Truly brutal and heinous crimes, the kind you usually see in horror or slasher movies, do happen in real life. And despite what you may think, they are not a recent phenomenon. One of the most shocking murders of a young teen-aged girl happened over 50 years ago and still brings tears to the eyes of even the most hardened police detective.
It was called the most terrible crime ever committed in Indiana, and over half a century later, that title still holds. On October 26, 1965, police found Sylvia Likens’s emaciated corpse—covered with more than 150 wounds ranging from burns to cuts—sprawled on a filthy mattress in the Indianapolis home of 37-year-old Gertrude Baniszewski, mother of seven and the architect of the girl’s untimely gruesome death.
The details of her demise, revealed at the 1966 trial, defy belief. Sylvia’s carnival-worker parents boarded her and her sister Jenny with Baniszewski for $20 a week. But when one of their checks arrived late, Baniszewski took out her frustration by beating the girls. Weeks of escalating horror followed. The attacks focused almost exclusively on Sylvia, grew ever more violent and sadistic. Several of Baniszewski’s children and a gaggle of neighborhood kids, some as young as 10, watched or joined in on the beatings and torture. None reported what they saw.
“A lot of people have compared this to Lord of the Flies,” says attorney Natty Bumppo, a former Indianapolis Star reporter who covered the case. “But that was just a bunch of uncontrolled children. In this case, they had an adult supervising what they were doing. It wasn’t children going wild. It was children doing what they were told.”
On the surface, the Likens murder is not much different from any number of heinous crimes. It was a Cinderella story without a happy ending — a teenage girl left under the care of a strict authoritarian whose idea of discipline is physical abuse that escalates until the abuse victim dies. If that was the extent of it, this case would likely have been lost to history long ago like so many other long-forgotten murders.
This case was somehow more disturbing than other crimes, mainly because the abuse was carried out not just by the caregiver but also by her own children, some as young as 10, and by other children in the neighborhood. For weeks, even months, the torture of Sylvia Likens was casual entertainment for the kids in the neighborhood, something to do in the afternoon before dinner and favorite TV shows. At least a dozen children participated or at least watched, and none felt sufficiently disturbed to tell their own parents.
But that is not the only detail that makes Sylvia’s case so brutal and so sad. Other adults occasionally came to the Baniszewski house for various reasons and saw Sylvia’s battered appearance. None pushed to be sure she was safe.
Sylvia herself and her younger sister Jenny had opportunities to tell adults at school or church — they even had adult relatives living nearby. Neither said a word because, as Jenny would later explain, they thought it would only make things worse. Neither could conceive of the possibility that authorities would move to protect them, remove them from the house or arrest their tormentors.
A Disturbing Death and Arrests
Arrests did come, but only after it was over – and way too late for Sylvia.
On October 26, 1965, Indianapolis police were called to 3850 E. New York St., where Sylvia’s body lay on a mattress. Baniszewski told them the girl had been attacked by a gang of boys, and she even produced a note written in Sylvia’s own hand that seemed to confirm that story. But the cops could tell by the condition of the victim that this had been no single incident.
Sylvia’s body was malnourished and covered with sores, burns, and bruises, many of them old. She had been branded in one spot by a hot metal object, and the words “I am a prostitute” had been etched on her stomach.
When Baniszewski realized Sylvia might be dying, she forced her to write a note saying a gang of boys beat her. The plan was to blindfold her and dump her in nearby woods with the note. Sylvia tried to escape, but Gertrude and one of the boys stopped her, beating her again and throwing her back into the basement.
Sylvia Likens died Oct. 26, 1965. The cause of death was determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock induced by Sylvia’s extensive skin damage. Sylvia also suffered from extreme malnutrition. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon.
The Trial of Gertrude Baniszewski
On May 19, 1966, a jury found Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder while Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder. Hobbs, along with Baniszewski’s son John and another neighborhood boy, Coy Hubbard, were convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life terms at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. The boys were sentenced to two-to-21-year terms at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton.
The ghastly details of the brutalization of Sylvia that came out during the trial were incomprehensible. It started with Gertrude using a “fraternity style” paddle on Sylvia and Jenny for various offenses, such as exchanging soft drink bottles for change at a nearby grocery. When she suspected Sylvia of stealing, she used matches to burn the girl’s fingers. Sometimes Gertrude felt too weak from her asthma to discipline the girls properly, so her 17-year-old daughter, Paula, helped.
Neighborhood children began to crowd the home to participate in the torture. The children took turns practicing their judo on Sylvia, hurling her against a wall. Some began kicking and beating her. Others extinguished their cigarettes on her skin. As Gertrude and a gang of teenagers watched, Sylvia was forced to undress in the living room and insert an empty Coke bottle into her vagina.
After the beatings, Sylvia was forced into a scalding hot bath so she would be “cleansed of her sins.” She was severely beaten and burned for wetting her mattress while asleep, and Gertrude decided that Sylvia was no longer fit to live with her children.
Near the end, Sylvia was no longer permitted to leave the house. She was thrown down the cellar stairs and locked in, given crackers for food, and refused the right to use a bathroom.
The second-oldest of the Baniszewski children, Stephanie, was 15 at the time of the crime. Though she admitted to participating to some degree in Sylvia’s abuse, she was granted a special trial, and then all charges against her were dropped, likely because she agreed to turn state’s evidence against her family. She reportedly changed her name, married, had children, worked as a teacher, and now lives in Florida.
The 2007 movie, An American Crime, directed by Tommy O’Haver, was based on the horrific life and tragic death of Sylvia Likens.