The 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (2023)

The 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (1)

It has been the most enduring nightmare in Indianapolis True Crime history — the Oct. 26, 1965, torture-murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens.

Other crimes have involved a greater number of victims, often including children, but the villains in those stories were hardened criminals or madmen, and their acts of violence played out rapidly within a span of minutes or hours. In the aftermath of grief and anger, good people could at least comprehend the chain of events that had just unfolded.

On the surface, the Likens murder is not much different from any number of heinous crimes. It was a Cinderella story without the happy ending — a teenage girl left under the care of a strict authoritarian whose idea of discipline is physical abuse that escalates until the abuse victim dies. If that was the extent of it, this case would likely have been lost to history long ago like so many other long-forgotten murders.

This case was somehow more disturbing than other crimes, perhaps because:

* The abuse was carried out not just by the caregiver — the notorious Gertrude Baniszewski — but also by her own children, some as young as 10, and by other children in the neighborhood. For weeks, even months, the torture of Sylvia Likens was casual entertainment, something to do in the afternoon before dinner and favorite TV shows. At least a dozen children participated or at least watched, and none felt sufficiently disturbed to tell their own parents.

* Other adults occasionally came to the Baniszewski house for various reasons and saw Sylvia's battered appearance. None pushed to be sure she was safe.

(Video) The Torture and Murder of Sylvia Likens

* Sylvia herself and her younger sister Jenny had opportunities to tell adults at school or church — they even had adult relatives living nearby. Neither said a word because, as Jenny would later explain, they thought it would only make things worse. Neither could conceive of the possibility that authorities would move to protect them, remove them from the house or arrest their tormentors.

Arrests did come, but only after it was over.

On Oct. 26, 1965, Indianapolis police were called to 3850 E. New York St. where Sylvia's body lay on a mattress. Baniszewski told them the girl had been attacked by a gang of boys and she even produced a note written in Sylvia's own hand that seemed to confirm that story. But the cops could tell by the condition of the victim that this had been no single incident.

Sylvia's body was malnourished and covered with sores, burns and bruises, many of them old. She had been branded in one spot by a hot metal object, and the words "I am a prostitute" had been etched on her stomach.

The 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (2)

How it began:

Sylvia came from a large, poor family from southern Boone County, just northwest of Indianapolis. Her father, Lester Likens, had only an eighth-grade education and worked a lot of different jobs to make a living. He'd had a laundry route, worked in factories and had even owned a small restaurant, though unsuccessfully. He had also traveled with carnivals selling food from a concession cart, and it was to this work to which he and his wife decided to return in the summer of 1965.

That meant finding someone to watch four of their children. The oldest, Diana, was grown and married. The two boys, Danny and Bennie, were placed with their grandparents, and that left the girls, Sylvia and Jenny.


Jenny was shy, insecure and limped from childhood polio. Sylvia was outwardly more confident and went by the nickname "Cookie." She was pretty but always kept her mouth closed when she smiled because she had a missing front tooth.

A mutual friend introduced the Likens to Gertrude Baniszewski (then briefly going by the name Gertrude Wright), who lived in a big rented house at the corner of East New York and Denny and was willing to look after Jenny and Sylvia for $20 a week.

Gertrude was already caring for seven of her own children: Paula, 17; John, 12; Stephanie, 15; Marie, 11; Shirley, 10; and James and Dennis, 18 months. The six oldest children all had the last name Baniszewski because their father was Gertrude's ex-husband, John Baniszewski. The youngest child, Dennis, had the last name of his father, Dennis Wright. Gertrude said he was in Germany serving in the Army.

From the beginning, there was a clash between Sylvia and Gertrude's 17-year-old daughter, Paula, and this was the seed of what grew in that house during the months of July through October 1965.

Then one day the money order from Sylvia's parents didn't show up on the day Gertrude was expecting it. Jenny later testified Gertrude "took us upstairs … and she slapped me, and said, 'Well, I took care of you two b___ for a week for nothing." The money order arrived the next day, but the key had been turned.

Gertrude was frail and underweight, but she had two weapons she used for corporal punishment: a fraternity-style paddle and a thick leather belt left behind by her ex-husband, John Baniszewski, an Indianapolis police officer.

(Video) 1965 radio interview - murder of Sylvia Likens

Gertrude began using the paddle on Sylvia and Jenny for various offenses such as exchanging soft drink bottles for change at a nearby grocery. When she suspected Sylvia of stealing she used matches to burn the girl's fingers. SometimesGertrude felt too weak from her asthma to discipline the girls properly so 17-year-old Paula helped.

Neighborhood children began to crowd the home to participate in the torture. The children took turns practicing their judo on Sylvia, hurling her against a wall. Some began kicking and beating her. Others extinguished their cigarettes on her skin. As Gertrude and a gang of teenagers watched, Sylvia was forced to undress in the living room and insert an empty Coke bottle into her vagina.

The 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (3)

After the beatings, Sylvia was forced into a scalding hot bath so she would be "cleansed of her sins." She was severely beaten and burned for wetting her mattress while asleep and Gertrude decided that Sylvia was no longer fit to live with her children.

