Sylvia Likens, 16, was entrusted to a family friend, Gertrude Baniszewski, while her parents were travelling. In reality, the caregiver could not be trusted.
Gertrude tortured the girl to death, but she didn’t act on her own. She managed to include a whole neighbourhood of children to help her kill Sylvia, including her own seven children, and even Sylvia’s little sister, Jenny.
A Child In The Care Of A Monster
Sylvia’s parents were also carnival staff, who were on the road far more often. They lived in poverty, as her father Lester had an only eighth-grade education and a total of five children to take care of.
Jenny was calm and recovered from polio with a limp. Sylvia Likens was more optimistic and went by the nickname “Cookie” and was portrayed as pretty because she had a missing front tooth.
In July 1965, Lester Likens wanted to go back to the carnival when his wife was jailed for shoplifting that summer. The brothers of Sylvia Likens, Danny and Bennie, were put in the care of their grandparents.
With few other choices, Sylvia and Jenny were sent to stay with Gertrude Baniszewski, a family friend.
Gertrude was as bad as the Likens and had seven of her children in her run-down home to help. She made little cash by asking a few bucks for her neighbours to iron their laundry. She has previously undergone several divorces, some of which culminated in physical abuse of her and managed a debilitating depression with large doses of prescription medications.
She couldn’t look after two teenage girls. However, the Likens thought they had no option.
Lester Likens obliquely requested Baniszewski for $20 a week to straighten his daughters out.
The Abuse Begins
Sylvia and her sister were treated kindly for the first two weeks at the Baniszewski but Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula Baniszewski, 17, always seemed to knock on Sylvia’s head. Then a week late came their dad’s check.
Gertrude spat on Sylvia and Jenny: “I’ve taken care of two bitches for two weeks for nothing. She took Sylvia by arm, pulled her to the bed, and shut the door. Just outside the entrance, Jenny could listen as her sister yelled. The money came the next day, but the abuse just began.
Soon Gertrude started abusing Jenny and Sylvia in the open. While a frail girl, Gertrude used a thick, strong paddle from one of her husband’s who had been the police. Paula went in to take her place when she was too tired or too weak to handle the girls. However, Sylvia quickly became an abuse target.
Gertrude Baniszewski called for Jenny to enter, lest she is the object of violence in taking her sister’s place. Gertrude Baniszewski has asked Jenny to join, lest she takes the place of her sister as the brunt of the violence.
Gertrude accused Sylvia Likens of stealing from her and burned the fingertips of the girl. 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 vomit.
She allowed her children to engage in the abuse of Sylvia and her sister — she encouraged her children. The kids of Baniszewski practised karate on Sylvia, throwing her against walls and to the ground. They used her skin as an ashtray, tossed her downstairs, sliced open her skin and covered her wounds with salt. She will also be “cleansed” in a deep scalding bath following this.
Gertrude delivered sermons on the evils of sexual immortality as Paula stomped on the vagina of Sylvia. Paula, who was pregnant herself, accused Sylvia of having a child and mutilated the genitals of the girl. Gertrude’s twelve-year-old son John Jr. was happy to compel the girl to clean the soiled diapers of his younger brother.
Sylvia Likens was asked to strip nude and stuff an empty bottle of Coca-Cola into her vagina while the Baniszewski kids were watching. Sylvia was so battered she could not willingly use the toilet. When Gertrude wet her mattress, she decided the girl was no longer fit to live with the rest of her kids. The 16-year-old was then locked into the basement with no food or bathroom access.
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 had friends of her daughter come over and beat her up for it.
Some of the kids were later opened up during the trial about how Gertrude had hired them. One teenage girl named Anna Siscoe remembered how Gertrude told her that Sylvia Likens had said: “She said my mother went out with all kinds of men and got $5.00 for going to bed with the men.”
Anna never tried to work out if that was real. Gertrude said, “I don’t know what you’re doing to Sylvia.”
She welcomed her home and saw Anna tossing Sylvia down to the ground, hitting her face and kicking her.
Gertrude told her children that Sylvia Likens was a prostitute. Then Ricky Hobbs, a neighbourhood child, and her 11-year-old daughter, Marie, carved the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” into her abdomen with a heated needle.
