It has been the most enduring nightmare in Indianapolis
True Crime history -- the Oct. 26, 1965 torture-murder
of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens.
Other crimes have involved a greater number of
victims, often including children, but the villains in
those stories were hardened criminals or madmen, and
their acts of violence played out rapidly within a span
of minutes or hours. In the aftermath of grief and anger
good people could at least comprehend the chain of
events that had just unfolded.
On the surface, the Likens murder is not much
different from any number of heinous crimes. It was a
Cinderella story without the happy ending -- a teenage
girl left under the care of a strict authoritarian whose
idea of discipline is physical abuse that escalates
until the abuse victim dies. If that was the extent of
it, this case would likely have been lost to history
long ago like so many other long-forgotten murders.
This case was somehow more disturbing than other
crimes, perhaps because:
* The abuse was carried out not just by the caregiver
-- the notorious Gertrude Baniszewski -- but also by her
own children, some as young as 10, and by other children
in the neighborhood. For weeks, even months, the torture
of Sylvia Likens was casual entertainment, something to
do in the afternoon before dinner and favorite TV shows.
At least a dozen children participated or at least
watched, and none felt sufficiently disturbed to tell
their own parents.
* Other adults occasionally came to the Baniszewski
house for various reasons and saw Sylvia's battered
appearance. None pushed to be sure she was safe.
* Sylvia herself and her younger sister Jenny had
opportunities to tell adults at school or church -- they
even had adult relatives living nearby. Neither said a
word because, as Jenny would later explain, they thought
it would only make things worse. Neither could conceive
of the possibility that authorities would move to
protect them, remove them from the house or arrest their
Arrests did come, but only after it was over. On Oct.
26, 1965, Indianapolis police were called to 3850 E. New
York St. where Sylvia's body lay on a mattress.
Baniszewski told them the girl had been attacked by a
gang of boys and she even produced a note written in
Sylvia's own hand that seemed to confirm that story. But
the cops could tell by the condition of the victim that
this had been no single incident. Sylvia's body was
malnourished and covered with sores, burns and bruises,
many of them old. She had been branded in one spot by a
hot metal object, and the words "I am a prostitute" had
been etched on her stomach.
How it began:
Sylvia came from a large, poor family from southern
Boone County, just northwest of Indianapolis. Her
father, Lester Likens, had only an eighth grade
education and worked a lot of different jobs to make a
living. He'd had a laundry route, worked in factories
and had even owned a small restaurant, though
unsuccessfully. He had also traveled with carnivals
selling food from a concession cart, and it was to this
work to which he and his wife decided to return in the
summer of 1965.
That meant finding someone to watch four of their
children. The oldest, Diana, was grown and married. The
two boys, Danny and Bennie, were placed with their
grandparents, and that left the girls, Sylvia and Jenny.
Jenny was shy, insecure and limped from childhood
polio. Sylvia was outwardly more confident and went by
the nickname "Cookie". She was pretty, but always kept
her mouth closed when she smiled because she had a
missing front tooth.
A mutual friend introduced the Likens to Gertrude
Baniszewski (then briefly going by the name Gertrude
Wright), who lived in a big rented house at the corner
of East New York and Denny, and was willing to look
after Jenny and Sylvia for $20 a week.
Gertrude was already caring for seven of her own
children -- Paula, 17, John, 12, Stephanie, 15, Marie,
11, Shirley, 10, and James and Dennis , 18 months. The
six oldest children all had the last name Baniszewski
because their father was Gertrude's ex-husband John
Baniszewski. The youngest child, Dennis, had the last
name of his father, Dennis Wright. Gertrude said he was
in Germany serving in the Army.
From the beginning there was a clash between Sylvia
and Gertrude's 17-year-old daughter, Paula, and this was
the seed of what grew in that house during the months of
July through October, 1965.
Then one day the money order from Sylvia's parents
didn't show up on the day Gertrude was expecting it.
Jenny later testified Gertrude "took us upstairs … and
she slapped me, and said, ' Well, I took care of you two
b___ for a week for nothing." The money order arrived
the next day, but the key had been turned.
Gertrude was frail and underweight, but she had two
weapons she used for corporal punishment -- a
fraternity-style paddle and a thick leather belt left
behind by her ex-husband, John Baniszewski -- an
Indianapolis police officer.
Gertrude began using the paddle on Sylvia and Jenny
for various offenses such as exchanging soft drink
bottles for change at a nearby grocery. When she
suspected Sylvia of stealing she used matches to burn
the girl's fingers.
Sometimes Gertrude felt too weak from her asthma to
discipline the girls properly so 17-year-old Paula
Neighborhood children began to crowd the home to
participate in the torture. The children took turns
practicing their judo on Sylvia, hurling her against a
wall. Some began kicking and beating her. Others
extinguished their cigarettes on her skin. As Gertrude
and a gang of teen-agers watched, Sylvia was forced to
undress in the living room and insert an empty Coke
bottle into her vagina.
After the beatings, Sylvia was forced into a scalding
hot bath so she would be "cleansed of her sins." She was
severely beaten and burned for wetting her mattress
while asleep and Gertrude decided that Sylvia was no
longer fit to live with her children.
Near the end, Sylvia was no longer permitted to leave
the house. She was thrown down the cellar stairs and
locked in, given crackers for food and refused the right
to use a bathroom. Gertrude Baniszewski announced to her
children that Sylvia was a "prostitute, and she's proud
of it; so we'll just put it on her stomach." She took a
large needle and began to carve the words "I'm a
prostitute and proud of it!" into Sylvia's stomach.
Richard Hobbs, a neighbor boy, finished the etching.
When Baniszewski realized Sylvia might be dying, she
forced her to write a note saying a gang of boys beat
her. The plan was to blindfold her and dump her in
nearby woods with the note. Sylvia tried to escape but
Gertrude and one of the boys stopped her, beating her
again and throwing her back into the basement.
Sylvia Likens died Oct. 26, 1965. Cause of death was
determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging
of the brain and shock induced by Sylvia's extensive
skin damage. Sylvia also suffered from extreme
malnutrition. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in
The Baniszewski trial - May 1966
At her trial the following year, Baniszewski denied
any knowledge of the torture, claiming the children must
have done it all. She entered pleas of not guilty and
not guilty by reason of insanity.
On May 19, 1966, a jury found Baniszewski guilty of
first-degree murder while Paula Baniszewski was found
guilty of second-degree murder. Hobbs, along with
Baniszewski's son John and another neighborhood boy, Coy
Hubbard, were convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and
Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life terms at the
Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. The boys were
sentenced to two-to-21-year terms at the Indiana State
Reformatory in Pendleton.
In 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Gertrude
and Paula Baniszewski a new trial due to "prejudicial
atmosphere", but Gertrude was again convicted of
first-degree murder on Aug. 5, 1971. Paula pleaded
guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and
served about two years in prison. The three boys were
released on parole for good behavior in 1968, after
serving about two years each of their sentences.
In September 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski was released
on parole. She changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and
moved to Iowa where she lived in obscurity until her
death from lung cancer on June 16, 1990. Paula married
and moved to a farm in Iowa.
John became a lay minister in Texas and counseled
children of divorced parents.
Hobbs died of cancer at the age of 21, four years
after being released from the reformatory. Hubbard has
had several brushes with the law. Lester and Betty
Likens divorced. Betty remarried and died in 1998 at age
71. Jenny Likens Wade died in 2004 at age 54.