Who was the mother of the most depraved serial killer of all time?

WARNING: Graphic

She is the mother of one of the most depraved killers of all time, the model for Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho and the inspiration for Buffalo Bill’s “woman suit” in Silence Of The Lambs.

Augusta Wilhelmine Gein was a God-fearing woman who tried to instil in her son that sex was evil and women were instruments of the Devil.

In doing so she helped create a monster – Ed Gein, aka The Butcher of Plainfield – whose grotesque real-life perversions and savagery sparked a whole genre of horror fiction.

But who was Augusta Gein, and how did her obsession about purity and sin create a child who would become a man who turned the defilement of human bodies into an art form?

Police in countries around the world periodically uncover a “House of Horrors” in the suburbs, and another sad tale of depravity and criminal abuse emerges.

But none could come anywhere near what the Waushara County sheriff’s officers found at Ed Gein’s farm on November 17, 1957.

Almost 10km southwest of Plainfield, a town in central Wisconsin halfway between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, the Gein property was a two-storey farmhouse on the corner of a 65 hectare property.

Attached to it was a woodshed, attached to a room known as the “summer kitchen” which contained a pot-belly stove.

Peering in, Waushara Sheriff Art Schley and Captain Lloyd Schoephoester found the butchered body of a woman.

Dressed like a slain deer

She had been disembowelled, strung upside-down on a block and tackle with a rod through her ankle joints.

It was the second day of deer-hunting season, and the woman had been hung and dressed like a slain deer.

When the men entered the kitchen, they found the woman’s head in a sack, her organs were in a bucket and in a saucepan on the stove was a human heart.

Sheriff Schley, thought he could identify the remains as belonging to the missing town hardware store owner Bernice Worden.

The sheriff went outside and vomited.

More officers turned up at the grisly scene and join the grim task of searching the darkened farmhouse, which had no electricity.

Augusta Gein’s fastidious housekeeping of more than a decade earlier was buried under a litter of household junk, papers, books, cans, boxes, tools, utensils and clothes.

Upstairs, a bedroom and a parlour had been sealed off, nailed shut and deserted, containing only dusty furniture.

But under the debris in the three rooms which Ed Gein had clearly been occupying since his mother’s death was a frightful trove of his sick handmade treasures.

Gein had combined a bizarre sexual psychosis and murderous intent with skills learnt from his father’s trade in tanning animal hides.

Macabre ornaments

Sheriff Schley, Captain Schoephoester and their team would find strewn throughout the farmhouse human heads wrapped in bags, nine “death masks” Gein had fashioned and mounted, human noses, sets of lips and a belt of female nipples.

Four of the death masks were the well-pressed faces of women, mounted as eye level on the wall.

They would also find a collection of female genitalia, four chairs with woven cane seats replaced by tanned human skin, tattooed skin lampshades, and limbs and heads in boxes.

Gein had made a tom-tom drum from a can covered top and bottom with stretched human skin, and a skin purse with a handle.

He had cut an inverted skull in half to make a bowl, and made an armchair with human arm bones.

Skulls were fastened to the posts of Gein’s bed and he had a human skin wastebasket.

The officers also found a pair of leggings, fashioned from the skin from human legs and a vest made of a woman’s torso with breasts.

Ed Gein’s beloved mother had been dead almost 12 years, and by all accounts he had missed her terribly.

His attempts to fill her absence with macabre ornaments made from female body parts was reaching an industrial scale.


Ed Gein’s mother was born Augusta Wilhelmine Lehrke in 1878 in La Crosse, Wisconsin on the Mississippi River across the border from Minnesota.

She was one of eight children of Amalia and Frederick Lehrke, German immigrants from Prussia who had left their homeland in the great Old Lutheran exodus of the mid-19th century.

“Old Lutherans” were doctrinally conservative dissenters from Lutheran church reform who resisted change.

Lutherans teach that every human thought and deed is infected with sin and sinful motives and because of this, all humanity deserves eternal damnation in hell.

Germans were the largest immigrant group to settle in Wisconsin in the 19th century, spurred by political, social, religious and economic upheavals in Europe.

On December 11, 1900, Augusta married George Phillip Gein, whose mother was a German immigrant, in Hamburg in Wisconsin’s Vernon County.

She gave birth to their first son, Henry George Gein, in 1902.

George Gein worked at various times as a carpenter tanner, and insurance salesman, but he was an alcoholic and a timid man who found it hard to hold down a job.

Augusta ran a small grocery store and, at home, she ruled the roost.

Realising she had made a mistake in marrying George, but unable to leave him because of her strict and increasingly fanatical religious beliefs, Augusta began to despise all men.

She reportedly dreamt of having a baby girl, but when her second child born in August 1906 turned out to be a boy, she decided Edward Theodore Gein would not be like other males.

