The Shambles of Ed Gein

by Robert Bloch

"Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places," wrote H. P. Lovecraft in the opening of his story, "The Picture in the House." "For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouse of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous."

Lovecraft's tale then goes on to describe a visit to one of these "silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods" inhabited by a weird eccentric whose speech and dress suggest origins in a bygone day. An increasingly horrible series of hints culminates in the revelation that the inhabitant of the house has preserved an unnatural existence for several centuries, sustaining life and vigor through the practice of cannibalism.
Of course it's "only a story."
Or -- is it?

On the evening of November 16, 1957, visitors entered an ancient, lonely farmhouse -- not in backwoods New England but in rural Wisconsin. Hanging in an adjacent shed was the nude, butchered body of a woman. She had been suspended by the heels and decapitated, then disemboweled like a steer. In the kitchen next to the shed, fire flickered in an old-fashioned potbellied stove. A pan set on top of it contained a human heart.

The visitors -- Sheriff Art Schley and Captain Lloyd Schoephoester -- were joined by other officers. There was no electricity in the darkened house and they conducted their inspection with oil lamps, lanterns, and flashlights.

The place was a shambles, in every sense of the word. The kitchen, shed, and bedroom were littered with old papers, books, magazines, tin cans, tools utensils, musical instruments, wrapping paper cartons, containers, and a miscellany of junk. Another bedroom and living room beyond had been nailed off; these five rooms upstairs were nailed off and deserted.

But amidst the accumulated debris of years in the three tenanted rooms, the searchers found:

The bodies of 15 different women had been mutilated to provide these trophies. The number of hearts and other organs which had been cooked on the stove or stored in the refrigerator will never be known. Apocryphal tales of how the owner of the house brought gifts of "fresh liver" to certain friends and neighbors have never been publicly substantiated, nor is there any way of definitely establishing his own anthropophagism.

But H. P. Lovecraft's "true epicure of the terrible" could find his new thrill of unutterable ghastliness in the real, revealed horrors of the Gein case.

Edward Gein, the gray-haired, soft-voiced little man who may or may not have been a cannibal and a necrophile, was -- by his own admission -- a ghoul, a murderer, and a transvestite. Due process of law has also adjudged him to be criminally insane.

Yet for decades he roamed free and unhindered, a well-known figure in a little community of 700 people. Now small towns everywhere are notoriously hotbeds of gossip, conjecture, and rumor, and Gein himself joked about his "collection of shrunken heads" and laughingly admitted that he'd been responsible for the disappearance of many women in the area. He was known to be a recluse and never entertained visitors; children believed his house to be "haunted." But somehow the gossip never developed beyond the point of idle, frivolous speculation, and nobody took Ed Gein seriously. The man who robbed fresh graves, who murdered, decapitated, and eviscerated women when the moon was full, who capered about his lonely farmhouse bedecked in corpse-hair, the castor-oil-treated human skin masks made from the faces of his victims, a vest of female breast and puttees of skin stripped from women's legs -- this man was just plain old Eddie Gein, a fellow one hired to do errands and odd jobs. To do his friends and neighbors he was only a handyman, and a most dependable and trustworthy babysitter.

"Good old Ed, kind of a loner and maybe a little odd with that sense of humor of his, but just the guy to call in to sit with the kiddies when me and the old lady want to go to the show ..."
Yes, good old Ed, slipping off his mask of human skin, stowing the warm, fresh entrails in the refrigerator, and coming over to spend the evening with the youngsters; he always brought them bubble gum....

A pity Grace Metalious wasn't aware of our graying, shy little-town handyman when she wrote Peyton Place! But, of course, nobody would have believed her. New England or Wisconsin are hardly the proper settings for such characters; we might accept them in Transylvania, but Pennsylvania -- never!
And yet, he lived. And women died.

As near as can be determined, on the basis of investigation and his own somewhat disordered recollections, Gein led a "normal" childhood as the son of a widowed mother. He and his brother, Henry, assisted in the operation of their 160-acre farm.

Mrs. Gein was a devout, religious woman with a protective attitude toward her boys and a definite conviction of sin. She discouraged them from marrying and kept them busy with farm work; Ed was already a middle-aged man when his mother suffered her first stroke in 1944. Shortly thereafter, brother Henry died, trapped while fighting a forst fire. Mrs. Gein had a second stroke from which she never recovered; she went to her grave in 1945 and Ed was left alone.

It was then that he sealed off the upstairs, the parlor, and his mother's bedroom and set up his own quarters in the remaining bedroom, kitchen, and the shed of the big farmhouse. He stopped working the farm, too; a government soil-conservation program offered him subsidy, which he augmented by his work as a handyman in the area.

In his spare time he studied anatomy. First books, and then--
Then he enlisted the aid of an old friend named Gus. Gus was kind of a longer, too, and quite definitely odd -- he went to the asylum a few years later. But he was Ed's trusted buddy, and when Ed asked for assistance in opening a grave to secure a corpse for "medical experiments," Gus lent a hand, with a shovel in it.

That first cadaver came from a grave less than a dozen feet away from the last resting place of Gein's mother.
Gein dissected it. Wisconsin farm folk are handy at dressing-out beef, pork, and venison.

What Ed Gein didn't reveal to Gus was his own growing desire to become a woman himself; it was for this reason he'd studied anatomy, brooded about the possibilities of an "operation" which would result in the change of sex, desired to dissect a female corpse and familiarize himself with its anatomical structure.

