Elmer Fudd with a Fetish: Ed Gein Sites

October 28, 2016 —
My fascination with serial killers and their crimes comes with a heaping load of shame, except for in one instance: Ed Gein. It’s not because his body count is low compared to other serial killers (he was convicted for one murder out of two that are attributed to him) or that most of his crimes were perpetrated on the unfeeling dead (that one takes more than an aside to explain). It’s because without Gein, we might not have Norman Bates. Or Leatherface. Or Buffalo Bill. Or the Firefly family. And that’s what’s fascinating about him to me. Fascinating enough that my shame load was only a mild one while I visited sites related to him in his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin. With my wife and two kids.

Ed Gein was born in 1906. His father George was an alcoholic, his mother Augusta overbearing and religious, and his brother Henry—who was five years older than he—a seemingly okay guy, I guess. The family lived on a farm outside of town in purposeful isolation. George died when Ed was in his 30s, leaving the Gein brothers to support the family with the the odd job. Ed himself was a babysitter. Henry died a few years later of a heart attack after a brush fire on the property.

So by the time Ed Gein was forty, it was just he and his mom. But a boy’s best friend is his mother, so that was all right…even when she was paralyzed by a stroke soon after Henry’s death. In fact, she only lived another year and a half after that. But don’t worry. She comes back in the story.

Here Gein was, at the beginning of middle age, lonely, and needing a hobby. And he found one. One that horrified the world and rejuvenated the horror genre.

“I need a small Phillips head screwdriver, the kind that will open a battery door on a child’s toy.” I rehearsed the story in my head as we drove past the Plainfield town sign (population 862). I was headed to a hardware store downtown. I had three sites on my Ed Gein itinerary and two little girls in the backseat to hide it all from.

I mean, I had taken them that morning to be mindboggled by Wisconsin’s famous House on the Rock. Now it was Daddy’s turn to be mindboggled.

On November 16, 1957, the owner of Worden’s hardware store, Bernice Worden, disappeared. According to the receipts, her last customer had been Ed Gein. Naturally, the police went to his house and, unnaturally, they found a house of horrors.

Somehow, that hardware store is still a hardware store, although these days it’s called Hardware Hank and has been remodeled so that the entrance is on a different side of the building at 110 S. Main Street. I left the family in the car and went inside, my alibi at the ready. I figured a small screwdriver from the old crime scene would be an interesting tchotchke on the shelf of my study. “Oh that? I bought that at a murder scene.” And that using it for a child’s toy proved me an innocent family guy to whomever was running the store. Gein’s telltale receipt had been for a jug of antifreeze. I wasn’t about to tip my hand with that or put something like that on my shelf.

I walked in and guy in his 20s or early 30s was sitting there behind the counter. The store was small, so not the kind of place you could walk in and avoid eye contact and just wander among the shelves or along the pegboard-covered walls. I gave him my line, and he escorted me to the appropriate shelf, only a few steps from the counter. “I don’t think we have a small screwdriver, but we do have this,” he pulled a small plastic box encasing a set of six precision screwdrivers off a peg. It’s not what I wanted at all. But it was perfect for opening the battery door on a child’s toy. I had to continue the ruse.

“Yeah, I think that will work. And I might as well take this screwdriver here.” I grabbed a single, big screwdriver off a neighboring peg. The kind you might be able to commit a murder with if you chose just the right soft spot. I didn’t say why I wanted that, too, and he didn’t question me. As he cashed me out, we made small talk. He seemed like a laid-back kind of guy, the sort to whom I could confess my ulterior motive. Or at least test him with a “Do you have any antifreeze?” I didn’t, though. Even if it meant me not learning how often people came here because of Ed Gein. Instead, I asked him how long it took to get to Appleton, where we’d be stopping for dinner. Harry Houdini lived in that town as a child.

And then I left the hardware store for the next site, as the police had done 60 years before. Unlike the hardware store, though, what they found and what I found were two different things completely.

The horrors in Gein’s house included Worden’s body trussed upside down and headless in a shed. She had been shot with a rifle. It should have been the most traumatic discovery in the careers of those small town policemen, but by that point they’d become somewhat inured.

