The Torture and Death of Sylvia Likens

There are so many cases we hear about everyday where children are tortured and murdered. In 1965, this wasn’t so common. They did have their fair share of child murders but the suspect was usually a crazed lunatic or your basic criminal who had problems with his momma. It usually didn’t last for days either. This poor girl’s murder and torture were described by the prosecutor in the trial as the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana. Warning, the photos below are Sylvia’s body and they’re pretty graphic.

Gertrude Baniszewski’s idea of punishment was severe physical abuse resulting in a young girl’s death. She didn’t seem to punish any of her children this way. Only Sylvia and Jenny Likens, who were staying with Gertrude while their parents were away. Perhaps what’s so disturbing about this case is the fact that it was not only Gertrude carrying out the abuse but her children and other children in the neighborhood as well. This abuse went on for months and none of these children told their own parents about what was going on. It was entertainment to some and to others, they just thought they were punishing her. The pictures below are of John, Paula, their father cuddling them after Paula’s life sentence, Gertrude crying and saying goodbye to John, and Stephanie talking to a reporter. 

Numerous adults came into that house and saw the bruises on Sylvia’s face but none of them went out of their way to make sure she was okay. Sylvia and Jenny had several opportunities to tell adults what was going on and they never did. Maybe they were so scared, they thought they would get a beating for telling. Jenny did say later on that she thought it would only make things worse. It’s a shame. Think about how different things would have been if they would have told some one. Sylvia could be alive. It’s important to teach our children the difference between right and wrong and if they’re ever in children there are people who will help them. They need to be taught that it’s not right to treat others in such a manner. Obviously, none of these children involved were taught a damn thing from either of their parents.

Where were Sylvia’s parents? Her parents traveled with carnivals selling food. This is why they left their two girls into Gertrude’s care. Lester Likens only had an eighth grade education level. Makes you wonder. The marriage was unstable and they moved around several times. Sylvia often babysat and did a lot of ironing. It’s funny because these are the same jobs Gertrude often did. Much isn’t known about Betty Likens. She was arrested for shoplifting. There isn’t much to like about Lester and Betty from the looks of it. A mutual friend introduced Lester to Gertrude and she volunteered to look after the girls for twenty dollars a week. Gertrude already had seven children to look after. Paula, John, Stephanie, Marie, Shirley, James, and Dennis. So why would she volunteer to now take care of two more children for a whopping twenty dollars a week? Jenny was insecure and had a limp from childhood polio. Sylvia was more confident and even though she was a very pretty girl, she never opened her mouth because she was missing a front tooth.

From the start, Paula (who was 17 at the time) and Sylvia did not get along. Gertrude kicked Sylvia in the vagina and accused her of being pregnant. Paula was enraged by this because she was actually pregnant so she knocked her down. Medical examiners proved that Sylvia was not and could never have been pregnant. Sylvia was a virgin minus the coke bottle incident. But that was the least of Sylvia’s worries. One day, the money order from the Likens didn’t show and Gertrude punished the girls for it. According to Jenny’s testimony, Gertrude “took us upstairs and she slapped me and said, ‘Well I took care of you little bitches for nothing.” The money order arrived the next day. It was a day too late. Gertrude began using a paddle on Sylvia and Jenny for minor offenses like exchanging coke bottles for change at the store. She suspected Sylvia of stealing and burned her fingers with matches. Paula often helped to discipline the girls due to her mother’s illness that often made her weak. Gertrude was also underweight. The kids from the neighborhood started to come around a lot more and participated. Not by force. By their own free will. The kids would practice their judo on Sylvia and hurled her around the house. They began kicking and beating her and put their cigarettes out in her skin. Eventually, Gertrude forced Sylvia to undress and insert a coke bottle into her vagina. I have always been so floored by this. Imagine the humiliation. Imagine the pain. She was also forced into a scalding hot bath so she could be cleansed of her sins. If she wet her mattress, she was beaten and burned. Gertrude decided she wasn’t fit to live with her children. Bed wetting is common when you’re terrified of getting the shit kicked out of you every day. I cannot even fathom the torture that this poor soul had to endure.

Sylvia was no longer allowed to leave the house and she was thrown down into the cellar and locked in. They gave her crackers and refused to let her use the bathroom. This is when the worst of the torture began. She was forced to eat her own urine and feces when she was allowed to go to the bathroom. Gertrude took a large needle and carved the words, “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into Sylvia’s stomach. A neighborhood boy even helped. Gertrude figured she was going to die so she made Sylvia write a note and they planned to dump her body in the woods. Sylvia did die but they didn’t dump her body. The cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain and shock induced by her skin damage. She also suffered from malnutrition as well. Below are pictures of the basement and the mattress Sylvia slept on until she wet herself in her sleep.

