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definition - sylvia likens

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Sylvia Likens

Sylvia Likens
Born Sylvia Marie Likens
(1949-01-03)January 3, 1949
Lebanon, Indiana, USA
Died October 26, 1965(1965-10-26) (aged 16)
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Cause of death Cerebral hemorrhage
Internal bleeding
Resting place Oak Hill Cemetery, Lebanon
Known for Teenage torture and murder victim
Parents Lester and Betty Likens
Relatives Jenny Likens (sister)

Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was an American murder victim from Indiana. She was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski (née Van Fossan), Gertrude's children, and other young people from their neighborhood. Her parents, who were carnies, 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, two of her children, Paula and John, and two neighborhood youths, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were charged and convicted of the crime. Her 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]



Sylvia Likens was the third child of carnival workers Betty and Lester Likens. She was born between two sets of fraternal twins, Diana and Danny (two years older), and Jenny (who was disabled by polio,[2]) and Benny (one year younger). The Likens' marriage was unstable and the family moved many times. Sylvia was often boarded out or forced to live with relatives while her parents were working.[3]

Sylvia baby-sat and did ironing; these were, coincidentally, the same jobs Gertrude Baniszewski held. Sylvia's favorite rock group was The Beatles. During her early time with the Baniszewski family, she would sing back and forth with Stephanie Baniszewski, one of Gertrude's daughters.[4]

Sylvia and Jenny had known no fewer than 14 addresses because the family moved so frequently. In the past, they had been left at a grandmother's house or boarded out when their parents were traveling with a carnival, in hopes that the girls' education would not suffer.

In 1965, Sylvia and her sister Jenny, were living with their mother 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 Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of Paula, a girl with whom the Likens girls had recently become acquainted. Although Gertrude and her seven children were poor, Lester, as he reported at the trial, "didn't pry" into the condition of the house, and encouraged Baniszewski to "straighten his daughters out".[5] He agreed to pay her twenty dollars a week.

  Abuse and death

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, after payments from their parents failed to arrive on time.

Soon, Baniszewski focused her abuse on Sylvia, accusing her of stealing candy that she had bought from a grocery store, and humiliating her when she admitted that she had once had a boyfriend. Paula Baniszewski, who actually was pregnant at the time, kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant, although medical examination proved that Sylvia was not and could not have been.[6]

Likens was later accused of spreading rumors through Arsenal Technical High School that Stephanie and Paula were prostitutes. That supposedly provoked Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Likens. Mrs. Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard and other neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things, putting cigarettes out on her skin and forcing her to remove her clothes and insert a glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina on at least two occasions.[5]

After beating Sylvia to force her 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) Baniszewski kept her out of school and did not allow her to leave the house. When Likens urinated in her bed, she was locked in the cellar and forbidden to use the toilet. Later, she was forced to consume her own feces and urine. Shortly before Sylvia died, Baniszewski began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" into Sylvia's stomach with a heated needle, although Richard Hobbs finished the carving when Baniszewski was unable to do so. Hobbs, with the help of 10-year old Shirley Baniszewski, also used a heated eye bolt to burn the number "3" into Sylvia's chest.[5]

Likens attempted to escape a few days before her death after overhearing Baniszewski's plan to have her dumped in a wooded area nearby, but was caught by Baniszewski as she reached the front door. As punishment, she was tied in the basement and given only crackers to eat. On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, she died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition.[5]

When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Sylvia was not breathing, Stephanie attempted to give Sylvia mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before realizing that it was hopeless and that Sylvia was dead.[7]


Stephanie Baniszewski sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby payphone. When they arrived, Gertrude handed them a letter she had forced Sylvia to write a few days previously, addressed to her parents. This letter stated that she had agreed to have sexual relations with a group of boys in exchange for money, they had dragged her away in their car, beaten her up, burned her multiple times, and carved the inscription into her skin.[5] Before the police left, however, Jenny Likens approached them, saying: "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything".[7]

During the highly publicized trial, Baniszewski denied responsibility for the 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 young people on trial (Paula and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard) claimed that they had been pressured by Baniszewski. When Marie Baniszewski, Gertrude's 11-year-old daughter, 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 and forcing Sylvia 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.[8]

On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder, but was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Her daughter Paula, who had given birth to a daughter named Gertrude during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder and also given a life term. Hobbs, Hubbard and John Baniszewski 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 pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released two years later.[5] Gertrude, however, was again convicted of first-degree murder. She came up for parole in 1985, and despite a public outcry 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 and moved to 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."[9] Jenny Likens Wade died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004, at the age of 54. The house at 3850 East New York Street in which Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant and run-down for much of the 44 years after the murder, and was demolished on April 23, 2009.[10] The property will become a church parking lot.[9]

Richard Hobbs died of lung cancer at the age of 21, four years after being released from the reformatory.[11]

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.[12] He died at the General Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania following a lengthy illness with diabetes on May 19, 2005, at the age of 52, leaving a wife and three children.[13]

Coy Hubbard, Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend who beat Sylvia 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, seventeen grandchildren and one great-grandchild.[14]

Paula Baniszewski, at seventeen the oldest of the Baniszewski children, received a sentence of twenty years to life for her part in Sylvia’s death. While incarcerated, she bore a baby girl (initially named Gertrude) who was later adopted. She unsuccessfully attempted to escape twice from prison in 1971.[15] In 1972, she was paroled and assumed a new identity. She eventually married and has two children; reportedly she lives on a small farm in Iowa today.[16]

The murder charge against Gertrude’s second-oldest daughter, Stephanie, was dropped after she turned state's evidence against the others. She became a school teacher and assumed a new name. She also married and had several children.[17]

The injury to person charges against the younger juveniles Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John (Mike) Monroe, and Randy Gordon Lepper were dropped as well. Lepper died November 14, 2010 in Indianapolis at the age of 56.[18]


The case has since been the subject of numerous fictional and non-fictional adaptations.

  • Author John Dean (also known as Natty Bumppo) wrote an account of the murder, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.[19][20]
  • Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.[21]
  • 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".[20] Her 1967 installation Trap, in a New York loft basement, was influenced by Likens' murder.[22] Millett created another art installation in 1978, The Trial of Sylvia Likens, that depicts a courtroom scene with the five defendants.[23]
  • Mendal Johnson's only novel, Let's Go Play at the Adams', was based on this case.[24]
  • Jack Ketchum's novel The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the murder; a movie based on the book was released in 2007, with Blythe Auffarth in the main role.[20]
  • The film An American Crime starring Catherine Keener as Baniszewski, Ellen Page as Likens and Jeremy Sumpter as Coy Hubbard premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in 2007.[20]
  • The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the “Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel.
  • A play called Hey, Rube written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.[25]
  • The Pain Teens made a music video entitled "Basement" based on the torture of Sylvia Likens.
  • Author Paul Donnelly documented the case in his book 501 Most Notorious Crimes.

  See also

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 Library.com
  4. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime Library.com
  5. ^ a b c d e f g The murder of Sylvia Likens; Indianapolis Star, Library Factfiles.
  6. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: A Dubious Start; Crime Library.com
  7. ^ a b The Letter Before End; Crime Library.com
  8. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Drama in the Court Room; Crime Library.com
  9. ^ a b "Suitcase of sorrow". The Indianapolis Star, Linda Graham Caleca (4-3-99). http://www2.indystar.com/library/factfiles/crime/history/likens_sylvia/articles/040399.html. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  10. ^ "House where 1965 murder occurred is torn down". WIBC. http://www.wibc.com/simpson/blogentry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10029720. Retrieved 2009-06-29. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: In Memoriam; Crime Library.com
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ [3]
  15. ^ [4]
  16. ^ [5]
  17. ^ [6]
  18. ^ [7]
  19. ^ Dean, John (2008-07-29). House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying. St. Martin's True Crime Library. ISBN 978-0-312-94699-9. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/26293149.. 
  20. ^ a b c d Broeske, Pat H. A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore; New York Times, 14 January 2007
  21. ^ Wheat, Patte (1976). By Sanction of the Victim. Major Books. ISBN 978-0-89041-077-6. OCLC 78063000. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/20.html. 
  22. ^ Laurel Fredrickson, "Trap: Kate Millett, Japan, Fluxus and Feminism". Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 19, Issue 3, 2009
  23. ^ The Devil's Tale. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
  24. ^ Johnson, Mendal (1974-01-01). Let's Go Play at the Adams'. Panther. ISBN 978-0-586-04233-5. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/20.html. 
  25. ^ Regensberg, Pam (March 8, 1997). "Santa actor being investigated in Ramsey case". Longmont, Colorado Times-Call. Archived from the original on 2008-05-16. http://web.archive.org/web/20080516004635/http://www.timescall.com/ramsey/storyDetail97.asp?ID=63. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 

  External links



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