Augusta was overprotective and babied her son who grew up shy and sensitive, worshipping his mother.

Life of isolation

Around 1915, Augusta sold the grocery store at La Cross and moved the family to an isolated farmhouse outside Plainfield, when Ed was eight years old.

Around this time, one day Ed disobeyed his mother’s rule and sneaked into the slaughter shed to find Augusta and George with a pig carcass hanging upside down.

When Augusta sliced the pig down the centre to release its intestines, Ed reportedly experienced sexual pleasure.

Ed and Henry were not allowed to leave the farm except to go to school, Roche-a-Cri grade school, where Ed was an excellent reader.

But he was bullied for his shyness, his congenitally “lazy” eye and a growth on his tongue which affected his speech.

Each afternoon when they returned, Augusta would remind her sons about the evils of drinking and women, reading Bible passages which supported her lectures.

If Ed tried to make friends, Augusta would scold him and say the person came from a “bad” family and remonstrate that he didn’t want to be a loser like his father.

She also told him that to remain loyal to her he should remain a virgin, because sex was sinful and would lead to eternal damnation.

In books about Ed Gein’s life, psychologists have theorised he doubted his masculinity from childhood.

He had been indoctrinated into believing males were weak, and thought about becoming a powerful female like his mother.

Ed dropped out of school after eighth grade and both he and Henry became full-time hands around the farm and did odd jobs around town as handymen.

Ed hung windows, patched roofs, painted houses and repaired fences.

In 1940, their father George died from a heart attack at the age of 66, after which the brothers increased their handyman work.

Ed also worked for a road building contractor. His employers described him as odd, but polite and dependable.

The Plainfield community trusted the brothers and regarded them as reliable, if a little odd, although Henry was more sociable.

As Ed babysat for neighbours, Henry started dating a divorced woman who had two children.

Henry was making plans to move in with the woman and began criticising his overbearing mother’s hold over his younger brother; mother and son were “best friends”.

Then, four years after their father’s death, the brothers were burning brush on the farm and the blaze grew out of control.

Ed reported to the local police that he had lost sight of his brother in the inferno, but when they came to investigate they found Henry’s body with injuries to his head.

The death was ruled an accident and no autopsy was performed.

Augusta Gein was in declining health and Ed devoted himself to caring for her, and at the same time was avidly reading books on grave robbing, head shrinking and human anatomy.

On December 29, 1945, aged 67, Augusta Gein finally died from a stroke.

Ed, then 39, boarded up her bedroom and sitting rooms as museums and buried her with a headstone engraved simply: “Mother”.

Descent into madness

Ed was alone for the first time in his life, and he began a descent into madness, turning his mother’s once fastidiously neat house into a museum of death.

Ed Gein’s legend as one of the most deranged and depraved serial killers of all time had begun.

His neighbours began to report that Ed smelled bad and that his appearance, when turning up for odd jobs, had deteriorated.

Eighteen months after his mother’s death, and intensely lonely, Gein’s visits to his mother’s grave developed into nocturnal trips to Plainfield Cemetery and other nearby burial grounds, with a pry bar.

He decided to dig up his mother, and remove her head which he took home to “shrink”, just as he had read about in his books.

After this, Gein began scouting recent obituaries of women his mother’s age and returned to the cemetery to rob their recently buried bodies.

A killer is born

He reportedly began creating a “woman suit” to wear so that he could become his mother, or at least a female.

This was the leggings and torso found by Sheriff Schley and his team, and Gein admitted to dancing round in them in the cemetery on a full moon.

He would later deny having sex with the bodies, saying her never had a sexual experience in his life, except with himself.

In 1951, Ed dug up 51-year-old Eleanor Adams on the same day she was buried.

Two hunters disappeared from a Plainfield bar in 1951 and no trace of them was ever found aside from a jacket found near the Gein property.

A neighbour complained of a terrible smell coming from the Gein property, but it was not investigated.

In 1953, 15-year-old Evelyn Hartley was abducted while babysitting in La Crosse, Wisconsin leaving behind signs of a struggle at the house which had pry marks on windows.

Ed Gein was visiting a relative a few blocks away from the house at the time, although he would later deny involvement and pass two lie detector tests.

Gein became transfixed with a voluptuous and bawdy bar owner who ran Mary’s Tavern, about a 10km drive from his home.

Mary Hogan, 54, who somewhat resembled Ed’s mother, but was her antithesis, earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for being crude, foul-mouthed and a libertine.

In December 1954, Mary Hogan vanished from her establishment, and police found blood on the tavern floor and an empty bullet casing.

The following day, while working on an odd job with another local man, Elmo Ueeck, with whom he discussed the disappearance, Ed said, “She’s up at the house right now.”

