Who Is Gertrude Baniszewski
Gertrude Baniszewski, also known as Gertrude Wright and The Torture Mother, was an Indiana divorcee who oversaw and facilitated the prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens, a teenage girl she had taken into her home.
The case is unique in that, while Gertrude Baniszewski did play an active role in Likens’ death, the majority of the torture, that eventually brought about Likens’ demise, was carried out by Baniszewski’s teenage children and other neighborhood children.
Although Gertrude Baniszewski did instruct the children on several occasions, it was later discovered that they took a large degree of Sylvia Likens’ torture into their own hands, in what would later be called a Lord of the Flies scenario come to life. When she was convicted of first degree murder in 1965, the case was called “the single worst crime perpetuated against an individual in Indiana’s history.”
Life Before Sylvia Likens
Baniszewski was born Gertrude Van Fossan in 1929, the third of 6 children. Little is known about her childhood, except that she shared an extremely close bond with her father but had a frigid relationship with her mother. A further wedge was driven between Gertrude and her mother when Baniszewski’s father died in 1940. Gertrude, at the young age of 11, watched her father die of a sudden heart attack. It devastated her.
Five years later, Gertrude dropped out of school, at the age of 16, to marry 18 year old deputy John Baniszewski, by whom she had 4 children. John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, often beating his wife for “annoying him.” The two stayed together for 10 years before eventually divorcing. Gertrude Baniszewski was granted custody of their children.
Within a year of the divorce, Gertrude Baniszewski met and married a man named Edward Guthrie, who divorced her after 3 months when he tired of having her children around. Shortly thereafter, Gertrude and John Baniszewski reconciled and re-married. The couple stayed together for 7 years and had 2 more children before finally divorcing permanently in 1963.
Gertrude Baniszewski Has An Affair With A Younger Man
Around this time, the then 37 year old Gertrude Baniszewski began an affair and moved in with a 23 year old named Dennis Lee Wright, who further abused her. She became pregnant by him twice, suffering one miscarriage (possibly as the result of an assault by Wright) and giving birth to one child. This child, Dennis Jr., would be Baniszewski’s last child. In all, she had 7 children and suffered 6 miscarriages.
Shortly after Dennis Jr.’s birth, Dennis Wright Sr. abandoned Gertrude Baniszewski and disappeared. She was left essentially destitute, as Wright had been supporting her financially. She was now forced to support herself and 7 children on occasional child support payments from the unreliable John Baniszewski, and by performing odd jobs around town such as babysitting and doing other people’s laundry for them.
Financial problems were quickly exacerbated when Gertrude Baniszewski discovered that her 17 year old daughter, Paula, was 3 months pregnant after a fling with a middle aged, married man.
Gertrude Baniszewski Sick With Unidentified Illnesses
Around this time Baniszewski’s health declined considerably. She was chronically ill with a number of unidentified illnesses. She ceased practicing proper hygiene and barely ate. Eventually, these factors began to affect her outward appearance, resulting in a receded hairline, sunken eyes and an overall skeletal appearance. Baniszewski began to present herself as “Mrs. Wright,” claiming that she had in fact married Dennis before he abandoned her, which allowed her to keep up a veneer of respectability.
In July of 1965, Paula Baniszewski met up with a friend of hers, Darlene McGuire, who introduced her to two new neighborhood girls, Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Sylvia’s younger sister, Jenny, 15, who was required to walk with braces due to polio. Paula took the girls back home to 3850 East New York Street, where they drank soda and listened to records.
The Likens’ girls mother, Betty, was at the time in county jail after having been arrested for shoplifting, which left Sylvia to care for her sister. Betty had abandoned Sylvia’s father, Lester, and effectively kidnapped their two daughters. When Paula heard of the girls’ circumstances, she offered to let Sylvia and Jenny spend the night.
Gertrude Baniszewski Meets Lester Likens
The next day, Lester Likens arrived in town, having tracked down his wife. He ran into McGuire, who recognized the description Lester gave of his daughters and she directed him to the Baniszewski home.
When Lester Likens arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski introduced herself as “Mrs. Wright.” The two struck up a conversation and, over the course of which, the idea came up that Gertrude might take in Sylvia and Jenny as boarders. He had spoken with his wife at the county jail, where they had reconciled and agreed to travel the United States carnival circuit as carnies.
