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Gertrude Nadine BANISZEWSKI

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "The Torture Mother"
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Torture - The case was called "the single worst crime perpetuated against an individual in Indiana's history"
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 26, 1965
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: September 19, 1929
Victim profile: Sylvia Marie Likens, 16
Method of murder: The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on May 24, 1966. Resentenced to eighteen years to life. Released on December 4, 1985. Died on June 16, 1990
 
 

 
 

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Gertrude Baniszewski (1929–1990), also known as Gertrude Wright and The Torture Mother, was an Indiana divorcee who oversaw and facilitated the prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, a teenage girl she had taken into her home.

The case is unique in that, while Baniszewski did play an active role in Likens' death, the majority of the torture that eventually brought about Likens' demise was carried out by Baniszewski's teenage children and other neighborhood children.

Although Baniszewski did instruct the children on several occasions, it was later discovered that they took a large degree of Likens' torture into their own hands, in what would later be called a Lord of the Flies scenario come to life. When she was convicted of first degree murder in 1965, the case was called "the single worst crime perpetuated against an individual in Indiana's history".

Life before Sylvia Likens

Baniszewski was born Gertrude Van Fossan in 1929, the third of 6 children. Little is known about her childhood, except that she shared an extremely close bond with her father but had a frigid relationship with her mother. A further wedge was driven between Gertrude and her mother when Baniszewski's father died in 1940; the 11 year old Baniszewski watched her father die of a sudden heart attack.

Five years later, Baniszewski dropped out of school at the age of 16 to marry 18 year old deputy John Baniszewski, by whom she had 4 children. John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, often beating his wife for "annoying him." The two stayed together for 10 years before eventually divorcing; Gertrude Baniszewski was granted custody of their children.

Within a year of the divorce, Gertrude Baniszewski met and married a man named Edward Guthrie, who divorced her after 3 months when he tired of having her children around. Shortly thereafter, Gertrude and John Baniszewski reconciled and re-married. The couple stayed together for 7 years and had 2 more children before finally divorcing permanently in 1963.

Around this time, the then 37 year old Gertrude Baniszewski began an affair and moved in with a 23 year old named Dennis Lee Wright, who further abused her. She became pregnant by him twice, suffering one miscarriage (possibly as the result of an assault by Wright) and giving birth to one child. This child--Dennis Jr.-- would be Baniszewski's last child; in all, she had 7 children and suffered 6 miscarriages.

Shortly after Dennis Jr.'s birth, Dennis Wright Sr. abandoned Baniszewski and disappeared. She was left essentially destitute, as Wright had been supporting her financially; she was now forced to support herself and 7 children on occasional child support payments from the unreliable John Baniszewski, and by performing odd jobs around town such as babysitting and doing other people's laundry for them.

Financial problems were quickly exacerbated when Baniszewski discovered that her 17 year old daughter, Paula, was 3 months pregnant after a fling with a middle aged, married man.

Around this time Baniszewski's health declined considerably; she was chronically ill with a number of unidentified illnesses, ceased practicing proper hygiene, and barely ate; eventually, these factors began to affect her outward appearance, resulting in a receded hairline, sunken eyes, and an overall skeletal appearance. Baniszewski began to present herself as "Mrs. Wright", claiming that she had in fact married Dennis before he abandoned her, which allowed her to keep up a verneer of respectability.

Sylvia Likens

In July 1965, Paula Baniszewski met up with a friend of hers, Darlene McGuire, who introduced her to two new neighborhood girls, Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Sylvia's younger sister, Jenny, 15, who was required to walk with braces due to polio. Paula took the girls back home to 3850 East New York Street, where they drank soda and listened to records.

The Likens' girls mother, Betty, was at the time in county jail after having been arrested for shoplifting, which left Sylvia to care for her sister; Betty had abandoned Sylvia's father, Lester, and effectively kidnapped their two daughters. When Paula heard of the girls' circumstances, she offered to let Sylvia and Jenny spend the night.

The next day, Lester Likens arrived in town, having tracked down his wife. He ran into McGuire, who recognized the description Lester gave of his daughters, and she directed him to the Baniszewski home.

When Lester Likens arrived, Baniszewski introduced herself as "Mrs. Wright". The two struck up a conversation, over the course of which the idea came up that Gertrude might take in Sylvia and Jenny as boarders; he had spoken with his wife at the county jail, where they had reconciled and agreed to travel the United States carnival circuit as carnies.

No one alive knows whether Baniszewski or Lester suggested that she board the girls; eventually, Lester agreed to leave the children in Baniszewski's care for $20 a week. Lester did not inspect the home before leaving; had he have done so, he would have discovered that Gertrude's home had no stove or microwave; that there were only enough beds for half the people in the house; that the only things Gertrude kept in her pantry were bread and crackers; that most of the surfaces in the home were caked with thick layers of dirt; and only enough plates and eating utensils for 3 people.

