|Born||Gertrude Nadine Van Fossan
September 22, 1929
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
|Died||June 16, 1990
Laurel, Iowa, United States
|Other names||Gertrude Wright
Nadine Van Fossan
|Criminal charge||First degree murder|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment (conviction overturned in 1971, reinstated later in 1971)|
|Criminal status||Paroled in 1985|
|Spouse(s)||John Baniszewski Sr.
John Baniszewski Jr.
Dennis Lee Wright Jr.
|Parent(s)||Hugh M. Van Fossan Sr.
Mollie M. Oakley
|Conviction(s)||First degree murder|
Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski (September 22, 1929 – June 16, 1990), also known as Gertrude Wright and Nadine Van Fossan, was an American murderer who, with the aid of most of her own children and neighborhood children, oversaw and facilitated the prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, a teenage girl she had taken into her home. When she was convicted of first-degree murder in 1966, the case was called the "single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history".
Life before Sylvia Likens
Baniszewski was born on September 22, 1929 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Mollie Myrtle (née Oakley) and Hugh Marcus Van Fossan Sr., both of whom were originally from Illinois and were of American and Dutch descent. Baniszewski was the third of six children. On October 5, 1939, Baniszewski witnessed her 50-year-old father's death from a sudden heart attack. Six years later, she dropped out of school at 16 to marry 18-year-old John Stephan Baniszewski (1926-2007), who was originally from Youngsville, Pennsylvania, with whom she had six children. Although John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, the two stayed together for 10 more years before divorcing.
Baniszewski, then 34, moved in with 18-year old Dennis Lee Wright, who abused her. She had one child with Dennis, Dennis Lee Wright Jr. (later given the name Denny Lee Wright by his adoptive mother), but after his birth, Wright abandoned Gertrude.
In July 1965, Lester and Betty Likens, traveling carnival workers, suggested that Baniszewski take their two daughters—Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Jenny Faye Likens, 15—as boarders in return for $20 a week ($150.18 adjusted for inflation) in compensation while they worked across the state. The Likens sisters attended high school and social functions with the Baniszewski children, as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday.
However, when the Likens's first $20 payment was late, Baniszewski beat the girls. Shortly thereafter, the girls were beaten for having candy that Baniszewski accused them of stealing. Thus began a regular pattern of child abuse.
In August 1965, Baniszewski began to verbally and physically abuse Sylvia Likens, allowing her older children to beat her, and push her down stairs. Baniszewski also accused Likens of prostitution and delivered "sermons" about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general. After the Likens sisters reportedly accused Baniszewski's daughters Paula and Stephanie of being prostitutes, Stephanie's boyfriend Coy Hubbard and several other classmates and local boys were brought in to assist Baniszewski in beating Sylvia. Baniszewski later forced Jenny to hit her sister.
When Likens became incontinent, Baniszewski locked her in the basement and began a bathing regime to "cleanse" Sylvia, involving dousing her with scalding water and rubbing salt into the burns. She was often kept naked and rarely fed. At times, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Likens eat her own feces.
Around this time, Jenny managed to contact her older sister Diana, outlining the intense trauma that the two sisters were experiencing and asking Diana to contact the police. Diana ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply displeased with being punished and that she was making up stories so that she could come live with Diana.
Shortly after this, Diana Likens came to visit her sisters, but Baniszewski refused to allow her inside. Diana hid near the house until she spotted Jenny outside, then approached her. Jenny told her that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away. Concerned, Diana contacted social services and informed them that Baniszewski told her that Sylvia Likens had been abandoned for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that she had since run away. When a social-services worker arrived at the Baniszewski home inquiring about Sylvia, Baniszewski told Jenny to lie about Sylvia's whereabouts, threatening that she'd get the same treatment as Sylvia if she didn't. Terrified, Jenny confirmed that Sylvia had run away. The worker returned to her office and filed a report stating that no more follow-up visits to the Baniszewski home were needed.
On October 21 Baniszewski instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to bring Likens up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The next morning, enraged that Sylvia had wet the bed, Baniszewski again forced her to insert a large glass Pepsi bottle into her vagina, before beginning to carve the phrase "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into her abdomen with a hot sewing needle. When Baniszewski was unable to finish the branding, she had Ricky Hobbs finish. The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens, and then dictated a letter to her, intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents.
After Sylvia finished the letter, Baniszewski formulated a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran down the stairs attempting to escape, but Baniszewski stopped her as she stepped out the front door and onto the porch. Baniszewski then pulled Sylvia back inside the house and again threw her down the basement steps and kept her there.
