Ed Gein: Portrait of America’s Original ‘Psycho Killer’

Killer Ed Gein, being led away from his house in handcuffs, Plainfield, Wis., 1957.
Francis Miller—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Killer Ed Gein, being led away from his house in handcuffs, Plainfield, Wis., 1957.

Few convicted killers in the long, violent annals of American crime come close to Ed Gein for depravity and — it should be said — for pop-culture influence. Arrested in 1957 and tried and convicted of one murder a decade later, Gein has been cited as the inspiration for big-screen mass murderers as varied as Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, Norman Bates in Psycho and — perhaps especially — Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs.

Virtually every messy, creepy, isolated killer’s home one sees today on TV and in the movies takes as its model the run-down, detritus-filled Wisconsin farmhouse where, in November 1957, authorities encountered the sort of scene that would reliably make moviegoers’ flesh crawl for decades to come. While Ed Gein was only convicted of one murder, he was suspected in several more; confessed to at least two; and had evidently dug up the remains of scores of people through the years, in effect making use of the bodies to satisfy his own urges.

Gein’s home was reportedly filled with his grisly handiwork. Upon his arrest cops searching his house found noses, human bones, bowls made from human skulls, human skin used as chair seats, human heads in paper bags and burlaps sacks, a lampshade fashioned from the skin of a human face and countless other horrors.

Gein was convicted of killing just one person, a judge named Robert H. Gollmar, but also confessed to killing two women — a bar owner named Mary Hogan and a hardware store owner in his hometown of Plainfield, Bernice Worden. He spent the last years of his life in mental institutions in Wisconsin, rather than in prison, having been found legally insane. He died in 1984 at the age of 77 in Madison.

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