The Story of The Torture Mother, Also Known As Gertrude Baniszewski
Gertrude Baniszewski is the divorced mother who caused Sylvia Likens' prolonged torture, a teenage girl she had taken into her care. Gertrude did not take all of the torture upon herself; however, as she enlisted many neighborhood children as her henchmen to carry out horrific acts upon Sylvia as well. This is the story of the Torture Mother.
Gertrude Baniszewski was born in 1929 and had a difficult life growing up. Not only being born in the midst of a major global economic depression, but she also witnessed her own father die of a heart attack at age 11. She then dropped out of school at age 16 and married 18-year-old John Baniszewski in 1945. She had four children with him. John had temper-problem and angry irritability, beating Gertrude often for “annoying him.” They stayed together for ten years, before Gertrude divorced John and, as she was the mother, was granted custody of the children.
Not even a year after the divorce, Gertrude married a man named Edward Guthrie. After he got tired of having her children around, he divorced her after three months of marriage. Then John and Gertrude reconciled their marriage and re-married. They stayed together for seven more years and had two more children before finally divorcing permanently in 1963.
After the divorce, Gertrude began an affair and moved in with 23-year-old Dennis Lee Wright, who further abused her. She became pregnant by him twice but suffered one miscarriage, possibly due to an assault by him. She gave birth to one last-child, Dennis Jr. She had seven children in total and suffered six miscarriages.
So no, Gertrude did not have an easy life at all pre-Sylvia. Soon, though, Gertrude would take Sylvia into her care.
Dennis Wright, Sr. abandoned Gertrude and disappeared. He had been supporting her financially, so she was left with some financial problems. She was getting a few child-support payments but had to take up doing other people’s laundry for them and babysitting for the most part. Financial problems got even worse as she found out her 17-year-old daughter Paula was three months pregnant after a fling with a middle-aged married man.
Around this time, Gertrude Baniszewski’s health degenerated considerably. She stopped practicing proper hygiene, barely ate, and had several undiagnosed illnesses. She started to get a receding hairline, as well as sunken eyes and a skeletal appearance. She also questionably referred to herself as Mrs. Wright, implying that Dennis married her before abandoning her, keeping up a respectability facade.
The introduction of Sylvia and Jenny Likens to Gertrude Baniszewski
Paula Baniszewski, Gertrude’s daughter, met up with a friend, Darlene McGuire, who was introduced to Sylvia, 16, and Jenny, 15, who had to walk with braces as she had polio. Their mother, Betty, was in jail at the time, but before she had abandoned Sylvia’s father, Lester, and kidnapped her two daughters. Sylvia and Jenny were offered to spend the night at the Baniszewski’s.
The next day, Lester had managed to track down his wife and was directed to the Baniszewski home after running into McGuire. When he arrived, Gertrude again introduced herself as Mrs. Wright, and they had thrown up the idea of Jenny and Sylvia as boarders. He and his wife had reconciled at the jail, and they were going to travel the carnival circuit as carnies.
No one knew whether Gertrude or Lester suggested that she board the girls, but they agreed on a price of $20 per week. But then, when the payment fell through, Baniszewski threw a temper tantrum, saying, “I took care of you two bitches for nothing!” and proceeded to beat the children's buttocks with their skirts and underwear around their ankles. Then, the children’s parents came back into town, and presumably, they did not mention the beatings under threat of Gertrude.
Sylvia and Jenny went through the neighborhood garbage the next week, collecting old bottles to sell for money for candy. When they came home with the candy, Gertrude accused them of stealing, and when Sylvia explained, Gertrude accused them of lying and beat her again.
Following a church function where people were disgusted by the fact that Sylvia had not eaten anything, Gertrude told Sylvia she was angry that she would do something to ruin her physical appearance and had forced her to eat a hot dog piled with condiments. Following this, Sylvia vomited, and Gertrude instructed her to scoop it up and eat it.
Again, the children’s parents came to visit, and Sylvia made no mention of this or any other incidents that had taken place.
One incident appears to have either precipitated, triggered, or coincided with the sharp decline of Gertrude's mental stability that occurred in August of 1965. She overheard Sylvia remark that she had once allowed a boy to “feel her up.” Following this, she had accused Sylvia of being a prostitute and told the rest of the household that Sylvia was pregnant because she had let a boy touch her crotch. Paula threw Sylvia out of a chair when she tried to sit down in it, saying, “you ain't fit to sit in chairs.” Gertrude also repeatedly kicked Sylvia in the crotch.
Then on, Sylvia was only allowed to sit in a chair with permission. She began to be used by the other children as a toy with games ranging from being pushed down the stairs to beatings.
The Cinderella phenomenon
The Cinderella phenomenon is child abuse among one common victim by not the victim’s parents but their stepparents, stepsisters, and stepbrothers. The only difference here is that Sylvia was not officially Gertrude’s stepdaughter, but she practically was, since Gertrude was her caretaker and her biological parents were never in town. Statistics show that stepchildren are more likely to be abused, neglected, or even killed by their stepparents. While this is not completely true since they weren't her stepdaughters, it's the most reasonable explanation for what happened to these poor children, especially considering Gertrude didn't abuse any of the others.
