In 1957, Plainfield police arrested Edward Theodore Gein, 51, for the murder of Bernice Worden. In searching his remote Wisconsin farmhouse, investigators discovered Gein had collected body parts from graves - to which he used to create lamps, clothes, and human masks. Authorities also uncovered the severed head of Mary Hogan, who had been missing for three years. Gein confessed to the murders, but the courts deemed him unfit to stand trial due to mental insanity. The courts then confined Gein to psychiatric institutions. He didn’t stand trial for the murders until 1968. After his conviction, Gein returned to the psychiatric facility.
Although Wisconsin authorities only charged Gein with two murders, the circumstances surrounding Gein’s childhood and later crimes created the portrait of a prolific killer. Gein served as inspiration for the murderers depicted in such defining horror films as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Gein’s parents - Augusta and George Gein - had a reportedly tumultuous relationship. Psychologists have profiled Augusta as a “domineering” woman and George as a “timid alcoholic.” After the deaths of both Gein’s father and older brother, Henry, Gein lived alone with his mother in their remote Wisconsin farmhouse.
As the inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, psychologists theorize Gein's obsession with his mother may have caused him to emulate her. True crime author Ann Rule depicts how Gein’s confused relationship with Augusta affected his mental health and lack of social relationships:
Ed Gein had been a life-long bachelor, absolutely ruled by his hated mother. […] [He was] the little recluse who hated his mother so much that he killed her and other older women and made vests of their dried flesh.
When authorities searched the Gein home in 1957, they discovered rooms that had not been touched since Augusta’s death in 1945. Gein essentially kept the house as a “shrine” to his mother.
Gein's mother, a highly devoted Lutheran, emphasized extreme religious beliefs to her sons. Described as a “puritanical” woman, she promoted a fear of carnal sin - which she maintained existed all around them. Criminal psychologist Helen Gavin wrote how Augusta “taught her sons that women were vessels of sin and caused disease.”
Psychologists also maintain how “mother dominance” - as exhibited in Augusta’s “religious fanaticism” - can negatively affect the development of their children, particularly males. As an adult, Gein reportedly only left the family home to go to work, and he never romantically dated. Psych evaluations linked his social isolation to his mother’s domineering perspective of women as untrustworthy and tainted.
Psychiatrists theorize Gein struggled with gender identity. Professionals believe his “female suit of skin” resulted from a form of self-hatred, and in wearing it, Gein essentially tried to transform himself into a woman. Forensic psychologists also maintain a killer’s “ritual” - in Gein’s case, literally adopting female skin - helps live out some kind of fantasy.
Although Gein maintained he never had a sexual relationship with his mother, psychologists theorize he may have created and worn clothing from female skins as both a coping mechanism for grief and as a means to "become" his deceased mother.
FBI Special Agent John Douglas recounted how Gein’s psych evaluation noted Gein’s motivation in wearing the suit of skin as to include “hostility, sex, and a desire for a substitute for his mother in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely.”
After Plainfield police arrested Gein for murder and grave robbing, he underwent a thorough psychological evaluation. During the evaluation, mental health professionals asked him about his earliest childhood memories. One of the memories he described was of falling down the stairs in the family kitchen. He recalled his mother - whom he referred to as a “saint” - saving him in the incident while also remembering that it felt as though he had initially been pushed down the stairs.
The psychiatrists evaluating him theorized his mother likely first pushed her child before catching him. Criminal justice professors and authors Ronald M. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes propose Gein “transferred an early humiliation into a later quest for power.” While Gein told authorities he only killed for “raw material” to create items from human skin, professionals consider Gein’s motives to include misplaced childhood aggression against women, particularly his mother.