Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was an American murder victim from Indiana. She was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski (née Van Fossan), Gertrude’s children, and other young people from their neighborhood. Her parents, carnival workers, had left Likens and her sister Jenny in the care of the Baniszewski family three months before her death in exchange for $20 a week. Baniszewski, two of her children, Paula and John, and two neighbor youths, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were charged and convicted of the crime. Her torture and murder were described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski’s trial as “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana.
Sylvia Likens was the third child of carnival workers Betty and Lester Likens. She was born between two sets of fraternal twins, Diana and Daniel (two years older), and Jenny and Benny (one year younger). The Likens’ marriage was unstable and the family moved many times. Sylvia was often boarded out or forced to live with relatives while her parents were working.
Sylvia baby-sat and did ironing; these were, coincidentally, the same jobs Gertrude Baniszewski held. Sylvia’s favorite rock group was The Beatles. During her early time with the Baniszewski family, she would sing to Stephanie Baniszewski, one of Gertrude’s daughters, who would return the favour.
Sylvia and Jenny had known no fewer than 14 addresses because the family moved so frequently. In the past, they had been left at a grandmother’s house or boarded out when their parents were traveling with a carnival, in hopes that the girls’ education would not suffer.
In 1965, Sylvia and her sister Jenny, who was disabled from polio, were living with their mother in Indianapolis when Betty was arrested and jailed for shoplifting. Lester Likens, who had recently separated from his wife, arranged for his daughters to board with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of Paula, a girl with whom the Likens girls had recently become acquainted. Although Gertrude and her seven children were poor, Lester, as he reported in the trial, “didn’t pry” into the condition of the house, and encouraged Baniszewski to “straighten his daughters out”. He agreed to pay her twenty dollars a week.
Baniszewski, described by the Indianapolis Star as a “haggard, underweight asthmatic suffering from depression and the stress of several failed marriages, began taking her anger out on the Likens girls, beating them with paddles after payments from their parents failed to arrive on time.
Soon, Baniszewski focused her abuse on Sylvia; accusing her of stealing candy that she had bought from a grocery store, and humiliating her when she admitted that she had once had a boyfriend. She kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant. Paula Baniszewski, who actually was pregnant at the time, became enraged and knocked Likens onto the floor. Likens became convinced that she was pregnant, although medical examination proved that she was not and could not have been.
Likens was then falsely accused of spreading rumours through Arsenal Technical High School that Stephanie and Paula were prostitutes. That supposedly provoked Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Likens. Mrs. Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard and other neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things, putting cigarettes out on her skin and forcing her to remove her clothes and insert a glass Pepsi-Cola bottle into her vagina on at least two occasions.
After beating Sylvia to get her to admit to stealing from school a gym suit which Baniszewski would not buy for her, and without which she was unable to attend gym class, Baniszewski kept her out of school and did not allow her to leave the house. When Likens urinated in her bed, a situation likely caused by damage done to her kidneys by the severe beatings administered by Baniszewski and her children, she was locked in the cellar and forbidden to use the toilet. Later, she was forced to consume feces and urine. Shortly before Sylvia died, Baniszewski began to carve the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” into Sylvia’s stomach with a heated needle, although Richard Hobbs finished the carving when Baniszewski was unable to do so. Hobbs, with the help of 10-year old Shirley Baniszewski, also used a heated eyebolt to burn the number “3″ into Sylvia’s chest.
Likens attempted to escape a few days before her death after overhearing Baniszewski’s plan to have her dumped in a wooded area nearby, but was caught by Baniszewski as she reached the front door. As punishment, she was tied in the basement and given only crackers to eat. On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, she died of a brain haemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition.
When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Sylvia was not breathing, Stephanie attempted to give Sylvia mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before realizing that it was hopeless and that Sylvia was dead.
Stephanie Baniszewski sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby payphone. When they arrived, Gertrude handed them a letter she had forced Sylvia to write a few days previously, addressed to her parents. This letter stated that she had agreed to have sex with a group of boys in exchange for money, they had dragged her away in their car, beaten her up, burned her multiple times, and carved the inscription into her skin. Before the police left, however, Jenny Likens approached them, saying: “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”
During the highly publicised trial, Baniszewski denied responsibility for the death, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. She claimed that she was too distracted by her ill health and depression to control her children. Attorneys for the young people on trial (Paula and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard) claimed that they had been pressured by Baniszewski. When Marie Baniszewski, Gertrude’s 11-year-old daughter, was called to the stand as a witness for the defence, she broke down and admitted that she had been forced to heat the needle with which Hobbs had carved Likens’ skin, and that she had seen her mother beating and forcing Sylvia into the basement. In his closing statement, Baniszewski’s lawyer said: “I condemn her for being a murderess… but I say she’s not responsible because she’s not all here!” and tapped his head.
On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder, but was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Her daughter Paula, who had given birth to a daughter named Gertrude during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder and also given a life term. Hobbs, Hubbard and John Baniszewski were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 2-to-21-year terms.
The boys would spend two years in prison. In 1971, Paula and Gertrude Baniszewski were granted another trial. Paula pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released two years later. Gertrude, however, was again convicted of first-degree murder. She came up for parole in 1985, and despite a public outcry and petitions against her release, the parole board took her good behavior in prison into account, and she was set free.
Gertrude Baniszewski changed her name to Nadine van Fossan and moved to Iowa, where she died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990. When Jenny Likens, who was then married and living in Beech Grove, Indiana, saw her obituary in the newspaper, she clipped it out and mailed it to her mother with the note: “Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am happy about that.” Jenny Likens Wade died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004, at the age of 54. The house at 3850 East New York Street in which Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant and run-down for much of the 44 years since the murder, and was finally demolished on April 23, 2009. It is planned for the property to become a church parking lot.
After the Westside Middle School massacre, John Baniszewski, now known as John Blake, made a statement claiming that young criminals are not beyond help and describing how he had turned his life around.
Sylvia with her mom
Jenny Likens-Sylvia’s sister