The Story of Sylvia Likens: A Young Girl Tortured, Abused, And Murdered By Gertrude Baniszewski

Updated: Jul 9

In 1965, Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny were entrusted into the care of family friend Gertrude Baniszewski - Sylvia was brutally tortured to death by her carer, who even got her own children to help in the horrific abuse.

Sylvia Likens murder story
16-year-old Sylvia Likens was brutally tortured and murdered by a woman who was supposed to care for her

In 1965, Gertrude Baniszewski agreed to take care of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens while her parents were traveling. Unfortunately Likens would never make it out alive.

Sylvia Likens was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski and her children, they even managed to convince the local kids in the neighbourhood to help them carry out their twisted act.

The killers of Sylvia Likens faced almost no justice for their despicable crimes, even though the autopsy of Likens showed that the young girl suffered unimaginable torment and suffering before she died.

How Gertude Baniszewski Came To Care For Sylvia Likens

Sylvia Likens' parents struggled financially, her father Lester had only an eighth-grade education and a total of five children to care for. Both of her parents spent most of their time on the road as they were both carnival workers.

Sylvia was known by her nickname "Cookie", she was frequently described as a very pretty girl who was confident in front of others, her sister, Jenny, was more withdrawn and quiet and walked with a limp from polio.

In 1965, while his wife was serving time in prison for shoplifting, Lester Likens made the decision to join the carnival again. Sylvia's brothers, Danny and Bennie, were sent to stay with their grandparents. Sylvia and Jenny were both sent into the care of a family friend, Gertrude Baniszewski.

Gertrude was extremely poor herself, living in a run-down home and attempting to support seven of her own children. She made money by charging her neighbours to iron their laundry. Gertrude suffered from crippling depression which was treated with heavy doses of prescription drugs, she had been in several violent relationships that had resulted in multiple divorces.

The woman was certainly in no position to be caring for two teenage girls, however, the Likens felt that they had no other option apart from trusting her.

Lester Likens' agreed to pay Baniszweski $20 a week to care for his daughters, he cryptically requested that she "straighten his daughters out".

The Horrific Brutality That Sylvia Likens Endured In Her New Home

During the first two weeks of the sister's stay in the Baniszweski home, both Sylvia and Jenny were treated kindly enough, however, Paula Baniszewski, Gertrude's 17-year-old daughter, seemed to clash frequently with Sylvia.

Murder of Sylvia Likens
Gertrude (left) in a photo taken shortly after her arrest, and Jenny pictures in court during the trial

Then one week the $20 payment from Lester Likens came in late and Gertrude quickly changed.

"I took care of you two bitches for two weeks for nothing," Gertrude screamed at Sylvia and Jenny. She dragged Sylvia into a room by her arm, closing the door behind her. Jenny couldn't do anything but sit outside the door, listening to the screams of her sister. The following day the money arrived, but unfortunately for the sisters, the torture had only just started.

Although Gertrude was a frail woman, she soon started to abuse both Sylvia and Jenny in broad daylight. To "discipline" the girls, she would use a thick leather belt that belonged to one of her previous husbands and a heavy paddle. When she didn't have the energy to punish the girls herself, her daughter Paula would step in. Sylvia soon became the focus of the violent abuse.

Gertrude even forced Jenny to partake in some of the beatings of her sister, telling her that if refused she would take her place and receive the brunt of the punishment.

Gertrude took Sylvia to a function at her local church and forced her to eat copious amounts of free hot dogs until she was sick, then, to punish her for throwing up good food, she made her eat her own vomit.

She encouraged her own children to take part in the abuse of the two sisters. The Baniszewski kids would use Sylvia's skin as an ashtray, they threw her downstairs and practiced karate on her. They even cut her skin and rubbed salt into her open wounds, afterward they would often "cleanse" Sylvia in a scalding hot bath.

John Jr, who was Gertrude's 12-year-old son would take pleasure in forcing Sylvia to lick clean the soiled diapers of his youngest sibling.

Gertrude would give sermons on the evils of sexual immortality while Paula stamped on Sylvia's vagina. Paula, who was pregnant herself at the time, accused Sylvia of being pregnant and mutilated her genitals.

The Baniszewski children watched as Sylvia was forced to strip naked and insert an empty Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina. She had been beaten so badly that she could no longer use the bathroom voluntarily. When Sylvia wet her bed, Gertrude concluded that the girl was no longer fit to live with the rest of her family.

The 16-year-old Sylvia was then locked in the basement with no access to the bathroom and no food.

The Neigbourhood Joins In On The Torture Of Sylvia Likens

Gertrude started making up every story she could think of to encourage local kids to get involved in the beatings of Sylvia. She got her daughter's friends to come round and beat her up after claiming that Sylvia called her daughter a whore.

