When police raided suspected murderer Ed Gein’s house in Plainfield, Wisconsin, in November 1957, they found a chair upholstered in human skin, a skull used as a soup bowl, a belt decorated with carved-off nipples and a table propped up by human shinbones, among other things. The ghoulish “memorabilia” was discovered to be from at least two murdered women and dozens of exhumed bodies, which Gein obtained during up to 40 nocturnal visits to local graveyards.
After being diagnosed with schizophrenia and pronounced insane, Gein was committed to a mental hospital. But after 10 years, he was declared fit to stand trial, which he did in November 1968. He was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and sentenced to life imprisonment in psychiatric institutions.
While at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin, where he would spend the rest of his life, Gein had most of the medical staff praise his amiable disposition and cooperative nature. And surprisingly for such a gruesome killer, he had an unblemished incarceration record.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and author of “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie” about Gein’s unusual behavior as a “model patient” after he was incarcerated for his crimes.
According to Harold Schechter, who wrote Deviant, a biography on Gein, the murderer was a perfect patient: blissful, calm, never requiring tranquilizers to keep under control—and he got along really well with other patients. Why do you think he felt ‘at home’ while in confinement?
Somebody who was a child in an authoritarian home (Gein’s mother Augusta was domineering and told him that women and sex were evil) may feel familiarity or even compelled to repeat what was essentially a trauma for them.
Living under very stringent rules, without freedoms, and being told what to think and do is very difficult for children. [Some] assimilate to the conditions—even though they may be angry [about] them—and experience it as an ongoing chronic trauma. They then replay that childhood trauma as adults and reparticipate in the conditions as a way of managing and processing the trauma. Essentially they are drawn to it.
In Gein’s mind, had Augusta been replaced by his incarcerators?
His incarcerators were the people that kept him under control. In being authoritarian, they may—you wouldn’t know for sure without talking to him—have been reminiscent of his mother.
It’s been reported the only thing that troubled medical staff about Gein was the disconcerting way he stared at nurses and other female staff. Can you help us understand how he felt at the sight of women?
It is hard to tell whether he was consumed by fantasy or obsessional thoughts or whether he eroticized their bodies. We also don’t know whether he suffered from depersonalization—a highly aroused and traumatized state where you are almost outside yourself, observing—which [sometimes happens to] people who have been abused. “A person who looks like nobody is home,” is how people describe depersonalization. Or maybe it was rage, or a combination of rage and eroticism—the possibilities are many.
Doctors diagnosed Gein as schizophrenic. Based on your knowledge of Gein’s life, do you agree with their diagnosis?
Obviously we all look at what he did and say [he] must have been sick to do what he did, but that’s not necessarily true. Psychodynamically, these murders were driven by his relationship with his mother, and by going after figures like her and destroying them. He would attempt to subsume them by taking their parts and making them part of him.
Still, from a mental-health perspective, we don’t know if his crimes had to do with the lack of a moral compass or a pleasure in making others suffer. That’s all psychopathy (which is different from schizophrenia), where you would expect psychosis, specific delusions and hallucinations that make it impossible for someone to understand right from wrong, and, over time, a cognitive decline.
Nothing I’ve read about Gein suggests schizophrenia. That’s not to say he couldn’t have been schizophrenic.
Had Augusta lived a longer life and remained by Gein’s side during his lifetime, might it be possible he never would have killed?
It’s hard to know the internal pressures building up before her death. It’s very possible that he had those thoughts long before her death, like most killers and sexual predators do long before their first crime.