Ueeck thought Gein was joking, but Mary’s head would later be discovered in a paper bag at Gein’s house.

Ed later told police he had been hanging out at Mary’s Tavern, drinking with her until the bar closed.

With no-one else around, he pulled the blinds, put a .32 Mauser pistol to her forehead, shot her, placed her body in his Ford pick-up truck and took her home to defile.

A monster is arrested

On November 15, 1957, Ed Gein dropped into Worden’s hardware store in Plainfield’s main street and inquired about the cost on antifreeze from Bernice Worden and her son.

Bernice, 58, had run the store on her own since her husband’s death in 1931.

Bernice’s son was the local sheriff’s deputy, Frank Worden, and when Bernice failed to open the store on November 16, he and Sheriff Schley found blood on the floor.

A .22 calibre rifle was out of its place on a rack in the store and among the store receipts was one for a gallon of antifreeze, the last sale of the morning.

That evening, the sheriff and Deputy Worden drove out to Ed Gein’s house, but he wasn’t home.

It was the second day of the deer hunting season, and the pair went away, but then returned for a second time to make the ghastly discovery of Bernice Worden, split like a deer and field dressed.

Gein was found and arrested.

At first, he refused to speak.

But eventually, he would confess to killing both Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, who he killed with a single shot to the back of the head.

Gein would tell officers how he visited several local cemeteries “in a daze”, danced to moonlight in his woman suit, and took bodies home to make ghastly paraphernalia, using castor oil to preserve the face masks.

The Plainfield community of just 700 people was deeply shocked, even though the soft-voiced, reclusive odd job man had “joked” about a “collection of shrunken heads” and local children thought his house was haunted.

The case would create a sensation which would spread from the US Midwest across the nation, inspiring a tourist industry of visitors to see the “murder farm”.

Test of sanity

On November 22, Ed Gein appeared before a judge although he would not be charged with murder until his sanity was assessed.

A psychologist and a psychiatrist interviewed Gein, assessing him as a “sexual psychopath” and schizophrenic.

A Dr E.F. Schubert found that Ed had an “abnormally magnified attachment to his mother”.

The search of Gein’s farm continued, and of the cemetery where investigators found emptied graves.

They found male bones and a gold tooth buried, and the sexual organs of young girls.

In January 1958, Gein was found legally insane and committed to Wisconsin Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, 100km away.

Apart from once, when he had visited Milwaukee during World War II to be assessed for the military draft and failed because of his lazy eye, it was the farthest Ed had been from home.

Nine weeks later, Gein’s Plainfield farmhouse and all his possessions were due to be auctioned.

But the day before the sale, the house burned to the ground with rumours suggesting an entrepreneur had planned to buy it and open a tourist attraction called The House Of Horrors.

Gein spent the next 10 years in the asylum, with medical staff reporting he was well-behaved, but became delusional around the time of a full moon.

In 1968, he was declared fit to stand trial for murdering Bernice Worden, but after the trial ended with his being found guilty, he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity.

A month after testifying at the trial, Sheriff Schley died of a heart attack, aged just 43, his family saying the horror of Gein’s crimes had traumatised him.

Six years after he was returned to Central State Hospital, in 1974, Gein filed a petition to have himself released from hospital on the grounds he was now fully mentally competent.

Gein was twice denied his application and in 1978 at the age of 72 was moved to Mendota Mental Institute in the Wisconsin capital of Madison.

He developed dementia, cancer and respiratory failure and died in the geriatric ward of Mendota aged 78.

At 3am the following day, on July 27, 1984, Ed Gein was laid to rest in a coffin buried between his brother and his mother’s remains at Plainfield Cemetery.

A chilling legacy

Ed Gein is known to have murdered two people, but suspected of murdering up to five more.

Police were unable to match body parts for two women found at the house to bodies, and it is believed that he killed at least four women and two men during his time, in addition to the 40-odd bodies that he dug up.

Inspired by Gein’s crimes, American writer Robert Bloch wrote the 1959 horror novel Psycho.

Bloch turned Ed Gein into isolated hotel caretaker Norman Bates, who both has a mummified mother in his house who he murdered, and dresses up as his mother.

In Bloch’s plot, whenever Norman feels attracted to a woman, “mother” has to murder the woman.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, was based on the book.

Further fictional works based on Ed Gein were the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies and Silence Of The Lambs , featuring the Buffalo Bill character killing women to make a female suit.

Visitors to Plainfield Cemetery chipped souvenirs off his tombstone before it was stolen in 2000, found a year later in Seattle, and returned to Wisconsin.

It is kept in a museum behind glass, and the Gein family farm on the corner of Archer Avenue and 2nd Avenue, Plainfield, remains an empty lot.

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