 84, used to take bus tours to the southwestern U.S. When she and others in her group mentioned being from Plainfield, they'd often get asked about Gein. "They got tired of it and started telling people they were from Hancock."
Last year, Flyte had guests visiting from South Milwaukee. "One of them seemed possessed about this whole thing and had to see the Gein place," Flyte recalls. "I took him there and he wanted to walk all over the property. I wouldn't, because I don't even know who owns it now, but it's mostly a pine plantation, and nothing else is left."
I'm waiting to interview Dr. George D. Arndt, a psychiatrist who played a role in the Gein case, for my 1977 article. He was kind enough to invite me home for dinner, but he's running late and I sit at the dining room table with his kids. They know why I'm there, and they ask me if I want a "Gein Beer - all body and no head." They start peppering me with other "Geiners."
By the third week in December, Gein was committed to Central State Hospital and the citizens of Plainfield began their attempted retreat from the public. But the rest of the country couldn't hear enough about it, and a craze for Gein-inspired sick jokes swept the state.
Dr. Arndt made a study of this unusual phenomena, collected scores of jokes, and published his findings in an article entitled "Community Reaction to a Horrifying Event." Arndt pegged the jokes as a coping mechanism to deal with the realities of the event.
It wasn't so funny in Plainfield, though, and Arndt reported that the jokes were not to be found within a 10- to 20-mile radius.
By coincidence, Arndt later performed a competency evaluation on Gein for his 1968 trial, at which he was deemed not guilty by reason of mental defect. Ardnt later wrote in his preface to a book by the trial judge, Robert Gollmar, that the community felt a "tremendous outpouring of apprehension, fear, panic and sense of being totally overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of psychopathology which had been discovered."
Gein's crimes and the context in which they occurred were unique, then and now. He preceded the notorious serial killers of the coming decades, most of whom preyed on their victims in less personal, urban settings, and were not "known" and accepted in their communities. Some killed more people, but few violated as many social taboos as Gein.
In March 1958, an auction was advertised for the Gein property and its contents. Locals were outraged because it was scheduled for Palm Sunday, and there were rumors that the house might be turned into a museum. Several days beforehand, the house caught fire, and the volunteer department took an extended detour to ensure the home was destroyed by the time they arrived. Frank Worden, the son of Gein's last victim, was the fire chief.
Gein's car was purchased and toured county fairs as "The Car that Hauled the Dead from their Graves." The case was picked by the Associated Press as the top Wisconsin story of the year, eclipsing the World Series win by the Milwaukee Braves.
In 1980, just out of law school, I visit Judge Gollmar, a wonderful old gentleman, in Elkhorn. I want to tell him I plan to write a book on Gein. Gollmar had written his own book, in the 1970s, but when I interviewed him in 1977 it had been rejected by more than a dozen publishers. He grins and says he's finally found a publisher. I'm happy for him, but disappointed because this ends my own book ambition. My mother, of course, is relieved.
In 1959, the well-known horror fiction writer Robert Bloch wrote the Gein-inspired novel Psycho. The next year it was adapted for the screen and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in a groundbreaking thriller that pushed the envelope on scary movies.
In the early 1960s, writer August Derleth began researching a book on famous Wisconsin crimes. He visited Plainfield, but when Wisconsin Murders was published in 1968, the piece on Gein was dropped because there remained too many open wounds and controversy.
The first book on Gein was Judge Gollmar's, published in 1981. Many more books followed, the most complete and thorough of which was Deviant by crime writer Harold Schechter in 1989.
Gein spent the rest of his life in custody. He died in 1984, in the geriatric ward at Mendota Mental Health Institute. He was 77.
Since Psycho, many films can trace their lineage to Gein. These include the Leatherface character in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and the 1974 film Deranged, which closely followed the Gein story but substituted beautiful young women for Gein's middle-aged mother figures. The most recent film treatment was Ed Gein: In the Light of the Moon in 2000.
In Syracuse, N.Y., there's a metal punk band named Ed Gein whose song list includes "It's a Shame a Family Can Be Torn Apart." Another New York band, Ed Gein's Car, is responsible for "You Light Up My Liver." Tad, a Seattle grunge band, does "Nipple Belt," and a band called the Cramps performs the Gein homage, "What's Inside a Girl?"
In April of last year, the 40-acre Gein property was listed on eBay for $250,000. There was little bidding but a lot of publicity, and it was pulled after five days due to an eBay policy against murder memorabilia.
A Google search of Ed Gein reveals 815 sites containing books, bands, gruesome photos, memorabilia, music, film and book reviews, and at one time a fan club selling T-shirts, plaster busts and figurines.
Is it any wonder that young people still party in the Plainfield graveyard?
November 2007, and I've nearly finished the 50-year Gein story. My mom's been gone a half-dozen years. I visit her gravesite and make a promise: This is the last thing I'll ever write about Ed Gein.
Five decades have passed and much has changed. But in Plainfield, people still ask, "Where's the graveyard?" The real question is "Why?" Why did it happen, and why are people still fascinated by it?
More time must pass before this is only a piece of history, and no longer personal in Plainfield. People are still trying to make some sense of what happened. But it's still crazy, after all these years.
Scott Hassett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a journalist, attorney and former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.