Torture & Murder in Indianapolis
In criminals one can most often find genuine motivation for a criminal act. It may not be a concrete motive or even a well-reasoned motive, but there usually exists a motive nonetheless. In some rarer cases, however, crimes are committed that truly have no discernible motive (or a motive so thin as to be ridiculous by any standard).
One such mindless case involved a pitiable girl from a broken home, Sylvia Marie Likens, who was systematically and deliberately tortured and abused over a three-month period, and ultimately murdered. Her tormenters were a sadistic family that vividly epitomized the very phrase, and picture of, “poor white trash”.
The only motive that can be established is simply this: even the least among us needs someone else over whom to feel superior.Credit: 1965 (IPD)
Every cohort has a group over which they feel superior. If one thinks about “the school bully”, more often than not this person did not come from a stable or successful home. Most often, the bully was poor, or from a broken home, or somehow disadvantaged compared to his peers. As with any pecking order behavior the bully needed to feel superior to someone; therefore, he (or she, as in the case of Britain’s Mary Bell, herself a child who murdered two toddlers in 1968) terrorized the weaker kids, the fat kids, or whatever target made him/her feel better about himself or herself.
Class distinctions based on ascription (and not achievements) create pecking-order manners. Certainly, the British Royal Family feels superior to its subjects because of its lofty, “royal” place. This is merely an accident of birth, nothing any “royal” family member has actually earned. Other pecking orders are found if one casually looks about: the intellectual lords over the ignorant; the cultured snubs the redneck; and the bigot feels superior to any race not his own.
The need to feel good about oneself motivates many people’s actions. However, this need does not usually manifest itself in child abuse so great it ends in murder.
But that is indeed what Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski, with the help of her trashy kids and their buddies, did in 1965.
An Insectile Predator Develops
Gertrude Baniszewski was born Gertrude Nadine van Fossan on September 19, 1929. She was the third in a household of six children.
This family was fixed firmly in the lower economic stratum. In 1940, the 11-year-old Gertrude watched her beloved father die of a heart attack. She was devastated by this loss as she was not particularly close to her mother. She was a troubled child, and at the age of 16 she dropped out of high school to marry an 18-year-old deputy, John Baniszewski. They had four children together. Baniszewski was a violent man, often beating her when they had disagreements, but Gertrude stayed married to him for 10 years before they finally divorced.
Sometime after divorcing John she met and married a man named Edward Guthrie. This marriage only lasted three months; Edward found he did not like caring for children not his own.
Strangely, she and John Baniszewski remarried each other. Two more children were born during this marital term. They divorced for the last time in 1963 after seven more years of marriage.
At the age of 34, Gertrude began shacking up with 23-year-old Dennis Lee Wright (she later assumed his last name though the two never married). Dennis, like Gertrude’s ex-husband John, was abusive. He impregnated Gertrude twice; she suffered a miscarriage, and then gave birth to Dennis, Jr. After the boy’s birth Wright abandoned her and took off. Gertrude did not want the neighborhood knowing her newest family addition was a bastard, so she had started referring to herself as “Mrs. Wright” upon his birth (even though she and Dennis Wright never married and he was gone from her life).
The Girl Next Door
Sylvia Marie Likens, the teenage girl whom Gertrude Baniszewski (with help from her spawn and their friends) would later torture and murder, was born January 3, 1949, in Lebanon, Indiana. Sylvia’s place in the birth order was unusual: she was the middle child of five, but she was book-ended by two sets of fraternal twins.
The older twins were named Diana and Danny (two years older than Sylvia). The twins below her were Jenny and Benny (a year younger than she). Sylvia’s younger sister Jenny had suffered from polio which left her slightly disabled (she wore a leg brace on one leg, and obviously had some mobility problems associated with that).
Her parents, Betty and Lester Likens, were carnival workers; their work schedule required them to be on the road much of the time, and the children led very unsettled lives (by the time of her death Sylvia had lived in 14 different residences because of frequent moves).
Betty’s and Lester’s marriage was combative and unstable, and they struggled financially constantly. Sylvia and the other children were often boarded out or forced to live with relatives while the parents were on the road. Usually, they stayed at a grandmother’s in hopes that their education would not suffer.
For small spending money Sylvia baby-sat and ironed clothes. Her middle position (particularly with twins on either side) hurt her in the pecking order, and she did not get much attention. Despite the lack of affection she was described as a relatively happy girl. She was, by all accounts, a normal girl of her times (liking the Beatles, roller skating, etc.).