Near the end, Sylvia was no longer permitted to leave the house. She was thrown down the cellar stairs and locked in, given crackers for food and refused the right to use a bathroom. Gertrude Baniszewski announced to her children that Sylvia was a "prostitute, and she's proud of it; so we'll just put it on her stomach." She took a large needle and began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" into Sylvia's stomach. Richard Hobbs, a neighbor boy, finished the etching.

Retro Indy: Heinous crimes of serial killers in Indiana

When Baniszewski realized Sylvia might be dying, she forced her to write a note saying a gang of boys beat her. The plan was to blindfold her and dump her in nearby woods with the note. Sylvia tried to escape but Gertrude and one of the boys stopped her, beating her again and throwing her back into the basement.

(Video) The Torture & Murder of Sylvia Likens

Sylvia Likens died Oct. 26, 1965. Cause of death was determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain and shock induced by Sylvia's extensive skin damage. Sylvia also suffered from extreme malnutrition. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon.

The Baniszewski trial, May 1966

At her trial the following year, Baniszewski denied any knowledge of the torture, claiming the children must have done it all. She entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

On May 19, 1966, a jury found Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder while Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder. Hobbs, along with Baniszewski's son John and another neighborhood boy, Coy Hubbard, were convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life terms at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. The boys were sentenced to two-to-21-year terms at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton.

The 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (4)

In 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski a new trial due to "prejudicial atmosphere," but Gertrude was again convicted of first-degree murder on Aug. 5, 1971. Paula pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and served about two years in prison. The three boys were released on parole for good behavior in 1968, after serving about two years each of their sentences.

In Decemb 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski was released on parole. She changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa where she lived in obscurity until her death from lung cancer on June 16, 1990. Paula married and moved to a farm in Iowa.

John became a lay minister in Texas and counseled children of divorced parents.


Hobbs died of cancer at the age of 21, four years after being released from the reformatory. Hubbard has had several brushes with the law. Lester and Betty Likens divorced. Betty remarried and died in 1998 at age 71. Jenny Likens Wade died in 2004 at age 54.

Retro Indy:The Murder of Sylvia Likens, as told 50 years ago


How was Sylvia tortured? ›

By the end of the summer, Sylvia was being raped, verbally tormented, assaulted with objects physically and sexually, starved, beaten, burned, and forced to commit humiliating or heinous acts. Baniszewski eventually forbade her from attending school and she was held captive in the home.

What happened to Sylvia's sister? ›

Likens was killed in October 1965 after repeated abuse at the hands of her caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski, some of Baniszewski's children and other neighborhood children.

Is Sylvia Likens still alive? ›

Who Is Sylvia's sister? ›

Sylvia Likens

What happened to the kids that tortured Sylvia? ›

She was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released on parole in 1985. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder and was released in 1972; Hobbs, Hubbard, and John were found guilty of manslaughter and served less than two years in the Indiana Reformatory before being granted parole on February 27, 1968.

What is the true story behind the girl next door? ›

The Girl Next Door - and its source novel by Jack Ketchum - were inspired by the real-life torture and murder of a teenage girl named Sylvia Likens in 1965. Sylvia's abuser, Gertrude Baniszewski, was a family friend, not her aunt, but the circumstances were very much the same.

What did Richard Hobbs do to Sylvia? ›

Richard Hobbs

Another neighborhood kid who tortured Sylvia, Hobbs performed the infamous act of helping to carve the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” into her stomach with a large needle. The macabre task was begun by Gertrude, but when she became too fatigued to finish, Hobbs stepped in.

Where are the baniszewski now? ›

Paula Baniszewski appealed her conviction and ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She served time and was released from prison in 1972. She completed her parole and moved to Iowa. Baniszewski, now 64, has been going by the name Paula Pace and has worked for the BCLUW school district in Conrad, Iowa, since 1998.

Is Sylvia a witch? ›

Sylvia Rattigan is a witch who leads the coven that Gillian Chamberlain belongs to in A Discovery of Witches.

Who helped escape Sylvia? ›

She tried to escape from the basement, but Gertrude caught her at the bottom of the stairs and stamped on her head. The only one who gave Sylvia any solace in her last hours was Richard Hobbs, her engraver, who gave her a warm bubble bath and dressed her in clean clothes.

Are the baniszewski still alive? ›

What happened to the kids in the girl next door? ›

Paula Baniszewski, Gertrude's 17-year-old daughter who subjected Sylvia to some of the worst abuse, got life in prison for second-degree murder. The three minors who were also arrested, including Baniszewski's two sons, each did two years in a reformatory.

What happened to Gertrude Baniszewski kids? ›

The Baniszewskis were tried together and in 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison in Indianapolis. John Baniszewski and two other boys ages 16 and 15 were convicted of manslaughter.

Is Coy Hubbard alive? ›

Was Sylvia Stuarts body found? ›

Her body has not been found. Ali Qazimaj was found guilty of killing them in March. Suffolk Police said they are no longer actively searching for Mrs Stuart, 69, but they will follow up any information which assists in locating her.