At one point, Sylvia’s older sister, Diana, tried to see the girls under Gertrude’s care but turned away from the entrance. Jenny later mentioned how Diana snuck food into the basement where Sylvia had been hiding. A neighbour also reported the events to a public health nurse who, upon entering the home and not seeing Sylvia Likens because she was trapped in a cellar, concluded that nothing was wrong.
Baniszewski even tried to persuade the nurse she had thrown out the Likens girls.
Even next-door neighbours were also aware of how Sylvia was violated. They saw Paula hit the girl at Baniszewski ‘s home on two different occasions but decided not to report the violence because they feared for their own lives. Jenny was harassed, abused, and beaten by Baniszewski ‘s neighbours and children if she were to go to the authorities. Sylvia’s violence proceeded unhindered, actively helped by all those around her.
The Death Of Sylvia Likens
“I’m going to die,” Sylvia told her sister three days in advance. “I could tell.”
Gertrude could say, too, and so she forced Sylvia to write a note telling her parents she would run away. Sylvia was also forced to write that she met a group of boys and gave them sexual favours, beating her and mutilating her body afterwards.
Shortly after this Sylvia Likens overheard Gertrude Baniszewski tell her children she’d take Sylvia to a forest and leave her there to die.
A desperate Sylvia Likens has sought one final escape. She managed to get out of the front door before she trapped Gertrude. From her injuries, Sylvia Likens was so frail that she could not get too far. With the aid of a neighbouring boy named Coy Hubbard, Gertrude beat Sylvia with a curtain rod until she became unconscious. She then stomped on her head as she came back to her.
Sylvia Likens died of a brain haemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition by Oct. 26, 1965. She could no longer form intelligible sentences after three months of torment and malnutrition, and could scarcely move her limbs.
Gertrude had stuck with her cover story when the police came in. She told them that Sylvia Likens had been out with boys in the woods and they’d beat her to death and carved “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into her body.
Jenny did take her chance, however. She muttered “Let me out of here and I’m going to tell you everything” as soon as she was able to get close enough to a police officer.
Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard were arrested for murder by police. Also arrested neighbourhood participants like Randy Lepper, Mike Monroe, Judy Duke, Darlene McGuire and Anna Siscoe for “injury to person.” These juveniles would blame Gertrude for being forced to take part in the Sylvia Likens slaughter.
Gertrude pleaded herself not guilty for insanity. “She is not liable,” her defence lawyer said to the court, “because she’s not all here.”
Several more children were involved who were far too young to be prosecuted.
Ultimately, however, on 19 May 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of murder at first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was spared the death penalty despite her lawyer agreeing that “In my view, she should go to the electric chair.”
Paula Baniszewski, who bore a daughter during the trial, was accused of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment as well.
Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard and John Baniszewski Jr. were all convicted of manslaughter and given two sentences of two to twenty-one years in jail because they were juveniles. The three boys had all been paroled in 1968 just two years later.
Richard Hobbs and Gertrude during Trial
Press photographer Joe Young / Public domain
Gertrude Baniszewski Goes Free
Gertrude lived behind bars for 20 years. Her remorse remained unquestioned. Everything that Jenny told the police was backed up by autopsy: Sylvia Likens had died slowly and painfully over several months.
Gertrude and Paula were both re-tried in 1971 to the effect that Gertrude was found guilty again. Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser crime of intentional murder and was sentenced to between two and 21 years. Despite being recaptured, she even managed to escape once. Paula was released after about eight years behind bars, and she moved to Iowa, where she changed her name and became a teacher’s aide.
She was removed from her job after an anonymous caller tipped off the school in 2012 that Paula was once convicted of Sylvia Likens’ murder.
Parole on good behaviour was given to Gertrude Baniszewski on 4 Dec. 1985. Jenny and a whole crowd of people selected to protest her release outside the jail, but it was no use, Gertrude Baniszewski was set free.
Five years after Gertrude was released, Jenny’s only relief came when the assassin died of lung cancer. “Some good news,” Jenny sent a copy of the woman’s obituary to her mother. “Damn old Gertrude died! Haha haha! I’m happy about that.’
Jenny never blamed her parents for what happened to her sister. Jenny said, “My mom was a really good mom. All she did was trust Gertrude.”