In 1965 Lester and Betty Likens separated. Lester moved to another domicile, taking his sons and leaving the girls with Betty. The females lived in Indianapolis. The neighborhood into which they moved was one where they had previously resided. Betty Likens, together with daughters Sylvia and Jenny (the older female “twin”, Diana, had already flown the coop, getting married at a young age) rented one of the many rundown, small houses on the block.
Sylvia, Jenny, and a newly-acquired friend of theirs (Darlene McGuire) spent time wandering their neighborhood.
In July 1965, Betty Likens was picked up for shoplifting and jailed. On one of their treks, Sylvia, Jenny, and Darlene met Paula Baniszewski, a slovenly, unattractive, overweight, promiscuous, 17-year-old bully. Although it was not yet known (except to her), Paula was pregnant (she was sexually involved with a local married man). The four teenage girls, after some discussion, headed to Gertrude Baniszewski’s house where they hung around. Paula invited them to stay the night; Sylvia and Jenny didn't have to ask for permission since their mother was in jail and Lester was indifferent.
Lester found out about his wife’s being in jail the next day, however, and went looking for his unclaimed daughters. Lester (with his oldest son, 19-year-old Danny) went to Betty’s house looking for Sylvia and Jenny. Not finding them home, he canvassed the neighborhood and found out from the younger girls’ friend, Darlene McGuire, they were at the Baniszewskis’ place. There, Lester Likens met Gertrude Baniszewski for the first time.
Gertrude was already prematurely worn-out. Although only 37, she was “used up” (and contemporary photos bear this out – she looks at least 20 years older than her true age). She was underweight with a prematurely lined face. She was morose and her personal hygiene was appalling (not bathing or brushing her hair or tending to other simple grooming). By this time in her life Gertrude had been pregnant an astonishing thirteen times (had given birth seven times and had six miscarriages). She was a chain smoker with asthma and bronchitis. Physically, she was a wreck, but it was reported she also suffered from nervous tension, as well.
It was late when he arrived at “Mrs. Wright’s”, however, and he was both tired and agitated. He talked to Gertrude about his domestic issues, and mentioned he and Betty might reconcile soon. She offered him a place to sleep on her dilapidated couch in her filthy living room.
The household’s main source of income was intermittent child-support payments (the two fathers of her children being always delinquent). She also made a few dollars from occasionally ironing and baby-sitting (two jobs suited for a teenage girl like Sylvia, but probably not fulfilling for a woman with seven children).
The Baniszewski family lived in abject squalor. Their clapboard house at 3850 East New York was dingy, rundown, and desperately in need of routine maintenance. Basic housekeeping was a concept apparently unappreciated by Gertrude and was adapted by her children by example.
Material possessions were few. The home had no stove for cooking – there was a single-burner hot-plate used to feed the small army living under the roof. Because of the lack of adequate cooking facilities the children ate many quick foods such as sandwiches or things that could be simply heated and eaten, such as soup. The kitchen’s silver service consisted of three spoons. [While Sylvia stayed there the number of spoons shrank to one. The family shared this, one person using it to eat, the next rinsing it off to use, etc.] There were fewer beds than needed for those already living there.
In tandem with Lester’s need to find a home for his two girls (though he had a place of his own he elected not to take them in) and with Gertrude’s apparent need for money two lesser minds came together for a mutually agreeable solution to both their situations. Accounts aren’t clear on this matter but the next day either Lester asked, or Gertrude offered, to board Sylvia and Jenny Likens for $20 a week (money in 1965 that would have meant a lot to Gertrude, close to $150 today).
Even though it was plain to Lester the conditions of the household were abhorrent he elected to leave his daughters there anyway. His indifference or selfishness, whichever it was, cost one of his daughters her life – without any thought he left his girls with a woman he had known for only a bit over a day and whom no one had recommended to him.
He agreed to pay Gertrude $20 per week for the girls’ upkeep. He also admonished her, “You’ll have to take care of these girls with a firm hand because their mother has let them do as they please.”
This latter statement, as oblique as it is, may have given Gertrude carte blanche (in her twisted mind) to do with the girls as she pleased for discipline.
The Honeymoon Is Over
The first week at Gertrude’s for Sylvia and Jenny sailed along with no problems. They both spent their time acquainting themselves with Gertrude’s other children.
During the second week, however, the situation changed dramatically. Lester’s $20 for Gertrude was slow in getting to her. Gertrude vented her spleen on the Likens girls: “I took care of you two bitches for nothing!” Both girls were forced to lie across a bed and expose their bare bottoms. Gertrude then spanked them (Lester’s payment, along with a personal visit from he and Betty, arrived the very next day although he was not aware of the punishment).
