The torture/murder of Sylvia Likens

MC Extra Dollop

Brownlow Medallist
Aug 17, 2006
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It has been called the most horrific crime carried out against a single person in the history of Indiana. No small statement, considering this state was considered a power base for the KKK, when it was at its strongest. But the torture and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, by the woman who was responsible for caring for her, the lack of attention by multiple adults (including Sylvia’s parents), who could have prevented the abuse and perhaps most of all, the outward-projection of the personal insecurities of the mob who attacked her, that made this crime particularly shocking and sad.

Sylvia Likens was 16 when she died in October 1965. Her parents were carnival workers, who had separated. Sylvia was the middle child, split between two sets of boy/girl twins. With her younger sister, Jenny (disabled due to polio), Sylvia lived with her mother after the separation. In July of 1965, The Likens’ mother went to jail for shoplifting. Having gone with another friend to the house of Paula Baniszewski (who went to school with Sylvia), Sylvia and Jenny were found there when their father came looking for them.

The Likens’ parents had decided to reconcile and were going to travel with a carnival, so they needed someone to look after Sylvia and Jenny. Lester Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski came to an agreement that she would look after the girls for $20 a week. When asked how he could allow his girls to stay in such squalid conditions (there was no stove, not enough beds for even the existing occupants and a total of three spoons in the house), Lester’s later account that he didn’t pry, seems disturbingly inadequate. A warning to Gertrude to make sure the girls stayed in line, because ‘their mother lets them get away with anything’ is also disturbing, when put into the context of what followed.

The abuse started quickly and escalated quickly. The first payment of board was late. Gertrude abused the girls and beat them with a paddle. Next, Paula Baniszewski told Gertrude at the dinner table that Sylvia had eaten more than her fair share at a church supper one day. As punishment, she given a frankfurt, loaded with every condiment in the house and forced to eat it. When she subsequently vomited, she was forced to eat that, as well. The Likens’ parents came to visit and noticed nothing amiss.

Sylvia later made the mistake of talking about how she had been under the covers with a boyfriend once. From then on she was regarded as a whore. Gertrude regularly kicked her in the groin and her children followed suit in physically abusing the Likens girls, with Sylvia’s body quickly becoming covered in cigarette burns. A neighbour was looking for someone to babysit her children at one stage and went to the Baniszewski’s house. Sylvia had a black eye, which Paula Baniszewski eagerly took credit for. Then she grabbed a glass of hot water and threw it at Sylvia. The woman looked elsewhere for her babysitter, but didn’t report the abuse to anyone.

Coming from a poor family, the Likens girls often rummaged through garbage for empty soft drink bottles to return for the deposit to make money. One day, when Sylvia was carrying some money, Gertrude surmised that she had either been stealing or prostituting herself. In front of a house full of kids, she forced Sylvia to strip naked and perform a strip tease. Then she made her put a glass soft drink bottle into her vagina. When Gertrude’s daughter, Stephanie, walked in on this, she hit Sylvia and ordered her to her room. That night, she wet her bed. From then on, she was forced to live in the basement, without a toilet, with dried biscuits as her only meal. When she defecated, she was forced to eat it.
 

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MC Extra Dollop

Brownlow Medallist
Aug 17, 2006
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Jenny and Sylvia tried to tell their older sister, Diana, about what had been going on. She dismissed them, assuming that they had been exaggerating. When Diana again came to visit her younger sisters, shortly before Sylvia’s death, Gertrude refused to let her see Sylvia and Jenny and threatened to call the police, if she did not leave. Less than two weeks before Sylvia’s death, a public health nurse visited the house, responding to an anonymous report that there was a girl at the residence covered in multiple sores and bruises. Gertrude responded that Sylvia was a prostitute and she had been kicked out of her house. Meanwhile, Sylvia was locked in the basement below.

Another neighbour, Robert Hanlon, knocked on Baniszewski’s door five days before Sylvia’s death, he demanded to be let in to retrieve some items that he accused the Baniszewski children of stealing. Gertrude called the police on him, saying she had caught him attempting to break into her house. The neighbour who had scouted Gertrude as a potential babysitter, saw the incident and helped to get Hanlon freed. But still, she said nothing about the abuse she had previously seen.

The final act of torture on Sylvia Likens occurred when she had been accused of being pregnant by the Baniszewskis. This was untrue and it is almost certain she was a virgin when she died. Sylvia had responded by telling people at school that the 17-year old Paula Baniszewski was pregnant (which was true).

To punish Sylvia, Gertrude heated a sewing needle and started working on a homemade tattoo on Sylvia’s torso. Gertrude and a local boy, Richard Hobbs, carved ‘I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT’ on Sylvia’s body. They also tried to burn an ‘S’ (for ‘Slave’) on Sylvia, but got the curves wrong, leaving it as ‘3’. Jenny was forced to participate in the burning. After being taunted by Gertrude about the permanent marks left on her body, Sylvia confided in Jenny that she was going to die. Sylvia made a belated escape attempt, but was caught on the front porch by Gertrude. She was then beaten with the power cord from a toaster.

On her final day alive, Sylvia was taken for a bath by two Baniszewski children. Unusually, the water was not scalding hot when she was put in the tub clothed. The Baniszewskis then realised that she was not breathing. Sylvia had died.

After Richard Hobbs notified police and they arrived at the house, Gertrude handed them a letter, to the Likens parents from Sylvia (obviously under duress). Pathetically, it tried to absolve all guilt from the Baniszewskis:

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/13.html
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted ... and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.

I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause [sic] Gertie more money than she's got. I've tore up a new mattress and peaed [sic] on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can't pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids. . . .

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/13.html

Before the officer even read the note, Jenny Likens whispered to him that she would tell him everything, if he got her out of the house. Five minors, along with Gertrude, were charged with Sylvia’s murder. Another four were charged with injuring her. All the children blamed Gertrude.

The four minors charged with injuring Sylvia had the charges dropped. Gertrude’s daughter, Stephanie, also had her murder case dropped. Gertrude Baniszewski was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 1985 and died of lung cancer in 1990. Paula Baniszewski, who had her child while she was on trial, was originally convicted of second degree murder, but she won a retrial, where she was found guilty of manslaughter and served two years. John Baniszewski, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs each served just eighteen months.

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/1.html

The abuse in this case is shocking enough, but just as disturbing is how easily it could have stopped (or even been prevented, by Sylvia's father) had adults been willing to intervene.
 

raskolnikov

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Apr 1, 2002
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I watched An American Crime tonight. Truly horrendous. And apparently the movie is fairly mild and toned down. Evil people deserved to rot in hell. After her release Paula Baniszewski was working as a teacher aide unknown to the school who she really was until someone exposed her.
 

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