Psycho Ed Gein

In November 1957, local police in Plainfield, Wisconsin, a quiet farming town on Canada's border, made a startling discovery. Bernice Worden, a shopkeeper, had gone missing, and one of her final customers was a recluse by the name of Ed Gein. Most of the residents of Plainfield considered Gein to be a harmless, albeit strange, man. He had a tendency to ramble and grinned all the time, but nobody took his odd behavior seriously until the inquiry into Worden's disappearance brought Sheriff Art Schley and Captain Lloyd Schoephoerster to the ramshackle Gein farm. Ed lived there alone; his father died of a stroke nearly 20 years before, and his brother Henry had died in a fire. After that, Gein's "hellfire-and-brimstone spouting mother met her maker, too" (Rebello 2).

When the cops arrived, Gein's home was a mess - except for the living room and his mother's room, both of which he had painstakingly maintained. In other parts of the house, however, the police found an unfathomable number of dismembered human body parts. They described discovering "Two pairs of human lips on a string. A cupful of human noses sat on the kitchen table. A human skin purse and bracelets. Four flesh-upholstered chairs. A tidy row of ten grimacing human skulls [and] a tom-tom rigged from a quart can with skin stretched across the top and bottom..." among other grisly collectibles (Rebello 3). They also found Bernice Worden's corpse; the poor woman had been "disemboweled like a steer" (Rebello 4).

Here, in this quiet 700-person town, lurked one of the most vicious and barbaric serial killers the country had ever seen. Police estimated that Gein killed at least 10 women over the course of two years. In addition, local newspapers suspected "transvestism, grave-robbing and... an incestuous relationship with Mom" (Rebello 4). Gein was sentenced to a lifetime in prison and died in an asylum in 1984.

Gein's crimes became the stuff of legend, though, as out-of-towners drove long distances to Plainfield see the "murder house" for themselves. Gein became part of the American pop-culture lexicon. His story fascinated many people, but one in particular - Wisconsin-based mystery writer Robert Bloch - drew a specific kind of inspiration from the "mad butcher." Ed Gein's tale planted the seeds for the antagonist of Bloch's successful 1959 novel, Psycho (Simon and Schuster) - the eternally terrifying Norman Bates.