Sylvia attended church each Sunday with the other children (no sign that Gertrude went). Paula told her mother after one particular Sunday’s activities that Sylvia “pigged out” at a church supper. Gertrude and some of her other offspring collectively decided on an “appropriate” punishment for Sylvia’s alleged gluttony. That night the family was eating hotdogs (easily prepared on a hot-plate). The hotdog designated for Sylvia Likens was handed around the table and each child added condiments to it until it was an unrecognizable mush of meat, bun, and ooze. Gertrude ordered Sylvia to eat it. She did, then immediately threw up. She was then forced to eat her own vomit.
The Likens girls routinely searched trash for returnable soda bottles (which netted, at most, around 3¢ each). Money made from this activity allowed Sylvia to buy candy occasionally. Gertrude, however (rather than accept that Sylvia might have earned the money herself), accused her of stealing candy instead. The following week both girls were spanked again. This time, Gertrude thought Sylvia was organizing the other children into a group to go out and steal from stores.
Sometime after this Betty and Lester Likens stopped by to visit (as they had in the wake of the paddling incident when the payment was late). As on their previous visit (and any that followed) neither Jenny nor Sylvia complained to either their mother or father about how badly Gertrude was treating them.
Perverted Pied Piper
Although Jenny came in for her share of slapping and spankings, Gertrude’s violence focused increasingly on Sylvia. And her abuse became a group effort soon enough, however, involving the rest of the family as it escalated.
Gertrude continued to peevishly accuse Sylvia of stealing candy (that she’d actually bought with her own money). She humiliated Sylvia in front of a room of neighborhood kids when Sylvia let it slip that she had once allowed a boyfriend to get under the bed covers with her, allowing him to “feel her up”.
“You’re going to have a baby!” Gertrude shrieked at her, and then she kicked Sylvia squarely in the crotch. [Kicking Sylvia in the genitals apparently was a favored form of abuse in the household – upon her death her vaginal area was so swollen and bruised it was almost sealed shut]. Sylvia, hurting badly, sat down in an available chair. Gertrude’s slatternly daughter, Paula (who actually was pregnant and of loose virtue), then knocked Sylvia to the floor, saying, “You ain't fit to sit in a chair.”
In revenge for this humiliation Sylvia made the later mistake of rumor-mongering at her school that both of Gertrude’s oldest daughters (Paula and 15-year-old Stephanie) were prostitutes. Stephanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, heard this and beat up Sylvia; he was large for his age and brutal.
Gertrude then began encouraging the neighborhood kids (who used the Baniszewski house as an after-school hangout) to torment Sylvia any way they liked. Among them was a little 14-year-old puke four-eyes named Richard Hobbs. It was conjectured after the fact (certainly neither Hobbs nor Gertrude ever admitted to any sexual wrongdoings between them) that Hobbs became a true “cabana boy”, doing her bidding at her whim with no questions asked. [Considering Gertrude’s homeliness, and her general lack of sex appeal and hygiene, for a boy of Hobbs’ non-experience, any “port in a storm” would do. She most likely would have been supplying him with chump change, cigarettes, or fellatio in exchange for his allegiance. For a nerd like Hobbs her attentions would have been out of his ken and worthy of adulation.]
Some of her children and the neighborhood kids smoked in her house (at a time when there was no mandated “smoking age”). They snuffed cigarettes out on Sylvia’s skin; they also beat her and slapped her at will. The punk Coy Hubbard, claiming to be studying judo, started using Sylvia as his practice dummy, throwing her around the living room (and later the basement).
Inciting teen violence, Gertrude told the overweight, unattractive, 13-year-old Anna Siscoe (one of the hanger’s-on) that Sylvia had said Anna’s mother was a prostitute. Anna attacked Sylvia, who wasn’t healthy enough either mentally or physically to defend herself. Gertrude repeated these slanders to other girls, and more fights developed with Gertrude looking on, apparently satisfied at the abuse Sylvia received.
The pregnant Paula developed a habit of cracking Sylvia in the head with whatever was handy at the moment – a dish, a bottle, or a can. Many times when a group of teens tormented Sylvia, Gertrude or (mostly) Paula would order sister Jenny to “get in on the fun” and slap Sylvia, too. The younger girl refused. Gertrude slapped Jenny, and the poor girl complied (stating in court she used her left hand – she was right-handed – so it wouldn’t hurt Sylvia so much).
