Sylvia Likens

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Sylvia Likens
Sylvia Likens.jpg
Likens as she appeared prior to her stay at the Baniszewski residence
Born (1949-01-03)January 3, 1949
Lebanon, Indiana, U.S.
Died October 26, 1965(1965-10-26) (aged 16)
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
Known for Torture and murder victim
Parent(s) Lester C. Likens
Elizabeth F. "Betty" Grimes
Relatives Diana Likens (sister)
Danny Likens (brother)
Jenny Likens (sister)
Benny Likens (brother)

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".[1]


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 (also spelled "Dianna") and Danny (two years older), and Jenny and Benny (one year younger, the former disabled by polio).[2] The Likens' marriage was unstable. The family moved frequently, and the couple had difficulties financially supporting their children. Likens 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.[3]

To earn money 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 Baniszewski's daughter, Stephanie.[4] 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 (12), 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".[5]

Abuse and death[edit]

Lester Likens agreed to pay Baniszewski $20 ($150.18 adjusted for inflation) a week, but when this stipend was late, Baniszewski, described by The Indianapolis Star as a "haggard, underweight asthmatic"[5] 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 Likens, 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. Baniszewski's daughter, Paula, who was pregnant at the time, kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant, although later medical examination proved that Likens was not and could not have been.[6]

Likens was later accused of spreading rumors through Arsenal Technical High School that Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski were prostitutes; this supposedly provoked Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Likens. Gertrude Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard, her children and other neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things, extinguishing cigarettes on her skin, beating her, tying her up, burning her with scalding water, rubbing salt in her wounds, forcing her to eat things that would cause her to vomit, and forcing her to remove her clothes and insert a glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina on at least two occasions.[5] Paula Baniszewski once beat Likens in the face with such force that she broke her own wrist.[7]

The Likens sisters attempted to contact their family to inform them of the abuse. They were able to mail letters to their older sister, Diana, who was then 18 years old and married. Diana supposedly visited the Baniszewski home after learning of the abuse, but did not call police or remove her sisters from the home. The Likens' parents did not intercede on their daughters' behalf.

Baniszewski eventually forbade Likens from attending school after she beat the girl in an attempt 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). She was often deprived of water. Jenny later speculated during her court testimony that Sylvia was unable to produce tears due to dehydration.[7] When Sylvia urinated in her bed while tied to the bed, she was locked in the cellar and forbidden to use the toilet. Later, she was forced to consume her own feces, as well as feces from the diaper of Gertrude Baniszewski's 1-year-old son, and urine. Shortly before Likens died, Baniszewski began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" into Likens' 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 Likens' chest, although the burn ended up looking like the number "3".[8]

On October 25, 1965, the day before her death, Likens attempted to escape after overhearing Baniszewski's plan to blindfold[8] and dump her in Jimmy's Forest, a wooded area nearby. 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, Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition.[5] She was 16 years old.

When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Likens was not breathing, Stephanie attempted to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.[9] After realizing Likens was dead, Baniszewski sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby payphone. When police arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski handed them a letter she had forced Likens to write a few days previously, addressed to her parents. The letter stated that Likens had agreed to have sexual relations with a group of boys in exchange for money who then dragged her away in their car. The letter went on to claim that the boys had beaten, burned, and carved the "S" inscription into Likens' skin.[5] Before the police left, however, Jenny Likens approached them and said, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything."[9]


Jenny Fay Likens watches the proceedings of the Baniszewski trial. It was she who acted as the catalyst for the investigation and case against her sister's torturers and murderers by notifying the police.

During the highly publicized trial, Gertrude Baniszewski denied responsibility for Likens' 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 minors 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 Likens 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.[10]

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 Baniszewski pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released two years later.[5] Gertrude Baniszewski however was again convicted of first-degree murder. She came up for parole in 1985, and despite a public protests 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."[11] 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.[12] The property is now a church parking lot.[11]

Richard Hobbs died of cancer at age 21, four years after being released from the reformatory.[13]

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.[14] He died at the General Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania following a lengthy illness with diabetes on May 19, 2005, at the age of 52.[15]

Coy Hubbard, Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend who beat Likens 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.[16]

Paula Baniszewski's 1971 mugshot

Paula Baniszewski, at 17 the oldest of Gertrude's seven children, received a sentence of twenty years to life for her part in Likens' death. The baby daughter, Gertrude, that she bore while incarcerated, was later adopted. Paula unsuccessfully attempted to escape twice from prison in 1971.[17] 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.[18] She 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.[19]

