Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Deathday: Gertrude Baniszewski 1929-1990 Murderer

Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski (September 19, 1929 – June 16, 1990), also known as Gertrude Wright and Nadine van Fossan, was an Indiana divorcée who, with the aid of some of her own children and neighborhood children, such as Ricky Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, oversaw and facilitated the prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, a teenaged girl she had taken into her home. When she was convicted of first-degree murder in 1966, the case was called "the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history."

Life before Sylvia Likens

Baniszewski was born as Gertrude Nadine van Fossan to Hugh and Mollie van Fossan, the third of six children. In 1940, Baniszewski witnessed her father's death from a sudden heart attack. Five years later, she dropped out of school at the age of 16 to marry 18-year-old deputy John Baniszewski, with whom she had four children.

Although John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, the two stayed together for 10 years before divorcing. After a brief marriage to a man named Edward Guthrie, Gertrude remarried Baniszewski and had two more children, before divorcing finally in 1963.

Gertrude, then 34, moved in with a 23-year-old Dennis Lee Wright, who abused her.[1] They had a son, Dennis Jr., but after his birth, Wright abandoned Gertrude and disappeared.

Sylvia Likens

In July 1965, Lester and Betty Likens, traveling carnival workers, suggested that she take their two daughters - Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Jenny Faye Likens, 15 - as boarders in return for $20 a week in compensation while they worked across the state. The Likens sisters attended high school and social functions with the Baniszewski children, as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday.

However, when Lester Likens's first $20 payment failed to arrive on time, Baniszewski beat the girls. Shortly thereafter the girls were beaten for having candy that Baniszewski accused them of stealing. (They had, in fact, bought it.) Thus began a regular pattern of child abuse.

The torture begins

In August 1965, Baniszewski began to verbally and physically abuse Sylvia Likens, allowing her older children to beat her, and push her down stairs. Baniszewski also accused Likens of being a prostitute, and delivered "sermons" about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general. After the Likens sisters reportedly accused Baniszewski's daughters Paula and Stephanie of being prostitutes, Stephanie Baniszewski's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, and several other classmates and local boys were brought in to assist Baniszewski in beating Sylvia Likens. Baniszewski even forced Jenny Likens to hit her sister.[2]


In August 1965, Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion moved in next door to the Baniszewski family, and immediately noticed a pattern of abuse and violence towards Likens. However, they did not approach the authorities with any concerns. Around this time, Likens stole a gym suit from school, without which she was unable to attend gym class, but Baniszewski found it and beat a confession out of her, before burning her with a lit cigarette — a practice which became routine. It was after this that Baniszewski pulled Likens out of school. Soon after, Baniszewski again accused Likens of prostitution, forcing her to strip and forcibly insert a Coca Cola bottle into her vagina in front of a group of neighborhood boys.[3]

The basement

Following the Coke bottle incident, Likens became incontinent; as a result, Baniszewski locked her in the basement. Baniszewski then began a bathing regime to "cleanse" Sylvia, involving dousing her with scalding water and rubbing salt into the burns. She was often kept naked and rarely fed. At times, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Likens eat her own feces.

Sometime around this period, Jenny Likens managed to contact her older sister, Diana Likens, outlining the horrors that the two sisters were experiencing, and asking Diana to contact the police. Diana Likens ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply displeased with being punished and that she was making up stories so that she could come live with her.

Shortly after this, Diana Likens came by to visit her sisters, but Baniszewski refused to allow her into the home. The elder Likens then hid nearby the house until she spotted Jenny outside, and then approached her. Jenny Likens told her older sister that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away. Concerned, Diana Likens contacted social services and informed them that Baniszewski told her that Sylvia Likens had been kicked out of the house for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that she had since run away. When a social worker showed up at the Baniszewski home inquiring about Sylvia, Baniszewski told Jenny Likens to lie to the social worker about Sylvia's whereabouts, threatening her that if she did not, she would get the same treatment as Sylvia. Terrified of what Baniszewski might do to her if she told the truth, Jenny told the social worker that Sylvia had indeed run away. The social worker returned to her office, where she filed a report stating that no more follow-up visits needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.


On October 21, Baniszewski instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie Baniszewski to bring Likens up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The next morning, Baniszewski, enraged that Sylvia had wet the bed, again forced her to insert a coke bottle into her vagina,[3] before beginning to carve the phrase "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into her abdomen with a red-hot sewing needle. When Baniszewski was unable to finish the branding, she enlisted Ricky Hobbs to finish. The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens, and then dictated a letter to her, intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents.

After Likens finished the letter, Baniszewski began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny Likens take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran down the stairs attempting to escape, but was stopped by Baniszewski as Likens stepped out the front door and onto the porch. Baniszewski then pulled Sylvia back inside the house and again threw her down the basement steps and kept her there.

On October 24, Baniszewski came down to the basement and attempted to bludgeon Likens with a wooden paddle, but missed her and accidentally struck herself. Coy Hubbard stepped in and viciously beat Likens on the head repeatedly with a broomstick and left her unconscious on the basement floor. In the early evening of Tuesday October 26, Baniszewski told the children she would give Likens a bath, in lukewarm water this time. Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs brought Likens upstairs and placed her in the bathtub fully clothed; as they took her out shortly thereafter and laid her on a bare mattress on the floor, they realized she was not breathing. Stephanie Baniszewski frantically attempted to resuscitate her, but by then, Likens was already dead.

Stephanie Baniszewski, panic-stricken, told Hobbs to call the police. When they arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski gave them the letter she'd made Likens write. In the midst of the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the policemen, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." Her statement, combined with the discovery of Sylvia Likens's body, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time — Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe — were arrested for "injury to person."


Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials.

An examination and autopsy of Sylvia Likens' body revealed numerous burns, bruising, and muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, discrediting Baniszewski's assertions that Sylvia was a prostitute and her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin.

Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.[4]

Aftermath and death

Baniszewski appealed and was granted a new trial by the Indiana Supreme Court largely for reasons of a prejudicial atmosphere due to heavy news media publicity before and during the trial. [5] A new trial was held in 1971, and Baniszewksi was again found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. [6] Over the course of the next 14 years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and becoming a den-mother to younger female inmates; by the time she came up for parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname "Mom."

The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose her parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign. Over the course of two months, the groups collected over 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars.[7][8] Despite the efforts, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she stated: "I'm not sure what role I had in it ... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her ... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia."

Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa. She died in Iowa from lung cancer on June 16, 1990, aged 60.[3]


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

Author Natty Bumppo (formerly John Dean) wrote an account of the murder, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.[9][10]

Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional story based on the incident, set in the 1970s.[11]

Feminist Kate Millett wrote a semi-fictional book relating to the incident, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice. Millett stated in an interview that the murder of Sylvia Likens "is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."[10]

Mendal Johnson's only novel Let's Go Play at the Adams was based on this case.[12]

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a fictional story loosely based on the murder set in the 1950s and a movie based on the book was released in 2007, with Blythe Auffarth in the main role.[10]

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.[10]

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.[13]


1.^ The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens – Baniszewski’s Background
2.^ "The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens." Crime Library.
3.^ Library Factfiles: The murder of Sylvia Likens. The Indianapolis Star. Access date: November 14, 2007.
4.^ Unnamed author: "150 Hear Likens Case Sentences," The Indianapolis News, May 25, 1966
5.^ Unnamed author: "Court Orders New Trial in Likens Slaying," The Indianapolis Star, September 2, 1970.
6.^ Unnamed author: "Mrs. Baniszewski Meted Life in Likens Slaying," The Indianapolis Star, August 20, 1971.
7.^ Caleca, Linda Graham: "Baniszewski Ruling Won't Affect Past Parole Cases, Judge Says," The Indianapolis Star, October 30, 1985
8.^ Mermel, Marcy: "Mrs. Baniszewski Portrayed as a New Woman," The Indianapolis News, December 3, 1985.
9.^ Dean, John (2008-07-29). House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying. St. Martin's True Crime Library. ISBN 978-0312946999.
10.^ Broeske, Pat H. "A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore." New York Times. 14 January 2007.
11.^ Wheat, Patte (1976). By Sanction of the Victim. Major Books. ISBN 978-0890410776. OCLC 78063000.
12.^ Johnson, Mendal (1974-01-01). Let's Go Play at the Adams'. Panther. ISBN 978-0586042335.
13.^ Regensberg, Pam (March 8, 1997). "Santa actor being investigated in Ramsey case". Longmont, Colorado Times-Call. Retrieved 2008-08-25.

Further reading

Dean, John Edwin. The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens Torture and Death. 1999. ISBN 0-9604894-7-9.

Millett, Kate. The Basement: A True Story of Violence in an American Family. 1979. ISBN 0-671-72358-8.

New York Times. May 20, 1966. "5 Are Convicted In Torture Death; Mother and 4 Teen-Agers Guilty in Girl's Slaying." Indianapolis, May 19, 1966 (UPI) A Criminal Court jury today found Mrs. Gertrude Baniszewski, 38-year-old mother of seven, guilty of first degree murder in the torture slaying of Sylvia Likens, 16. Four teenage defendants were convicted on lesser charges.

New York Times. May 25, 1966. "2 in Torture Death of Girl Are Sentenced for Life." Indianapolis, May 24, 1966 (AP). Two defendants in the torture slaying of Sylvia Likens got life sentences today in the Indiana Women's Prison. Three others were sentenced to the Indiana Reformatory for terms of 2 to 21 years.

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