What do Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs have in common? For one, they are all classic horror movies, even considered some of the greatest films of all time. But what you might not know is that they are all based on one man: Ed Gein.
Ed Gein was a grave robber and murderer whose crimes and trial horrified the country in the 1950s. His influence on pop culture and the true crime genre has shaped the way that many look at mental illness and its relation to the legal system. Learn more about Ed Gein and how this one man became the horrifying villain in so many stories that we continue to tell today.
Family and Early Life
Ed Gein was born in 1906 in Wisconsin. His early days were spent on his family’s farm in Plainfield. It was said that Ed Gein, as a child, experienced his first moment of arousal while watching his mother gut a slaughtered pig on that farm.
At home, he dealt with constant fighting between his mother and father. The fighting got violent, and it was said that Ed’s mother would pray for her husband’s death in front of Ed and his brother, Henry. Ed’s mother was a religious fanatic, keeping the family on a farm as a way to keep the family away from the evils of the world. One “evil” that remained at the focus of her attention was other women. She poured hot water on her 12-year-old child when he was caught masturbating, and severely punished him in violent ways if he tried to make friends outside of the farm. But while his brother Henry spent his adult life trying to escape the family by creating one of his own, Ed remained devoted to his mother. Later in life, Ed would describe her as a saint. Some say that he was obsessed.
Ed Gein’s father died in 1940 of heart problems. In 1944, Henry died at the age of 43 under mysterious circumstances. The two were fighting a grass fire near the farm. Ed claimed Henry started the fire, but that the fire got out of control and ended up killing Henry. Not only do reports believe that Ed started the fire, but police reports also show that Ed ended up stepping away from Henry while the fire raged, filing a missing person’s report after the fire was extinguished, and then leading police to Henry’s body when the police showed up at the farm. Still, he was not arrested, and Henry’s cause of death was listed as asphyxiation, related to the fire.
Shortly after the fire, Henry’s mother suffered a stroke. In 1945, she suffered a second one and died.
When his family died, Ed Gein was left alone on the family farm. He shut off certain rooms in the house and didn’t work the farm. People around town knew him as a weirdo and a loner, but despite this reputation he found odd jobs babysitting children in the area. When Ed Gein wasn’t babysitting or working around the town, he was reading books on crime, murder, and anatomy. He was fascinated with Nazi officers, especially those who were particularly grisly and sadist.
Ed Gein didn’t start visiting graveyards until after his mother died. Eighteen months after her death, these visits turned criminal. Gein claimed to have made 40 visits to various graveyards between the years 1947 and 1950. Not all of these visits resulted in digging up bodies - but he is said to have dug up around 10 bodies during those years. Some of these women were people that Ed had known while he was alive. He would leave the graveyard with part of or an entire body. Most of the time, he would at least leave with the body’s genitalia. Heads and chests were also removed and made into various clothing or household items.
In 1954, Ed Gein took his first victim, although this wasn’t obvious right away. Mary Hogan was a divorced bartender who resembled Gein’s mother. She was reported missing when a puddle of blood and a .32 cartridge were discovered at the tavern where she worked.
Shortly after this, Gein would start to make jokes about the missing woman to townspeople. At first, these were ignored; Gein was weird, but he was harmless. After rumors started spreading about a shrunken head collection and the death of Bernice Worden in 1957. Worden, who also resembled Ed Gein’s mother, was shot and killed in her store in Plainfield with a .22 rifle. When her son returned to the store, he saw that his mother was gone, blood was on the floor, and the cash register had gone missing.
He had suspected Ed Gein because he had stopped in the night before and chatted with Worden’s son. Her son had mentioned that he was going hunting the next day and would not be around. After Worden’s son shared this information with the sheriff of the town, an investigation was made at Ed Gein’s farm.
Gein was arrested on the night of November 16, 1957. The local law enforcement investigated his home during that time and were horrified by what they found. The shrunken head collection was there, but so was a collection of body parts and corpses that inspired Buffalo Bill’s character in Silence of the Lambs. Human skulls were fastened into soup bowls. Skin was taken from bodies and made into furniture upholstery and lampshades. A belt of nipples was found in his home, as well as a chest made into a human skin suit. Multiple vulvae were found in jars, among a long list of atrocious sights. At least four other Wisconsin residents, all living within an hour of Plainfield, disappeared during the time when Ed Gein was visiting graves. Whether these four residents’ body parts were in the house at the time may never be verified.
Shortly after this investigation finished, Gein confessed to Worden’s murder. He said that he was in a daze at the time that it happened, a daze that he said he felt while visiting graveyards. Although he claimed that he did not kill anyone else at the time of the confession, police later identified Mary Hogan as one of the faces that Gein had in a paper bag in his home.
