A Look Back at the ‘Plainfield Butcher,’ Grave Robber Ed Gein

While scanning my grandfather’s old slide collection, I came across two stray images from 1957 marked “Gein’s House.” I couldn’t get the slides on the scanner bed fast enough. It turns out the photos were indeed of the ramshackle farm house of the notorious killer and grave robber, Ed Gein.

For Carl F. Hanneman, the trip to Plainfield would have been a minor detour on one of the family’s many trips from Mauston to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. He, like thousands of other Wisconsinites in the late fall of 1957, just had to see for himself the home where the unimaginable occurred from 1945 to 1957. For in that decrepit structure at the corner of Acher and 2nd avenues a few miles southwest of Plainfield, the handyman bachelor Gein committed unspeakable acts.

The boarded-up house of Plainfield handyman Ed Gein, who robbed nearby graves and made macabre souvenirs from the stolen remains.
The boarded-up house of Plainfield handyman Ed Gein, who robbed nearby graves and made macabre souvenirs from the stolen remains. The house was burned to the ground by an arsonist in March 1958. (Carl F. Hanneman photo)

The day of Gein’s undoing came on November 16, 1957, the opening day of the gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin. Gein made the trip into Plainfield to buy some anti-freeze at Worden’s hardware store. While there, he took a .22-caliber rifle from the store display and shot to death the owner, Bernice Worden, 58. After slitting her throat, he dragged her body out the back and put it into a truck. Later that day, sheriff’s deputies from several counties were searching for Worden, a well-known local who had run the Plainfield hardware store since her husband’s death in 1931.

Gein’s car had been spotted in the village that day, so police twice stopped at his 160-acre farmstead to talk to him. He wasn’t home. On the second trip, Waushara County Sheriff Arthur Schley peered into a shed that Gein used as a summer kitchen and was shocked. “My God, there she is!” he shouted. There was the body of Worden, hung upside down by the ankles, gutted and dressed out like a deer ready for the butcher. “There was a body hanging in the woodshed by the ankles,” said Captain Lloyd Schoephoester of the nearby Green Lake County sheriff’s department. “Tendons in the ankles had been cut and a rod and been placed through them. The body was drawn up in the air by a block and tackle. The body was dressed out and the head was missing.” Sheriff Schley went outside and vomited.

Police found the remains of nearly a dozen women in Ed Gein's farmhouse near the village of Plainfield, Wis.
Police found the remains of nearly a dozen women in Ed Gein’s farmhouse near the village of Plainfield, Wis.
Worden’s head was later found in a burlap sack nearby. Her internal organs were in a bucket. If that sight wasn’t enough to sicken responding police, a search of Gein’s home would put them over the edge. Inside the filthy and cluttered home they found five human heads wrapped in plastic bags, four skulls and 10 “death masks” made by removing the face and hair from a human head. “Some of them have lipstick on and look perfectly natural,” said Wood County sheriff’s deputy Dave Sharkey. “It you knew them, you’d be able to recognize them.”

There was more. Police found chairs and lampshades fashioned from human skin, four human noses, two sets of lips, a belt made of female nipples, and a collection of female genitals. Two of the vulvas in Gein’s collection belonged to teenage girls, and authorities concluded he likely murdered these girls. On the stove was a saucepan containing a human heart, later identified as belonging to Worden. There was a wastebasket made from skin, and skulls fastened to Gein’s bedposts. Bowls were made from the tops of human skulls.

At first, police thought they might be dealing with a prolific serial killer. After his arrest, Gein admitted killing Bernice Worden, but he said the grotesque artifacts in his home were from grave-robbing visits he made to the nearby Plainfield Cemetery, the Spiritland Cemetery in Portage County and the Hancock Cemetery in the Town of Hancock. Gein also admitted shooting and killing Portage County tavern keeper Mary Hogan on December 8, 1954. Her face was found among Gein’s collection of death masks.