Early abuse of Likens

The first week of Sylvia and Jenny's lives at the Baniszewski home went relatively well. They attended high school and attended teenage social functions with the Baniszewski children as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday.

When Lester's $20 payment failed to arrive, though, Baniszewski threw a temper tantrum, screaming at the girls, "I took care of you two bitches for nothing!" before forcing them to lie across her bed with their skirts and underwear around their ankles while Baniszewski beat their buttocks. Shortly thereafter, Lester and Betty Likens came into town to check on the girls; neither of them made any reference to the beatings, presumably under threat from Baniszewski.

The next week, Sylvia and Jenny went through the neighborhood garbage, collecting old Coca Cola bottles to sell in order to get money for candy. When they came home with the candy, Baniszewski accused them of stealing; when Sylvia explained how she had gotten the candy, Baniszewski accused her of lying and made her bend over her bed as before while she beat her across the buttocks with a paddle.

Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski children came to Gertrude Baniszewski after a church social and told her that they were disgusted with the amount of food they had seen Sylvia eating.

Baniszewski told Sylvia that she was angry that Sylvia would do something to ruin her physical appearance, and forced the girl to eat a hot dog piled with condiments; when Sylvia vomited, Baniszewski forced her to scoop the vomit up and devour it. Soon afterwards, Lester and Betty Likens again came into town to check on the girls; per Baniszewski's instructions, Sylvia made no reference to the vomit eating incident.

The torture begins

The incident which appears to have either precipitated, triggered, or coincided with the sharp decline of Baniszewski's mental stability occurred in August of 1965 when she overheard Sylvia remark that she had once allowed a boy to feel her up. Baniszewski inexplicably burst into a fit of obscenities, accused Sylvia of being a prostitute, and informed the rest of the house that Sylvia was pregnant because she had let a boy touch her vagina. Baniszewski then attacked Sylvia, repeatedly kicking her in the crotch. When Sylvia attempted to sit down afterwards, Paula threw her out of the chair and informed her, "You ain't fit to sit in chairs."

From there on, Baniszewski only allowed Sylvia to sit in a chair with permission. Around this time, Baniszewski also began allowing her older children to use Sylvia as a sort of living "play thing", with the "games" ranging from beatings to being pushed down the stairs.

Why Sylvia's story so enraged Baniszewski is still uncertain. It has been theorized that she saw in Sylvia the beauty and opportunity for happiness that had long ago escaped her, and so encouraged and participated in Sylvia's degradation and torture as an act of self loathing.

Others have theorized that Baniszewski's hard life and current living conditions resulted in a mental break. Still others have theorized that the violence against Likens was an extreme form of domestic abuse, in which Baniszewski directed her rage onto Sylvia. Whatever the case, Baniszewski manifested this rage by justifying her attacks by accusing Likens of being a prostitute, and delivering bizarre "sermons" to her children and Sylvia about the filthiness of prostitues and women in general.

The day after Baniszewski kicked Sylvia in the crotch, according to Jenny, as an act of vengeance, Sylvia and Jenny told their classmates that they had seen Paula and Stephanie (Baniszewski's second oldest daughter) having sex with boys in exchange for money.

When Stephanie's fifteen-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, discovered what Sylvia and Jenny had said, he came to the Baniszewski home and beat Sylvia. From then on, Hubbard, encouraged by Baniszewski, made frequent visits to the Baniszewski home, during which she would instruct the boy to practice his judo on Sylvia.

Also around this time, Baniszewski got Sylvia's best friend, a thirteen year old named Anna Sisco, alone long enough to convince her that Sylvia had been telling boys at school that Anna's mother was a whore. When Baniszewski took Anna to see Sylvia, she directed Anna in a violent attack on the girl. Soon after, Baniszewski told one of Paula's friends, a girl named Judy Duke, that Sylvia had been spreading rumors about her mother, and pitted the girls against each other in a fist-fight. During the fight, Baniszewski instructed Jenny to punch Sylvia. When Jenny refused, Gertrude began to beat her in the face with her fists, until Jenny finally agreed to punch Sylvia.

Witnesses

In August of 1965, the vacant house next door to the Baniszewski residence was purchased by a middle-aged couple named Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion. Phyllis, seeing the number of children Baniszewski cared for, believed that Baniszewski would make a good babysitter for her two young children, and that she would also be helping Baniszewski out by paying her for her services.

The Vermillions arranged a backyard barbecue so that the two families could get to know one another. During the course of the barbecue, Phyllis noticed Sylvia wandering around the yard with a pronounced black eye; Paula proudly announced to Phyllis that she was the one who had given it to her. Then, under Baniszewski's supervision, Paula approached Sylvia with a glass of steaming water and threw it in Sylvia's face. Neither of the Vermillions reported this incident to the authorities.

