Digging Up Ed Gein: Our Expedition into the Dark History of Plainfield, WI
Our latest trip to Plainfield to uncover the deranged history of Ed Gein lead us into the heart of Wisconsin’s dark side…and yielded some great photos.
Last weekend Christina and I embarked on our latest pilgrimage to Plainfield to dig up Ed Gein. I mean, we weren’t actually digging up any bodies, but we did intend to exhume some disturbing pieces of local history for an upcoming feature here on Cult of Weird.
Besides, our last visit to Gein’s old stomping ground was in 2012, so we were long overdue.
The goal this time around was to capture all the locations significant to the area’s grisly past in photo and video, to document the passing of time. As I’ve mentioned in previous writings about Ed Gein, it’s a dark fairy tale many of us grow up with here – it is ingrained in our collective consciousness. The stories of Gein’s grave robbing, murders and macabre pastimes with human body parts…these aren’t Hollywood films. It really happened here, not far from our seemingly normal and carefree lives.
This man, who could be any average small town character we have ever encountered, was digging up the freshly buried bodies of other people’s loved ones, dismembering them, and fashioning furniture, clothing and home decor from their remains.
For me, visiting Plainfield is not about some misguided fascination with serial killers. It is a need to remember that this boogeyman was real, to touch the ground he walked on, to feel what desperate loneliness and isolation can do to the fragile human psyche.
Stepping foot in his story is walking on dangerous ground. This is where we could all go a little mad.
The place where Ed Gein’s house once stood still feels as lonely and desolate as it was for him following the death of his mother in 1945.
Also, the introvert in me is completely capable of romanticizing the thought of being holed up in a dilapidated farmhouse in the dead of Wisconsin winter, reading strange books and playing with skulls.
So…we turned the volume up on a specially prepared CD of 1970s devil music (I don’t know why that seemed like a good idea…I guess I had Mac Sabbath stuck in my head) and departed for a day of obscure Wisconsin weirdness.
Our first stop is always the hardware store. After all these years, it’s still a hardware store. It was Clark’s True Value the last couple of trips, but it recently changed hands and is now Plainfield Hardware Hank. A sign on the sidewalk was advertising an antifreeze sale. Seriously.
Antifreeze sale at the Plainfield hardware store.
After exploring the crumbling Woodman Opera House nearby, I had just started shooting some video when a woman came out of the store and began walking toward us. It is no secret that Plainfield residents prefer not to talk about the tragic events in their town’s past. Ed Gein babysat them as children, brought over offerings of venison despite the fact that he never hunted deer, desecrated their friends and family.
It’s a touchy subject to be sure. And to add insult to injury, news reporters, film crews, journalists and people like myself have been descending upon their small town in droves ever since the body of hardware store owner Bernice Worden was found gutted and hanging upside down inside Gein’s personal house of horrors in 1957.
The back of the historic Woodman Opera House in Plainfield, built in 1902.
My goal is only ever to document, though trespassing, theft and destruction of property are without a doubt quite common. Ed’s headstone is now permanently kept in storage after years of graffiti, not to mention that it was stolen in 2000 and recovered in Seattle. A corner of Ed’s mother Augusta’s headstone is missing, chipped away piece by piece over the years.
So naturally, I got a bit nervous when this woman from the hardware store approached us.
But rather than call the police, threaten bodily dismemberment, etc., she asked why we were so interested in the building. She said that, since she and her husband had purchased the business in April, upwards of 50 people had stopped to take photos. They even had one visitor enter the store and ask if he could use their computer to research the history of the building.
She didn’t know why. She was from out of town…and had never heard of Ed Gein.
I can’t imagine buying one of the most infamous crime scenes in American history…without a clue as to what atrocities were committed there. While some of the older locals liked to come in and chat about such mundane details as changes to the exterior of the building, none mentioned the murder.
So we brought her up to speed, and she graciously allowed us to explore the store. I think it’s safe to say, however, that she won’t feel comfortable there by herself ever again.
The graves of Ed Gein and his family in the Plainfield Cemetery.
After leaving the hardware store (and neglecting to get that video I needed) we set course for the Plainfield Cemetery, where the Gein family is buried amidst Ed’s victims. Directly in front of his grave is that of Eleanor Adams, whom he exhumed just days after she was buried. Nearby are the Wordens, Bernice and her son Frank, who was a deputy sheriff at the time his mother went missing.
Before we left, Christina left flowers for Ed and Augusta.
After that we made stops at two more cemeteries (three if you count the one we found when we got lost because of my terrible hand-drawn map), another murder scene, and, of course, the site of the old Gein farm. We managed to find the final graveyard at dusk, then made one last stop back at the Plainfield Cemetery to wish the Geins farewell before heading home.
An abandoned house just down the road from the old Gein property. The architecture is nearly identical to the Gein house that burned down in March of 1958.
After several excursions into the backwoods over the years, we have finally managed to locate each of the stops on the Ed Gein tour. This will probably be the last trip there for a while, unless I miraculously have money for better film equipment one day, or invent some other excuse to return. It feels a bit like saying goodbye, laying a lifelong obsession to rest.
There is nothing Gein-related left unexplored. Right?
Well, there may still be a few mysteries remaining in Plainfield, even after 58 years. But I’ll save that for the next post.