No one really knows whether Gertrude Baniszewski, or Lester himself, suggested that she board the girls, but eventually, Lester agreed to leave the children in Baniszewski’s care for $20 a week. Lester did not inspect the home before leaving. Had he done so, he would have discovered that Gertrude’s home had no stove or microwave. Also, that there were only enough beds for half the people in the house, that the only things Gertrude kept in her pantry were bread and crackers, that most of the surfaces in the home were caked with thick layers of dirt and there were only enough plates and eating utensils for 3 people.
Early Abuse Of Sylvia Likens
The first week of Sylvia and Jenny’s lives at the Baniszewski home went relatively well. They attended high school and attended teenage social functions with the Baniszewski children as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday.
When Lester’s $20 payment failed to arrive, though, Gertrude Baniszewski threw a temper tantrum, screaming at the girls, “I took care of you two bitches for nothing!” before forcing them to lie across her bed with their skirts and underwear around their ankles while Baniszewski beat their buttocks. Shortly thereafter, Lester and Betty Likens came into town to check on their girls. Neither of the girls made any reference to the beatings, presumably under threat from Gertrude Baniszewski.
The next week, Sylvia and Jenny went through the neighborhood garbage, collecting old Coca Cola bottles to sell in order to get money for candy. When they came home with the candy, Gertrude Baniszewski accused them of stealing, when Sylvia explained how she had gotten the candy, Baniszewski accused her of lying and made her bend over her bed as before while she beat her across the buttocks with a paddle.
The Torture Begins
Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski children came to Gertrude Baniszewski after a church social and told her that they were disgusted with the amount of food they had seen Sylvia eating.
Following the Coke bottle incident, Sylvia became incontinent. As a result, Gertrude Baniszewski decided that she was no longer fit to live with humans, and locked her in the basement. The lack of a toilet in the basement forced Sylvia to defecate and urinate on the floor. When Gertrude saw this, she began a “bathing regime” to “cleanse” Sylvia, whom she began calling “dirty girl.”
The “regime” consisted of filling Gertrude’s claw-footed bathtub with scalding water, binding Sylvia’s wrists and ankles, and then dunking Sylvia into it. The regime was administered arbitrarily, sometimes once or many times a day, somedays not at all. Following the baths, Paula Baniszewski would rub handfuls of salt over Sylvia’s nude body.
During this period Gertrude Baniszewski took on 14 year old Ricky Hobbs, a neighborhood boy, as her “personal assistant” when dealing with Sylvia. Hobbs, an honor student from a middle class family, with no previous legal trouble, experienced a sudden shift in personality upon becoming Baniszewski’s assistant, blindly following whatever orders she gave him. Crime reporters have since speculated that Hobbs was Baniszewski’s lover and that she had seduced the boy into becoming her henchman.
Sylvia Likens Is Turned Into A Money Maker
Baniszewski’s children turned Sylvia into a money-making opportunity, charging neighborhood children a nickel to gawk at the nude Sylvia or to push her down the stairs to the basement, where she was now kept when not being bathed or put on display. Sylvia was kept constantly naked and rarely fed. When she was allowed to eat, it was in some bizarre fashion. Such as the instance in which Gertrude Baniszewski insisted that she eat soup with her fingers.
Often, Gertrude Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son, John Jr., would make Sylvia “clean” the basement by “allowing” her to eat her own feces, and gave Sylvia a container in which she could collect her urine, which she was then made to drink.
Sometime around this period, Jenny Likens managed to send contact to her and Sylvia’s older sister, Diana, who was married and had a family of her own. Jenny outlined the horrors that she and Sylvia were experiencing, and instructed Diana to contact the police to come rescue them. Diana 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.
Also around this time, one of the neighborhood children who had been by to see Sylvia, a twelve year old named Judy Duke, went home and told her mother “they were beating and kicking Sylvia.” The girl’s mother replied that was what happened when someone was punished.
Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski’s reverend, Roy Julian, visited them as part of a program he had set up to see each of his parishioners at their homes. While he and Gertrude Baniszewski drank coffee, she complained to him that Sylvia had been an intense burden on her, claiming that the girl was a prostitute who had been servicing married men and had gotten pregnant. Although at the time Paula Baniszewski was several months pregnant, Gertrude Baniszewski insisted that her daughter was a virgin and that Sylvia was attempting to pass off her own misdeeds onto the pure Paula.
Visitors To The Home Of Gertrude Baniszewski
Baniszewski and the reverend prayed for Sylvia’s salvation before the reverend left. When the reverend returned again a few weeks later, Paula told the reverend during prayers that she had “hatred in [her] heart” for Sylvia, to which Gertrude Baniszewski interjected that the opposite was true.