In early October 1965, when Sylvia admitted to stealing a gym suit she needed for school (which the niggardly Gertrude wouldn’t buy for her), Gertrude beat her badly. Sylvia’s alleged promiscuity was revisited by Gertrude in the wake of this admission of theft. After screaming obscenities at her, Gertrude kicked her in the crotch repeatedly. Later that day (apparently still not believing Sylvia had been sufficiently punished for stealing the gym suit) Gertrude touched a lighted match to Sylvia's “sticky fingers”, and then beat her with a belt. She withdrew Sylvia from school (school authorities apparently did not notice or care that Sylvia had ceased coming to school, although Jenny still attended).
The crummy group of delinquents that hung around the Baniszewski house started burning Sylvia with cigarettes and matches. The pregnant and mean-spirited Paula hit Sylvia so hard she broke her hand; she then used the cast as a weapon against Sylvia. Several other area punks got into the habit of kicking, hitting, and flipping Sylvia around (as the muy macho Coy Hubbard did).
Gertrude continued to disbelieve Sylvia’s stories of making money by turning in found pop bottles. As a punishment for her “lies” she forced the girl to do a strip-tease act in front of a bunch of other kids from the neighborhood (the regulars). Once she was completely nude Gertrude gave Sylvia a Coca-Cola bottle and made her stick the bottle neck against her vagina and masturbate with it. Stephanie Baniszewski came home from school at that time and saw Sylvia naked before a bunch of kids, shoving a bottle into herself. Stephanie had no idea her mother was the instigator of this activity; she rushed to Sylvia, slapped her, and then ordered Sylvia to her room.
Sylvia wet her bed one night in October (either from anxiety or probably from weakened pelvic floor muscles from the constant kicks to her groin and blows to her lower abdomen). Gertrude decided Sylvia had to live in the filthy basement with the dogs because “she was too dirty to live with human beings”.
A practice of tormenting Sylvia with forced baths started about the time she was exiled to the basement. She was tied up and dropped into the Baniszewski’s ancient tub filled with scalding hot water. Sometimes it was Gertrude and Paula who did the bathing; other times Gertrude’s “boy” (the blond haired, horn-rimmed, 14-year-old lackey Richard Hobbs) was on hand to help. Sylvia had open sores on her skin; Paula would actually rub salt into these sores for punishment after bath time.
Quite often Sylvia was kept nude or nearly so for days. In addition to the burnings of her skin, the punching and kicking, the regular kids began pushing her down the basement stairs, collecting her, and dragging her back up, only to push her down again. [Gertrude charged an “admission” fee of 25¢ (almost $2 today) for these perverse pleasures. A kid had to pay, then had the chance to toss Sylvia, broken rag doll that she was, down the basement stairs, then drag her up to do it again.]
On one occasion, the starving girl was let up into the main part of the house. She was told to eat soup, but to eat it with her fingers. She tried, but the food was snatched away from her by Gertrude’s son, John. Later, Gertrude and John forced Sylvia to eat feces and drink urine. [Sylvia had no toilet facilities in the basement and it was from her leavings in the basement she was forced to eat and drink.]
Gertrude decided (on what would be the start of the last weekend of Sylvia’s life) to let her sleep upstairs in one of the few beds available instead of in the basement. Gertrude predicated Sylvia’s sleeping among the “civilized” conditionally: her boy (John), the “macho” Coy Hubbard, and her other slag daughter (Stephanie) tied Sylvia to the bed so she could not get up and use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
As one would expect, Sylvia wet the bed. In the morning Gertrude forced her to do another strip-tease culminating in the Coke bottle maneuver. Then Gertrude remembered Sylvia’s slanders against her daughters (when Sylvia spread gossip the two girls were prostitutes).
“You have branded my daughters so I will brand you!” she raged at Sylvia.
Under threat Sylvia was forced to lie on her back as Gertrude started carving the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” into Sylvia’s stomach with a heated needle. She managed to get the word “I’M” completed, and then turned the task over to her puppet, Richard Hobbs. Hobbs worked in earnest, but when the barely-literate Hobbs found he could not spell “prostitute” Gertrude wrote the sentence out for him on a piece of paper.
The number “3” was also burned into her chest with a hot needle. This “3” was actually supposed to be the letter “S” (for “Slave”); Richard Hobbs started this burn with a heated eye-bolt. Shirley Baniszewski (10 years old) finished the work, but got her half of the “S” wrong, thus rendering the injury a “3”.
In front of witnesses (two neighbor kids, one of her own daughters, and Jenny Likens) Gertrude then began berating Sylvia. She taunted her by asking if anyone would want to marry Sylvia now that she was branded an obvious prostitute, damaged goods.
Sylvia was completely distraught, and complacent – crying, all she could do was avow there was nothing she could do. Later that night after Coy Hubbard finished throwing her against the basement walls a few times, Jenny found her way downstairs. Presciently, Sylvia told her younger sister, “I’m going to die. I can tell.”