Two months later, Phyllis went to the Baniszewski home to borrow something. Over the course of the few minutes she was there, she noticed Sylvia wandering around as in a daze with swollen lips and a black eye that had swollen shut. To demonstrate how this had happened, Paula took her belt off and began to beat Sylvia with it in front of Phyllis. Phyllis again neglected to report anything to the authorities.

Escalation

Around the time that Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Paula beat Sylvia, Sylvia came home from school and told Baniszewski that she needed a sweat suit for gym class. When Baniszewski told Sylvia that they could not afford one, Sylvia stole one from the school. Baniszewski questioned Sylvia about her new gym outfit, eventually coercing Sylvia into confession.

Baniszewski inexplicably segued from the topic of Sylvia stealing into the topic of Sylvia being a prostitute, and threw Sylvia onto the ground, where she repeatedly kicked her in the crotch before once more returning to the topic of theft; to "cure" Sylvia of her "sticky fingers," Baniszewski burned the tips of each of Sylvia's fingers with a lit cigarette.

Afterwards, she made Sylvia bend over while she whipped her with a belt. After this incident, the smokers in the Baniszewski home began arbitrarily putting their cigarettes out on Sylvia's body as a reminder for her not to steal.

Sometime later, Likens went out again to sell old soda bottles for money. When she returned home, Baniszewski accused her of prostitution. Baniszewski took her into the living room of her home and forced Sylvia to strip naked in front of her sons and several neighborhood boys, on the threat of beating Jenny. Once Sylvia was fully naked, Baniszewski handed her a glass Coca Cola bottle, and forced Sylvia to masturbate with it for the boys.

The Basement

Following the Coke bottle incident, Sylvia became incontinent; as a result, Baniszewski decided that she was no longer fit to live with humans, and locked her in the basement. The lack of a toilet in the basement forced Sylvia to defecate and urinate on the floor. When Baniszewski saw this, she began a "bathing regime" to "cleanse" Sylvia, whom she began calling "dirty girl."

The "regime" consisted of filling Gertrude's claw-footed bathtub with scalding water, binding Sylvia's wrists and ankles, and then dunking Sylvia into it. The regime was administered arbitrarily, sometimes once or many times a day, somedays not at all. Following the baths, Paula Baniszewski would rub handfuls of salt over Sylvia's nude body.

During this period Baniszewski took on 14 year old Ricky Hobbs, a neighborhood boy, as her "personal assistant" when dealing with Sylvia. Hobbs, an honor student from a middle class family with no previous legal trouble, experienced a sudden shift in personality upon becoming Baniszewski's assistant, blindly following whatever orders she gave him; crime reporters have since speculated that Hobbs was Baniszewski's lover, and that she had seduced the boy into becoming her henchman.

Baniszewski's children turned Sylvia into a money-making opportunity, charging neighborhood children a nickel to gawk at the nude Sylvia or to push her down the stairs to the basement, where she was now kept when not being bathed or put on display. She was kept constantly naked and rarely fed; when she was allowed to eat, it was in some bizarre fashion (such as the instance in which Baniszewski insisted that she eat soup with her fingers).

Often, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Sylvia "clean" the basement by "allowing" her to eat her own feces, and gave Sylvia a container in which she could collect her urine, which she was then made to drink.

Near rescues

Sometime around this period, Jenny managed to send contact to her and Sylvia's older sister, Diana, who was married and had a family of her own. Jenny outlined the horrors that she and Sylvia were experiencing, and instruted Diana to contact the police to come rescue them. Diana ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply displeased with being punished and that she was making up stories so that she could come live with her.

Also around this time, one of the neighborhood children who had been by to see Sylvia, a twelve year old named Judy Duke, went home and told her mother "they were beating and kicking Sylvia." The girl's mother replied that was what happened when someone was punished.

Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski's reverend, Roy Julian, visited them as part of a program he had set up to see each of his parishoners at their homes. While he and Baniszewski drank coffee, she complained to him that Sylvia had been an intense burden on her, claiming that the girl was a prostitute who had been servicing married men and had gotten pregnant. Although at the time Paula Baniszewski was several months pregnant, Gertrude Baniszewski insisted that her daughter was a virgin and that Sylvia was attempting to pass off her own misdeeds onto the pure Paula.

Baniszewski and the reverend prayed for Sylvia's salvation before the reverend left. When the reverend returned again a few weeks later, Paula told the reverend during prayers that she had "hatred in [her] heart" for Sylvia, to which Baniszewski interjected that the opposite was true.

Shortly after this, Diana came by to visit her sisters. Baniszewski refused to allow her into the home, at first telling her that Lester had contacted her and instructed her not to allow Diana into the home. When Diana questioned this, Baniszewski threatened to call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Diana hid nearby the house until she spotted Jenny outside, and then approached her. Jenny told her older sister that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away.

