The Torture and Murder of Sylvia Likens
The teenager endured months of sickening abuse before she was killed by the people who were supposed to look after her.
The autopsy of the sixteen-year-old girl from Indiana read like that of a horror movie. Her skin had receded, and she had open wounds nearly down to the bone. She had endured massive internal injuries, and perhaps worst of all, her abusers had carved “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” into her stomach.
Sylvia Likens had been brutally abused by the woman who promised her parents she’d look after her, and she wasn’t the only one who took part in the torture — there was an entire community of people behind the cruelty.
Sylvia and her sister Jenny were sent to live with Gertrude Baniszewski in July 1965. Their parents, Lester and Betty, were in desperate need of money and had joined the travelling carnival, which was no place for children. Sylvia’s brothers had gone to live with their grandparents and older sister, Dianna, was married and already lived elsewhere.
Betty Likens had met Gertrude at the school all the children attended, and she’d agreed to take the girls in for $20 a week. After all, she already had seven of her own children; what difference would two more make?
The first two weeks of the sisters’ new life went without any significant issues. Fifteen-year-old Jenny had polio and wore a leg brace, so Sylvia offered to help around the Baniszewski house, making sure the chores were done for both of them. There was little discipline and the girls fitted into the family well, regularly attending church and Sunday school with Gertrude’s children, Paula, 17, Stephanie, 15, John, 12, Marie, 11, Shirley, 10, James, eight, and Dennis Lee Wright Jr. who was one.
The problems began when the $20 for their room and board was late. Gertrude began beating the girls with a paddle when the payments failed to arrive on their pre-agreed day. Jenny and Sylvia were beaten fifteen times with the paddle one day in August because Gertrude’s oldest daughter, Paula, had told her mother that the two girls had overeaten that day.
The abuse quickly escalated, and soon Sylvia was the main focus of Gertrude’s wrath. The mother of seven was only 36 years old, and it’s believed she was jealous of the young teenager, as was Paula, who was almost the same age as Sylvia, but overweight and already pregnant.
Sylvia was often starved and then force-fed food to the point where she’d vomit and then be forced to eat the regurgitated contents. Paula once struck Sylvia in the face with such force that she broke her wrist in the process, and once the cast was dry, she used it as a weapon.
The abuse by Gertrude and Paula was horrific, and it wasn’t long until others began treating Sylvia the same way. Fifteen-year-old Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, and his friends from the neighbourhood were often around the Baniszewski’s house and spent their weekends and evenings tormenting Sylvia, too. Soon after, Gertrude began encouraging them to beat the girl and use her as a dummy to practise their martial arts.
Seemingly invigorated by other people joining in the torture, Gertrude forced Sylvia to strip naked in the living room and masturbate with a glass bottle in front of Coy Hubbard and his friends. Soon after, Sylvia was forbidden from attending school and was subjected to having her fingers burned and kicked in the genitals for the ‘evils’ of sex before marriage, something she wasn’t participating in.
The children’s parents never knew about the abuse. When they came to visit their daughters, the girls were told to never speak about their lives at the Baniszewski house, or they’d receive further beatings.
In September, just two months after the girls were sent to live with Gertrude, Sylvia and Jenny met their older sister, Dianna, in a park. They told her about the abuse, but Dianna believed her little sisters were embellishing their situation and did nothing with the information they’d given her.
They met her a second time while they were with one of Gertrude’s younger daughters, Marie. They said nothing of their torture to Dianna, which Marie told her mother, yet Sylvia and Jenny were given scalding hot baths because they’d eaten a sandwich at the park. Sylvia fainted from the heat, and Gertrude proceeded to slam her head against the cast-iron bathtub to wake her up.
A man from the neighbourhood did eventually call the school, reporting that there was a girl in Gertrude’s house that was being abused, but Gertrude refuted the claims, saying that Sylvia was ‘out of control’ and that she’d run away from home. The school didn’t follow up. Gertrude’s other neighbours likewise didn’t report her behaviour to the police or the school, despite seeing the abused girl in her care.
Because of the cruelty Sylvia had been continuously enduring, she’d become incontinent, which angered Gertrude further. Sylvia was tied up in the basement on the 6th of October, where she stayed until her final days.
While down there, she was given little food or water and was forced to wet herself and use the corners of the dark room as a toilet. Children in the neighbourhood would pay five cents to see Sylvia for themselves. The broken, burned and scarred body of the teenager who lay in the house’s basement was a sight to behold to a curious child.
Because of Gertrude’s slight frame, she often sought help from the neighbourhood children, who would help her restrain Sylvia and put her in scalding baths, where Gertrude would rub salt into the sores that covered the teenager’s body.
On the 23rd of October, Sylvia’s abuse escalated, and her body was branded. “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” was carved into her stomach with a needle heated over a flame. Though Gertrude wasn’t able to finish the brand, she got one of the children from the neighbourhood to help her, and fourteen-year-old Richard Hobbs stepped in to complete the carving.
