The Butcher of Plainfield: Ed Gein’s Case for Insanity

I originally wrote this for my Forensic Psychology class (which I loved by the way!). I decided to post it here since I feel it’s important in today’s society; especially the stigma of mental illness and inmates. Oh yeah, and I got an A in the class….


On a cold November day in 1957, in the little town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, Bernice Worden, owner of the town’s hardware store, was visited by a little man with a crooked smile. Edward Theodore Gein was known to everyone as being a nice, friendly, quiet man with a little bit of strangeness to him. Bernice was not surprised to see him that morning since he had been in the day before inquiring about antifreeze. While Bernice was filling up a glass container with antifreeze, Ed noticed a rack of rifles for sale behind the counter. After paying for the antifreeze, Ed asked Bernice if he could look at one of the rifles; he was interested in trading his in for a new one. Bernice removed one of the .22 caliber rifles and handed it to Ed. While Ed was examining the rifle, Bernice looked out of her shop window to the gas station across the street. Quietly behind her back, Ed had placed a bullet cartridge in the rifle and shot Bernice in the back of the head.

            Later that evening, Bernice’s son and the town’s Deputy Sheriff, Frank Worden was told that the hardware store had been closed all day. Finding that unusual Frank entered the store to find blood on the floor, the cash register gone and receipt for antifreeze. Frank was aware of who the suspect was; he was in the store the day before when Ed had come in inquiring about that antifreeze. Immediately, Frank alerted the Washuara County Sheriff’s office who put out a notice that they were looking for Ed Gein in suspicion of Bernice Worden’s disappearance. The first place they went to find Ed Gein was his home; an old run-down farmhouse on the outskirts of town. When the officers entered the house, they were not prepared for the horrors that lurked inside. Bernice Worden, hung upside down by her ankles on a crossbar and arms tied to her wrists, sliced open and dressed like deer. She was decapitated, her head lying in a nearby bag with hooks going through her ears, ready to be hung as a trophy. And that was not the only gruesome discovery that the officers would later discover. Ed Gein’s house was full of human remains which were fashioned into morbid household items. Refurbished furniture and lamps; masks, gloves, belts and even a mammary vest– all made from human skin. There were also skulls as decorations on his four-poster bed, skull caps used as bowls and boxes of female body parts filled the cramped and tiny rooms. Finally, a call came in that Gein had been taken into custody after being found at a local grocery store (Schechter, 1998a, p. 72). It would be later revealed that most Ed Geins “trophies” were from nine-eleven corpses dug up from various local cemeteries. Thus, began the story of America’s most bizarre and influential murderers of all time. But, was Ed Gein a truly devious and deviant criminal? Or was he the result of a life of social isolation, a fanatically religious and strict mother and an undiagnosed mental illness?

Ed Gein was born on August 27, 1906, the youngest child of George and Augusta Gein. Living on the outskirts of the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, the Gein’s were recluses from the rest of society. Ed Gein’s father was an alcoholic, who would spend most of his pay at a local tavern and abusive to both his wife and children and died of liver failure in 1940.

August Gein was a religious extremist who made her home her own self-contained little world. While Ed grew up with his older brother Henry, there would be no companionship that could change the influence of a puritanical mother who would frequently shame her children. She would preach to her two sons about the evils in the world and did everything in her power to keep them away from the hurts of society. She would physically abuse them if they made friends at school; making it clear that they should stay away from those who would turn them from their piety. She would read to her boys nightly from the Bible, quoting scripture and reminding them that society is full of evil, more specifically, that women were sinful. Her most significant proselytization was the Book of Revelations which specifically discusses the Whore of Babylon; a reference she would use to describe corrupt and sinful women. These specific teachings would have a profound influence on her youngest son.  To Ed, his relationship with his mother was the most important relationship he would ever have. When his brother Henry died, and Ed had his mother to himself, and he did everything he could to make her proud of him and doted on her morning through night. Ed loved his mother completely, regardless of whether she reciprocated her feelings or not. In his eyes, his mother was the most pious and magnificent woman in the world. Whenever asked about his mother, Ed would tear up and reply “she was pure goodness(Schechter, 1998b, p. 14).

It was not until his mother passed away on December 29, 1945, that Ed’s descent into madness began. Despite Ed’s strange affect, he was seen in the Plainfield community as an upstanding citizen. Disheveled and often wearing his signature checkered hat, Ed would work frequent odd jobs, functioned as a handyman to the citizens of Plainfield and even worked as a babysitter. He may have always been on the wrong end of a joke, but Ed was a friendly, quiet and kind man. Occasionally, Ed would say something or give a strange look that would make some uncomfortable; but they would just brush it off as Ed being Ed! However, it was shortly after the death of his mother, that Ed began to go to cemeteries with the belief that he “could raise the dead by willpower” (Schechter, 1998c, p.186). This was also the time that Ed Gein began to remove corpses of freshly buried middle-age women—women who reminded him of his mother. Ed would bring the corpses back to his now dilapidated family farm and remove the skin from their bodies. He would use the skin and other parts of the body to construct gloves, leggings, belts, masks and a vest with breasts. Later, he admitted, he would wear them to essentially become his mother.  During Ed Gein’s 1957 police interview, Gein admitted that between 1947-1952 that he exhumed between nine to eleven bodies from three local graveyards. Additionally, when asked why he not only murdered Bernice Worden but, as was later discovered, the murder of Mary Hogan, a popular tavern owner who went missing in 1954, Ed replied that they were “disreputable women with bad reputations” (Ed Gein’s Full Confession, 2019, p 68).