Concerned, Diana contacted social services. When a social worker arrived at the home, Baniszewski informed her that she had kicked Sylvia out of the house for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that Sylvia had since run away. Baniszewski then managed to get Jenny alone long enough to inform her that if she told the social worker the truth, Jenny would join her sister naked in the basement. Jenny then told the social worker that Sylvia had indeed run away. The social worker returned to her office, where she filed a report stating that no more calls needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.

Murder

On October 20th, Gertrude called the police to come arrest a boy at her home. Robert Bruce Hanlon was a local youth who claimed that the Baniszewski children had stolen things from his basement. He had come to the home earlier in the evening demanding that Baniszewski return his things; when she refused, he attempted to sneak into the home to take them back.

Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Hanlon being put into the back of a squad car and approached the police to speak on his behalf, as she had earlier overheard the argument between Baniszewski and Hanlon over the stolen goods. Vermillion made no mention of Sylvia during her conversation with the police.

On October 21st, Baniszewski instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to bring Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed, telling Sylvia that if she could hold her bladder through the night, she would be permitted to sleep upstairs again.

When Baniszewski checked Sylvia the next morning and discovered she had wet the bed, Baniszewski made her dress, then took her into the living area, where she was once again forced to perform a striptease for her sons and the neighborhood boys, again climaxed by Baniszewski forcing Sylvia to masturbate with a Coca Cola bottle.

When Sylvia was finished, she was allowed to dress. After a few moments, apropos of nothing, Gertrude brought up Sylvia's lies about Paula and Stephanie, and declared, "You have branded my daughters so I will brand you!" Sylvia was forcibly stripped naked, tied down, and gagged while one of Baniszewski's children heated a sewing needle with a series of matches. When the needle was orange, Gertrude used it to carve and burn the letter "I'" and part of the letter "M" into Sylvia's stomach. She then instructed Ricky Hobbs to continue carving letters to spell out the phrase, "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT."

At one point Hobbs stopped and asked Baniszewski in a confused manner to spell "prostitute" for him. Baniszewski wrote it down on a piece of paper, and the carving/burning re-commenced. When the process was finished, the tattoo - consisting not only of the actual carving but third-degree burns left behind by the heat of the needle - was such that modern plastic surgery would have been unable to correct it.

Satisfied, Baniszewski left the room, leaving Sylvia tied, gagged, and naked. At this point, Ricky, Paula, and Baniszewski's ten year old daughter Shirley decided to give Sylvia another tattoo, an "S" in the middle of her chest; the three would later become confused as to whether they had intended the "S" to stand for "Sylvia" or "Slave," though the latter explanation was the one which was leaned towards as being correct.

Ricky burned the bottom curve of the "S" into Sylvia; he then either choked, or changed his mind, because he then ordered Jenny to come over and carve the top half. Although threatened, Jenny refused; Ricky relented, and ordered Shirley to finish the tattoo. The eleven year old choked and accidentally carved the curve backwards, so that the numeral "3" appeared on Likens' chest.

Baniszewski re-entered the room at this point to address the still bound and gagged Sylvia: "What are you going to do now, Sylvia? You can't get married now, you can't undress in front of anyone... What are you going to do now?"

Sylvia was un-gagged to address Baniszewski. She replied: "I guess there's nothing I can do. It's on there."

Hubbard then took Sylvia back to the basement, where he used her for judo practice for a period before returning home. In the middle of the night, Jenny Likens sneaked into the basement to visit her sister, where Sylvia told her, "I'm going to die. I can tell."

Shortly after Jenny's visit, Baniszewski inexplicably went into the basement and brought Sylvia upstairs, and allowed her to sleep in one of the beds. She was allowed to sleep until noon of the next day, October 23, when Baniszewski woke her; once Sylvia was awake, Baniszewski and Stephanie took her into the bathroom and gave her a warm, soapy bath.

After the bath, Baniszewski and Paula dressed Sylvia, and then dictated a letter to her, intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents. For reasons unknown, Baniszewski dictated that Sylvia open the letter "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Likens." The words which Baniszewski dictated were:

I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted... and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.

And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.

I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause [sic] Gertie more money than she's got. I've tore up a new mattress and peaed [sic] on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can't pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids.

Just as strangely as Baniszewski's insistence on the formal salutation, she instructed Sylvia not to sign it.

After Sylvia finished the letter, Baniszewski began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran for the front door, but in her emaciated and mutilated state moved so slowly that Baniszewski was able to grab her just as she reached the front door and drag her back into the house.