As a bizarre form of reward for her compliance in her abuse Sylvia was allowed to sleep upstairs that night (without being tied up). The next afternoon Gertrude and Stephanie gave Sylvia a bath (a regular, warm bath, not a scalding hot one).
Sylvia had to know something bad was in the works.
Oddly, after Sylvia started the letter with the expected salutation of “Dear Mom and Dad” (as she had been forced to write nice letters to her parents before by Gertrude) she was made to stop. The “Mom and Dad” was nixed, and Gertrude instructed Sylvia to write “To Mr. and Mrs. Likens.”
The letter is a strange “explanation” for Sylvia’s “tattoos”:
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me 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 . . .
Jenny was helpless to assist, but a few days before her death Sylvia tried to escape.
She had overheard Gertrude talking to her son John. She planned to have him and some of his friends dump Sylvia in a nearby wooded area. Sylvia overheard this; at her first opportunity after hearing the plan, and with failing strength of both body and will, she ran for the front door. Gertrude caught her just as she almost got to the porch. She dragged Sylvia to the kitchen and offered her some toast. Sylvia was very weak and sick, and she couldn’t swallow. Gertrude bashed her across the mouth with a curtain rod.
Gertrude’s boy, John, tied Sylvia up in the basement. Gertrude (presumably wanting to keep the dying Sylvia alive long enough to get her safely out of the house) went to the basement and tried to give Sylvia some crackers to eat. Sylvia apparently told her to give the crackers to the dog as it was hungrier than she was. Gertrude responded by punching the girl in the stomach several times.
On the next day (October 25, 1965) John and Gertrude both beat Sylvia. Gertrude swung a decrepit chair at the girl but it broke before striking. She then tried to strike Sylvia with a paddle but somehow ended up missing Sylvia and smacking herself in the face, giving herself a black eye. Coy Hubbard (the “Karate Kid”) dropped in and crowned Sylvia with a broomstick, knocking her out.
During that night, after Sylvia came to, she repeatedly pounded the floor of her basement prison with a shovel; neighbors heard the racket and were disturbed by it, but no one called the police.
The next day, October 26, 1965, Sylvia was taken upstairs for a bath (a regular, normal bath). She was set in the tub fully clothed, however. Once she was removed from the tub, Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs noticed she wasn’t breathing. Stephanie tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to no avail; Sylvia was dead.
Her body was placed on a filthy, unmade mattress lying on the floor of one of the bedrooms.Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011
Richard Hobbs was directed by Stephanie or Gertrude to call the police; he had to find a pay phone to do so (the Baniszewski house had no phone). Police arrived, and Gertrude feigned distress. She handed over the dictated letter Sylvia had written, hoping it would somehow relieve her of being responsible for the pathetic girl’s body lying on a moldering, bare mattress. She said Sylvia had been absent for a few days, then wandered into the backyard, clutching this epistle. Before the responding officer got the opportunity to read the letter, however, Jenny Likens whispered to him, “Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything.”
[The crime scene photo of Sylvia does not bear out the claim she was bathed this last time with her clothes on. The minimal clothing she wears in the photo is not soaking wet and clinging to her body as would be expected from immersion in a bath. There was a slight delay between the time of Hobbs’ call and police response, but not enough for the clothing to dry as noted in the picture. Her pajama top is not plastered to her skin as a soaked garment would be. It is more probable she was bathed naked. Upon discovering she was dead, her abusers dressed her and placed her on the fetid mattress where she was found. A dead girl in the house was bad enough; to the Baniszewski way of thinking, presumably, a dead, naked girl in the house would be far worse..
On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, deprivations, burnings, and scalding baths, Sylvia Marie Likens died of a brain hemorrhage with brain swelling, compounded by shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin, and malnutrition.
Her autopsy noted two indicators of just how tormented this poor girl was: she had broken each of her fingernails backward in painful clawing, and she had bitten her lower lip so deeply it was partly severed. She was malnourished and emaciated. Her body was not that of a healthy 16-year-old girl. She was covered with bruises and small wounds. Cigarette and match burns numbered over 100 on her skin. Large sore areas of her skin had sloughed away, peeling back like an onion. She had a big number “3” branded on her chest. The ugliest marks, however, were the burned words on her stomach: “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!”
In a unique twist, apparently, no one had raped or otherwise sexually abused Sylvia.
Her hymen was intact (indicating her Coke bottle activities weren’t terribly vigorous). Her genital area was swollen badly, almost completely “healed” closed (from being kicked and punched), but she had none of the tell-tale internal vaginal lacerations consistent with rape. Tests for semen were also negative. [In court testimony, it would be learned that no sexual assaults – oral, anal, or digital – were ever inflicted upon, or required of, Sylvia. This seems unusual that the swine who could so callously use her as a human ashtray and as a punching bag would draw the line at rape, sodomy, and forced fellatio.]