Ed Gein was arraigned in Washuara County Court on one count of first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and was found mentally incompetent and was unfit to stand trial. Ed was sent to the Criminal State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a maximum-security facility in Wapun, Wisconsin and later sent to Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin for his initial psychiatric assessment. It was during his stay in the hospital, that Ed Gein was interviewed by several doctors. During the interviews, he would frequently discuss memory deficits as well auditory and visual hallucinations; stating that he often saw faces in leaves, heard voices and would see buzzards flying over half-burnt trees. Most notable was Ed’s discussion of the motivation to create “a substitute for his mother in the form of a replica that could be kept indefinitely” and showed an “abnormally magnified attachment to his mother” (Schechter 1998d, p 189). The doctors finally diagnosed with Schizophrenia of an undifferentiated type. Schizophrenia is a mental illness whose symptoms can include “delusions, hallucinations, trouble with thinking and concentration, and lack of motivation” (Parekh, 2017). Schizophrenia is also marked by distorted perceptions and disordered and confused thinking.

It would take ten full years for Ed Gein to be declared competent enough to stand trial. On November 14, 1968, Ed Geins trial began and only lasted a week. He was found guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric facility.  He was sent back to Mendota State Hospital to carry out the rest of his days. During his stay in Mendota, Ed was a model patient. He remained quiet, mild-mannered, friendly and often helpful in doing odd jobs around the hospital. In July of 1978, after senility and a long bout of cancer, Ed Gein died of respiratory failure. With only four attendants, Ed Gein was buried next to his mother in Plainfield, Wisconsin.

Ed Gein’s case is a great example of secondary psychopathy and the M’Naghten rule. Secondary psychopathy creates antisocial behavior and is caused by “social disadvantage and other psychopathology” (Huss, 2009a, p 80). Ed clearly had this form of psychopathy considering not only his upbringing in a poor and abusive family but also in his lack of social skills. Moreover, the M’Naghten rule played a key role in sending Ed Gein to a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life. Insanity relies on the person having a diagnosed mental illness (in this case schizophrenia) and being unable to distinguish between right and wrong (Huss, 2009b, p.103). Furthermore, there is a clear indication that Ed suffered from severe social anxiety and had a very difficult time relating to other people, more specifically, women. Ed’s abnormal devotion to his deceased mother made it difficult for him to have a normal relationship with a woman and he remained a bachelor his whole life. Naturally, of course, there was a public outcry over the guilty by the reasoning of insanity from the people of Plainfield. They firmly believed that Ed could have been devious enough to pretend he had a mental illness. However, after reading Geins confession, I firmly believe that Ed Gein did suffer from a mental illness and that the sentence was appropriate.

Ed Gein is probably one of the most complicated killers I have ever researched. To the residents of Plainfield, Ed was viewed as a kindhearted and always willing to help kind of guy. Although he was a bit strange and remained an outcast, he never gave anyone the impression that he would commit the crimes that he did. While reading his confessions as well as Harold Schechter’s book, it was impossible not to feel some type of sorrow for him.  I would never condone the murder of an innocent person nor the desecration of corpses, however, given Ed’s upbringing, I feel that he was set up for failure. From a sociological perspective, Ed was kept from establishing normal peer relationships growing up and did not have many if any close friends. Peer groups have a significant influence on psychological and social adjustments for individuals (Schaeffer, 2013, p. 261). Peer groups also have an influence on a person’s gender role-something that often comes up frequently in the Ed Gein case. There is no doubt, that aside from the pitiful, sad and lonely person that was Ed Gein, there was a darker side that he could not escape from. With his complex and twisted crimes, it is no wonder the Ed Gein has become one of the most influential killers in American History.ed-gein-680x1024-680x675

References

Ed Gein Full Confession. (2019, 5 10) pg 68. Retrieved from Serial Killers Ink: http://serialkillersink.net/skistore/ed-gein-full-confession-226-pages-pdf-instant-download.html

Huss, M. (2009a). Forensic Psychology: Research, Clinical Practice, and Applications. pg. 80. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Huss, M. (2009b). Forensic Psychology: Research, Clinical Practice, and Applications. pg. 103. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Parekh, R. (2017, 7 1). What is Schizophrenia? Retrieved from American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia

Schaefer, R. (2013). pg. 261 Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schechter, H. (1998a). Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein the Original “Psycho”. pg.72  New York: Pocket Books.

Schechter, H. (1998b). Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein the Original “Psycho”. pg. 14. New York: Pocket Books.

Schechter, H. (1998c). Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein the Original “Psycho”. pg. 186. New York: Pocket Books.

Schechter, H. (1998d). Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein the Original “Psycho”. pg. 189. New York: Pocket Books.

 

 

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