During the trial, some of the kids opened up about what Gertrude had said to them to drag them into the beatings. Anna Siscoe, a teenage girl, recalled how Gertrude had told her that Sylvia had been saying: "My mother went out with all sorts of men and got $5.00 for going to bed with the men."

Paula Baniszewski police mug shots
Paula Baniszewski police mug shots

Gertrude said to Anna, "I don't care what you do to Sylvia", she invited her round to her home and watched as Anna threw Sylvia to the ground, violenting beating her in the head and kicking her.

Gertrude even convinced her own children that Sylvia was a prostitute. She had her 11-year-old daughter, Marie, and a local boy from the neighbourhood, Ricky Hobbs, carve the words, "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into the abdomen of Sylvia with a heated needle.

Sylvia's older sister Diana made an attempt to come and see the sisters while they were under the care of Gertrude but she was turned away at the door. Jenny later recalled how Diana had snuck food into the basement where Sylvia was locked up. A neighbour reported the goings-on to a public health nurse who visited the family, but after not seeing Sylvia who was locked in the basement, she concluded that nothing was wrong, Baniszewski convinced the nurse that she had kicked the Likens' girls out of her house.

Other neighbours allegedly knew of the abuse that Sylvia was suffering, they had seen Paula hitting her on two occasions, however, they claimed that they didn't report the abuse as they feared for their own lives. Jenny was beaten, threatened, and bullied by the Baniszewski's, warning her of what would happen to her should she report anything to the authorities.

The Horrific Death Of Sylvia Likens

Sylvia told Jenny three days before her death, "I'm going to die, I can tell."

Gertrude could also sense that Sylvia would soon succumb to her injuries, she forced her to write a note in which she told her parents that she had run away. Sylvia was also forced to write that she had met up with a group of boys and had given them sexual favours and afterward, they had beaten her and mutilated her body.

Not long after this, Sylvia overheard a conversation where Gertrude was telling her children that she was planning to take Sylvia to a forest and leave her there to die.

After hearing the plan, Sylvia made a desperate attempt to escape, managing to get just outside the front door before being caught by Gertrude. Sylvia was so weak due to her injuries that she had no chance of getting far. With the help of Coy Hubbard, a local boy, Gertrude beat Sylvia unconscious with a curtain rod, when she finally regained consciousness, she stamped on her head.

Following three months of starvation and vicious torture, Sylvia could no longer form sentences and could hardly move her limbs. On October 26 she succumbed to her injuries and died from malnutrition, shock, and a brain hemorrhage.

Gertrude stuck by her original story when the police arrived. She claimed that Sylvia had been out in the woods with a group of boys who had carved "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into her body and beaten her to death.

Jenny took the first chance she got, the moment she was close enough to a police officer she whispered, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything."

The police then arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for the murder of Sylvia. They also arrested Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe for "injury to person." The younger ones involved in the act would all blame Gertrude and said that she pressured them to partake in the brutality against Sylvia.

Gertrude herself pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Her defence attorney told the court, "She's not responsible because she's not all here."

On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. She managed to avoid the death penalty despite her own lawyer saying, "In my opinion, she ought to go to the electric chair."

Paula Baniszewski, who had given birth to her daughter during the trial, was also sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of second-degree murder.

John Baniszewski Jr, Coy Hubbard, and Richard Hobbs were all convicted of manslaughter and handed two 2-to-21-year prison sentences based on the fact that they were minors. All three of them were paroled just two years later in 1968.

Gertrude Baniszewski And Her Children Evade Justice

Gertrude served 20 years in prison. Her guilt was never in question, the autopsy verified everything Jenny had said to the police. Sylvia Likens had died a slow and painful death over several months of torture.

In 1971, a re-trial was held for Paula and Gertrude, Gertrude was again found guilty but Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two to 21 years.

After eight years in prison, Paula was released and moved to Iowa where she changed her name and became a teacher's assistant.

In 2012 the school district received an anonymous call telling them of Paula's previous conviction over the death of Sylvia Likens and she was suspended from her position.

On December 4, 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski was granted parole on the grounds of good behaviour. A huge crowd of people, including Jenny Likens, protested outside the prison, but it was no use, Gertrude Baniszewski was a free woman.

Jenny's only relief came five years later when Gertrude Baniszweski died of lung cancer. Jenny wrote to her mother saying, "Some good news, damn old Gertrude died! Ha ha ha! I am happy about that."

Jenny has never held her parents responsible for what happened to her sister, she said, "My mom was a really good mom, all she did was trust Gertrude."

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