Gertrude Baniszewski lived in Indianapolis with her seven children. Since she had a tiny income, Baniszewski took in children for the Summer to earn extra money. In 1965, she agreed to board sixteen years old Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny, who was a year younger. They were the children of two circus workers who were about to go on tour operating a concession stand.
Jenny was disabled and could not move about very much (Gertrude Baniszewski cynically thought that a 'cripple' would be an undemanding boarder); perhaps the Likens' decision to spare their daughters from the wandering lifestyle of the circus was influenced by Jennie's condition? Perhaps they wanted time by themselves to patch up their marriage?
Their relationship had been through a bad patch (they'd only just got back together after a period of separation). For several understandable reasons, they were quite grateful to be able to leave the girls with Baniszewski (whom they knew as 'Mrs Wright' - she'd taken the name of a former partner) and didn't devote much time to checking out the person entrusted with their children's care. They briskly agreed to pay her $20 a week and departed.
During the first week of their stay, the two girls were looked upon with growing hostility by Baniszewski. Sylvia was not as meek and submissive as her disabled sister and there was little tolerance for 'answering back' in that house.
Sylvia and Jenny were definitely not spoiled by the food on offer in the Baniszewskis' cluttered and dirty home. They were given just a few slices of toast in the morning and a bowl of soup at supper-time. Some writers, mindful of the harsh treatment which followed, have suggested that the girls were being singled out for some kind of starvation diet by their hosts - however, this sparse menu wasn't reserved for them alone. None of the Baniszewski family were eating well because they were poor and there was only a simple hotplate to cook upon. Thus sandwiches and soup tended to make up most of their meals.
At the end of that initial week, when the $20 for their board failed to appear, both girls were dragged to an upstairs room of the house and beaten cruelly. Baniszewski screamed, as she hit the children, that they were being housed and fed "for nothin'!".
The money arrived the next day; but, having perhaps convinced herself that the girls' parents had cheated her out of proper payment, Baniszewski's resentment bubbled over. Whenever she was in the same room as Sylvia or Jennie, the increasingly vicious 'foster mother' verbally and physically abused them. Later, at her trial, Baniszewski admitted that she hit them so hard that she hurt her own hands. Sylvia became the favourite target of regular punishments that revealed Baniszewski's sadistic nature. Sylvia's bare buttocks were paddled with a rough wooden board which cut her flesh and left scars.
The Baniszewski children were encouraged to assault Sylvia. Their friends were also invited to come to the house and use her as a punchbag. With the 'foster mother' looking on, these juvenile thugs hit and kicked Sylvia and whipped her with any items which came to hand. When she begged Baniszewski to stop them; the depraved creature only laughed and urged her fellow tormentors on to greater levels of abuse.
One youth with some judo training used Sylvia as a kind of 'practice dummy', he threw her against walls and down staircases, tried out choke holds on her and on one occasion knocked her unconscious with a broom handle.
Baniszewski ordered the children to stub out cigarettes on the girl's arms and hands. Her daughter Paula, drunk on bestial cruelty, punched Sylvia with enough force to break bones in her own hand. After being treated by a doctor and having her hand put into a plaster cast, the Baniszewski girl used the heavy cast to beat Sylvia with even more force.
A neighbour who visited the Baniszewskis several times whilst Sylvia was being abused, recalled seeing that Sylvia was increasingly bruised and battered. Each time the woman visited, Paula invariably claimed, with disturbingly gleeful pride, to be the author of the girl's wounds and abrasions - often she beat or whipped Sylvia in front of the neighbour. Sadly, like so many other people who saw what was happening, the neighbour said nothing to anybody who might have saved Sylvia.
With incredible hypocrisy, Baniszewski (who had gone through a string of failed romances and had a couple of illegitimate children and whose favourite daughter Paula was pregnant with a married man's baby) then labelled Sylvia Likens 'a whore'. She told many people that Sylvia was not only promiscuous, but pregnant.
The girl was stripped naked and forced to dance and perform lewd acts in front of Baniszewski's youthful cronies. Sylvia was made to insert a soda bottle into her vagina on at least two different occasions.
Sylvia's crotch and genital area was thumped and kicked so often and so viciously that hardened medical examiners were later shocked by the number of injuries in that region.
