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Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield

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Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield


  The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein

  The Butcher of Plainfield

  Robert Keller


  Robert Keller

  Copyright © 2017

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced in any format, electronic or otherwise, without the prior, written consent of the copyright holder and publisher. This book is for informational and entertainment purposes only and the author and publisher will not be held responsible for the misuse of information contained herein, whether deliberate or incidental.

  Much research, from a variety of sources, has gone into the compilation of this material. To the best knowledge of the author and publisher, the material contained herein is factually correct. Neither the publisher, nor author will be held responsible for any inaccuracies.

  Table of Contents

  Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein

  Chapter 1: The Road to Plainfield

  Chapter 2: Eddie

  Chapter 3: Murder One?

  Chapter 4: Alone

  Chapter 5: The Missing

  Chapter 6: Hunting Season

  Chapter 7: House of Horrors

  Chapter 8: The Body Snatcher

  Chapter 9: Psycho

  Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein

  The unknown killer had been dubbed Buffalo Bill because, as one rookie FBI agent indelicately put it, “he skins his hides.” Like most serial killers, Bill had a preferred victim type. He targeted big-boned, slightly obese, young women. Already three had died, their bodies bearing bizarre mutilations. Large strips of skin had been carefully sliced from each of the corpses and apparently carried away by the killer.

  No one knew for certain why Bill had cut his victims in this way. That horrific realization would come only later when the police finally tracked him down. It appeared that he’d been using the skin to make for himself a suit of clothing, a female body suit which he had spent hours lovingly stitching together and which he’d wear whenever the mood took him.

  The story described above is, of course, fictional. It is the main subplot in the Thomas Harris thriller, The Silence of the Lambs, and its subsequent movie adaptation. Buffalo Bill, however, is not entirely a construct of the author’s imagination. He is based on a real person, a shy, slight and apparently harmless Wisconsin farmer named Ed Gein.

  To the citizens of Plainfield, the tiny hamlet that will forever be associated with Gein’s horrific deeds, Ed was a figure who inspired both disdain and pity. The unkempt and slightly addled-brained bachelor had grown up in the area but had always kept himself apart from the other residents. As a child, that isolation had been enforced by his dominant, Bible-punching mother. But Ed had remained on the periphery, even after his mother’s passing. His only interaction with the other townsfolk was when he hired himself out as a handyman or served as a babysitter for their children.

  For the most part, Gein remained ensconced at his ramshackle farmhouse, a building that had acquired a reputation among the local kids as haunted. The adults chuckled when they heard stories about Ed’s shrunken head collection or about the corpse-like figure that had been spotted dancing naked in the moonlight on his property. Ed, they knew, was obsessed with the macabre and had probably bought the artifacts at some Halloween store in Lacrosse.

  It was only later that the dreadful truth was revealed, only later that they learned about the dark deeds that had been committed on the Gein farm. The children of Plainfield had been right all along. A monster had been living in their midst.

  Chapter 1: The Road to Plainfield

  The village of Plainfield, Wisconsin sits in the northwest corner of Waushara County, in a locale that is about as close as it is possible to get to the center of the Beaver State. The name Plainfield is descriptive of the town and indeed of the region, a nondescript and featureless landscape with the flatness of a billiard table. This is farming country, uplifted in recent times by the introduction of modern agricultural methods and equipment. When our story takes place, however, in the 1940s and 50s, few farmers were able to eke out more than a subsistence living here. The soil was dry and stony, fit only for the cultivation of rye, and of potatoes more suited to starch production than to human consumption. Most of the area’s farming folk turned their efforts instead to raising dairy cattle.

  Having painted such a depressing picture of our location, it would be fair to ask why anyone would be drawn to live in such a desolate place. In truth, few were. Throughout its history, the population of Plainfield has never challenged the 1,000 mark. Back in the forties, it hovered around 600 hardy souls, among them the Gein family, who lived on a one-hundred-ninety-five-acre spread some miles outside of town. The Geins had purchased the property in 1914 but had made little effort in the ensuing decades to integrate into the community. In fact, they appeared determined to avoid their fellow Plainfielders at all costs, a stance driven in the main by the family matriarch, Augusta Wilhelmine Lehrke Gein.

  Augusta was a formidable woman, the product of strict Lutheran parents who had immigrated from Germany in 1870 and settled in La Crosse, Wisconsin. A coarse-featured and heavy-set woman, she was hardly the type to set a man’s heart aflutter. Add to that her near fanatical adherence to the holy texts and it is easy to see why she’d reached her twentieth year before the first potential suitor put in an appearance. His name was George Gein and he was an orphan, having lost his parents and older sister to a flash flood when he was still a toddler.

  George had been raised by his maternal grandparents, stern Scottish immigrants who gave him little affection but plenty of discipline. He’d received just an elementary school education before being apprenticed to a blacksmith, a trade he apparently despised and soon abandoned. Thereafter, he moved to the nearest big town, La Crosse, and worked at various jobs while also developing a taste for alcohol. It was while employed at the David, Medary & Platz Tannery that George met Fred Lehrke. Soon after, Fred introduced George to his cousin Augusta.