Once Baniszewski settled Sylvia down, she took her into the kitchen and made her some toast. Sylvia attempted to eat it but then said she couldn't swallow; Baniszewski took down the curtain rod in the kitchen and beat Sylvia in the mouth with it. John then took Sylvia into the basement and tied her up while Baniszewski prepared a plate of crackers for Sylvia. When she offered the crackers to Sylvia, Sylvia replied, "Feed it to the dog. It's hungrier than I am." Baniszewski repeatedly punched Sylvia in the stomach before leaving her in the basement.

On the next day, October 24th, Baniszewski came into the basement and, attempted to bludgeon Sylvia; first she tried to hit her with a chair, but missed and broke it against the wall. Next she tried to beat her over the head with a paddle, but swung in such a wide arc that it came back against her own face, blacking her eye. To stop the strange show, Hubbard stepped in and beat Sylvia unconscious with a broomstick.

Over the course of that night, and into the morning hours of October 25th, Sylvia beat the basement floor with the scoop portion of an iron shovel. Nextdoor neighbors would later report considering calling the police, but chose not to.

On October 26th, Baniszewski voiced her intentions to give Sylvia a warm bath. Stephanie and Ricky brought Sylvia upstairs and laid her in the tub fully clothed; they took her out shortly thereafter when they realized she was not breathing. Stephanie gave Sylvia CPR, but by this time, Sylvia was already dead.

Baniszewski instructed her children to take Sylvia's body to the basement and strip it naked. She then told Hobbs to go to a nearby payphone and call the police (her house having no working telephone).

When the police arrived, Baniszewski gave them the letter she'd made Sylvia dictate; in the midst of the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the police, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." This statement, combined with the police's discovery of Sylvia's body in the basement, prompted the officers to arrest Baniszewski, Paula, Stephanie, John, Hobbs, and Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time - Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Duke, and Siscoe - were arrested for "injury to a person."

Trial

Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials. Charges against Siscoe, Duke, Monroe, and Lepper were dismissed. Stephanie's lawyer got her a separate trial; before it was able to begin, the district attorney dropped the murder charges.

Meanwhile, an autopsy of Sylvia Likens turned up over 100 cigarette burns on her body, in addition to various second and third degree burns, severe bruising, and muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, largely discrediting--along with a lack of any ripping or tearing to the rectum-- Gertrude's assertions that Sylvia was a prostitue and completely disproving her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock.

The case of the State of Indiana v. Gertrude Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Paula Baniszewski, Ricky Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard commenced in May of 1966; the prosecution sought the death penalty for all involved, including John and Hobbs, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, respectively. Paula's time in court was interrupted when she was rushed to the hospital to give birth to the child that she and her mother had insisted she wasn't carrying; in a show of solidarity, Paula named the child Gertrude.

Baniszewski and the children's cases were exacerbated by the fact that they were being represented by four different attorneys--one for Baniszewski, one for Paula, one for Hobbs, and one for Coy and John--all of whom worked against each other and attempted to shift blame against the other defendants, even though they were all being tried together.

Baniszewski's attorney attempted to shift blame onto the children, portratying her as weak, chronically ill, and incapable of preventing or perpetuating any of the abuse. The children's attorneys attempted to shift blame onto Baniszewski and the other children.

Some of the most damaging testimony against Baniszewski was due to her own self-incrimination; she recounted bizarre tales of Sylvia Likens being a neighborhood prostitute and of her trysts with middle aged, married men, as well as accusing her of frequently starting fights in the home. To corroborate Baniszewski's testimony, eleven-year-old Marie was was called to the stand.

Initially, Marie backed up everything her mother had said, until, during cross examination, she suddenly screamed "God help me!" before admitting everything she'd said was a lie, and went on to recount in graphic, blunt detail how her mother and siblings had tortured and murdered Sylvia.

The young girl's shocking turn against her own family was largely responsible for the eventual verdict: Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. To the shock of the citizens of Indianapolis, she did not receive the death penalty, but rather life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Aftermath and death

Paula Baniszewski was convicted of second degree murder; she appealed and was granted a new trial, but before it began, she struck a plea bargain and plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She served three years in prison and was then paroled.

John Baniszewski, Hubbard, and Hobbs were each convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to eighteen months in a juvenile detention facility. By the time the now seventeen year old Hobbs was released, the severity of his crimes had sunk in, and he suffered a nervous breakdown; he began a regime of heavy-chain smoking which had severely decayed his lungs by the time he was twenty. By the time he was twenty-one, he was dead of lung cancer.

Baniszewski appealed, was granted a new trial, and was again found guilty, though this time she was sentenced to eighteen years to life. Over the course of the next eighteen years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and becoming a den-mother to younger female inmates; by the time she came up for parole in 1985, she had earned the prison nickname "Mom."

The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose Baniszewski's parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign.

Over the course of two months, the groups collected 4500 signiatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars. In spite of all this, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she gave the following confession:"

I'm not sure what role I had in it... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia.

Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and travelled to Iowa under the name Nadine Van Fossan. She died there of lung cancer in 1990. The fates of Baniszewski's children remains largely unknown. Paula Baniszewski moved to Iowa and assumed a new identity; internet rumors claim that she is still alive and lives on a farm somewhere in the Iowa countryside. Stephanie Baniszewski became a school teacher and assumed a new name.

John Baniszewki changed his name to John Blake and worked as a truck driver before becoming a real estate agent and lay minister; he was never arrested again. He married and had three children, and has lived in anonymity, only surfacing briefly in 1998 in the wake of the Jonesboro Massacre to speak for the first time about the Likens murder, saying that he took full responsibility for his role in the murder and that a harsher sentence would have been more just.

References

  • Look For the Woman by Jay Robert Nash. M. Evans and Company, Inc. 1981 ISBN 0871313367
     

  • The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens Torture and Death by John Dean. 1999. ISBN 0960489479.


StarFiles: The 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens

1965 torture slaying remains one of Indianapolis' most notorious crimes

IndyStar.com

November 3, 2010

It has been the most enduring nightmare in Indianapolis True Crime history -- the Oct. 26, 1965 torture-murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens.

Other crimes have involved a greater number of victims, often including children, but the villains in those stories were hardened criminals or madmen, and their acts of violence played out rapidly within a span of minutes or hours. In the aftermath of grief and anger good people could at least comprehend the chain of events that had just unfolded.

On the surface, the Likens murder is not much different from any number of heinous crimes. It was a Cinderella story without the happy ending -- a teenage girl left under the care of a strict authoritarian whose idea of discipline is physical abuse that escalates until the abuse victim dies. If that was the extent of it, this case would likely have been lost to history long ago like so many other long-forgotten murders.

This case was somehow more disturbing than other crimes, perhaps because:

* The abuse was carried out not just by the caregiver -- the notorious Gertrude Baniszewski -- but also by her own children, some as young as 10, and by other children in the neighborhood. For weeks, even months, the torture of Sylvia Likens was casual entertainment, something to do in the afternoon before dinner and favorite TV shows. At least a dozen children participated or at least watched, and none felt sufficiently disturbed to tell their own parents.

* Other adults occasionally came to the Baniszewski house for various reasons and saw Sylvia's battered appearance. None pushed to be sure she was safe.

* Sylvia herself and her younger sister Jenny had opportunities to tell adults at school or church -- they even had adult relatives living nearby. Neither said a word because, as Jenny would later explain, they thought it would only make things worse. Neither could conceive of the possibility that authorities would move to protect them, remove them from the house or arrest their tormentors.

Arrests did come, but only after it was over. On Oct. 26, 1965, Indianapolis police were called to 3850 E. New York St. where Sylvia's body lay on a mattress. Baniszewski told them the girl had been attacked by a gang of boys and she even produced a note written in Sylvia's own hand that seemed to confirm that story. But the cops could tell by the condition of the victim that this had been no single incident. Sylvia's body was malnourished and covered with sores, burns and bruises, many of them old. She had been branded in one spot by a hot metal object, and the words "I am a prostitute" had been etched on her stomach.

How it began:

Sylvia came from a large, poor family from southern Boone County, just northwest of Indianapolis. Her father, Lester Likens, had only an eighth grade education and worked a lot of different jobs to make a living. He'd had a laundry route, worked in factories and had even owned a small restaurant, though unsuccessfully. He had also traveled with carnivals selling food from a concession cart, and it was to this work to which he and his wife decided to return in the summer of 1965.

That meant finding someone to watch four of their children. The oldest, Diana, was grown and married. The two boys, Danny and Bennie, were placed with their grandparents, and that left the girls, Sylvia and Jenny.

Jenny was shy, insecure and limped from childhood polio. Sylvia was outwardly more confident and went by the nickname "Cookie". She was pretty, but always kept her mouth closed when she smiled because she had a missing front tooth.

A mutual friend introduced the Likens to Gertrude Baniszewski (then briefly going by the name Gertrude Wright), who lived in a big rented house at the corner of East New York and Denny, and was willing to look after Jenny and Sylvia for $20 a week.

Gertrude was already caring for seven of her own children -- Paula, 17, John, 12, Stephanie, 15, Marie, 11, Shirley, 10, and James and Dennis , 18 months. The six oldest children all had the last name Baniszewski because their father was Gertrude's ex-husband John Baniszewski. The youngest child, Dennis, had the last name of his father, Dennis Wright. Gertrude said he was in Germany serving in the Army.

From the beginning there was a clash between Sylvia and Gertrude's 17-year-old daughter, Paula, and this was the seed of what grew in that house during the months of July through October, 1965.

