Gertrude Baniszewski (1929-1990)
Having many aliases, Gertrude was part of one of the most disconcerting Indiana murderers, of which she, along with the assistance of many local boys as well as her very own children, oversaw and facilitated the prolonged, brutal torture and the ultimate murder of Sylvia Likens, a young teenage girl that Gertrude had accepted into her home.
Before Meeting the Likens Family
Born in 1929 to the name of Gertrude Van Fossan into a lower-class family, she was the third of six children. She suffered through her Dad passing away from a sudden heart attack and butting of heads with her mother during her teenage years. She dropped out of high school to marry 18-year-old John Baniszewski at 16 years of age. John was a police officer, who should have been preventing crimes from happening, but instead, he was creating his own at home assaulting his wife. After about 10 years of marriage, during which she gave birth to four children, the couple separated.
After the divorce, Gertrude married Edward Guthrie for a short period of time before going back into the arms of John. John and Gertrude had two more children and divorced in 1963 once again – for good. She was desperate at the time and moved into a house with Dennis Lee Wright. Wright also abused her as had John, and the couple had only one child, Dennis Jr., just prior to Dennis leaving Gertrude and disappearing.
Meeting the Likens
In mid-1965, Gertrude met Betty and Lester Likens, as well as the rest of their family. The two were traveling workers for a carnival whom had two daughters – Jenny Faye and Sylvia Marie who were 15 and 16 years of age respectively. The couple talked Gertrude into taking the two kids in as “boarders” while the couple traveled working for a compensation of $20 per week. The agreement consisted of Gertrude allowing the children to go with her to church with her own children and enrolling them in a local high school.
The Beating Begins
That first $20 compensation payment did not arrive in the mail on time, and the two girls quickly fell to the temper of Gertrude, who began to beat the two girls. She went on to beat the girls for allegedly stealing candy that they had, which eventually turned into a long and frequent pattern of violent child abuse.
A couple of months after taking in the children, she made Sylvia the focus of her awful abuse. Not only did she beat her, but she allowed her own children to abuse her as well. At one time, she was violently pushed down the stairs. Sylvia was once accused of taking the form of a prostitute at which time Gertrude delivered sermons to Sylvia about the filthiness of such manner.
Sylvia and Jenny reportedly accused Gertrude’s two daughters, Stephanie and Paula, of being the same. Gertrude gained the assistance of Coy Hubbard, Stephanie’s boyfriend, and several of classmates and local boys to beat Sylvia at which time they even forced Jenny, her own sister, to hit her. It was around this time that Gertrude got two new neighbors next door, Raymond and Phyllis Vermillion, who had began to notice the violent abuse that was taking place, but never reported it to the proper authorities. At one time, Sylvia was punished for supposedly being a prostitute and was forced to strip in front of several local boys that Gertrude had invited over while also being forced to insert a Coke bottle into her vagina.
Locked in the Basement
She eventually became incontinent and was locked in the basement. In order to “cleanse” the young girl, Gertrude doused Sylvia with scalding hot water and took salt to her wounds. More often than not, Sylvia was left in the nude and without adequate food. Sometimes, Gertrude, along with her 12-year-old son (at the time) John Jr., made Sylvia Likens consume on her very own feces.
Jenny, Sylvia’s younger sister who was also in the Baniszewski home, contacted Diana, an older sister, to inform her of the torture that was going on. She asked Diana to contact authorities, but she ignored Jenny thinking she was just unhappy with her punishment for genuine bad behavior. Despite her thoughts, she visited anyway – or at least tried because Gertrude would not allow her to come inside the home. Diana didn’t necessarily take no for an answer and hid and waited outside for Jenny to come outside. Jenny didn’t talk to Diana, though, and instead ran away after telling her she wasn’t permitted to talk to her. Diana took matters into her own hands and contacted social services. A social worker appeared at the Baniszewski house, but Jenny was forced to lie saying that Sylvia had ran away. A report was filed with such information, although Sylvia was actually in the basement.
The Murder of Sylvia Likens
In October of 1965, Stephaine, Coy and John Jr. were instructed by Gertrude to retrieve Sylvia from the basement and tie her to a bed. She wet the bed due to her incontinence. She was punished with a Cocoa Cola bottle being inserted into her vagina and the carving, with a red-hot sewing needle, of “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into her abdomen. A local young boy, Ricky Hobbs, finished the branding since Gertrude was unable.
The following day, Gertrude awoke Sylvia to write a letter on her behalf, to her parents informing them that she had ran away. Mrs. Baniszewski began to make plans for Sylvia to be taken to the local dump to be left as good as dead. Sylvia tried to run for it, but was stopped when she got to the porch. For punishment, she was thrown down the basement stairs and the door was once again locked.
A couple of days later, Sylvia was beaten with a wooden paddle. Gertrude ended up missing Sylvia and hitting herself at which time Coy Hubbard took over, beating Sylvia until she become unconscious. Two days later, Sylvia Likens was given a bath in lukewarm water – and died shortly thereafter even though Stephanie tried to resuscitate her. Hobbs called the police and upon their arrival, Gertrude presented the fake letter attempting to convince them that the young Ms. Likens had run away. However, Jenny was able to make her way to one of the officers telling him that if they could just get her out of that house that she would tell them everything. Her statement was taken, the body was found and Gertrude, Stephanie, Paula, John Jr., Richard Hobbs along with Coy Hubbard were all arrested for murder.
The Sylvia Likens Murder Trial
Sylvia had suffered a great deal of overall damage to her body including biting through her own lips, nearly completely severing them. An autopsy showed that she had a great deal of bruising, burns, nerve and muscle damage. Gertrude tried to say that Sylvia was a prostitute and was pregnant; however, after all tests it was found her hymen was well intact and her vagina was virtually swollen shut. Her death was ruled a combination of swelling and internal hemorrhaging of the brain, as well from extreme shock from the damage that her skin suffered.
Gertrude went on to be found guilty of first degree murder, which sentenced her to prison for life with no parole. She tried to appeal, but the trial did not come in her favor and was once again found guilty. She became a role model in prison and was considered the prison “mom.” She was eligible for parole in 1985 and despite attempts made by Jenny Likens and the rest of her family, Gertrude was released on her parole. Upon her release, she said she was on drugs and never really knew the role she played in the death of Sylvia Likens, that she never knew her and that she took full responsibility for her death. She moved to Iowa after being released from prison at the beginning of December, 1985. She passed away in Iowa from lung cancer nearly five years later.
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