The murder charge against Gertrude Baniszewski'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.[20]

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. Siscoe married and had children and grandchildren; she died on October 23, 1996 at the age of 44.[21] Lepper died November 14, 2010 in Indianapolis at the age of 56.[22]

On May 10, 2015, Sylvia Likens' sister Diana, who by then went by Dianna Bedwell, and her husband Cecil Knutson were reported missing by her son Robert Acosta. Dianna and Cecil were gambling at Valley View Casino in Valley Center, California. Surveillance video captured the couple leaving the casino around 2 p.m. by car, but they did not show up at their son's house in La Quinta. Acosta contacted the police, and appeared on the television news asking the public's help in finding the couple.[23] On May 25, 2015, the couple was found in a remote part of California with Cecil dead and Dianna severely dehydrated, after surviving on just rainwater and some food. She was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition, she told investigators they were looking for a shortcut when they got lost and stuck on a rugged road.[24]


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.[25][26]
  • Author Paul Donnelly documented the case in his book 501 Most Notorious Crimes.



  • Sylvia Likens' story is the central theme of Detroit musician Joel Edwards' 2015 album Sylvia.[27]



  • Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.[28]
  • 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."[26] Her 1967 installation Trap, in a New York loft basement, was influenced by Likens' murder.[29] Millett created another art installation in 1978, The Trial of Sylvia Likens, that depicts a courtroom scene with the five defendants.[30]
  • 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.[31]
  • 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.


Unpublished and miscellany[edit]

  • A play called Hey, Rube written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.[32]
  • The Pain Teens made a song (and music video) titled "Basement" based on the torture of Sylvia Likens.

See also[edit]

Similar cases:


  1. ^ Avenging Sylvia; Time Magazine, 27 May 1966
  2. ^ Addenda to De Sade; Time Magazine, 6 May 1966
  3. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime
  4. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime
  5. ^ a b c d e f The murder of Sylvia Likens; Indianapolis Star, Library Factfiles.
  6. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: A Dubious Start; Crime
  7. ^ a b [1]; Sylvia
  8. ^ a b [2]
  9. ^ a b The Letter Before End; Crime Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LETTER" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  10. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Drama in the Court Room; Crime
  11. ^ a b "Suitcase of sorrow". The Indianapolis Star, Linda Graham Caleca (4-3-99). Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  12. ^ "House where 1965 murder occurred is torn down". WIBC. Retrieved 2009-06-29. 
  13. ^ "StarFiles: The 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens". Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  14. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: In Memoriam; Crime
  15. ^ "John Stephan Blake, Jr (1953 - 2005) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  16. ^ "Coy Randolph Hubbard (1950 - 2007) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  17. ^ The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis - David J. Bodenhamer, Robert Graham Barrows. 1994-11-22. ISBN 0253112494. Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  18. ^ "Teacher's Aide Fired for Revelation of Role in Grisly 1965 Killing". 2012-10-24. Retrieved 2012-10-24. 
  19. ^ "Iowa Teacher's Aide Fired After Discovery Of Connection To 1965 Torture, Killing Of Girl". Huffington Post. 2012-10-23. 
  20. ^ Noe, Denise. "The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens — In Memoriam — Crime Library on". Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  21. ^ "Anna R. Siscoe Smith (1951 - 1996) - Find A Grave Memorial". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2015-03-15. 
  22. ^ "THE INDIANAPOLIS STAR OBITUARIES: Complete listing of The Indianapolis Star Obituaries powered by". Retrieved 2012-09-22. 
  23. ^ Sylvia Likens' older sister vanishes in California
  24. ^ "Elderly missing couple found in California, husband dead". Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  25. ^ Dean, John (2008-07-29). House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying. St. Martin's True Crime Library. ISBN 978-0-312-94699-9. 
  26. ^ a b c d Broeske, Pat H. A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore; New York Times, 14 January 2007
  27. ^
  28. ^ Wheat, Patte (1976). By Sanction of the Victim. Major Books. ISBN 978-0-89041-077-6. OCLC 78063000. 
  29. ^ Laurel Fredrickson, "Trap: Kate Millett, Japan, Fluxus and Feminism". Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 19, Issue 3, 2009
  30. ^ The Devil's Tale. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
  31. ^ Johnson, Mendal (1974-01-01). Let's Go Play at the Adams'. Panther. ISBN 978-0-586-04233-5. 
  32. ^ 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. 

External links[edit]