Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny were left in the care of a family friend who tortured Sylvia mercilessly until the young woman died of her extensive, gruesome, injuries.
16-year-old Sylvia Likens was entrusted to a family friend, Gertrude Baniszewski, while her parents traveled. But the caregiver could not, in fact, be trusted.
Gertrude tortured the girl to death, but she didn’t act alone. She managed to involve an entire neighborhood of kids to help her kill Sylvia, including her own seven children, and even Sylvia’s own little sister Jenny.
A Child In The Care Of A Monster
Sylvia’s parents were both carnival workers and were therefore on the road more often than not. They struggled to make ends meet as her father Lester had only an eighth-grade education and a total of five children to care for.
Jenny was quiet and withdrawn with a limp from polio. Sylvia was more confident and went by the nickname “Cookie” and had been described as pretty though she had a missing front tooth.
In July 1965, Lester Likens decided to take up with the carnival again while his wife was jailed for shoplifting that summer. Sylvia’s brothers, Danny and Bennie, were put into the care of their grandparents. With few other options, Sylvia and Jenny were sent to stay with a family friend named Gertrude Baniszewski.
Gertrude was every bit as poor as the Likens and had seven of her own kids to support in her run-down home. She made little cash by charging her neighbors a few dollars to iron their laundry. She’d already been through multiple divorces, some of which resulted in physical abuse against her and dealt with a crippling depression through heavy doses of prescription drugs.
She was in no condition to take care of two teenaged girls. The Likens, though, didn’t think they had any other choice.
Lester Likens cryptically requested that Baniszewski straighten his daughters out,” when he placed them in her care for $20 a week.
The Abuse Begins
For the first two weeks at the Baniszewski’s, Sylvia and her sister were treated kindly enough, though Gertrude’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Paula Baniszewski, seemed to butt heads with Sylvia often. Then one week their father’s payment came in late.
“I took care of you two bitches for two weeks for nothing,” Gertrude spat at Sylvia and Jenny. She grabbed Sylvia by the arm, dragged her into a room, and closed the door. Jenny could only sit outside the door and listen as her sister screamed. The money arrived the following day, but the torture had just begun.
Gertrude soon began to abuse both Sylvia and Jenny in broad daylight. Though a frail woman, Gertrude used a heavy paddle and thick, leather belt from one of her husband’s who had been a cop. When she was too exhausted or too weak to discipline the girls herself, Paula stepped in to take her place. Sylvia, however, soon became the focus of the abuse.
Gertrude Baniszewski demanded that Jenny join in, lest she take her sister’s place as the brunt of the abuse.
Gertrude accused Sylvia of stealing from her and burned the girl’s fingertips. She took her to a church function and force-fed her free hot dogs until she was sick. Then, as punishment for throwing up good food, she forced her to eat her own vomit.
She allowed her children — in fact, encouraged her children — to partake in the abuse of Sylvia and her sister. The Baniszewski kids practiced karate on Sylvia, slammed her into walls and onto the floor. They used her skin as an ashtray, threw her downstairs, and cut open her skin and rubbed salt into her wounds. After this, she would often be “cleansed” in a scalding hot bath.
Gertrude gave sermons on the evils of sexual immortality while Paula stomped on Sylvia’s vagina. Paula, who herself was pregnant, accused Sylvia of being with child and mutilated the girl’s genitals. Gertrude’s 12-year-old son John Jr. delighted in forcing the girl to lick his youngest sibling’s soiled diapers clean.
Sylvia was forced to strip naked and shove an empty Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina while the Baniszewski children watched. Sylvia was so beaten that she was unable to use the bathroom voluntarily. When she wet her mattress, Gertrude decided that the girl was no longer fit to live with the rest of her children.
The 16-year-old was then locked in the basement without food or access to the bathroom.
A Neighborhood Of Abusers
Gertrude spread every story she could imagine to get the local kids to join in on the beatings. She told her daughter that Sylvia had called her a whore and got her daughter’s friends to come over and beat her up for it.
Later during the trial, some of the kids were open about how Gertrude had recruited them. One teenage girl named Anna Siscoe recalled how Gertrude told her that Sylvia had been saying: “She said my mother went out with all sorts of men and got $5.00 for going to bed with the men.”