Then one day the money order from Sylvia's parents didn't show up on the day Gertrude was expecting it. Jenny later testified Gertrude "took us upstairs … and she slapped me, and said, ' Well, I took care of you two b___ for a week for nothing." The money order arrived the next day, but the key had been turned.

Gertrude was frail and underweight, but she had two weapons she used for corporal punishment -- a fraternity-style paddle and a thick leather belt left behind by her ex-husband, John Baniszewski -- an Indianapolis police officer.

Gertrude began using the paddle on Sylvia and Jenny for various offenses such as exchanging soft drink bottles for change at a nearby grocery. When she suspected Sylvia of stealing she used matches to burn the girl's fingers.

Sometimes Gertrude felt too weak from her asthma to discipline the girls properly so 17-year-old Paula helped.

Neighborhood children began to crowd the home to participate in the torture. The children took turns practicing their judo on Sylvia, hurling her against a wall. Some began kicking and beating her. Others extinguished their cigarettes on her skin. As Gertrude and a gang of teen-agers watched, Sylvia was forced to undress in the living room and insert an empty Coke bottle into her vagina.

After the beatings, Sylvia was forced into a scalding hot bath so she would be "cleansed of her sins." She was severely beaten and burned for wetting her mattress while asleep and Gertrude decided that Sylvia was no longer fit to live with her children.

Near the end, Sylvia was no longer permitted to leave the house. She was thrown down the cellar stairs and locked in, given crackers for food and refused the right to use a bathroom. Gertrude Baniszewski announced to her children that Sylvia was a "prostitute, and she's proud of it; so we'll just put it on her stomach." She took a large needle and began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" into Sylvia's stomach. Richard Hobbs, a neighbor boy, finished the etching.

When Baniszewski realized Sylvia might be dying, she forced her to write a note saying a gang of boys beat her. The plan was to blindfold her and dump her in nearby woods with the note. Sylvia tried to escape but Gertrude and one of the boys stopped her, beating her again and throwing her back into the basement.

Sylvia Likens died Oct. 26, 1965. Cause of death was determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain and shock induced by Sylvia's extensive skin damage. Sylvia also suffered from extreme malnutrition. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon.

The Baniszewski trial - May 1966

At her trial the following year, Baniszewski denied any knowledge of the torture, claiming the children must have done it all. She entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

On May 19, 1966, a jury found Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder while Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder. Hobbs, along with Baniszewski's son John and another neighborhood boy, Coy Hubbard, were convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life terms at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. The boys were sentenced to two-to-21-year terms at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton.

In 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski a new trial due to "prejudicial atmosphere", but Gertrude was again convicted of first-degree murder on Aug. 5, 1971. Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and served about two years in prison. The three boys were released on parole for good behavior in 1968, after serving about two years each of their sentences.

In September 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski was released on parole. She changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa where she lived in obscurity until her death from lung cancer on June 16, 1990. Paula married and moved to a farm in Iowa.

John became a lay minister in Texas and counseled children of divorced parents.

Hobbs died of cancer at the age of 21, four years after being released from the reformatory. Hubbard has had several brushes with the law. Lester and Betty Likens divorced. Betty remarried and died in 1998 at age 71. Jenny Likens Wade died in 2004 at age 54.


Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski (September 19, 1929 – June 16, 1990), also known as Gertrude Wright and Nadine van Fossan, was an Indiana divorcée who, with the aid of most of her own children and neighborhood children, such as Ricky Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, oversaw and facilitated the prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, a teenaged girl she had taken into her home. When she was convicted of first-degree murder in 1966, the case was called "the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history".

Life before Sylvia Likens

Baniszewski was born as Gertrude Nadine van Fossan to Hugh and Mollie van Fossan, the third of six children. In 1940, Baniszewski witnessed her father's death from a sudden heart attack. Five years later, she dropped out of school at the age of 16 to marry 18-year-old deputy John Baniszewski, with whom she had six children.

Although John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, the two stayed together for 10 years before divorcing.

Gertrude, then 34, moved in with a 23-year-old Dennis Lee Wright, who abused her. She had one child, Dennis, but after his birth Wright abandoned Gertrude and disappeared.

Sylvia Likens

In July 1965, Lester and Betty Likens, traveling carnival workers, suggested that Baniszewski take their two daughters - Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Jenny Faye Likens, 15 - as boarders in return for $20 a week in compensation while they worked across the state. The Likens sisters attended high school and social functions with the Baniszewski children, as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday.

However, when Lester Likens's first $20 payment failed to arrive on time, Baniszewski beat the girls. Shortly thereafter the girls were beaten for having candy that Baniszewski accused them of stealing. Thus began a regular pattern of child abuse.