Nor did he tell Gus about the peculiar thrill he experienced when he donned the grisly accoutrement of human skin stripped from the cadaver. At least, there's no evidence he did.

He burned the flesh bit by bit in the stove, buried the bones. And with Gus' assistance, repeated his ghoulish depredations. Sometimes he merely opened the graves and took certain parts of the bodies -- perhaps just the heads and some strips of skin. Then he carefully covered up traces of his work. His collection of trophies grew, and so did the range of his experimentation and obsession.
Then Gus was taken away, and Gein turned to murder.

The first victim, in 1954, was Mary Hogan, a buxom 51-year-old divorcée who operated a tavern at Pine Grove, six miles from home. She was alone when he came to her one cold winter's evening; he shot her in the head with his .32-caliber revolver, placed her body in his pickup truck, and took her to the shed where he'd butchered pigs, dressed-out deer.

There may have been other victims in the years that followed. But nothing definite is known abut Gein's murderous activities until that day in November 1957, when he shot and killed Mrs. Bernice Worden in her hardware store on Plainsfield's Main Street. He used a .22 rifle from a display rack in the store itself inserting his own bullet which he carried with him in his pocket. Locking the store on that Saturday morning, he'd taken the body home in the store truck. Gein also removed the cash register, which contained $41 in cash -- not with the intention of committing robbery, he later explained in righteous indignation, but merely because he wished to study the mechanism. He wanted to see how a cash register worked, and fully intended to return it later.

Mrs. Worden's son Frank often assisted her in the store, but on this particular Saturday morning he'd gone deer hunting. On his return in late afternoon he discovered the establishment closed, his mother missing, the cash register was gone. There was blood on the floor. Frank Worden served as a deputy sheriff in the area and knew what to do. He immediately alerted his superior officer, reported the circumstances, and began to check for clues. He established that the store had been closed since early that morning, but noted a record of the two sales transactions made before closing. One of them was for a half gallon of antifreeze.

Worden remembered that Ed Gein, the previous evening at closing time, had stopped by the store and said he'd be back the next morning for antifreeze. He'd also asked Worden if he intended to go hunting the next day. Worden further recalled that Gein had been in and out of the store quite frequently during the previous week.
Since the cash register was missing, it appeared as if Gein had planned a robbery after determining a time when the coast was clear.

Worden conveyed his suspicions to the sheriff, who sent officers to the farm, seven miles outside Plainfield. The house was dark and the handyman absent; acting on a hunch, they drove to a store in West Plainfield where Gein usually purchased groceries. He was there -- had been visiting casually with the proprietor and his wife. In face, he'd just eaten dinner with them.

The officers spoke of Mrs. Worden's disappearance. The 51-year-old, 140-pound little handyman joked about it in his usual offhand fashion; he was just leaving for home in his truck and was quite surprised that anyone wanted to question him. "I didn't have anything to do with it," he told them. "I just heard about it while I was eating supper." It seems someone had come in with the news.
Meanwhile, back at the farmhouse, the sheriff and the captain had driven up, entered the shed, and made their gruesome discovery.
Gein was taken into custody, and he talked.

Unfortunately for the "searchers after horror," his talk shed little illumination on the dark corners of his mind. He appeared to have only a dim recollection of his activities; he was "in a daze" much of the time during the murders. He did recall that he'd visited about 40 graves through the years, through he insisted he hadn't opened all of them, and denied he'd committed more than two murders. He named only nine women whose bodies he'd molested, but revealed he selected after careful inspections of the death notices in the local newspapers.

There was a lie-detector test, a murder charge, an arraignment, a series of examinations at the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He remains there to this day.

The case created a sensation in the Midwest. Thousands of "epicures of the terrible" -- and their snotty-nosed brats -- made the devout pilgrimage to Plainfield, driving bumper-to-bumper on wintry Sunday afternoons as they gawked at the "murder farm." Until one night the residence of the "mad butcher" went up in smoke.

I was not among the epicures. At that time I resided less than fifty miles away, but had no automobile to add to the bumper crop; nor did I subscribe to a daily newspaper. Inevitably, however, I heard the mumbled mixture of gossip and rumor concerning the "fiend" and his activities. Curiously enough, there was no mention of his relationship with his mother, or of his transvestism; the accent was entirely on proven murder and presumed cannibalism.
What interested me was this notion that a ghoulish killer with perverted appetites could flourish almost openly in a small rural community where everyone prides himself on knowing everyone else's business.

The concept proved so intriguing that I immediately set about planning a novel dealing with such a character. In order to provide him with a supply of potential victims, I decided to make him a motel operator. Then came the ticklish question of what made him tick -- the matter of motivation. The Oedipus motif seemed to offer a valid answer, and the transvestite theme appeared to be a logical extension. The novel which evolved was called Psycho.

Both the book and subsequent motion picture version called forth comments which are the common lot of the writer in the mystery-suspense genre. "Where do you get those perfectly dreadful ideas for your stories?"

I can only shrug and point to the map -- not just a map of Wisconsin, but any map. For men like Edward Gein can be found anywhere in the world -- quiet little men leading quiet little lives, smiling their quiet little smiles and dreaming their quiet little dreams.

Lovecraft's "searchers after horror" do not need to haunt strange, far places or descend into catacombs or ransack mausolea. They have only to realize that the true descent into dread, the journey into realms of nightmare, is all too easy -- once one understands where terror dwells.
The real chamber of horrors is the gray, twisted, pulsating, blood-flecked interior of the human mind.