Shortly after this, Diana came by to visit her sisters. Gertrude Baniszewski refused to allow her into the home, at first telling her that Lester had contacted her and instructed her not to allow Diana into the home. When Diana questioned this, Baniszewski threatened to call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Diana hid nearby the house until she spotted Jenny outside, and then approached her. Jenny told her older sister that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away.
Concerned, Diana contacted social services. When a social worker arrived at the home, Gertrude Baniszewski informed her that she had kicked Sylvia out of the house for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that Sylvia had since run away. Baniszewski then managed to get Jenny alone long enough to inform her that if she told the social worker the truth, Jenny would join her sister naked in the basement. Jenny then 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 calls needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.
More Silence About Sylvia Likens
On October 20th, Gertrude Baniszewski called the police to come arrest a boy at her home. Robert Bruce Hanlon was a local youth who claimed that the Baniszewski children had stolen things from his basement. He had come to the home earlier in the evening demanding that Baniszewski return his things. When she refused, he attempted to sneak into the home to take them back.
Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Hanlon being put into the back of a squad car and approached the police to speak on his behalf, as she had earlier overheard the argument between Gertrude Baniszewski and Hanlon over the stolen goods. Vermillion made no mention of Sylvia during her conversation with the police.
On October 21st, Gertrude Baniszewski instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to bring Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed, telling Sylvia that if she could hold her bladder through the night, she would be permitted to sleep upstairs again.
The Branding Of Sylvia Likens
When Baniszewski checked Sylvia the next morning and discovered she had wet the bed, Gertrude Baniszewski made her dress, then took her into the living area, where she was once again forced to perform a striptease for her sons and the neighborhood boys, again climaxed by Baniszewski forcing Sylvia to masturbate with a Coca Cola bottle.
When Sylvia was finished, she was allowed to dress. After a few moments, apropos of nothing, Gertrude brought up Sylvia’s lies about Paula and Stephanie, and declared, “You have branded my daughters so I will brand you!” Sylvia was forcibly stripped naked, tied down, and gagged while one of Baniszewski’s children heated a sewing needle with a series of matches. When the needle was orange, Gertrude used it to carve and burn the letter “I'” and part of the letter “M” into Sylvia’s stomach. She then instructed Ricky Hobbs to continue carving letters to spell out the phrase, “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT.”
At one point Hobbs stopped and asked Baniszewski in a confused manner to spell “prostitute” for him. Baniszewski wrote it down on a piece of paper, and the carving/burning re-commenced. When the process was finished, the tattoo – consisting not only of the actual carving but third-degree burns left behind by the heat of the needle – was such that modern plastic surgery would have been unable to correct it.
The Other Children Continue The Torture
Satisfied, Baniszewski left the room, leaving Sylvia tied, gagged, and naked. At this point, Ricky, Paula, and Baniszewski’s ten year old daughter Shirley decided to give Sylvia another tattoo, an “S” in the middle of her chest; the three would later become confused as to whether they had intended the “S” to stand for “Sylvia” or “Slave,” though the latter explanation was the one which was leaned towards as being correct.
Ricky burned the bottom curve of the “S” into Sylvia. He then either choked, or changed his mind, because he then ordered Jenny to come over and carve the top half. Although threatened, Jenny refused. Ricky relented, and ordered Shirley to finish the tattoo. The eleven year old choked and accidentally carved the curve backwards, so that the numeral “3” appeared on Sylvia Likens’ chest.
Gertrude Baniszewski re-entered the room at this point to address the still bound and gagged Sylvia. “What are you going to do now, Sylvia? You can’t get married now, you can’t undress in front of anyone. What are you going to do now?”
Sylvia was un-gagged to address Gertrude Baniszewski. She replied: “I guess there’s nothing I can do. It’s on there.”
Hubbard then took Sylvia back to the basement, where he used her for judo practice for a period before returning home. In the middle of the night, Jenny Likens sneaked into the basement to visit her sister, where Sylvia told her, “I’m going to die. I can tell.”
The Letter Of Sylvia Likens
Shortly after Jenny’s visit, Gertrude Baniszewski inexplicably went into the basement and brought Sylvia upstairs and allowed her to sleep in one of the beds. She was allowed to sleep until noon of the next day, October 23rd, when Baniszewski woke her. Once Sylvia was awake, Gertrude Baniszewski and Stephanie took her into the bathroom and gave her a warm, soapy bath.