Anna never bothered to find out if it was true. Gertrude told her, “I don’t care what you do to Sylvia.” She invited over to her home and just watched as Anna threw Sylvia down to the ground, beat her face, and kick her.
Gertrude told her own children that Sylvia was a prostitute. Then she had Ricky Hobbs, a neighborhood boy, and her 11-year-old daughter Marie carve the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into her abdomen with a heated needle.
At one point, Sylvia’s older sister Diana attempted to see the girls under Gertrude’s care but was turned away at the door. Jenny later reported how Diana snuck food into the basement in which Sylvia was hidden. A neighbor had also reported the incidents to a public health nurse who, upon entering the home and not seeing Sylvia for she was locked in a basement, concluded that nothing was wrong. Baniszewski had also managed to convince the nurse that she had kicked the Likens girls out.
Other next-door neighbors allegedly were aware of how Sylvia was abused. They had seen Paula strike the girl in the Baniszewski home on two separate occasions but claimed not to report the abuse because they feared for their own lives. Jenny was threatened, bullied, and beaten by the Baniszewski’s and neighbor girls alike should she go to the authorities.
The abuse of Sylvia continued unhindered, in fact, aided by all those around her.
The Death Of Sylvia Likens
“I’m going to die,” Sylvia told her sister three days before she did. “I can tell.”
Gertrude could tell too and so she forced Sylvia to write a note in which she told her parents that she’d run away. Sylvia was also forced to write that she’d met up with a group of boys and given them sexual favors and afterward, they’d beaten her and mutilated her body.
Shortly after this Sylvia overheard Gertrude Baniszewski tell her children that she was going to take Sylvia to a forest and leave her there to die.
A desperate Sylvia Likens attempted one final escape. She managed to get out the front door before Gertrude caught her. Sylvia was so weak from her injuries she could not have possibly gotten too far. With the assistance of a neighbor boy named Coy Hubbard, Gertrude beat Sylvia with a curtain rod until she fell unconscious. Then, when she came back to, she stomped on her head.
Sylvia was dead by Oct. 26, 1965, from a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition. After three months of torture and starvation, she could no longer form intelligible words and could barely move her limbs.
When the police came, Gertrude stuck with her cover story. Sylvia had been out with boys in the woods, she told them, and they’d beaten her to death and carved “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into her body.
Jenny, though, took her chance. As soon as she could get close enough to a police officer she whispered, “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”
The police arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Neighborhood participants Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe were also arrested for “injury to person.” These minors would blame Gertrude for being pressured to partake in the slaughter of Sylvia Likens.
Gertrude herself pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. “She’s not responsible,” her defense attorney told the court, “because she’s not all here.”
There were several more children involved who proved just too young to be charged.
Ultimately though, on May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was spared the death penalty despite her own lawyer admitting that, “In my opinion, she ought to go to the electric chair.”
Paula Baniszewski, who had given birth to a daughter during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder and was also sentenced to life imprisonment.
Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were all convicted of manslaughter and given two 2-to-21-year prison sentences based on the fact that they were minors. The three boys were all paroled just two years later in 1968.
Gertrude Baniszewski Goes Free
Gertrude spent 20 years behind bars. There was no question about her guilt. The autopsy backed up everything Jenny told the police: Sylvia Likens had died slowly and painfully over several months.
In 1971, both Gertrude and Paula were re-tried to the result that Gertrude was again found guilty. Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two to 21 years. She once even managed to escape despite being recaptured. After about eight years behind bars, Paula was released and she moved to Iowa where she changed her name and became a teacher’s aide.
She was suspended from her position when in 2012 an anonymous caller tipped off the school district that Paula was once convicted of the death of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens.
Gertrude Baniszewski was granted parole on good behavior on Dec. 4, 1985. Jenny and a whole crowd of people picketed outside the prison to protest her release, but it was no use, Gertrude Baniszewski was set free.
The only relief Jenny received came five years after Gertrude’s release when the murderess died of lung cancer. “Some good news,” Jenny wrote to her mother with a copy of the woman’s obituary. “Damn old Gertrude died! Ha ha ha! I am happy about that.”
Jenny never did blame her parents for what happened to her sister. “My mom was a really good mom,” Jenny has said. “All she did was trust Gertrude.”