The Brutal Murder of Sylvia Likens
Before reading this case, remember that this article is taken from various websites and contains disturbing content.
Sylvia Likens was born January 3, 1949, the third child of five to carnival laborers Lester Cecil Likens and Elizabeth, “Betty,” Frances. Both her older siblings, Diana and Danny, and her younger siblings, Jenny and Benny, were fraternal twins.
Sylvia Likens, 1965 Picture
Their family was needy, and her parent's wedding was rocky. They had financial crises, often shifting from one location to another. It also didn’t help that Jenny had polio. When they had labored with a carnival, Lester and Betty would board Sylvia and Jenny out, often keeping them live with relatives, such as their grandmother, so they could keep up with their schoolwork, and have some understanding of stability. Sylvia would labor to receive money, often babysitting or ironing.
In July 1965
Lester and Betty were separated, and Sylvia and Jenny were residing with their mom. Being in difficult times, their mother chose to shoplift and was consequently charged and imprisoned. A new chance had just come up though with a carnival, and Lester accepted this opportunity to attempt and work on his relationship with Betty. At this time, Diana had moved on and was wedded. Their two boys, Danny and Bennie were staying with their grandparents. That left them with finding somebody different to care for Sylvia and Jenny.
A new friend at the time introduced Mr. and Mrs. Likens to Gertrude Baniszewski, who at the moment, was using the name, Gertrude Wright. Gertrude resided in a large rented home with her 7 children, Paula (17), Stephanie (15), John (12), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and Dennis Lee Wright Jr, who was just a few months old. She soon accepted to bring in and look after Sylvia and Jenny in exchange for $20 a week. Lester understood Gertrude was also needy but was excited to have someone to watch over his girls, and so he didn’t investigate as to the situation of the home, or how the girls would be living.
Things went nicely for the first couple of weeks. The girls spent their days outdoor, in the garden, or listening to records. Sylvia helped around the home, washing plates, and cleaning rooms. But after the second week, when their dad’s cheque for $20 failed to reach, Gertrude took the girls upstairs and punched them, telling, “Well, I took supervision of you two bitches for a week for nothing!” Their dad’s money order for $20 was received the next day.
But actions had already been set in motion, and Gertrude, frail and underweight, struggling from depression as well as other diseases. She held a bitterness, and Sylvia would bear the pressure of her anger.
Whenever Sylvia or Jenny would do anything Gertrude did not approve of, such as cashing in glass soda bottles at the grocery store, she would get out her huge wooden paddle, or heavy leather belt (which had been left behind by an ex-husband, a retired police officer), and hit them. When Gertrude felt too tired, she had her daughter, Paula, step in and take over her beatings.
It wasn’t long before she honed in on only one of the sisters. Gertrude motivated not only her children to torture and abuse Sylvia, but also let in other area children to take part. The children would take turns exercising their judo on Sylvia, frequently hurling her against a wall, testing their chokeholds, and even hitting her unconscious with a broom handle. Gertrude began extinguishing her cigarettes on Sylvia’s skin, and quickly others joined in, with Gertrude watching on, smiling, and instructing them to bigger levels of abuse. Paula used her as a punching bag, knocking her with sufficient force to break the bones in her hand. Once her hand was placed in a plaster cast, she utilized the heavy cast to beat Sylvia even harder.
Gertrude would bring her to take a scalding hot bath so she could be "cleansed of her sins."
Gertrude called Sylvia a whore, saying people that Sylvia was highly promiscuous, and said others she was pregnant. She was brought to strip nude in the living room and do bold acts, including inserting an empty soda bottle into her vagina on at least two different events. Her genital area was beaten and kicked so frequently, that medical examiners were stunned by the number of wounds that area had tolerated.
