Likens as she appeared prior to her stay at the Baniszewski residence
January 3, 1949|
Lebanon, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||October 26, 1965
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
|Known for||Torture and murder victim|
|Parents||Lester C. Likens (father)
Elizabeth F. "Betty" Grimes (mother)
|Relatives||Jenny Likens (sister)|
Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was an American murder victim. She was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski, Baniszewski's children, and other young people from their neighborhood. Her parents, who were 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, her daughter Paula, her son John, and two neighborhood youths (Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs) were charged with and convicted of the crime. Likens' torture and murder were described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski's trial as "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana".
Likens was the third child of carnival workers Lester Cecil Likens (1926-2013) and his wife, Elizabeth Frances "Betty" (née Grimes) (1927-1998). She was born between two sets of fraternal twins, Diana and Danny (two years older), and Jenny and Benny (one year younger, the former disabled by polio). The Likens' marriage was unstable and the family moved many times. Sylvia and her sister Jenny were often boarded out or forced to live with relatives such as their grandmother so that their schoolwork would not suffer while their parents were on the road.
Likens babysat and ironed, the same jobs held by Gertrude Baniszewski. Likens' favorite rock group was The Beatles. During her early time with the Baniszewski family, she would sing with Gertrude's daughter, Stephanie. In 1965, Likens and Jenny were living with their mother Betty in Indianapolis, Indiana when Betty was arrested and jailed for shoplifting. Lester Likens, who had recently separated from his wife, arranged for his daughters to board with Baniszewski, the mother of the girls' new friend Paula (17) and her six siblings Stephanie (15), John (14), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and few-months-old Dennis Lee Wright Jr. Although the Baniszewskis were poor, Lester "didn't pry" into the condition of the house (as he reported at the trial), and he encouraged Baniszewski to "straighten his daughters out".
Abuse and death
Lester Likens agreed to pay Baniszewski $20 a week, but when this stipend was late, 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.
Baniszewski soon focused her abuse exclusively on Sylvia, accusing her of stealing candy that she had bought from a grocery store, and humiliating her when she admitted that she once had a boyfriend. Paula, who was pregnant at the time, kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant, although later medical examination proved that Sylvia was not and could not have been.
Sylvia was later accused of spreading rumors through Arsenal Technical High School that Paula and Stephanie were prostitutes; this supposedly provoked Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Sylvia. Mrs. Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard and other neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things, extinguishing cigarettes on her skin and forcing her to remove her clothes and insert a glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina on at least two occasions.
After beating Sylvia to force her to confess to stealing a gym suit from school which Baniszewski would not buy for her (and without which she was unable to attend gym class) Baniszewski kept her out of school and forbade her to leave the house. When Sylvia urinated in her bed, she was locked in the cellar and forbidden to use the toilet. Later, she was forced to consume her own 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. Hobbs and 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski also used an iron poker in an attempt to burn the letter "S" into Sylvia's chest, although the burn looked like the number "3".
Sylvia attempted to escape the night before her death after overhearing Baniszewski's plan to blindfold  and dump her in Jimmy's Forest, a wooded area nearby, but as she reached the front door, Baniszewski caught her and punished her by tying her up in the basement and giving her only crackers to eat. On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, Sylvia Marie Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition. She was 16 years old.
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 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 sexual relations with a group of boys in exchange for money, they had dragged her away in their car, beaten her, 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 publicized 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 (17) and John Baniszewski (13), Richard Hobbs (15), and Coy Hubbard (15)) claimed that they had been pressured by Baniszewski. When Gertrude's 11-year-old daughter Marie Baniszewski was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, 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 Sylvia and forcing her 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 to make a point about Baniszewski's state of mind.
On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder, but was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Paula Baniszewski, who had given birth to a daughter named Gertrude during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life term. Richard “Ricky” Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski, Jr. 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 released.
Gertrude Baniszewski changed her name to Nadine van Fossan, her middle and maiden names, and moved to Laurel, 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 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 age 54. The house at 3850 East New York Street in which Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant and rundown for much of the 44 years after the murder. While there was some discussion of purchasing the house for renovation into a women's shelter, the necessary funds were never raised. The house was demolished on April 23, 2009. The property will become a church parking lot.
After the Westside Middle School massacre, John Baniszewski, by then calling himself John Blake, made a statement claiming that young criminals are not beyond help and describing how he had turned his life around. He died at the General Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania following a lengthy illness with diabetes on May 19, 2005, at the age of 52, leaving a wife and three children.
