Sylvia Marie Likens was born on January 3, 1949. Her parents were travelling carnival workers, so she never really had one steady home. In July 1965, while in Indianapolis, IN, Sylvia and her younger sister, Jenny became acquainted with the Baniszewski family. The Baniszewski family consisted of: mother, Gertrude Baniszewski and her 7 children: Paula; Stephanie; John Jr; Marie; Shirley; James; and Dennis. Gertrude offered Sylvia and Jenny’s parents to keep the girls with her in exchange for $20 a week. This would be the start of a horrific 3 month span of abuse and torture.
It all began only a week after the girls had moved in with the Baniszewski family. The $20 check that the Likens had been obligated to pay had failed to arrive on time. Gertrude found the only solution was to whip the girls for their parents’ negligence. However, the check arrived a day later. On another occasion, the Likens sisters had traded in some glass coke bottles and bought some candy with it. When Gertrude discovered the candy she accused the girls of stealing it and proceeded to burn Sylvia’s hand with a cigarette. The tormenting of Sylvia escalated quickly. Gertrude began harassing Sylvia by calling her a whore and accusing her of being a prostitute. Gertrude enlisted the 5 of her older children, as well as many neighborhood children to torment Sylvia which included beatings and burnings with cigarettes. Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard practiced his judo flips on her.
Gertrude had discovered that Sylvia had stolen a gym uniform that Sylvia was not allowed to participate in PE without, so she burned Sylvia once more and kept her home from school from then on. Gertrude had kicked Sylvia in between the legs numerous times and soon Sylvia lost control of her bladder and urinated in her bed, this sent Gertrude into an outrage and she threw Sylvia down the stairs into the basement where she would remain for a very long time.
Sylvia had been denied access to a toilet and was forced by Gertrude and her son, John Jr. to eat and drink her own feces and urine. During this time in the basement, the torture escalated and it became difficult for Sylvia to survive. She was deprived of food and water. She was sprayed with scolding hot water by Gertrude on numerous occasions. The neighborhood children, as well as the Baniszewski children continued to play a part in the torture and actively assisted Gertrude. At one point, Gertrude and neighborhood boy, Ricky Hobbs branded the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!” across her abdomen with a red hot sewing needle. Afterwords, Gertrude dictated a letter for Sylvia to write to her parents that described a scenario of Sylvia giving a group of boys sexual favors, after which they beat her and carved the words into her skin.
Eventually, Gertrude and Ricky Hobbs beat Sylvia in the head with a wooden paddle and a broomstick, this would create a hemorrhage in her brain. On October 26, 1965, Gertrude had a barely alive Sylvia brought upstairs for a bath. She was placed in a lukewarm tub and it was soon determined by Stephanie Baniszewski and Coy Hubbard that Sylvia was no longer breathing. They quickly called the police despite Gertrude’s protestations. Upon arrival, the police were horrified at what they found.
Sylvia couldn’t be saved and she died on October 26, 1965. Her cause of death was ruled to be malnutrition, shock, and brain hemorrhage. Her autopsy revealed over 100 burns, and many other wounds. It also appeared that salt had been rubbed into the open wounds.
During her trial. Gertrude blamed the entire ordeal on her children, and refused to take any responsibility for her actions. She pleaded not-guilty due to insanity, and claimed that she was too mentally unstable to control her children or know what they were doing. She was convicted of 1st degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. She was released on parole in 1985 and died in 1990. Her children Paula and John Jr both received other sentences as well. Coy Hubbard and Ricky Hobbs were also convicted as accomplices and received short prison sentences. The rest of the children were exonerated in exchange for providing testimony against Gertrude.
The Baniszewski house:
The house that the entire ordeal happened in sat dilapidated for decades until 2009 when the house was finally torn down. For years, rumors of hauntings surrounded the house.
The story was portrayed in the 2007 film “An American Crime” starring Ellen Page as Sylvia.