On October 24, Baniszewski came down to the basement and attempted to bludgeon Sylvia with a wooden paddle, but missed her and accidentally struck herself. Coy Hubbard stepped in and viciously beat Sylvia on the head repeatedly with a broomstick and left her unconscious on the basement floor. In the early evening of Tuesday, October 26, Baniszewski told the children she would give Sylvia a bath, in lukewarm water this time. Stephanie and Richard Hobbs brought Sylvia upstairs and placed her in the bathtub fully clothed; as they took her out shortly thereafter and laid her on a bare mattress on the floor, they realized she was not breathing. Stephanie frantically attempted to resuscitate her, but Likens was already dead.
Panic-stricken, Stephanie told Hobbs to call the police. When they arrived, Gertrude gave them the letter she'd made Sylvia write. Amidst the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the policemen, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." Her statement, combined with the discovery of Sylvia's body, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time—Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe—were arrested for "injury to person".
Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials.
An examination and autopsy of Sylvia Likens' body revealed numerous burns, bruising, muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, which meant it was possible she was still a virgin, discrediting Baniszewski's assertions that Sylvia was a prostitute and her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin.
Baniszewski was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder and also sentenced to life in prison. The boys were sentenced to terms of two to 21 years in a reformatory; they were paroled in 1968.
Aftermath and death
Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski appealed and were granted a new trial by the Indiana Supreme Court, largely for reasons of a prejudicial atmosphere due to heavy news media publicity before and during the trial. A new trial was held in 1971. Paula pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison, while her mother opted to go to trial. She was again found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Over the course of the next 14 years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner at the Indiana Women's Prison, working in the sewing shop and becoming a "den mother" to younger female inmates. By the time she came up for parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname "Mom".
The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose her parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign. Over the course of two months, the groups collected over 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars. Despite the efforts, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she stated: "I'm not sure what role I had in it ... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her ... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia." The Parole Board voted in favor of granting Baniszewski's freedom 3-2.
Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa, where she called herself Nadine Van Fossan, using her middle name and maiden name. She lived in obscurity until her death in Laurel, Iowa, from lung cancer, on June 16, 1990, aged 60.
The case has since been subject to numerous fictional and non-fictional adaptations.
- Author John Dean wrote an account of the murder, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.
- Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.
- Author Kate Millett wrote a semi-fictional book relating to the incident, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice. Millett stated in an interview that the murder of Sylvia Likens "is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."
- Mendal Johnson's only novel Let's Go Play at the Adams bears similarities to, and may have been based on, this case.
- Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a fictional story loosely based on the murder set in the 1950s and a movie based on the 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 Ricky Hobbs premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.
- The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the “Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel.
- A play called Hey, Rube, written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.
- Author Lavinia Jewel wrote of the murder in The Punishment Game
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens – Baniszewski’s Background
- "RetroIndy: The 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens". Indianapolis Star.
- "The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens." Crime Library.
- Library Factfiles: The murder of Sylvia Likens. The Indianapolis Star. Access date: November 14, 2007.
- Unnamed author: "150 Hear Likens Case Sentences," The Indianapolis News, May 25, 1966
- Unnamed author: "Court Orders New Trial in Likens Slaying", The Indianapolis Star, September 2, 1970.
- Unnamed author: "Mrs. Baniszewski Meted Life in Likens Slaying", The Indianapolis Star, August 20, 1971.
- Caleca, Linda Graham: "Baniszewski Ruling Won't Affect Past Parole Cases, Judge Says", The Indianapolis Star, October 30, 1985
- Mermel, Marcy: "Mrs. Baniszewski Portrayed as a New Woman", The Indianapolis News, December 3, 1985.
- 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.
- 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. Retrieved 2008-08-25.
- "Amazon.com: The Punishment Game eBook: Lavinia Jewel: Kindle Store". amazon.com.
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- Further reading
- Dean, John Edwin. The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens Torture and Death. 1999. ISBN 0-9604894-7-9.
- Millett, Kate. The Basement: A True Story of Violence in an American Family. 1979. ISBN 0-671-72358-8.
- New York Times. May 20, 1966. "5 Are Convicted In Torture Death; Mother and 4 Teen-Agers Guilty in Girl's Slaying". Indianapolis, May 19, 1966 (UPI) A Criminal Court jury today found Mrs. Gertrude Baniszewski, 38-year-old mother of seven, guilty of first degree murder in the torture slaying of Sylvia Likens, 16. Four teenage defendants were convicted on lesser charges.
- New York Times. May 25, 1966. "2 in Torture Death of Girl Are Sentenced for Life". Indianapolis, May 24, 1966 (AP). Two defendants in the torture slaying of Sylvia Likens got life sentences today in the Indiana Women's Prison. Three others were sentenced to the Indiana Reformatory for terms of 2 to 21 years.