They Didn’t Suffer Enough
At trial the principles all received prison terms, albeit short ones. Some of the minor players, however, had charges against them dismissed.
On May 19, 1966, Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder. Unfortunately, she was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life instead.
Paula, her daughter (who had given birth to a baby girl during the trial that she named “Gertrude” – the baby was adopted out), was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life term.
Richard Hobbs (age 14), Coy Hubbard (age 15), and John Baniszewski (just turned 13) were convicted of manslaughter. They were sentenced to 2- to 21-year terms.
The boys all spent only 18 months to two years in a juvenile correctional facility.
Thanks to pre-trial publicity both Paula and Gertrude Baniszewski were granted another hearing in 1971.
This time Paula pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She was released from custody two years later.
Gertrude, in her re-trial, was convicted again of first-degree murder. She came up for parole in 1985.
There was major public dissonance over her release; she’d served less than 20 years for a horrific crime. Sadly, the parole board felt otherwise, and taking into account her good behavior record while in prison, they cut her loose.
The “injury to person” charges against the juveniles Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John Monroe, and Randy Gordon Lepper were all dropped.
There can be no satisfactory explanation ever for what this family of sadistic white trash and their “friends” did to this girl.
Every member of the Baniszewski clan knew explicitly what was happening in that house was wrong; the only non-guilty party in this mess would be the two-year old Dennis, Jr.
Even the 11-year-old Marie Baniszewski knew what was happening was wrong (she broke on the stand at trial). Every neighborhood puke who went to that house and ever slapped, punched, or pushed Sylvia down the stairs knew what they were doing was wrong, wrong legally and wrong morally.
No one in the trial presented any “reason” for what they did. The delinquents involved mostly pointed their finger at Gertrude as a ringleader, a perverted Pied Piper. The losers that hung around the Baniszewski house took their cues from the “adult” in the scenario (which does not absolve them of responsibility but helps explain their “follow-the-leader” behavior).
Gertrude tried to pretend she was not guilty by reason of insanity (stupidly taking the stand in her own defense, she came off as uncharismatic and combative). She was not “insane” (which is a legal term indicative of diminished capacity, not a medical diagnosis about mental health). Gertrude’s pathology goes toward her own social, economic, mental, and self-worth problems. She was not “insane” by the legal definition (she was found fit to stand trial). She was, certainly, a failure in her own mind.
By any standard, this woman was a failure. She failed as a wife and as a mother (too many kids not properly provided for). Just like the poor white trash of the post-Civil War Deep South taking out their frustrations on freed blacks, so, too, Gertrude would have needed someone to feel better than. Unfortunately, for the pathetic Sylvia Likens, she was Gertrude’s scapegoat.
Gertrude was paranoid about many things, and she also projected her own shortcomings and fears upon Sylvia (more so than Jenny). She constantly accused Sylvia of dishonesty (not predicated upon anything). Sylvia’s mother Betty had shoplifted. Sylvia herself admitted she stole once (a gym suit she needed for school). And, although she was many things, Gertrude could comfort herself knowing she was not a thief (and prior to the horrible acts to follow, she had no criminal history). Gertrude, however, routinely accused Sylvia of stealing, almost zealously, and punished her.
She also claimed repeatedly Sylvia was personally unhygienic (likely reflecting her own lack of cleanliness). Sylvia was dirty. But this is because Gertrude denied her bathing (and later would make her sleep in their filthy basement with their dogs). Sylvia, as a mid-teenaged girl, would have been very particular, perhaps even finicky if given the chance, about her appearance at that age. Being denied proper bathing (especially having to attend school when it was in session) had to be humiliating for a developing young woman.
But the most bizarre accusation against Sylvia (who, upon her death, would be proven a virgin) was that she was promiscuous when it was made clear that it was Gertrude’s own daughter, Paula, who was really the neighborhood slut.
It is possible that one aspect of Gertrude’s torture of Sylvia, at least, had its genesis in her domestic history. Dennis Wright, Gertrude’s shack-up who disappeared after she squeezed out the fruit of his loins, had once stubbed a cigarette out on her neck. This may have incited Gertrude to lead others to use Sylvia as a human ashtray.
Apparently people in 1965 either weren’t very bright or weren’t very willing to take initiative to right a wrong.