After all, scattered throughout his house were grisly craft projects, chairs upholstered in human skin. Bowls made from human skulls. A lampshade made from a human head. Masks made from woman’s faces. A belt of female nipples. Female skin suits. He was the Martha Stewart of serial killers. Idle hands do the devil’s business, but so did his busy ones.

One of the faces they found belonged to a local tavern owner who had been missing for three years, Mary Hogan. At first he admitted to killing her, but later went vague about the confession. It wasn’t needed for a conviction anyway. Worden’s corpse was enough. They found her head in a bag in the house. The rest of his macabre materials came from various Plainfield cemeteries. See, he was mostly a ghoul. Possibly a cannibal. Maybe a necrophiliac. But certainly a ghoul. And his victims were always female.

That’s of course, because of his mother issues. The skin suit he made allowed him to become his mother, say they who know more about abnormal psychology than I. Interestingly enough, the record doesn’t mention him ever digging Augusta up. Robert Bloch would, of course, take care of that later, with Psycho.

Today, the house is no more. Someone floated the idea of turning it into an attraction, so a holy arsonist stepped in with devil’s only friend. Today, the edge of his property is defined by the crossroads of Archer Avenue and Second Avenue. That was our next stop.

Today, the area on the outskirts of the town is all farmland and forest as far as the eye can see, and the two streets that meet there are hardpacked dirt roads. While we were there, we passed no cars, saw no machinery moving across the fields. Just stillness and dust that had been churned up by my car tires.

I found the gate to the property, a little further down Second Avenue. It was open, but adorned with No Trespassing signs. The trees along the two avenues grew those signs like fruit. An entire orchard of No Trespassing signs. All they needed was some harvesting and shipping to all the stores. We took some photos and left.

Our final stop was the real stop, though. And for it, we headed back into town.

Plainfield Cemetery on Fifth Avenue is a microcosm of the Ed Gein story. It was one of the cemeteries that Gein robbed during his years-long midnight crime spree. Bernice Worden was put back together and buried there at the end of the spree. And all the Geins are there: George, Augusta, Henry, and Ed, in an awkward afterlife of a family reunion.

It’s was easy finding Gein’s graves. I just needed to find a row of three stones that looked like it should have been four. They were on a path in the middle of the cemetery that paralleled Fifth Avenue.

The blank space between Henry and Augusta’s stone is Ed Gein’s grave. It used to have a stone, one that was covered in magic marker graffiti and pitted from people chipping off pieces as souvenirs. In June of 2000 it went missing and was found a year later in Seattle, Washington, where a promoter for a band named the Angry White Males was using it as part of the tour and selling rubbings of it on his website. The stone was never put back. Instead it was placed in storage somewhere.

Except that on our visit, it wasn’t a blank space. Someone had stuck a small Styrofoam cross where his headstone would have been. It had his name and birth and death years. It seemed like an extremely fresh planting, since any amount of weather would have ruined it. The day was July 26. On a hunch, I Googled Gein’s birth and death days. Turns out, we had inadvertently arrived in Plainfield on the 32nd anniversary of his death.

Arrest photos show a grizzled middle-aged man in a plaid cap of the sort Elmer Fudd wore when hunting wabbits. Just a Wisconsin redneck. Even the exotic serial killer name the media gave him, the “Mad Butcher” just couldn’t stick to him. We know Albert DeSalvo as the Boston Strangler. Dennis Rader as the BTK Murder. Paul Knowles as the Casanova Killer. But Ed Gein is just Ed Gein.

As we headed north and away from Plainfield, I thought about the story and the town and its resident monster. It all seemed so ordinary. Ordinary enough that my kids didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions. The hardware store was just a hardware store. The crossroads, like so many we had traversed over the previous week. The graveyard was just a graveyard, and we visit those a lot. And Ed Gein, he’s just dust and bones, like every else.

Except that he also lives as Norman Bates. As Leatherface. As Buffalo Bill. As the Firefly clan. It’s a strange, strange legacy.