Reports show that while Gein was rather agreeable during his initial interrogations, many external factors got in the way of his trial. When the sheriff of the town first interrogated Gein, he threw him up against a wall. That assault made Gein’s first admission of guilt inadmissible to the court. As reporters and the public started to learn about the case, they too would interfere.
It is believed to be the general public that first speculated that Gein was a cannibal; however, until his death he denied eating any body parts. The media frenzy was also what gave Gein the nickname “The Butcher of Plainfield.”
Trial and Sentencing
In 1957, Ed Gein was officially charged with the murder of Bernice Worden. It was said that Mary Hogan’s murder, as well as Gein’s graverobbing crimes, were left out of the charges due to budgetary reasons. The county simply could not afford to investigate these crimes and the disappearances of the 4+ other Wisconsin residents. (Polygraph tests claimed that Ed Gein had not murdered these missing residents, but modern criminal investigations rarely rely on polygraph tests anymore.)
Ed Gein pleaded “not guilty” on the grounds of insanity. In order for that recognition to get Gein out of a guilty verdict, expert witnesses would have to prove that mental illnesses messed with Gein’s ability to discern right from wrong. Not all of the expert witnesses agreed, with one saying he was just barely legally sane due to his ability to communicate and confer with his defense attorney. Still, the judge ruled Ed Gein “insane.” Gein was sentenced to a mental hospital in Wisconsin for an “indeterminate” time.
Ed Gein was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and sexual psychopathy, specifically necrophilia. Necrophilia is a term that doesn’t always mean that a person had sex with a dead bodies - they are just attracted to dead bodies. He insisted that he didn’t have sex with anyone (dead or alive) throughout his entire life. But his attraction to the dead bodies - in his case, ones that looked like his mother - was enough at the time to earn him the label.
This wasn’t the end of Gein’s time in court. In 1968, he stood trial. The public had been asking for the case to be appealed, and because of Gein’s “model behavior” at the mental hospital, he was deemed fit enough to stand trial. Once again, although he was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity. He remained in mental hospitals for the rest of his life. In 1984, he died of cancer.
Influence on Pop Culture
Although the two murders of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden do not technically make Ed Gein a serial killer, his body snatching and place in popular media have made him a classic study in true crime. Before true crime podcasts and Netflix documentaries, Ed Gein was the inspiration for multiple horror movies.
In 1959, two years after the murder of Bernice Worden, Robert Bloch published Psycho. The book tells the story of Norman Bates, a motel owner who has a peculiar relationship with his mother. This relationship becomes a motive for Norman’s murderous behavior. Like in the case of Ed Gein, the corpse of Norman Bates’s mother was preserved after the murder took place.
Bloch wrote the book in Wisconsin, but he claims that Ed Gein was just one of the inspirations for Norman Bates and the Psycho plotline. The book was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a movie of the same name in 1960. Psycho is considered one of the greatest films of all time and also one of the first “slasher films.”
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
In 1974, Tobe Hooper introduced the world to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Leatherface was part of a larger family of cannibals that used body parts to make furniture and robbed graves. The antagonists in this movie are said to be based off of Ed Gein, although Gein claimed to never have eaten his victims.
The Silence of the Lambs
Ed Gein was also the inspiration for cannibal Hannibal Lecter in the 1988 book and 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs. His violent tendencies also provided inspiration for Buffalo Bill.
Ed Gein had a fascination with gender reassignment surgery and becoming a woman. Like the Buffalo Bill character in Silence of the Lambs, he would wear the suits he made from women’s clothes. This trope also appears in Norman Bates’ character in Psycho, although Robert Bloch did not attribute this part of Bates’ character to Ed Gein. Gein was also said to have used vulvas that he dug up from graves and put them over his genitalia. People who knew him around town had noted that he was fascinated with Christine Jorgensen, a transgender World War II veteran.
Does this mean Ed Gein was transgender? It’s hard to know for sure now that Ed Gein has died. Similar to the poor understanding of the reliability of polygraph tests, psychologists had a poor understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout Ed Gein’s lifetime. They classified cross-dressing and homosexuality as deviant acts. “Transgender” wasn’t even a word until the early 1970s. Labeling Ed Gein and Buffalo Bill as transgender is said to have done more harm than good for the transgender community. (For more information on this, I highly recommend watching Disclosure.)
Much has changed since the time of Ed Gein. If he had committed these acts today, he might not have gotten away with just being charged for one murder “for budgetary reasons.” Miranda rights were only put into law after his initial trial had ended. The classification for different mental illnesses, which ultimately lead to his not guilty ruling, have vastly changed. Yet, Ed Gein remains one of the most classic examples of a figure in true crime, and his influence on pop culture has forced many people to think about the capabilities of humanity, the effect of trauma on young children, and what makes a person a psychopath.