Sylvia and Jenny were helpless victims. They actually tried to tell people what was happening to them (their older sister, 19-years-old and married, Diana had been advised early on of the ill-treatment at Gertrude’s hands; she wrote the complaints off as exaggeration and to Jenny and Sylvia being petulant).
A disinterested party, though, entered the picture and did nothing, not once, but three times!
A woman named Phyllis Vermillion needed a babysitter since she worked a night shift job. She knew Gertrude Baniszewski had seven kids and she figured Gertrude might be a good person to baby-sit her children.
She also knew Gertrude had taken in the Likens girls as boarders. Phyllis came to call and as the two women sat drinking coffee the hubbub in the house was bad. Kids yelling, the baby crying – a strange girl, timid and nervous, was noted, and she had a black eye.
Gertrude said the girl’s name was Sylvia, and the fat, pregnant Paula chimed in, “I gave her the black eye.” Just before bragging, Paula had filled a glass with hot water and thrown it at Sylvia. Phyllis elected not to use Gertrude as a babysitter, but more incredibly she did not report the incident to the police.
Early in October, Phyllis visited again socially. She spotted Sylvia (looking dazed) with yet another black eye plus a swollen lip. Paula said she had beaten Sylvia up. A short while later Paula began hitting Sylvia (unresponsive and passive) with a belt. As before, Phyllis left and didn’t bother to call the cops about the abuse. Credit: 1966
Diana Shoemaker (Sylvia’s married, older sister) came to visit. Gertrude obviously couldn’t allow Diana to see the condition Sylvia was in, so she told Diana the Likens adults had given her leave to keep Diana away from the sisters. Diana was adamant to see them; Gertrude threatened to call the police for trespass. Diana lurked near the property long enough for Jenny to come out and say to Diana, “I can’t talk to you, or I’ll get in trouble.” Then Jenny ran off.
Somehow, someone must have said something because a public health nurse showed up at Gertrude’s claiming she’d received a report of a child on the premises with running, open sores. The nurse visited on October 15. She was invited in and talked with Gertrude about her concerns.
Jenny, meanwhile, was in the room with Gertrude and the nurse. She was obviously afraid to speak up in case a rescue was not forthcoming. Gertrude ordered Jenny to go and do dishes, and Jenny went to the kitchen. Gertrude then told the nurse she knew Sylvia was for whom the nurse was looking (with the sores), but “she won’t keep herself clean. I finally kicked her out of the house. She’s not worthy to stay here. She’s a prostitute”. She added, “I don't know where she would be now.” Sylvia, of course, was bound up in the basement at that moment. The nurse left and filed a visitation report that instructed no follow-up was necessary.
Five days before Sylvia’s death Gertrude called the police to her home. A man named Robert Hanlon came over and demanded the return of some things he said her children had stolen from his basement. She told him he was knocking on the wrong door. She then called the police (to have him physically removed from the property -- she couldn’t have him poking in her basement). She said Hanlon had been halfway through one of her windows (he was not). Police took him into custody on a burglary charge.
Phyllis and Ray Vermillion saw this action as they sat parked at the curb at the time. Phyllis was worried Hanlon was being railroaded, so she went over and talked to the cops on his behalf. They actually freed him, but for the third time Phyllis failed to report anything to the police about the Baniszewski goings-on.
There were others, too. A twelve-year-old girl, Judy Duke (a minor accused of “injury to person” in court) described some of the activities at Gertrude’s house one evening as her mother washed dishes. “They were beating and kicking Sylvia something terrible”, the girl reported. “Oh, well, they’re just punishing her, aren’t they?” the mother offered.
A school official finally visited as well as a reverend from Gertrude’s church. Both were given cock-and-bull stories about Sylvia’s running away because she was a prostitute.
Karmic Justice (For Some)
Gertrude assumed the name “Nadine van Fossan” after she was paroled in 1985. She moved to Iowa, where she lived peaceably without negative publicity. She died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990.
At age 21, Richard Hobbs died of cancer. This was four years after his release from a juvenile correction facility.
Gertrude’s son John (calling himself “John Blake”) died in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after a lengthy battle with diabetes on May 19, 2005. He was 52 and left a wife and three children behind.
Coy Hubbard, Stephanie’s boyfriend who practiced “judo” on Sylvia, was in and out of prison in the wake of his release for his part in Sylvia’s death. He had a heart attack and died on June 23, 2007, aged 56. He left a wife and five children, seventeen grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Paula Baniszewski unsuccessfully tried to escape twice from prison in 1971. She was paroled in 1972 and assumed a new identity. She eventually got married and had a couple of kids. She then moved to Iowa (which may explain why her mother, Gertrude, moved to that state after her release from prison since the family had no ties there otherwise). Living under the name Paula Pace, starting in 1998, she was a teacher’s aide, winding up working in Conrad, Iowa. In 2012, an anonymous tipster recognized her smug, albeit elderly (aged 64), face on a social media posting. Recognizing her as one of Sylvia Likens’ primary abusers (and a convicted felon) this tipster told the school district. After learning the truth about Paula Pace the school system dismissed her.