Coy Hubbard, Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend who beat Sylvia and practiced his judo flips on her, had been in and out of prison since his release and was later charged and acquitted of the murder of two men. He died of a heart attack on June 23, 2007, at the age of 56 in Shelbyville, Indiana. He had a wife and five children, 17 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Paula Baniszewski, at 17 the oldest of Gertrude's 7 children, received a sentence of twenty years to life for her part in Sylvia’s death. The baby daughter Gertrude that she bore while incarcerated was later adopted. Paula unsuccessfully attempted to escape twice from prison in 1971. In 1972, she was paroled and assumed a new identity. She eventually married and has two children; reportedly she lives in a small town in Iowa today.[better source needed] Baniszewski worked as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years at the Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten (BCLUW) school district in Iowa, having changed her name to Paula Pace and lied to the school district when applying for the job. She was fired in 2012 when the school discovered her deception.
The murder charge against Gertrude’s second-oldest daughter Stephanie (15) was dropped after she turned state's evidence against the others. She assumed a new name and became a schoolteacher; she also married and had several children.
The injury-to-person charges against the younger juveniles Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John (Mike) Monroe, Darlene McGuire, and Randy Gordon Lepper were dropped as well. Lepper died November 14, 2010 in Indianapolis at the age of 56.
The case has since been the subject of numerous fictional and non-fictional adaptations.
- Author John Dean wrote an account of the murder, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.
- Author Paul Donnelly documented the case in his book 501 Most Notorious Crimes.
- The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the “Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel.
- Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.
- The artist and feminist author Kate Millett dealt with the subject in a number of works. She wrote a semi-fictional book relating to the incident, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice. Millett later stated her belief that "Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman." Her 1967 installation Trap, in a New York loft basement, was influenced by Likens' murder. Millett created another art installation in 1978, The Trial of Sylvia Likens, that depicts a courtroom scene with the five defendants.
- Mendal Johnson's only novel, Let's Go Play at the Adams', in which a 20-year old babysitter is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a handful of teens she is assigned to sit, was influenced by this case.
- Author Lavinia Jewel wrote a crime novel in the first person of Sylvia Likens and Jenny Likens (alternating between chapters) documenting the murder in The Punishment Game
- Jack Ketchum's novel The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the murder.
- A film of the same name as Ketchum's book was released in 2007, with Blythe Auffarth in the main role.
- The film An American Crime starring Catherine Keener as Baniszewski, Ellen Page as Likens Jeremy Sumpter as Coy Hubbard and Evan Peters as Richard “Ricky” Hobbs premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in 2007.
Unpublished and miscellany
- A play called Hey, Rube written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.
- The Pain Teens made a music video entitled "Basement" based on the torture of Sylvia Likens.
- A fictionalized case is to appear in the fourth season of the American anthology horror television series American Horror Story.
- Aurore Gagnon
- Theresa Knorr
- Murder of Junko Furuta
- Murder of Suzanne Capper
- Murder of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena
- Murder of Kelly Anne Bates
- Murder of Jennifer Daugherty
- Avenging Sylvia; Time Magazine, 27 May 1966
- Addenda to De Sade; Time Magazine, 6 May 1966
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime Library.com
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime Library.com
- The murder of Sylvia Likens; Indianapolis Star, Library Factfiles.
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: A Dubious Start; Crime Library.com
- The Letter Before End; Crime Library.com
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Drama in the Court Room; Crime Library.com
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- Dean, John (2008-07-29). House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying. St. Martin's True Crime Library. ISBN 978-0-312-94699-9.
- Broeske, Pat H. A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore; New York Times, 14 January 2007
- Wheat, Patte (1976). By Sanction of the Victim. Major Books. ISBN 978-0-89041-077-6. OCLC 78063000.
- Laurel Fredrickson, "Trap: Kate Millett, Japan, Fluxus and Feminism". Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 19, Issue 3, 2009
- The Devil's Tale. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
- Johnson, Mendal (1974-01-01). Let's Go Play at the Adams'. Panther. ISBN 978-0-586-04233-5.
- Regensberg, Pam (March 8, 1997). "Santa actor being investigated in Ramsey case". Longmont, Colorado Times-Call. Archived from the original on 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2008-08-25.