House of Horrors

Ralph too was fighting to get near, to get a handful of that brown, vulnerable flesh. The desire to squeeze and hurt was over-mastering.
~William Golding,
Lord of the Flies
 
Little else can explain what happened to 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in 1965 but a group of children led by a self-absorbed adult who succumbed to a mob mentality like that seen in Golding’s novel.
 
Sylvia was a pretty teen who along with her partially disabled younger sister Jennie was left with Gertrude Baniszewski and her seven children in home in an Indianapolis slum. Sylvia and Jennie’s parents were itinerant carnival workers who were traveling through the South.
 
The Likenses and the Baniszewskis didn’t know each other that well, in fact they had met only days before, but Gertrude was desperate for money to support her family. She was married, but her husband had just been posted overseas by the Army. The Likenses didn’t know it, but Gertrude was a drug addict who had little control over her household.
 
“She was a mean and hateful person,” her son John would say years later. “Insanity reigned at the time.”
 
John expressed amazement that the Likenses would have allowed their daughters to stay in the home he shared in the 3800 block of East New York Street with his mother, 37, and his six siblings who ranged from 18 months to 17 years old.
 
“There was very little furniture in the house,” he said. “Sometimes just one or two spoons to eat with. We would steal clothes from backyard lines and food from neighbors’ gardens.”
 
Sylvia LikensAlthough the Baniszewski children lived in sordid dirtiness with only torn mattresses in their bedrooms, Gertrude wasn’t averse to spending money on herself. In addition to using most of the income to feed her prescription drug habit, Gertrude had a lavish, new bedroom set, John said.
 
Within a few weeks of moving into the Baniszewski home, Sylvia Likens had been tortured to death by Gertrude, her oldest daughter, her son John, and two neighbor children.
 
“This is the most sadistic act I’ve ever come across,” said 35-year police veteran Lt. Spurgeon Davenport at the time.
 
Gertrude began the cycle by punishing Sylvia for the smallest infraction of the few rules present in the house.
 
“My mother would make excuses to punish her,” said John, who was convicted of manslaughter at the age of 12.
 
Richard Hobbs, a 15-year-old neighbor who was also found guilty of manslaughter, said the attacks on Sylvia began simply because “Mrs. Baniszewski didn’t like her.”
 
Despite Gertrude’s feelings for Sylvia, the Likens girls were by all accounts helpful around the house. At first they got along well with the Baniszewski children and the arrangement appeared to be working out. Then the first $20 payment for the girls’ rent was late and Gertrude’s attitude changed.
 
When Sylvia picked up a few soda bottles and returned them for the deposit, Gertrude became convinced that the girl was “hanging out” at a local grocery store and decided to punish her by giving Sylvia a “paddling” with a 1/4-inch piece of pine.
 
Gertrude was frequently ill during the last weeks of Sylvia’s life, and according to a retrospective in the Orillia Packet & Times in 2004, she appointed 17-year-old Paula Baniszewski as designated hitter.
 
Paula BaniszewskiPaula, at 160 pounds, relished her newfound power,” wrote Max Haines in the Packet & Times. “She applied the paddle to Sylvia a number of times.”
 
Conditions quickly deteriorated for Sylvia. She was fed just crackers and water — if anything — and was was relegated to sleeping in the basement with a thin blanket as her only bedding.
 
In the early days of her punishment, Sylvia exhibited a small bit of resistance, but that only exacerbated her situation. When she called Paula a whore, the beginning of the end arrived.
 
With a heated needle, the abusers scratched “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s abdomen. They then branded the letter “S” on her chest.
 
Eventually, Sylvia stopped resisting.
 
“Fear paralyzed her,” John said in a 1998 interview. “Fear’s a weird thing. We’d become such a bizarre group. A certain mob psychology took over.”
 
John said he liked to hear Sylvia cry, so he burned her with cigarettes. The autopsy on the girl revealed 150 burns on her body. Every few days Paula would immerse Sylvia in scalding water and even rubbed salt in her wounds. It was finally a fractured skull and injuries to her brain that killed Sylvia.
 
Neighbor Coy Hubbard became one of the chief torturers. A strapping 6-foot-tall 15-year-old weighing more than 170 pounds, Hubbard enjoyed picking Sylvia up and flipping her over his shoulder, allowing her to fall on the concrete basement floor.
 
Jennie was forced to participate. Once she was ordered to slap her sister’s face until it turned bright red. The alternative, of course, was to become a victim herself.
 
On October 26, 1965, in the course of being abused, Sylvia lost consciousness. While Gertrude watched, the children dragged in a garden hose and sprayed Sylvia to bring her back around. It didn’t work. Sylvia was dead.
 
Another neighbor, Richard Hobbs, who was also a major participant in the torture, called police, hoping emergency personnel would be able to revive her.
 
When the police arrived, Gertrude told them that Sylvia had run away and returned, telling the group that she had been abused by a gang of boys. The bruises and injuries were too old support the claims. Hobbs, Hubbard, and the Baniszewskis were taken in for questioning and Hobbs told everything that happened. His confession was supported by other neighbors who had seen Sylvia’s wounds (and did nothing), and by Jennie Likens.
 
The five main abusers were indicted on first degree murder charges and prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty for all of them — including 12-year-old John.
 
John, Gertrude, Paula, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard were all tried together. Two of the witnesses against them were Gertrude’s 10- and 11-year-old daughters.
 
“God help me,” one of the girls cried out on the stand. Her sister admitted heating the needles used to brand Sylvia.
 
The stakes at the trial were lost on John Baniszewski.
 
“I took a kind of delight in it,” John said later. “What I really wanted was love, but I took the attention instead.”
 
In a true demonstration of her capacity to love, Gertrude testified at her trial that it was her children who were mostly responsible. She was “sick and rundown,” she said, and was ill in bed and unaware of the abuse.
 
At one point, when confronted with morgue photos of Sylvia, Gertrude refused to look at them.
 
“I don’t want to see any of them,” she said. “I don’t think anything dead would be pleasant.”
 
After a five-week trial in 1966, Gertrude was convicted of first degree murder and given a life sentence. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder and also given a life sentence. The younger defendants were all convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 2-to-21 year terms.
 
The boys were all paroled in early 1968. Paula served about 7 years and was freed in 1973. After serving less than 20 years, Gertrude Baniszewski was paroled in 1985 just in time for Christmas.
 
“I feel like that person was somebody else, not me,” she said in an jailhouse interview.
 
John Baniszewski eventually became a born-again Christian who changed his name and now speaks to young people about the dangers of anger and rage.
 
“I got off too easy,” he said in 1998.
 
The house where Sylvia died became known as something of a haunted house and was sold and resold many times over the years. In a nearby park, a small monument stands in memory of the short life and brutal death of Sylvia Likens.