Police were not initially inclined to believe Gein’s tales of grave robbing. On November 25, 1957, they exhumed the caskets of Eleanor Adams and Mabel Everson at Plainfield Cemetery. Both caskets were empty. In the soil above one casket they found dentures and a wedding ring. That was enough to convince police that Gein was indeed a grave robber. He told authorities he made the moonlight grave-robbing visits while in a daze. On some occasions, he awoke from the daze and stopped what he was doing. He said his grave robbing occurred between 1947 and 1952. He said he returned some bodies to their graves after experiencing remorse. Police did not dig up other graves, and ultimately don’t know just how many caskets Gein might have opened.

When interviewed by Wisconsin State Crime Lab officials, Gein said he would dress up with the women’s body parts. He would wear a death mask, a tanned skin shirt including women’s breasts, and a vagina placed over his own genitals, covered by a pair of panties. He would go out in the moonlight and prance about the farmyard in this sick getup. Although Gein was not a deer hunter, he was known to have given packages of “venison” to people in the community, who became sickened after Gein’s arrest at their unwitting cannibalism. Authorities became convinced that Gein practiced cannibalism, among his other grotesque crimes.

After a brief court hearing in January 1958, Gein was committed to the Wisconsin Central State Hospital for the criminally insane at Waupun, where he remained for 10 years. In early 1968, Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Gollmar ruled Gein was able to stand trial for the murder of Bernice Worden. In a November 1968 bench trial, Gein was convicted of first-degree murder for Worden’s death, but in a separate hearing found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent back to Waupun. He later was moved to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, where he died of cancer on July 26, 1984. He was buried next to his mother in the same Plainfield Cemetery that he plundered.

Gein suffered from schizophrenia. The death of his mother on December 29, 1945 apparently pushed him over the edge. Doctors said he had an unnatural Oedipus complex attachment to Augusta Gein. The women he killed and the graves he robbed represented substitutes for his mother. The women were plump and middle aged, doctors said. Gein had nursed his mother through two paralytic strokes. Gein’s father George died on April 1, 1940. His brother Henry was found dead after a marsh fire on the Gein property on May 16, 1944. It is widely believed that Gein killed his brother.

Based on the Worden convinction and Gein’s admission to killing Mary Hogan, Gein could not be considered a serial killer. But he was suspected of killing at least four other people. The teenage genitals found in his farmhouse might have belonged to Evelyn Hartley, 15, of La Crosse, and Georgia Jean Weckler, 8, of Fort Atkinson. Hartley disappeared in October 1953 and Weckler was abducted in May 1947. Neither crime was ever solved and the girls’ bodies were never found. In his 1982 book on the Gein case, Judge Gollmar wrote that if Gein did not kill these girls, then the abducted and killed two runaways, since his grave-robbing could not explain the presence of genitals belonging to young girls in Gein’s home. Gollmar also wrote that Gein might have killed two men who disappeared after visiting a Plainfield tavern. The disappearances of Victor Travis and a male companion were never solved. Travis’ jacket and his dog were found near the Gein farm, and neighbors noted a stench coming from Gein’s garden at the time.

Gein’s gruesome story created a cottage industry in macabre spinoffs. It was the inspiration for the book Psycho by Robert Bloch. The book was adapted into the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Gein was said to be the inspiration for fictional characters in films including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs.

The Hanneman family has one link to Plainfield other than the photos of Gein’s house snapped by Carl Hanneman. Lisetta (Treutel) Moody (1861-1931), aunt of Ruby Hanneman, moved her family to Plainfield after living in Vesper in Wood County. She and her husband, Lewis Winfield Moody, are buried at Plainfield Cemetery. She testified at the trial of Frank Hinz after the 1902 shootout between the Moody and Hinz families.

This post has been updated with details from the 1982 book on Gein by Circuit Judge Robert H. Gollmar. The book, Edward Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer, is a fascinating insider’s account of the Gein case.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive