“You’re dirty and sexist.” that kitty, addressed to teen Sylvia Likens and repeated endlessly your babysitter Gertrude Baniszewski, was always accompanied by several blows. During the days when he was under her guardianship, the woman horrified until he faints. She didn’t do it alone, she helped her children and some neighbors who were also minors abuse the victim.
Among the most horrifying abuses: the day Gertrude inserted a glass bottle into Sylvia’s vagina; As soon as it broke, its pieces began to tear it apart from inside. The scene was witnessed by a crowd of neighborhood children, who responded with cheers, far from provoking any disapproval. What happened to the young woman a few days later had only this preamble: her brutal murder.
many mouths to feed
Gertrude Nadine Van Fossen was born in Indianapolis on September 19, 1929, after her father died early when she was eleven years old and a mother struggling to raise her six children. So, at just sixteen years old, the teenager took refuge in the arms of her high school sweetheart, John Baniszewski, whom she married and had four children.
However, a beating at the hands of this ambitious police officer culminated in isolation a decade later. Then she was married to Ed Guthrie, who was barely three months old; Her reconciliation with John, with whom she had two more children, although the relationship fell apart again, ended in divorce in 1963. Later, her third husband, 22-year-old Denise Lee Wright, an abuser, left her as soon as she gave birth to their seventh son.
At 37, with seven children in her care and hardly any money to support her, Gertrude decided to accept small chores at home, such as ironing clothes to cover some of the expenses. However, his addiction to alcohol and tobacco ran out as soon as the money came in, and his appearance was more typical of an older woman than a young woman in her thirties.
For this reason Gertrude did not hesitate to accept a $20 a week job offer to care for the two girls, Sylvia and Jennifer Likens. Her family, whom she knew from church terms, suggested that she raise them and welcome them into their home while they worked in the circus on the other side of the country. Now, Betty and Lester were unaware of the tragedy that would turn their lives in the summer of 1965.
Sylvia Marie, 16, and Jennifer, 15, were very close. The older sister felt responsible for her younger sister, who had contracted polio and had to wear a metal brace on one of her legs. A sense of responsibility, along with her concern for the family’s finances, made the teenager aware of the limits of her home.
Therefore, Sylvia combined her studies with sporadic jobs as a babysitter, cleaning floors, ironing or selling empty glass bottles. You have never earned enough to support eight faces. Therefore, the young girl fully understood that her parents had left her and her sister in the care of Gertrude.
At first the sisters had a good relationship with both their caretakers and their seven children. But after a week of living under the same roof, Gertrude physically assaulted the girls because the parents had not sent a check with the money in time. In the long run it turned out that it was all a logistics problem with the post office, not Likens.
As punishment, the woman took the teenagers to the basement and there she shouted: “Well, I took care of your little prostitutes for a week, for nothing!” He then forced them to drop their panties and began to lash their buttocks with a centimeter-thick wooden shovel. Jennifer could not take the blow and fell to the ground, so Sylvia asked Gertrude to strike her from that moment on. He just wanted to protect his sister.
abuse and torture
As a result of this first punishment, suffering grew against Sylvia: Gertrude beat her because she said she ate too much, so he left her without eating for hours and forced her to watch the rest during lunch; He threw her down the stairs of the basement, and used one of her daughter’s clothes to turn it into a dungeon of sorts; Or put him in a bathtub of boiling water and bang his head against the wall if he jumps out. Meanwhile, Jennifer felt helpless at being unable to save her sister, whom she secretly fed a piece of bread.
As the days passed, Gertrude started molesting her children and some minors in the neighborhood so that they would participate with particular cruelty in the harassment against the girl. An example of this was his 18-year-old daughter, Paula, who was one of the most violent assailants: she used to forcefully kick Sylvia’s genitals, in addition to kicking her butt with her mother’s wooden shovel.
One of the children, 12-year-old John Jr., fell into his mother’s trap when she thought Sylvia was insulting her. So, to protect Gertrude’s honor, she would collect excrement from the diaper of her younger brother, Denise Jr., and put it in the young woman’s mouth. In this way, John Jr. became one of his main accomplices and allies in the abuse.
It should also be noted that several children in the neighborhood contributed to the torture by paying Gertrude five cents for being alone with Sylvia and committing all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse. Two of the most common were Richard Hobbs, a teenager who had been rejected by the victim months earlier, and Coy Hubbard, the second daughter of Stephanie’s boyfriend, Gertrude Baniszewski.
In Hubbard’s case, the boy, encouraged by his mother-in-law, began beating Sylvia and practicing the judo punches and locks he had learned in her classes. He was joined by the rest of the children, who also used the girl’s body as an ashtray: they lit 100 cigarettes, in addition to several injuries to the genitals.
At the same time, the victim began to psychologically externalize the consequences of these beatings: She developed urinary incontinence, prompting Gertrude to take her to the basement on a dirty mattress and Koi without food or water. ordered to be tied to a beam.
All that summer, no one noticed Sylvia’s suffering. Neither her own parents, who visited her from time to time and did not see the visible wounds on her body (none of their daughters dared to tell them about that hell), nor the school Nor did the neighborhood neighbors who, although they saw some scratches, always believed Gertrude’s version. “It’s out of control!” He nodded, alluding to the fact that Sylvia was a prostitute.
Indeed, after the bottle incident and a few days before her murder, the nanny forced the teenager to undress in front of her children and son-in-law, and tattooed the phrase “I’m a prostitute and I’m a whore” on her chest. . With a red-hot needle. Proud of it”. Then Richard also engraved the number three right above it.
“Sylvia, what are you going to do now? You can’t get married now. What are you going to do?” The caretaker jokingly asked and sent him back to the basement. Gertrude convinces the children that Sylvia deserves that vile mark on her body for participating in a sexual orgy. Which was a lie, of course.
the truth comes out
The next day, Gertrude, fed up with the young woman, decides to plan her murder so that it looks like a voluntary escape: she explains to her children how to do it, but Sylvia hears it and tries to escape. Just before reaching the door, Coy and Stephanie stop him by throwing him down the stairs and hitting him on the head with a bar. Sylvia lay down on the ground.
After what happened, Gertrude began hitting the corpse with a book, “False! Fake!” Several children tried to revive Sylvia without success. So he decided to call the emergency room. When the police reached the house and saw the condition of the dead body, all the people present there were arrested. According to subsequent autopsies, the teenager died of cerebral hemorrhage and malnutrition.
Gertrude’s children and the rest of the participating neighbors both confess their guilt and recount the horrific torture committed against Sylvia before the judge. When asked why he had not stopped those atrocities, no one could justify his actions. No one found a reason.
The court sentenced Gertrude Baniszewski to life imprisonment for first-degree murder. Her daughter Paula received the same sentence as her mother, but for second-degree murder, and was released in February 1973 after serving seven years in prison and giving birth to a daughter named Gertrude. Once freed, the young woman changed her identity to Paula Pace and worked as a teacher at a school in Iowa until they found out who she really was.
Coe Hubbard was sentenced to 20 years for involuntary manslaughter and, after being released, became a repeat offender on charges of two other murders. He died of a heart attack at the age of 56, leaving behind his wife and five children. For his part, Richard Hobbs also received 20 years in prison, although he died of lung cancer four years later. He had just turned twenty one.
For John Jr., 12, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison, becoming the youngest prisoner ever. After serving his sentence, he changed his name to John Blake, became a pastor, had three children, and died of complications from diabetes at the age of 51. In the end, little Stephanie received a twelve-month prison sentence for being instrumental in the murder, but the charges were dropped after helping with the investigation and pointing to her entire family.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s life sentence went to parole after a control session in December 1985, where Jennifer Likens’ testimony did not contribute to his denial. In fact, the killer went to the judge to beg for mercy, alleging that she was under heavy medication for asthma at the time and claiming she had nothing to do with the murder.
“All I can say is I’m sorry. I ask you to forgive me, that’s all I can tell you,” she said through tears. Five years later, Gertrude died of lung cancer, and in 2001, the Indianapolis Police Station erected a granite monument to Sylvia Likens. “Let them go, they are welcome,” reads at the end of the inscription.