The torture affected her power to control not only her bladder but also her bowels. When she slept at night, she would wet her mattress, and Gertrude agreed that Sylvia was no longer fit to live with her kids. She was tied and closed in the cellar and kept nude. She was denied the use of a toilet until she understood to quit soiling her mattress. Sylvia was only untied or released when Gertrude or some other juvenile, wanted to abuse her. Both Gertrude’s kids and neighborhood children liked pushing Sylvia down the stairs, so they would continually force her to climb up, then provide her a good shove.
To further abuse and humiliate her, Gertrude solicited the assistance of a community boy, Ricky Hobbs. She wrote out the messages, “I am a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s abdomen. Then she heated needles and started to burn the words into her meat. Then, she instructed Ricky to complete the job. Later, Gertrude would tease her, saying her that she would never marry, because of the messages on her body. She forced Sylvia to post a letter to her parents, "confessing" to doing sexual favors for a group of boys, and accusing them of all her wounds, including the statement on her stomach.
When a social worker called to observe an unidentified report of a "girl with running sores on her body," she was said that Sylvia did have sores all over her body, an outcome of poor personal hygiene. She was also informed that Sylvia had been thrown out of the home because she had become a prostitute. Neighbors later noted hear thumping on the cellar walls, from what they thought was a shovel, yet they did not reveal it until after Sylvia’s death.
Gertrude was formulating a strategy to rid herself of Sylvia for good. She was readying to dump her body in some distant rural area, using the letter as proof of her innocence. She had an excuse prepared, and instructed it to all the children.
It was at this time that she started to be treated with a scary kindness in between sessions of sadistic cruelty. Gertrude would give her sandwiches and crackers, while another would make her taste her urine and eat her feces. She was allowed to return to the upstairs to sleep in a bed, yet she continued tied to the bedposts and was still declined the use of a bathroom. She started again to wet the bed, and then, was beaten for it.
Overhearing Gertrude’s strategy to get rid of her, Sylvia knew that her days were numbered. On October 25, 1965, she made a wild try to escape, but failed and was beaten with a curtain rod in the face and then thrown down the stairs into the cellar. There, she was once again tied up and abused into unconsciousness. When she came to, she wasn’t able to talk intelligibly or walk properly. She wished to escape the cellar but fell into the floor before she even made it to the stairs. When Gertrude discovered her, she crushed her skull with her feet and just sat there, watching her.
On October 26, 1965, Sylvia eventually submitted to her wounds and died. She was just 16 years old. Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs discovered her corpse. Stephanie attempted to give her mouth to mouth resuscitation, but Gertrude screamed at them, saying them Sylvia was just “faking it.” But she wasn’t fooling them, and when Gertrude understood this, she sent Richard to call the police from an available payphone.
Quickly, they put Sylvia in the bath and bathed her up before redressing her and putting her back on her mattress. When the police came, she gave them the letter that she had forced Sylvia to write while she and the kids described the story they had created. Sylvia was mentally ill and promiscuous. She declared that Sylvia returned to the home after a sex session with a group of boys, who then followed her back to the home, injured, and murdered her.
Shocked by the news and Sylvia’s corpse, the police were willing to leave when Jenny approached them and said, “Get me out of here and I’ll inform you everything.” Her testimony, as well as the appearance of Sylvia’s corpse, urged them to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, John, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for homicide. Later, Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe were charged for “injury to a person.”
On May 19, 1966:
Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree homicide and was sentenced to life in jail. She got a new appeal but was once again convicted and sent back to jail. She never expressed any real guilt, and when anyone asked about her explanations, she would tell, “I had to educate her a lesson.” In 1985, Gertrude was released on parole and stayed peacefully under a known name. She died five years later of lung cancer.
Paula Baniszewski was convicted of second-degree homicide and was also sentenced to life in jail.
Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were all convicted of murder and were given 2 -21-year jail sentences.
Sylvia Marie Likens was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Lebanon, Indiana. In June 2001, a six-foot-tall block of granite was dedicated as a tomb to Sylvia in Willard Park.
Sylvia Likens Memorial in Indianapolis, Indiana.