  On the face of it, George and Augusta made an unlikely pair. Augusta, even at 19, was a fiercely determined woman, set in her ways, judgmental, and entirely convinced that her religious worldview was the only one that mattered. George, on the other hand, was a weakling, prone to bouts of depression and self-recrimination, already well on the road to alcoholism in his early twenties.

  And yet, the two were drawn to one another. For George, it was likely the expanded Lehrke clan, rather than Augusta herself, that proved attractive. Deprived of parental love and the company of siblings during his upbringing, he must have found the large and raucous family an enticing proposition.

  As for Augusta, she was hardly beset by suitors and George was reasonably handsome and well presented. He was also a churchgoer, although not as fanatical as she regarding the Christian tenets. Perhaps she also saw in George the weakness that he detected in himself. Here was a man, Augusta must have decided, who she could bend to her will. Whatever the true circumstances of their courtship, George soon proposed and Augusta accepted. They were married on December 4, 1899, when Augusta was 19 and George was 23.

  As most could have predicted, the marriage of George and Augusta Gein was not a happy one. Augusta quickly assumed the role of domestic tyrant, laying down the law and berating her husband at every opportunity for his laziness, weakness and lack of ambition. He, in turn, retreated, into himself and into the bottle, a habit that cost him more than one job and gave Augusta another stick to beat him with. When George inevitably rea
ched the end of his tether and struck back, slapping his wife with an open hand, she’d fall to her knees and pray for his deliverance.

  It seems unlikely, impossible even, that such a union might be blessed with children. But Augusta longed for a baby, even if the thought of carnal relations with her husband filled her with disgust. She had, by this time, already begun her long descent into pathological religious mania. To her, the world was populated by fallen women and La Crosse was the twin city of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Sexual intimacy, even within the context of a God-sanctioned marriage, must have seemed like an unspeakable depravity.

  Still, she gritted her teeth and allowed her husband to perform the loathsome act upon her. She was relieved when she quickly fell pregnant and could eject him from her boudoir. Then she began planning the arrival of her firstborn. She prayed for a daughter who she could mold in her own image and raise as a pious, god-fearing woman. Instead, the Lord chose to give her a son and while Augusta accepted that as His divine will, she would never be close to the boy, Henry, born January 17, 1902.

  With a child to support, George’s work shy ways became more of an issue to Augusta. Previously, his inability to hold down a job had been a source of annoyance. Now, it had become a matter of the survival of their family. Her solution to the problem was to summarily inform her husband that they were starting their own business. Augusta’s family, the Lehrkes, appear to have been quite entrepreneurial. Two of her brothers ran successful grocery stores and Augusta decided that she and George would start a similar business. In 1909, the couple acquired a lease on a small commercial property at 914 Caledonian Street and began trading.

  George Gein, however, had no more talent for entrepreneurship than he had for being a salaried employee. The business was soon in trouble, requiring Augusta to step in and rescue the situation. Within eighteen months she had assumed the twin roles of proprietress and bookkeeper, relegating her husband to packing shelves, bagging groceries and making deliveries.

  In late 1905, Augusta again allowed her husband into her bed. The act of copulation was as disgusting to her as ever but she steeled herself and bore it in the hope of conceiving the daughter she had always wanted. From the moment she realized that she was pregnant, she began praying nightly for the little girl she so craved. But again, her wishes were denied. On August 27, 1906, she delivered another son, a cherub-cheeked infant who she named Edward Theodore Gein.

  Chapter 2: Eddie

  Ed Gein, or Eddie as he was affectionately known, grew up to be a slight and sensitive boy, beholden to his mother in all things. It would be safe to say that he worshiped the ground she walked on. She was the rock in the family, running both the business and the household while her poor excuse for a husband cowered stoop-shouldered in her wake. Even as a boy, Eddie and his brother Henry had very little time for George Gein, who only seemed to notice their presence when he was drunk and felt that they needed “putting straight” with his leather belt.

  Then, in 1913, came a major change in young Eddie’s life. Augusta had long bemoaned the “evils” of city living and had spoken often of taking her sons away from its temptations to a simpler life in the country. Over the years of running her grocery store she had diligently squirreled away a percentage of the profits and had now accumulated enough money to bring her dream to fruition. George, as always, had no say in the matter. Augusta simply announced that they were selling the business and that was that.

  Late that year, the Geins packed up their belongings and moved forty miles east of La Crosse, to a small dairy farm that Augusta had purchased near Camp Douglas. But, for whatever reason, the farm did not meet Augusta’s exacting standards and within a year she had sold up and acquired a bigger plot of land near Plainfield.