Once he finished, he and Gertrude’s ten-year-old daughter, Shirley, heated a bolt and tried to burn an “S” into Sylvia’s left breast. The burn was deep and resembled a “3” at her autopsy. She was then paraded around the neighbourhood, where Gertrude claimed she got the carving at a sex party.
Sylvia knew she was dying. A mixture of internal bleeding, dehydration, starvation and shock had made her weak, and she confided in her sister that she didn’t have long left to live. She attempted to escape from the house on the 25th of October, but she didn’t make it to the door before Gertrude stopped her.
The next and final day of Sylvia’s life was only slightly different from the three months before it.
Sylvia had lost the ability to speak correctly, and she was delirious. She was now fully incontinent, and in a bid to clean her up, twelve-year-old John Jr. hosed Sylvia down while he laughed at her. She tried to escape from the basement, but Gertrude caught her at the bottom of the stairs and stamped on her head.
The only one who gave Sylvia any solace in her last hours was Richard Hobbs, her engraver, who gave her a warm bubble bath and dressed her in clean clothes. Sylvia was laid on a mattress in a bedroom, where she never woke up again. She was just sixteen years old.
Days earlier, Gertrude had forced Sylvia to write a letter, knowing that she would die soon. The letter claimed that Sylvia had run away and that boys from the neighbourhood were her torturers. Gertrude’s last attempt to deflect any blame was to cover Sylvia’s dead body in rubbing alcohol.
When the police arrived, Gertrude told them that Sylvia had returned home that day in her bloody and dying state, and Gertrude had tried to nurse her. Everyone present was questioned, including Paula, who told police that Sylvia’s death was “meant to happen”. She also told Jenny that she was welcome to continue living with the family.
Though Jenny Likens was only fifteen years old, she would be instrumental in getting these monsters arrested. After she told police her pre-agreed statement, written by Gertrude, she said to the officer, “You get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”
Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, Coy Hubbard, Richard Hobbs and John Jr were arrested for Sylvia’s murder after Jenny’s accurate statement was given to officers. Five children from the neighbourhood were also arrested for their involvement.
Only during the autopsy were doctors able to see the extent of Sylvia’s injuries. She had over 150 wounds, including the carving into her stomach. She had a hole in her right wrist that went almost to the bone, likely from a lit cigarette, and her fingernails were broken. She’d also bitten through her lips when she died, almost separating them from her face. Overall, her cause of death was given as a subdural hematoma to her right temple, alongside shock, injuries and malnourishment.
Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life in prison on the 25th of May 1966. Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard and John Baniszewski Jr. were given 2- 21 years in prison at the Indiana Reformatory due to their ages.
Gertrude and Paula were retried in September 1971 due to not receiving a fair trial. This time, Paula pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was eventually released in December 1972, despite numerous escape attempts. She changed her name to Paula Pace and became a teacher’s aid in Iowa. In 2012, she was fired when the school found out her real identity.
The daughter she gave birth to in 1966 was put up for adoption, and Paula later went on to have two children with her husband.
Gertrude received another first-degree murder charge and would spend the next fourteen years in Indiana Women’s prison, where she was described as a ‘den mother’. Despite angry protests collecting over 40,000 signatures to stop her parole, Gertrude was released in December 1985, changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa. She died from lung cancer in 1990, at 61 years of age.
Fifteen-year-old Stephanie was never charged with the murder of Sylvia Likens. Instead, she turned state’s witness and was released, eventually moved to Florida. She changed her name to Stephanie Serikstad and had several children of her own. Gertrude’s other children were placed in foster care temporarily and then put in their father’s custody.
Jenny Likens went on to marry and had two children of her own. She spent years on medication due to anxiety from watching her sister’s torture and eventual murder. She doesn’t blame her parents for what happened during their childhood.
A six feet tall memorial stands in Willard Park, Indianapolis, in memory of Sylvia Likens. The Indianapolis Police Department now commit to helping children and keeping the city safe for them.
The plaque on the memorial reads:
“I see a light; hope. I feel a breeze; strength. I hear a song; relief. Let them through for they are the welcome ones.”
Sylvia Likens was just sixteen years old when she died. After enduring months of abuse, torture and humiliation, her body eventually gave up. This wasn’t just abuse from a family member as we saw in Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”; thiswas torture from a neighbourhood that didn’t care about a person’s life.
Many people could have stepped in to prevent Sylvia’s abuse, but no one dared stop a grown woman from taking out her frustration on a child because she was jealous.
It’s been 56 years since Sylvia’s death, and things have changed because of her murder. If you suspect a child is being abused in Indiana, it’s now your lawful duty to report the abuse.
The Indiana Torture Slaying A republication of the 1965 Bee-Line Books nonfiction thriller that shocked the world: The story of how Gertrude…books.google.com Family and friends mark 50-year anniversary of Sylvia Likens' death INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (October 26, 2015) - It was called the most terrible crime ever committed in Indiana. On Sunday…webcache.googleusercontent.com https://web.archive.org/web/20120930100521/http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/18.html