Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was an American murder victim from
Indiana. She was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski (née Van Fossan), Gertrude’s children,
and other young people from their neighborhood. Her parents, carnival workers, had left Likens
and her sister Jenny in the care of the Baniszewski family three months before her death in
exchange for twenty dollars a week. Baniszewski, two of her children, Paula and John, and two
neighbor youths, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were charged and convicted of the crime. Her
torture and murder were described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski’s trial as “the most terrible
crime ever committed in the state of Indiana.”
Sylvia’s photograph shows a pretty, (Please see below) freckled teenager with wavy dark hair and
bangs, gazing into the distance with an expression that, as one of the prosecutors said at the trial of
her killers, seems “full of hope and anticipation.”
Dean quotes an acquaintance as remembering that Sylvia felt like “the odd one in the family
because she was born between two sets of twins.” Both twins in the Likens family were fraternal
rather than identical and both were of different sexes. Danny and Diana were two years older than
Sylvia while Jenny and Benny were a year younger.
The Likens family was always poor and the marriage was troubled; Lester and Betty had split up,
then gotten back together, more than once. Given the demands of two sets of twins and the extra
care that had to be given Jenny because of her disability, it seems reasonable that Sylvia may have
felt rather neglected by her parents.
Baniszewski, described by the Indianapolis Star as a “haggard, underweight asthmatic” suffering
from depression and the stress of several failed marriages, began taking her anger out on the Likens
girls, beating them with paddles after their parents’ payments failed to come on time. Before the
Likens leave their daughters to the hands of Baniszewski, Lester gave Baniszewski some advice
that he would later have much reason to regret: “You’ll have to take care of these girls with a firm
hand because their mother has let them do as they please.”
Sylvia in particular became a target of abuse. Baniszewski accused her of stealing from a grocery
store and humiliated her when she admitted that she had once had a boyfriend in California. She
kicked Sylvia in the groin and accused her of being pregnant. Paula Baniszewski, who was in fact
pregnant at the time, became enraged and knocked Sylvia onto the floor. Sylvia seems to have
believed that she was pregnant, although medical examination proved that she was not.
This photo, shown to jurors during Baniszewski's 1966 trial, shows where Sylvia's body was found
when police came to the house on Oct. 26, 1965. - AP file photo
Sylvia retaliated by spreading rumors at their high school that Paula and her sister Stephanie were
prostitutes, which prompted Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to attack Sylvia physically. This
seemed to have been welcomed by Mrs. Baniszewski, who encouraged neighborhood children to
torment Sylvia, including, among other things, by putting cigarettes out on her skin and forcing her
to remove her clothes and inserting a Coke bottle into her vagina.
After she admitted stealing a gym suit, without which she was unable to attend gym class,
Baniszewski pulled Sylvia out of school and did not allow her to leave the house. When she wet
her bed from nerves, she was locked in the cellar and forbidden from using the toilet. Later, she
was forced to consume feces and urine. Baniszewski began to carve the words “I’m a prostitute and
proud of it!” into Sylvia’s stomach with a heated needle. Richard Hobbs finished the carving.
Sylvia attempted to escape a few days before her death. As punishment, she was tied in the
basement and given only crackers to eat. On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, she died of
brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition.
Juror's toured the house on May 5, 1966. Two weeks later, they found Baniszewski guilty of first-
degree murder. - Star file photo by James C. Ramsey
The trial in May, 1966
On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder, but was spared the
death penalty and sentenced to life in prison.
Her daughter Paula, who had given birth to a daughter named Gertrude (Paula named her daughter
Gertrude as a sign of filial) during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder and also given
a life term. Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski were convicted of manslaughter
and sentenced to 2-to-21-year terms. The boys would spend two years in prison.
In 1971, Paula and Gertrude Baniszewski were granted another trial. Paula pleaded guilty to
voluntary manslaughter and was released two years later.
In 1985, after serving almost 20 years in prison, Baniszewski was granted parole. She changed her
name, moved to another state and died five years later.
Gertrude Baniszewski, however, was again convicted of first-degree murder. She came up for
parole in 1985, and despite a public outcry and petitions against her release, the parole board took
her good behavior in prison into account, and she was set free.
Gertrude Baniszewski changed her name to Nadine van Fossan and moved to Iowa, where she died
of lung cancer on June 16, 1990.
Jenny Likens Wade died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004 at the age of 54. Richard Hobbs died of
cancer, at age 21, four years after being released from prison. Sylvia’s parents, Lester and Betty
Likens divorced and Betty died in 1998 at age 71.
The house at 3850 East New York Street that Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered in stood
vacant and run-down for many years after the murder, and was finally demolished on April 23,
The murder of Sylvia Likens – 1965 torture slaying remains one of Indianapolis’ most notorious
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