The torture begins

In August 1965, Baniszewski began to verbally and physically abuse Sylvia Likens, allowing her older children to beat her, and push her down stairs. Baniszewski also accused Likens of being a prostitute, and delivered "sermons" about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general. After the Likens sisters reportedly accused Baniszewski's daughters Paula and Stephanie of being prostitutes, Stephanie Baniszewski's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, and several other classmates and local boys were brought in to assist Baniszewski in beating Sylvia Likens. Baniszewski even forced Jenny Likens to hit her sister.

The basement

Likens became incontinent; as a result, Baniszewski locked her in the basement. Baniszewski then began a bathing regime to "cleanse" Sylvia, involving dousing her with scalding water and rubbing salt into the burns. She was often kept naked and rarely fed. At times, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Likens eat her own feces.

Sometime around this period, Jenny Likens managed to contact her older sister, Diana Likens, outlining the horrors that the two sisters were experiencing, and asking Diana to contact the police. Diana Likens ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply displeased with being punished and that she was making up stories so that she could come live with her.

Shortly after this, Diana Likens came by to visit her sisters, but Baniszewski refused to allow her into the home. The elder Likens then hid nearby the house until she spotted Jenny outside, and then approached her. Jenny Likens told her older sister that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away. Concerned, Diana Likens contacted social services and informed them that Baniszewski told her that Sylvia Likens had been kicked out of the house for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that she had since run away. When a social worker showed up at the Baniszewski home inquiring about Sylvia, Baniszewski told Jenny Likens to lie to the social worker about Sylvia's whereabouts, threatening her that if she did not, she would get the same treatment as Sylvia. Terrified of what Baniszewski might do to her if she told the truth, Jenny told the social worker that Sylvia had indeed run away. The social worker returned to her office, where she filed a report stating that no more follow-up visits needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.

Murder

On October 21, Baniszewski instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie Baniszewski to bring Likens up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The next morning, Baniszewski, enraged that Sylvia had wet the bed, again forced her to insert a Coke bottle into her vagina, before beginning to carve the phrase "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into her abdomen with a hot sewing needle. When Baniszewski was unable to finish the branding, she enlisted Ricky Hobbs to finish. The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens, and then dictated a letter to her, intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents.

After Likens finished the letter, Baniszewski began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny Likens take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran down the stairs attempting to escape, but was stopped by Baniszewski as Likens stepped out the front door and onto the porch. Baniszewski then pulled Sylvia back inside the house and again threw her down the basement steps and kept her there.

On October 24, Baniszewski came down to the basement and attempted to bludgeon Likens with a wooden paddle, but missed her and accidentally struck herself. Coy Hubbard stepped in and viciously beat Likens on the head repeatedly with a broomstick and left her unconscious on the basement floor. In the early evening of Tuesday October 26, Baniszewski told the children she would give Likens a bath, in lukewarm water this time. Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs brought Likens upstairs and placed her in the bathtub fully clothed; as they took her out shortly thereafter and laid her on a bare mattress on the floor, they realized she was not breathing. Stephanie Baniszewski frantically attempted to resuscitate her, but by then, Likens was already dead.

Stephanie Baniszewski, panic-stricken, told Hobbs to call the police. When they arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski gave them the letter she'd made Likens write. In the midst of the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the policemen, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything". Her statement, combined with the discovery of Sylvia Likens's body, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time — Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe — were arrested for "injury to person".

Trial

Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials.

An examination and autopsy of Sylvia Likens' body revealed numerous burns, bruising, muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, discrediting Baniszewski's assertions that Sylvia was a prostitute and her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin.

Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Aftermath and death

Baniszewski appealed and was granted a new trial by the Indiana Supreme Court largely for reasons of a prejudicial atmosphere due to heavy news media publicity before and during the trial. A new trial was held in 1971, and Baniszewksi was again found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Over the course of the next 14 years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and becoming a den-mother to younger female inmates; by the time she came up for parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname "Mom".

The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose her parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign. Over the course of two months, the groups collected over 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars. Despite the efforts, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she stated: "I'm not sure what role I had in it ... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her ... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia."

Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa. She died in Iowa, from lung cancer, on June 16, 1990, aged 60.

Depictions

The case has since been subject to numerous fictional and non-fictional adaptations.

  • Author Natty Bumppo (formerly John Dean) wrote an account of the murder, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.

  • Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.

  • Author Kate Millett wrote a semi-fictional book relating to the incident, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice. Millett stated in an interview that the murder of Sylvia Likens "is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."

  • Mendal Johnson's only novel Let's Go Play at the Adams bears similarities to, and may have been based on, this case.

  • Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a fictional story loosely based on the murder set in the 1950s and a movie based on the book was released in 2007, with Blythe Auffarth in the main role.

  • The film An American Crime starring Catherine Keener as Baniszewski, Ellen Page as Likens, and Jeremy Sumpter as Coy Hubbard premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

  • The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the “Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel.

  • A play called Hey, Rube, written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.

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