Randy Lepper, aged 56, died November 14, 2010, in Indianapolis.
Stephanie Baniszewski became a school teacher under a new name. She also got married and had several children.
Jenny Likens signed up for a Job Corps training program in 1966. She later found work in a bank. Jenny (by then married and living in Beech Grove, Indiana) saw Gertrude’s obituary in the paper in 1990. She cut it out and sent it to her mother, Betty, annotated: “Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am happy about that.” [Jenny Likens Wade died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004, at the age of 54.]
In 1967, Lester and Betty Likens divorced. Betty died in 1999. She was 71. Among her personal effects was Gertrude’s obituary that Jenny had sent her.
Jenny’s twin brother, Benny Likens, showed signs of mental problems just a few years after Sylvia’s murder. He joined the Army and worked various menial jobs after he got out. He “heard voices”, was diagnosed schizophrenic, and became semi-reclusive. He died four months after his mother, Betty, died. He was only 49. Lester Likens only learned Benny was dead when a letter he’d written Benny was returned stamped, “Deceased”.
Finally, the horror house at 3850 East New York Street in which Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered remained vacant and ramshackle for most of the 40-plus years since the murder. It was finally demolished on April 23, 2009, to make way for a church parking lot.
I first became aware of this case while in college in 1985 when the public outcry against releasing Gertrude from prison arose. Since then I have come to consider the case in the pantheon of (for want of a better term) “classic” murders.
The police evidence photograph (of Sylvia in situ on her moldy mattress) is truly heart-wrenching. For those who have seen, either first-hand or via photographs, the ugliness one human can visit upon another (The Black Dahlia; Jack the Ripper’s last victim Mary Kelley; et al) Sylvia Likens’ image is disturbing beyond what one might ordinarily feel about seeing such a thing.
The reason it is so pitiful and touching is simple: unlike The Black Dahlia or Mary Kelley (in whom we only see the end results) we know exactly what happened to Sylvia, what torments she endured. The sadness and helplessness this poor little girl must have felt is beyond imagining.
This picture has the power to almost bring one to tears. I have seen photos of Holocaust survivors who were in better physical condition than Sylvia Likens is in this image. She is so frail, and so . . . broken. She is emaciated, far too thin for her age. She should have teenage-girl baby-fat on her somewhere, and she does not. She is scrawny, spindly, starved.
Her face is battered (not beyond human recognition, but many scars and burns are evident, and she does not look anything like her most recent school photo). Her split lower lip, where she bit through it, is visible. Her hair appears as if it had been hacked away in clumps (probably pulled out on myriad occasions). She has open sores plainly visible on her arms. She is barefoot. She is wearing what appears to be a pair of thermal long underwear. And she wears a loose-fitting, striped pajama top. The unusual feature is someone placed her arms across her chest (hands over each other near her heart) in the standard “dead body” pose.
I am clinically detached in most things. To date, only one other image has moved me as much as Sylvia’s police photo in evidence.
There is a doll I saw in Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento, California, several years ago. This particular toy is small, a little girl’s plaything, a few inches tall, from the 1800s. What’s moving about this doll (and what actually has the ability to send a slight shiver up the spine) is its owner’s history.
The doll belonged to a little four-year-old girl, and it was the only possession she was able to hang onto as her family, members of the doomed Donner Party, struggled to survive in the wintry Nevada mountains. That little girl managed to keep hold of her dolly during what had to be one of the worst human experiences ever. I’ll probably write about her someday because I am haunted by the vision of that little girl clutching her doll, struggling through the snow and the dead . . . .
So, too, at look at that photo of Sylvia Likens is similarly moving. On some fundamental level all murders are senseless. In her case, it is even more senseless. This girl from a broken home had hurt no one. Her slightly disabled sister was in no position to help. She apparently tried to get on with her tormentors to no avail. Jenny and Sylvia Likens were completely powerless, unwanted by their parents, abandoned, even when Betty and Lester reconciled (and they obviously did reconcile since they visited Gertrude’s together on more than one occasion after dropping their daughters there).
Why didn’t they bring them home?
It is that final image of Sylvia Marie Likens, dead on a filthy mattress, broken in body and spirit, which burns into the mind’s eye.
It hurts the heart.
Read about another crazed, murderous narcissist...
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