Sylvia Likens was just a teenager when she was murdered — only 16-years-old. In hindsight, it is easy to see that she was the victim of bullying. What sets this case of bullying murder apart was that the ringleader of the gang of bullies that killed Sylvia was a grown woman with several children of her own — Gertrude Baniszewski. Furthermore, children as young as 8-years-old were involved in or witness to the events leading up to her death. The case of Sylvia’s murder, though it happened nearly 50 years ago, has a message that is timeless. Bullying is not something that is relegated to schoolyards and corridors and when it is instigated, condoned, participated in and covered up by an adult, it is a very dangerous thing.
Sylvia Likens was like so many other teenage girls. Her parents were in an on again, off again relationship. She moved from place to place while her parents sought employment and worked. She had three siblings, one of whom she was very close with. She did not have a lot of money. While she was never in inordinate amounts of trouble until the last months of her life, she may have been dishonest from time to time as a result of her situation and age. Overall, she was nondescript. The kind of child you might feel sorry for if you saw the way her parents carted her around and left her with whoever would take her, but not the kind you would say stuck out as overly impoverished, abused, bright or beautiful. She was just Sylvia — until she met Gertrude.
Gertrude Baniszewski, who went by Mrs. Wright, though she was never married to Mr. Wright, was in her late 30’s when she met Sylvia Likens. She had seven children, had miscarried six, was single and was poverty-stricken. She lived in a run down home at 3850 East New York St. in Indianapolis. The home did not have enough beds for all those who lived there. Gertrude was the product of a string of bad relationships, in poor health and seemingly incapable of acquiring better living conditions or realizing the living conditions were not conducive to more bodies.
In July of 1965, Sylvia and Jenny Likens — the younger sister Sylvia was close to — met Gertrude’s daughter Paula, who was 17-years-old and pregnant. They went back to Gertrude’s home and stayed the night. Their father went looking for them in the morning and was eager to leave them there. He and his wife had recently reconciled and were going to work at circuses, meaning they would be traveling. Gertrude and Lester arranged a deal, in which Gertrude would keep Sylvia and Jenny in exchange for 20 dollars a week, until Lester and Betty Likens’ return.
And so, Sylvia Likens was left to live in the home where she would die. It started slow and ended even slower. The first week, she was spanked, along with Jenny, because their parents’ payment was late. The following week brought another spanking. Over time, what was then considered acceptable discipline evolved into violent bullying. First, it was name-calling. Gertrude called Sylvia a liar, called her dirty and, to put it kindly, that she was sexually active. There is evidence that she even convinced Sylvia that she was pregnant, though Sylvia was most likely a virgin. Gertrude took out years of simmering rage on Sylvia and encouraged a large group of minors to join in, especially the Baniszewski children.
Of the horrors that Sylvia endured from children much younger than her to the adult Gertrude were force-feeding, force-feeding of her own vomit, kicking of her genitals, repeated beatings, burns, forced scalding baths, forcing her to push bottles into her vagina and all manner of taunts, teasing and general beatings. For roughly three months, Sylvia endured what had become a macabre hobby for Gertrude, the neighborhood children, the Baniszewski children and their friends/boyfriends. Then, it became worse than her body could bear.
After a bed-wetting incident, likely brought on by the abuse or the beatings of her genitals, Sylvia Likens was tied up in the basement and forced to eat her own feces. She stayed there for a time, coming ever closer to death. Gertrude brought her upstairs once and tied her to a bed there. After another bedwetting incident, following Gertrude’s refusal to let her use the bathroom, Gertrude began branding the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!” into her stomach with a hot sewing needle. She did most of the first two letters and a local 14-year-old boy, Richard Hobbs finished the job. Then, Richard and Shirley (another of Gertrude’s children) made a “3” on Sylvia’s chest.
One day, Sylvia Likens confessed that she thought she was dying to her also abused, but far less tormented sister Jenny. Gertrude forced Sylvia to write a letter saying that the wounds she suffered came from boys she fell in with after running away. Gertrude continued to beat her after this letter was written. Finally, the poor young woman died whilst being given one of her few non-tortuous baths.
Richard Hobbs called the police from a payphone, giving them the address and telling them there was a dead girl in the house. He later served a mere 18 months in prison for his part in the torment and death of Sylvia Likens. He may not have gotten any time if it were not for Jenny Likens. The terrified girl whispered to police officers, who were busy taking in the lies of Gertrude, “Get me out of here and I will tell you everything.” and she was true to her word, though Sylvia’s body spoke of the enormity of what happened to her.
Apart from the brandings on Sylvia Likens’ chest and stomach, she also had more than 100 burns and extensive bruising. Her genitals showed signs of frequent abuse. Her skin had begun to peel off on parts of her body.
In court, Gertrude blamed the children and the children eventually blamed Gertrude and the other children. In the end, Gertrude got life. Paula, who loved to hurt Sylvia, served only a few years. John (Gertrude’s son), Coy Hubbard and the aforementioned Richard Hobbs got 18 months. Gertrude was released in 1985 and lived the rest of her life free. Several of the children who participated on the fringe were not even punished.
Noe, Denise, The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens, retrieved 10/6/11, trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/1.html