Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield: America’s Most Influential Serial Killer

Ed Gein documentary

This documentary labels Ed Gein as America’s “most notorious psychopath,” but this is only true in part. Gein’s fame or notoriety is actually seen in his influence of popular culture. It could be argued that Ed Gein is America’s most “influential psychopath” because of his impact on the horror film industry. To call him the most notorious, though, seems to assume that Gein is well known and synonymous with the term “serial killer” in the consciousness of Americans. I contend that such an assumption is an oversimplification and requires some additional examination. It is not my intention here to revisit and recount the events of Ed Gein’s life. That is why the documentary is included. These events ARE well known among criminologists, psychologists and true crime aficionados, but the general American public is generally ignorant when it comes to the actual person Ed Gein. Nonetheless, many of these same people have been influenced in one way or another by Gein’s exploits, largely through popular culture.

Ed Gein pic
The Plainfield Butcher

What do we know about Gein and how does what we know tell us about his impact on popular culture? We know that Gein was a truly disturbed individual. Gein was able to avoid prison because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he was also diagnosed as a sexual psychopath. The problem with the latter designation is that it ignores the impact that Gein’s relationship with his mother had on his activities. The primary difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is how they are created. It is generally believed that the psychopath is born as such. Criminologist Scott Bonn spells this out in his Psychology Today article in which he notes that it usually boils down to the nature vs. nurture argument. While the psychopath is born with psychopathic tendencies, the sociopath is the result of “nurture.” According to Bonn, “Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse.” Gein had a complex relationship with his mother that clearly fueled his later activities as an adult. His mother’s unhealthy obsession with sexual morality and her attempt to keep Ed from engaging in any impure activities may have pushed him to focus on sexual gratification through his killings and his body snatching activities. Nonetheless, Gein does display psychopathic tendencies that make him hard to categorize as one or the other. Ed was able to assimilate into society enough to be considered psychopathic but was more of a loner later in life as his urges got the better of him. At the end of the day, it’s probably best to not try to nail Gein down as one or the other. This is, furthermore, reason to see him as the prototype of the American serial killer. He is what people think of when you use the term, even if they don’t know his name or his actual story.

Ed Gein mother
Augusta Gein

Ed Gein’s exploits have been memorialized and possibly even immortalized in popular horror films. The most obvious examples are the classic films “Psycho” (1960) and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The awkwardly homicidal psychopath and momma’s boy, Norman Bates, seems to be clearly modeled on the the relationship between Ed Gein and his mother, Augusta. Augusta was a stern woman who wore her religiosity on her sleeve. She was especially vocal about the loose morals of other women outside of her home and did all that she could to shield Ed and his brother Henry from the outside influence of such sinners. In Ed’s eyes, Augusta was the standard by which all other women would be judged–all of them would fall short. In fact, Augusta’s death was so traumatic to Ed that all attempts at future relationships would be doomed from the start. Ed’s disdain for the women he killed stemmed from his own anger that such sinful women were allowed to live and prosper while his mother was taken from him in death. In his own mind, Ed would justify his killings by holding the women against the standard of his mother. Although he seemingly knew he would never find an adequate replacement for her, he continued to look to find those women who maybe had qualities similar to his mother. If he couldn’t raise her from the dead (something he attempted to do for quite some time after her passing), he would simply take parts of the women he exhumed or killed and create a new Augusta. Thus the skin suit that he wore and danced around in on a nightly basis was his way of bringing her back to life. Although Gein had expressed interest in becoming a woman via medical operation (the first American to receive a sex change operation was Christine Jorgensen in 1952 at the height of Gein’s activities), he would opt for this far more gruesome self-creation through role play and sexual fantasy.

Leatherface, the 1970s version of Ed Gein was created as a film character in 1974. “The Texas Chainsaw” massacre was marketed as a film based on real events, even though the vast majority of the plot was fictional. Ed Gein served as the primary inspiration for the film though. This is clear by by Leatherface’s use of the human skin of his victims. When Gein’s home was finally raided by police in 1957, authorities found the following:

Whole human bones and fragments
A wastebasket made of human skin
Human skin covering several chair seats
Skulls on his bedposts
Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
Bowls made from human skulls
A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
Leggings made from human leg skin
Masks made from the skin of female heads
Mary Hogan’s face mask in a paper bag
Mary Hogan’s skull in a box
Bernice Worden’s entire head in a burlap sack
Bernice Worden’s heart “in a plastic bag in front of Gein’s potbelly stove”
Nine vulvae in a shoe box
A young girl’s dress and “the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years old”
A belt made from female human nipples
Four noses
A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
Fingernails from female fingers (Source: Wikipedia)

Gein's mutilationsLegs at the crime scene Human skin lampshade

In addition to the mutilations, the evidence suggests that Gein, like Leatherface, was also engaged in some level of cannibalism of his victims. It has been speculated that one year when Gein passed out homemade sausage as a Christmas gift to his friends and neighbors in the community, he may have used the body of one of his victims to do it. Aside from inspiring the atrocities of Leatherface, Gein’s cannibalistic tendencies would serve as inspiration for the character Buffalo Bill in the 1991 horror classic, “The Silence of the Lambs.” Bill is a serial killer who murders overweight women and skins them so he can make a “woman suit” for himself. Of course, Hannibal Lecter is the main character who also seems to be loosely based on Gein. It’s interesting that the 1970s and 1980s were replete with iconic horror films and none of them were really an attempt to tell the story of Ed Gein’s life. The closest attempt was the 1974 film “Deranged” starring Roberts Blossom as a deranged midwestern farmer who robs graves to keep his mother’s dead corpse company. The 2007 film “Ed Gein” is a more recent attempt to fill this biographical gap in horror filmography, but the film’s lack of success and interest assures that it will never reach the status of a cult classic like the films of the 1970s-1991 inspired by Gein’s actions. At the end of the day, anyone that wants to study the history of horror films or serial killers in general should start with Ed Gein. Yes, there are some more famous names that come to mind, like Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, but only Ed Gein can be said to be deeply embedded in part of American culture.

 

Post script: There are some that argue that Ed Gein was not a serial killer because he only admitted to killing two women while exhuming the rest of his victims. In reality, there’s no hard steadfast classification for how many kills a serial killer needs to have or the time period in which they were supposedly done. Law enforcement and criminologists generally accept the three kills over a period of a month or so with a “cooling down” period in between kills. It’s noteworthy that this standard has been changed over the years and it’s disputable whether or not the killer needs to have three kills to be considered “serial.” In Ed Gein’s case, the bodysnatching activities leading up to his kills were a way for him to desensitize his revulsion to dead bodies and also a way to keep him from acting on the deeper darker impulses that would eventually lead to the death of two women in Plainfield. Considering how many people were actually victimized after their death, Gein appears to have been capable of more than two kills. It is possible that we don’t know how many people he actually killed. It is also probable that Gein would have gone on to kill more if he hadn’t slipped up and accidentally confessed before he was formally accused.

Links:

Wisconsin Historical Society: Ed Gein’s Arrest.

Scott Bonn’s Why We Love Serial Killers available for free audio download here: http://serialkilz.com/dhjj

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