(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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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).
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Gertrude felt too weak from her asthma to discipline the girls
properly so 17-year-old Paula helped.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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
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.
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,
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
The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the
“Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation
A play called Hey, Rube, written by Janet
McReynolds, was produced but never published.