  The property included an attractive white-frame homestead, built in an L-configuration over two stories. The outbuildings included a large barn, a chicken coop and an equipment shed. The previous owner had also built a summer kitchen onto one side of the house, connected via an inter-leading door to the regular kitchen. All-in-all it was pleasing to the house-proud Augusta and she quickly got to work turning it into a home for her family. Pride of place was reserved for a large painting of Christ gazing skyward towards heaven.

  There was one other feature of her new homestead that met with Augusta Gein’s approval – its isolation. The nearest neighbors, the Johnsons, were a quarter mile away and the nearest town, Plainfield, was a six-mile journey over rutted dirt roads. This suited Augusta just fine. She had no desire to interact with the locals, who she had already prejudged as being of low moral fiber. Trips into town would be made only out of absolute necessity. Other than that, she and her brood would remain sequestered at their farmstead, free of the corrupting influences of the world.

  But of course, Augusta could not isolate her family entirely. Henry and Eddie had to attend school. When Eddie was eight, he was enrolled at the Roche-a-Cri grade school, where he was one of just a dozen students. Later, Roche-a-Cri merged with the White School and it was there, at age 16, that Eddie completed his formal education. He was a good, if unexceptional, student who loved to read. Early on he developed a taste for macabre comic books like “Tales from the Crypt” and for stories of headhunters, cannibals and Nazi atrocities. His mother, of course, would have been horrified at her son consuming such “evil works” but Eddie was able to keep that knowledge from her. Had Augusta discovered his taste in reading material and forbade him from it, his life might well have taken a different trajectory.

  Eddie’s school years were not a happy time. He found it difficult to interact with his peers, ever wary of his mother’s warnings about “other people.” On the few occasions that he did strike up a friendship with one of his classmates, Augusta would nip it in the bud, instructing him to immediately stop associating with the boy and calling him a fool for doing so in the first place. On these occasions, Eddie would be reduced to a flood of tears and heartfelt apology. At school the following day, he’d completely blank his new friend, ignoring his questions and refusing even to make eye contact.

  Children, of course, can be extremely cruel towards anyone they consider “different.” But while Eddie’s classmates did perceive some of his behavior as odd (the peculiar lopsided grin he always wore, for example) it appears that he was not a particular target for schoolyard bullies. On the one occasion that some kid did tease him, about a fleshy growth on his left eyelid that caused the eye to sag, Eddie broke down in tears and ran away. That incident served only to highlight to Ed that his mother was right, that the world was a harsh place and that people were inherently mean.

  Back at the Gein homestead, meanwhile, Augusta’s dreams of operating a prosperous farm had run aground on the sandy soil of Waushara County. Despite all of their hard work, the ground yielded barely enough crops for their own consumption. And George was no longer any use around the place. He’d long since lost himself in his alcoholism and his growing melancholia. His time was spent mainly loafing, drinking himself into a stupor and ranting at his wife and children all of whom regarded him with barely disguised disdain.

  George’s drinking and his refusal to work had put a heavy burden on Augusta and her sons. The wise course of action would probably have been to abandon their infertile land but Augusta refused to countenance such an idea. Instead, she and her sons picked up the cudgel. The boys had both grown into strapping teenagers, short in stature but wiry and strong, with their mother’s appetite for hard work.

  Since Augusta by now refused to go into Plainfield at all, one of the boys’ duties was to make the weekly provision run into town. But their mother seldom allowed them to depart without delivering one of her lectures. They were not to associate with anyone other than to transact their business. And they were particularly to avoid women who, with their powders and lipstick, were the spawn of Satan. Women would lead them from the path of righteousness, she cautioned.

  And these religious outpourings were not confined to the provisio
ning run either. Every night, as George slumped passed out in his chair, Augusta would gather her boys around her to read from the good book. Her favorite passages were those of the fire and brimstone variety, particularly the one’s that spoke on her favorite subject, the wantonness of women. Afterwards, she would take both of the boys by the hand and make them swear that they would remain pure. If their lust became too overpowering, she said, then the sin of Onan (masturbation) was preferable to fornication. The message quite obviously got through. Neither Ed nor Henry would ever marry or even attempt to court a girl.

  Chapter 3: Murder One?

  George Gein had endured a hard and largely cheerless existence. Orphaned as a toddler, raised by grandparents who showed him little affection, married to a woman who clearly detested him, George had derived his only succor in life from the narrow end of a whiskey bottle. But his heavy drinking had taken a toll. By his early sixties, he was a helpless invalid, entirely dependent on a family who thought he’d be better off dead and sometimes told him so. In 1937, when George was 66, he granted their wish, succumbing to a heart attack. He was buried at the Plainfield Methodist church on April 4.

  After George’s passing, the Gein family quickly fell back to its workaday routine on the farm. If anything, their lives were made easier, since they no longer had to care for the old man. But in 1942, a new threat to their livelihood emerged. War had been raging in Europe for four years and now the United States had entered the conflict. That meant conscription for men of a certain age and Ed, at 36, fell within that bracket. That would have left his mother desperately short-handed.

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