The tragic story of Sylvia Likens: The murder case that proves you never really know your neighbours!

Sylvia Likens
Gertrude Baniszewski one year after her release from Indiana Women’s Prison (Left), Sylvia Likens (Right)

If you’ve ever read Jack Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” you may not know that the novel was loosely based on the horrific story of Sylvia Likens.

While the 16-year-old and her sister, Jenny, were staying with the Baniszewski family in Indianapolis, Indiana, Sylvia became the unfortunate victim of sadistic abuse. Only three months after arriving at their home, she died from starvation and injuries sustained from ruthless mutilation.

Aside from those directly involved in torturing her, nobody in the neighbourhood seemed to be aware that any of this was happening.

Sylvia likens murder
This is a photo of Sylvia that was taken shortly before her stay at the Baniszewski house © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Restored by MRU

Sylvia and Jenny were living with their mother, Betty, in Indianapolis at the time. Their parents were separated. After Betty was arrested for shoplifting in 1965, their father, Lester, decided to send them to live with Gertrude Baniszewski, who was the mother of their new friend, Paula. Lester was a carnival worker, so he believed that this would be a more stable living arrangement for his daughters.

This quickly proved to be a terrible mistake. Gertrude was a depressed, unstable woman who frequently beat the sisters with paddles before taking her anger out solely on Sylvia.

Sylvia likens murder
Gertrude Baniszewski © Wikimedia Commons

She verbally and physically abused Sylvia on a daily basis, frequently calling her a whore and accusing her of being a prostitute. She had harsh views about women in general and ranted about how filthy they were.

It wasn’t long before she started involving her children in the beatings, which eventually turned into torture. She encouraged her 13-year-old son, John, his siblings, and other neighbourhood children to do horrific things to Sylvia.

Their torment included tying her up, putting out cigarettes on her bare skin, pouring scalding water on her, rubbing salt into her raw wounds, and making her eat feces. One of their most awful methods was forcing Sylvia to get naked and insert a soda bottle into her vagina on two different occasions.

Seventeen-year-old Paula Baniszewski punched Sylvia so hard one day that she broke her wrist in the process. She also kicked her in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant, likely trying to verify her mother’s claims that Sylvia was a “whore.”

sylvia likens murder
A photograph of Jenny Fay Likens, sister of torture and murder victim, Sylvia Marie Likens ©

Even Jenny was told to hit her own sister. Though she and Sylvia made multiple attempts to contact their family and tell them what was happening, they were never taken out of the house.

Sylvia was eventually forbidden to go to school and forced to live naked in the basement, where she rarely got to drink water or eat. Days before her death, Gertrude and a neighbourhood boy, Richard Hobbs, carved the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on her abdomen with a red, heated needle.

Hobbs and Gertrude’s other 10-year-old daughter, Shirley, also used an iron poker to burn the letter “s” into her chest. When later asked why he had mutilated Sylvia, Hobbs said it was because Gertrude had told him to do it.

When Sylvia attempted to escape, Gertrude caught her and tied her up in the basement, beating and burning her mercilessly. A day later, on October 26, 1965, she died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition.

Gertrude Baniszewski initially accused Likens of feigning death. She struck her body with a book, shouting “Faker! Faker!” to rouse her, then, panicking, instructed Richard Hobbs to call the police from a nearby payphone. When police arrived at her address at approximately 6:30 pm.

Gertrude led the officers to Sylvia’s emaciated, extensively bludgeoned, and mutilated body lying upon a soiled mattress in one of the bedrooms before handing them the letter she had forced Likens to previously write to her dictation, also claiming she had been “doctoring” the child for an hour or more prior to her death, having applied rubbing alcohol to Likens’ wounds in a futile attempt at first aid before she had died.

Gertrude added that Likens had earlier run away from her home with several teenage boys before returning to her house earlier that afternoon, bare-breasted and clutching the note. After which, they all would start to give false statements to the police, directly or indirectly, accusing each other in the murder of Sylvia Likens.

The autopsy of Likens’ body revealed she had suffered in excess of 150 separate wounds across her entire body in addition to being extremely emaciated at the time of her death. The wounds themselves varied in location, nature, severity, and the actual stage of healing.

Her injuries included burns, severe bruising, and extensive muscle and nerve damage. Her vaginal cavity was almost swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, discrediting Gertrude’s assertions Likens had been three months pregnant, a prostitute, and promiscuous.

Moreover, all of Likens’ fingernails were broken backwards and most of the external layers of skin upon the child’s face, breasts, neck, and right knee had peeled or receded. In her death throes, Likens had evidently bitten through her lips, partially severing sections of them from her face.

Initially, Gertrude denied any involvement in Likens’ death, although by October 27 she had confessed to having known “the kids” ― particularly her daughter Paula and Coy Hubbard — had physically and emotionally abused Likens, stating that “Paula did most of the damage”, and that “Coy Hubbard did a lot of the beating”. Gertrude further admitted to having forced the girl to sleep in the basement on approximately three occasions when she had wet the bed.

It was Paula who first signed a statement admitting having repeatedly beaten Sylvia on the backside with her mother’s police belt, and then they all started to expose their own dark fantasies and deep involvement in Sylvia’s murder. The five accused were immediately arrested.

Five other neighborhood children who had participated in Likens’ abuse — Michael Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe — had also been arrested by October 29. All were charged with causing injury to person and each was subsequently released into the custody of their parents under subpoena to appear as witnesses at the upcoming trial.

Sylvia likens murder
Richard Hobbs and Gertrude Baniszewski at a hearing before Marion County Judge Harry Zaklan, November 1, 1965. Both were formally charged with murder on this date © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The trial of the five defendants lasted 17 days before the jury retired to consider its verdict. On May 19, 1966, after deliberating for eight hours, the panel of eight men and four women found Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder, recommending a sentence of life imprisonment. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder, and Hobbs, Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were found guilty of manslaughter.

Upon hearing Judge Rabb pronounce the verdicts, Gertrude and her children burst into tears and attempted to console each other, as Hobbs and Hubbard remained impassive.

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