These particular beatings probably made it harder for her to control her bladder. When she wet her bed, Sylvia was told that she didn't deserve to live with 'decent' people. She was tied up and confined in the basement. The girl was released only when Gertrude Baniszewski or the child-thugs wished to beat her. She was kept naked or near naked for the amusement of the young savages; they enjoyed throwing her around the concrete floors and repeatedly forcing her to climb the stairs so that they could hurl her down the steps.
Use of the toilet was denied to her, Sylvia's torturers accused her of being a dirty person and often threw her into a bathtub full of scalding water.
A dim-witted neighbourhood boy, Ricky Hobbs, was directed to heat needles and use them to brand the girl's stomach with the words: "I am a prostitute and proud of it." Baniszewski started the lettering and then ordered Hobbs to finish the task. This horrible torture completed, Baniszewski released the full fiendish fury of her nature, beating the girl, slamming her head against the basement wall with such force that Sylvia Likens received the injuries that ultimately extinguished her life.
Not content with just physical torture, Baniszewski taunted Sylvia, telling her that she'd never be able to marry because of the words on her body. Sylvia was made to write a letter to her parents which 'confessed' to sharing her sexual favours with a gang of boys and then blamed all of her wounds, burns and the hideous message on her flesh upon these non-existent individuals.
Baniszewski's developing plan was to have Sylvia dumped (alive or dead) in some remote rural area. The letter would be 'proof' that she and her accomplices were innocent of any wrong-doing.
Whilst Sylvia was bound in the basement, a social worker called to investigate an anonymous report of a 'girl with running sores on her body'. She was told that Sylvia did indeed have sores on her body...the result of her own bad personal hygiene...and that Baniszewski had thrown her out of the house because she had become a prostitute.
Clearly, the Banieszewskis were preparing to rid themselves of their victim. They had an alibi and nobody had contradicted any of the tales they'd spun thus far. Sylvia realised that her days were numbered if she didn't escape. She made a desperate attempt to get out of the house - but she was caught and beaten into unconsciousness.
For a while she was treated with a bizarre mixture of outright brutality and warped kindness. She was offered crackers and sandwiches when Baniszewski became frightened of the consequences of all the beatings; yet one of the younger abusers made her drink urine and eat excrement.
They inflicted so much hurt on her that they must have known she would die; yet they also put her in the bathtub (with pleasantly warm water) and allowed her to sleep upstairs in a bed - though she was tied to the bedposts and denied use of the toilet (on the grounds that she had to 'learn' not to soil her bed before she earned that privilege). When, unsurprisingly, she wet the bed again, Sylvia was given another painful lesson by her sadistic 'tutors'.
The neighbours heard Sylvia hitting the walls of the basement with a shovel; some of them thought about complaining to the authorities about all the sleep they'd lost - but nobody actually did complain.
The next day Sylvia was placed in the bathtub again. She became very quiet and her jailers realised that she was dead.
The Police were told that Sylvia had been an uncontrollable and promiscuous tearaway. Baniszewski, producing the letter she'd forced Sylvia to write, stated that Sylvia had returned to the house after a sex session with some boys. According to her version of the events, the gang had followed Sylvia back to the house, mutilated her and then killed her. Baniszewski said she'd found the girl dead in the basement.
Of course, she neglected to say that her offspring had been primed with the same bogus tale before the Police were called. When investigating officer Melvin Dixon came to the house, all the children (including Jenny Likens) repeated Baniszewski's story word for word. Dixon was understandably shocked by Sylvia's bruised and battered body; he took down details of the accounts offered by the Baniszewskis and was about to leave when Jenny managed to whisper to him: "Get me out of here and I'll tell you the whole story."
Despite the protests of Gertrude Baniszewski and her clan, the officer took the girl away and quickly learned the truth. The sadistic 'foster mother' was charged with murder, convicted and given a life sentence. Baniszewski gained a new trial on appeal - but was again convicted and sent back to prison. Though she gave many interviews to writers and journalists from behind bars, she never expressed any genuine remorse. Nor did she ever come close to offering any explanations for her bizarre and cruel acts - to those who sought to discover her reasons, Gertrude Baniszewski would say: "I had to teach her a lesson."
The children who helped her to torture and kill Sylvia Likens were given incredibly short sentences; their lawyers skilfully laid most of the blame upon Gertrude Baniszewski - she'd been the only adult involved and (despite her attempts to claim that she was prostrate on her sickbed during the worst beatings and acts of torture) most onlookers had expected her to receive the Death Sentence. In 1985, amidst much public protest, she was released upon parole. For five years she lived quietly under an assumed name before dying of lung cancer.