Is the Girl Next Door 2007 a true story? ›

Directed by Gregory M. Wilson and based on Jack Ketchum's 1989 novel of the same name, some who are discovering the film more recently can't help but grow curious regarding the claims that it's based on a true story. Tragically, The Girl Next Door is based on a true story…

Is an American crime the same as the girl next door? ›

While An American Crime sticks to the facts of the case, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a fictionalized version of the true story. The story is that of Sylvia Likens who, in 1965, was brutally tortured, mutilated, and humiliated for months at the hands of her caregiver in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Who is the real aunt in The Girl Next Door? ›

Ruth Chandler's threat. Rutherine "Ruth" Chandler is the main antagonist of the novel and film adaptation of The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. It is based on the real-life murder case involving a 16-year-old Indiana girl and her caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski. She was portrayed by Blanche Baker.

What was the tape in girl next door? ›

And get this: The big finale involves Matt's sexually explicit prom tape—an obscene parody of those prudish old sex ed videos—being shown to his parents and school principal by someone determined to bring him down.

Who was the killer in the couple next door? ›

At the end, Cora is returned home safely, Marco managed to strike a deal with the police and Richard is arrested on kidnapping and murder. He murdered his accomplice, you see.

Was an American crime a true story? ›

An American Crime is a 2007 American crime horror drama film directed by Tommy O'Haver and starring Elliot Page and Catherine Keener. The film is based on the true story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Indianapolis single mother Gertrude Baniszewski.

Is Sylvia a boy or girl? ›

Sylvia is a feminine given name of Latin origin, also spelled Silvia. The French form is Sylvie. The name originates from the Latin word for forest Silva and its meaning is spirit of the wood .

What does the last name Sylvia mean? ›

The name originates from the Latin word for forest, Silva, and its meaning is "spirit of the wood"; the mythological god of the forest was associated with the figure of Silvanus. Silvia is also a surname.

What name is short for Sylvia? ›

Popularity: Sylvia is a popular girl name. Nicknames: Silla, Silly, Sly, Syl, Sylv Sylvie, Vi, Vee. Variations: Silvia, Silvie, Silvija, Sylkkä, Sylwia, Szilvia.

When did Ted cheat on Sylvia? ›

While Sylvia Plath looked after their two young children in Devon, her husband Ted Hughes was having a secret affair in. In July 1962, the poet confessed.

What did Sylvia do to Arthur? ›

She took care of him for a couple months. Before she pushed Arthur through the spatial gate and gave him her beast will, she asked him to call her grandmother. She also gave him her egg which would hatch into his bond, Sylvie and a message that will be revealed when Arthur surpasses white core.

When did Ted leave Sylvia? ›

Plath and Hughes separated in July of 1962. Just before and several times after, Plath attempted to end her life.

Why did Sylvia Likens get tortured? ›

Sylvia admitted she had a boyfriend in California. Gertrude was disgusted and so was her daughter Paula who repeatedly kicked Sylvia in her vaginal area and accused her of being pregnant. Not only was she subjected to beatings, but Gertrude also started abusing Sylvia with food.

Who tortured Junko Furuta? ›

The perpetrators were four teenage boys: Hiroshi Miyano (宮野裕史, Miyano Hiroshi, 18 years old), Jō Ogura (小倉譲, Ogura Jō, 17), Shinji Minato (湊伸治, Minato Shinji, 16), and Yasushi Watanabe (渡邊恭史, Watanabe Yasushi, 17), who were respectively referred to as "A", "B", "C", and "D" in court documents.

Was Donald Mackays body ever found? ›

Donald Bruce Mackay (13 September 1933 – 15 July 1977) was an Australian businessman and anti-drug campaigner. He disappeared in 1977, but his body has never been found. In 1986, James Bazley was convicted on his murder.

Has Sarah everards body identified? ›

On 12 March, Everard's body was identified through dental records.

Where was Kayleigh Haywoods body found? ›

On Monday, November 16 Beadman and Harlow were arrested in connection with Kayleigh's disappearance. Three days later, her family's worse fears were realised when Leicestershire Police discovered Kayleigh's body in undergrowth.

What did the boys do to Junko? ›

Junko was then overcome by the four boys, who then led to a residence in Adachi's Ayase neighborhood where they gang-raped her. Furuta's parents informed the police about her disappearance on November 27.

Is there an anime about Junko Furuta? ›

(17歳。, Jūnana-sai., "17 Years Old") is a manga with the story by Seiji Fujii and art by Yōji Kamata, published in 2004–2005. It depicts the kidnapping and rape of a girl, based on the murder of Junko Furuta.

Is Furuta a girl? ›

This is a real story that can leave you shattered. This spine-chilling story is about a 17-year old Japanese girl, Junko Furuta who was kidnapped, raped, tortured like hell for 44 days, and finally killed in an extremely brutal way by four boys after 44 days in the year 1988.


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4. An American Crime full movie (2007)
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