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A novel about Wisconsin killer Ed Gein

Author Frank Ladd is Reimagining the Life and Crimes of Ed Gein as a Novel

Wisconsin serial killer and grave robber Ed Gein’s deviant acts are the subject of author Frank Ladd’s first novel.
Author Frank Ladd with the Ed Gein house in the background
Author Frank Ladd with the Ed Gein house in the background, via @frankwladd

I’ve been researching and writing about Ed Gein a long time. I answer questions from visitors all over the world interested in Gein, some hoping to dig up additional facts to flesh out their school reports. If fact, I recently learned that my work is apparently being taught in at least one Canadian high school classroom. For better or worse, that will probably be the pinnacle of my achievement.

I am fascinated by this particular ghoul because his story is horrific, tragic, and, most importantly, he’s local – a gruesome campfire story that really happened right in my own backyard. This isn’t ghosts or goatman. Ed Gein really exhumed freshly buried corpses and filled his farmhouse with the creations he made from those remains.

Related:

While there is still much mystery surrounding the case, it’s a story over 60 years old and there seems to be little new to add. Gein admitted to two murders, and was only tried and convicted of one. Yet there is evidence, including unidentified body parts found amongst his collection, that he may have killed least several other young women. Two hunters who went missing in 1951, along with their entire truck, may be buried somewhere on the Gein property. Some even claim to know where, though most of those stories come second or third hand these days.

Then there is the cauldron that hit the auction block a few years ago with a dubious story that can never be confirmed because anyone who could is long dead.

The Real Ed Gein

I thought there was nothing left to get excited about when it comes to Ed Gein, until I stumbled onto an Instagram account run by Frank Ladd, a writer who set his sights on the Butcher of Plainfield as the subject of his first novel.

Ladd’s account @therealedgein showcases “research on Ed Gein and Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1957 from my novel in progress.” Posts include vintage photos and relics of Gein and Plainfield history, which would be enough to get my attention. But it’s the captions, Ladd’s inspection of a scene in which the object or location in the photo may have been involved in Gein’s story, that drew me in.

Of course, Ed Gein has inspired numerous books, movies and other media over the years. But the historical fiction Ladd is constructing feels different, deeper – a mold-covered and moth-eaten thing exhumed from the past, still stinking of damp earth and worms. The combination of photos and prose with each post captures what feels like an authentic and eerily intimate moment, the isolation and desperation of small town life in mid-century rural Wisconsin that both enabled and drove Gein to seek companionship with the deceased.

This post, written from the perspective of Waushara County Sheriff Art Schley (whose abuse of Gein during interrogation caused the killer’s initial confession to be ruled inadmissable):

Map of Plainfield, Wisconsin showing the location of Ed Gein's property and Worden'shardware store

The western bite of the county felt like a lost cause. The great dead heart of Wisconsin—Sheriff Schley had heard the old saying and found little reason to argue with it. Plainfield put on a good show with its shops and diner and crumbling theater, but the Opera House had closed a decade ago. Same for the Mitchell House. Two filling stations counted for something, he supposed. Worden’s sold most of what notions folks might need, and Gamble’s carried the rest. The bank still gave out subsistence loans. Plainfield scratched out just enough livelihood to call itself a town.

But drive six miles west and the farms sagged. Fields browned with decay. A scatter of turkey vultures kited in the distance, late for their yearly migration, stalking the scent of death. If he kept on county trunk D into Adams county, the pine barrens and wild marsh would swallow him.

Here is another example – Ed’s perspective of his mother’s room which he sealed off after her death, and the grave directly in front of the Gein family plot in Plainfield Cemetery that Ed robbed. The grave is still empty today, though the headstone marking what was intended to be Eleanor Adams’ final resting place remains.

Ed Gein house

The summer kitchen opened to the kitchen proper. Vines and berries on the wallpaper—that’s Ma. Her old lace curtains twitched in the early winter draft. This would always be her house. We kept it for her. How many times she fried tongue or creamed peas at that cook stove, we didn’t care to reckon.

A knot in the board nailed across the hall door showed into the parlor. Her rocking chair didn’t move an inch. Ma was stubborn. We’d stood at her grave until our knees locked and neck ached for a week from all the concentrating and focusing our powers on her cold body. She refused to rise. The woman next plot over was appealing, though. We’d felt something. Maybe the ground was softer there, now that we recall. Early spring of ’46 and still brutal cold.

Here’s another:

Ed Gein wearing lipstick

We lit a candle by Ma’s cloudy mirror. Unwrapped the secret we’d borrowed from Georgia—found among her oddments and sundries, the powders and scenty waters laid atop her dresser. Soft wax packed in a bullet shell. We unscrewed the base and a round stick rose like butter, red for a tart’s lips and dark as dried blood. Tasted of burning fat. Bitter as wormwood. We slid the lipstick across our mouth: a bright slippery gash. It was still our face staring back. A wash of moon through sooted lace mottled our skin with shadow, like the tattooed savages we’d read about in magazines, island tribes who ate their own.

You’ll notice throughout the posts that anytime Gein is referring to himself, Ladd uses “we” instead of “I” – an interesting choice I’m eager to explore.

With his work, Ladd is weaving the historical details and desolate reality of life in Plainfield into a compelling narrative of Ed Gein’s state of mind as he committed the crimes that still scar the town and its people. I feel like I can swipe a finger through the dust and grime accumulating on the garbage piled up in Gein’s house, and smell the mildew on the discarded human remains mouldering within.

If these posts are any indication of what to expect from the novel, I’ll be first in line for the pre-order.

Follow @therealedgein to keep up on Frank Ladd’s work and Ed Gein research.

Grave of Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin

Ed Gein Roadtrip: 6 Things to do in Plainfield

Take a roadtrip to Plainfield to walk in the footsteps of infamous Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein.

History of Ed Gein in Plainfield, WI

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.
Plainfield, Wisconsin, home of Ed Gein

Last weekend, we 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.

Recent: Ed Gein’s cauldron featured on Deadly Possessions

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 you’ve 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 obsession 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.

Ed Gein's farm in Plainfield
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.

Worden’s Hardware

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
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 of their town’s past. Ed Gein babysat them as children, brought over offerings of venison despite the fact that he never hunted deer, desecrated the remains of 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.

Woodman Opera House in Plainfield, WI
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, she said, 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.

Plainfield Cemetery

The grave of Ed Gein in Plainfield Cemetery
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.

More: What happened to Ed Gein’s Gravestone?

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 in Plainfield, WI
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 unofficial 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.

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.