Over the course of that night, and into the morning hours of October 25th, Sylvia beat the basement floor with the scoop portion of an iron shovel. Next door neighbors would later report considering calling the police, but chose not to.
Gertrude Baniszewski instructed her children to take Sylvia’s body to the basement and strip it naked. She then told Hobbs to go to a nearby payphone and call the police (her house having no working telephone).
Gertrude Baniszewski Gets Arrested
When the police arrived, Baniszewski gave them the letter she’d made Sylvia dictate. In the midst of the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the police, “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.” This statement, combined with the police’s discovery of Sylvia’s body in the basement, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude Baniszewski, Paula, Stephanie, John, Hobbs, and Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time – Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Duke, and Siscoe – were arrested for “injury to a person.”
The Trial Of Gertrude Baniszewski
Gertrude Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials. Charges against Siscoe, Duke, Monroe, and Lepper were dismissed. Stephanie’s lawyer got her a separate trial. Before it was able to begin, the district attorney dropped the murder charges.
Meanwhile, an autopsy of Sylvia Likens turned up over 100 cigarette burns on her body, in addition to various second and third degree burns, severe 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, largely discrediting–along with a lack of any ripping or tearing to the rectum– Gertrude’s assertions that Sylvia was a prostitue and completely disproving her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock.
The Death Penalty Is On The Table
The case of the State of Indiana v. Gertrude Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Paula Baniszewski, Ricky Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard commenced in May of 1966. The prosecution sought the death penalty for all involved, including John and Hobbs, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, respectively. Paula’s time in court was interrupted when she was rushed to the hospital to give birth to the child that she and her mother had insisted she wasn’t carrying. In a show of solidarity, Paula named the child Gertrude.
Gertrude Baniszewski and the children’s cases were exacerbated by the fact that they were being represented by four different attorneys–one for Baniszewski, one for Paula, one for Hobbs, and one for Coy and John–all of whom worked against each other and attempted to shift blame against the other defendants, even though they were all being tried together.
Baniszewski’s attorney attempted to shift blame onto the children, portraying her as weak, chronically ill and incapable of preventing or perpetuating any of the abuse. The children’s attorneys attempted to shift blame onto Gertrude Baniszewski and the other children.
Some of the most damaging testimony against Gertrude Baniszewski was due to her own self-incrimination. She recounted bizarre tales of Sylvia Likens being a neighborhood prostitute and of her trysts with middle aged, married men, as well as accusing her of frequently starting fights in the home. To corroborate Baniszewski’s testimony, eleven-year-old Marie was was called to the stand.
Initially, Marie backed up everything her mother had said, until, during cross examination, she suddenly screamed “God help me!” before admitting everything she’d said was a lie. She then went on to recount in graphic, blunt detail how her mother and siblings had tortured and murdered Sylvia.
The young girl’s shocking turn against her own family was largely responsible for the eventual verdict. Gertrude Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. To the shock of the citizens of Indianapolis, she did not receive the death penalty, but rather life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Aftermath and death
Paula Baniszewski was convicted of second degree murder. She appealed and was granted a new trial. But, before it began, she struck a plea bargain and plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She served three years in prison and was then paroled.
John Baniszewski, Hubbard, and Hobbs were each convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to eighteen months in a juvenile detention facility. By the time the now seventeen year old Hobbs was released, the severity of his crimes had sunk in and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He began a regime of heavy-chain smoking which had severely decayed his lungs by the time he was twenty. By the time he was twenty-one, he was dead of lung cancer.
Gertrude Baniszewski appealed, was granted a new trial, and was again found guilty, though this time she was sentenced to eighteen years to life. Over the course of the next eighteen 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 had earned the prison nickname “Mom.”
The Parole Hearing Of Gertrude Baniszewski
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 Gertrude Baniszewski. The members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society’s League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose Baniszewski’s parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign.
Over the course of two months, the groups collected 4500 signiatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Gertrude Baniszewski be kept behind bars. In spite of all this, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she gave the following confession:”
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.
Gertrude Baniszewski Walks Free
Gertrude Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985 and travelled to Iowa under the name Nadine Van Fossan. She died there of lung cancer in 1990. The fates of Baniszewski’s children remains largely unknown. Paula Baniszewski moved to Iowa and assumed a new identity; internet rumors claim that she is still alive and lives on a farm somewhere in the Iowa countryside. Stephanie Baniszewski became a school teacher and assumed a new name.
John Baniszewski changed his name to John Blake and worked as a truck driver before becoming a real estate agent and lay minister. He was never arrested again. He married and had three children, and has lived in anonymity.