On October 26, 1965, Indianapolis officials found Sylvia’s body laying on a mattress  dead. Gertrude told the police that Sylvia had been attacked by a gang of boys and she had a note written in Sylvia’s handwriting that confirmed this complete lie. The police could tell it was all a rouse. Her body was malnourished and covered in sores, burns, and bruises. Gertrude was out of her mind if she thought she was getting away with this. Of course she was out of her mind for her severe punishment as well.

When it came time for the trial, Gertrude denied any wrongdoing or part in the torture and death of Sylvia Likens. She claimed that her children must have been involved. She then entered a plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury found Gertrude guilty of first degree murder. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second degree murder. Two neighborhood boys and John Baniszewski were convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and Paula were sentenced to life at the Indiana Women’s prison in Indianapolis. The boys were sentenced to two to twenty one year terms at the Indiana State Reformatory. In 1971, the supreme court granted Gertrude and Paula a new trial because of ‘prejudicial atmosphere.’ Gertrude was convicted of first degree murder once again. Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and severed only two years in prison. This is so disturbing to me. How can they free this girl???? You do the crime, you should do the time and this wasn’t just any ordinary crime. They tortured that poor innocent child. The boys were released on parole for good behavior in 1968. They only served two years of their sentences. It’s smart to let these young murderers out. They should have been taught a lesson. John became a minister in Texas and counseled children of divorced parents. Well that’s nice, someone who tortured and was involved in an innocent girls horrific death now counsels children. As for the two neighborhood boys, one died of cancer at the age of 21 (ha) and the other was in and out of trouble with the law until his death and heart attack in 2007. 

Gertrude was released on parole in 1985. She changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa. She died five years later due to lung cancer. In my opinion, she should have died in prison but at least she got hers. Paula married and moved to a farm in Iowa. Lester and Betty Likens divorced. Betty remarried and died in 1998 at the age of 71. Jenny Likens Wade died in 2004 at the age of 54. Thanks to Star Files for updating information on where they are now. I had always wondered what happened to these people, except for Gertrude. I had heard that she eventually died of cancer. Below are several photos of her during the trial, release on parole, and five years before she died.

I pray that crimes like this do not happen anymore but unfortunately, times are even worse than they were in 1965 and we never know what to expect. If you want to see  a film based on the torture and death or Sylvia Likens, you can see The Girl Next Door or An American Crime. I personally prefer An American Crime because it follows the story closer and has great performances by Ellen Page, Catherine Keener, James Franco, and Scout Taylor-Compton. The Girl Next Door is more like fictional work with incidents that didn’t even happen. 

Rest in piece Sylvia Likens, you will never be forgotten. Below is a picture of the house being demolished in 2009 and an older Jenny Likens at a memorial for Sylvia. I cannot believe this house was still present until 2009. 

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2 replies »

  1. I first learned learned of Sylvia’s story 2 years ago and I have never felt so horrified and disturbed when I read it, it makes me sad and mad that nobody did anything to help her and to stop those demons from hurting her even further until she died, not even the neighbors who were just only several feet away from the horror house can hear her crying for help and not do anything because they said that it was a “mind your own business” culture and also her sister watching Sylvia being tortured in the most horrifying way, she should have told someone at school of what was happening since she went there every day and should have told the teachers or other staff members, but instead she let fear win her over and did nothing until it was too late, all of the demons who killed her were all let off with a slap in the wrist considering how brutal Sylvia’s death was, not even the demon mother who started it all was punished severely enough, she should have died along with Sylvia by the death penalty instead of being let out and “peacefully”dying in 1990 surrounded by her family while Sylvia died all alone without her family in the most horrifying way, our justice system failed her and she was failed by an entire society who should have supported her and helped her when she needed it the most, she was failed the day she was born until the day she died, I hope all those demons are suffering the same torture and that their suffering is a million times as hard with no escape and I hope all those who failed Sylvia have all the guilt following them for eternity, the world was really cruel and unfair to her and she will never grow up, but I hope she’s up in Heaven flying high with her angel wings and that she is surrounded by love and happiness with the angels and that no pain or evil or those who failed her in her short life get near her again, she will always be forever 16 and beautiful and pure and I will make sure that her spirit and memory is kept alive and that she shines like a bright star forever and that she is never forgotten and loved always and forever.


  2. Wallace Orlando Grimes (Sylvia’s maternal grandfather)
    Death 27 Oct 1966 (aged 80) (1year, 1 day)
    Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, USA

    Sylvia Marie Likens
    Death 26 Oct 1965 (aged 16)
    Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, USA


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