It has also been theorized that, as an act of self-loathing, Gertrude saw the beauty and opportunity for happiness in Sylvia that had long escaped her, and therefore encouraged and participated in the degradation and torture of Sylvia.
Others still suggest that it was the result of a mental break. Whatever the motive, Gertrude manifested her rage by justifying her attacks against Sylvia by continuing to call Sylvia a prostitute and deliver “sermons” to her children about the filthiness of it.
Out of vengeance and anger, Jenny and Sylvia at school told their classmates that they had seen Paula and Stephanie, Gertrude's second-oldest, having sex with boys in exchange for money.
Coy Hubbard, Stephanie’s boyfriend discovered what was being spread about them, and went to the Baniszewski home to beat Sylvia. He then continued to make frequent visits to “practice his judo on Sylvia.”
Gertrude then started spreading lies to Sylvias friends, telling one of them, Anna, that Sylvia had been telling boys that Anna’s mother was a whore. When she took Anna to see Sylvia, she instructed Anna in a violent attack against Sylvia. She did the same thing to another girl and pitted her and Sylvia against each other in a fist-fight.
In August of 1965, Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion purchased the vacant house next door to the Baniszewski residence. Seeing the number of children Gertrude cared for, Phyllis believed that she would make a good babysitter for her two young children.
They arranged a backyard barbecue so the two families could meet, and during the course of this gathering, Phyllis noticed Sylvia wandering around with a black eye. Then, Paula announced confidently that she was the one who had given it to her. Then under Gertrude’s supervision, Paula got a glass of steaming hot water and splashed it in Sylvia’s face while Phyllis watched. Yet, neither of the Vermillions reported any incident to the authorities—such negligence.
A few months later, Phyllis went to the residence to borrow something, and had yet again, noticed Sylvia wandering around dazed with swollen lips and a black eye that was swollen shut. Then to demonstrate how this happened, Paula took off her belt and beat Sylvia with it in front of Phyllis. Yet again, she didn't report any incident to the authorities even though she had watched a kid beat another kid with a belt who was visibly being abused.
Sylvia came home from school one day near this incident and told Gertrude that she needed an outfit for gym class. When Gertrude told her that they couldn't afford one, she stole one from the school. Eventually, she compelled Sylvia into confession when she questioned Sylvia's new outfit.
She made Sylvia again bend over while she whipped her with a belt, kicked her in the crotch more, calling her a prostitute, and to “cure” Sylvia of her “sticky fingers,” she burned the tips of each of Sylvia’s fingers with a lit cigarette.
Following the incident, all smokers in the Baniszewski home arbitrarily began putting their cigarettes out on Sylvia’s body, as a “reminder for her not to steal.”
Sometime later, Sylvia went out again to sell old soda bottles, and yet again, Gertrude accused her of prostitution. Then Gertrude took her into the living room, forced Sylvia to strip naked in front of her sons and other neighborhood boys, and masturbate with a glass Coca-Cola bottle while they watched.
Following the incident, she became incontinent, and Gertrude determined that she was no longer “fit to live with humans” and locked Sylvia in the basement. There was no toilet down there, and she was forced to use the bathroom on the floor.
Gertrude saw her using the bathroom on the floor and began calling her a “dirty girl,” and began a bathing regime that consisted of tying Sylvia up and dunking her in piping hot water in Gertrude’s claw-footed bathtub. After the bath, Paula would rub handfuls of salt on Sylvia’s nude body.
Gertrude took in 14-year-old Ricky Hobbs as her “personal assistant” when dealing with Sylvia. Surprisingly, after speculation that Gertrude had seduced Hobbs into doing her bidding, he suffered a sudden personality shift. He was an honor student from a middle-class family with no legal trouble ever before, but suddenly he blindly followed any orders Gertrude gave him.
Sylvia was now a money-making opportunity for Gertrude, charging children a nickel to look at nude Sylvia or push her down the stairs to the basement (where she was kept when not being bathed or put on display). Things were escalating very fast now, as she was rarely fed and constantly kept naked, and when she was allowed to eat, it was in some sort of wild way, like when Gertrude would insist that she eat soup with her fingers.
Gertrude and 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 made to drink.
Negligence by other adults continue
Jenny managed to contact her older sister Diana, who was married and had a family of her own. Jenny outlined the horrors they faced daily and instructed Diana to call the police to rescue them.
Diana ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was just displeased with being punished and making up stories so that she could live with her.
A 12-year-old Judy Duke went home after visiting Sylvia and told her mother “they were beating and kicking Sylvia,” and the mother replied that that's just what happened when someone was being punished.
Even wildly, the Baniszewski’s reverend Roy Julian visited them as part of a program he set up. While he and Gertrude drank coffee, she complained that Sylvia had been an intense burden on her, claiming again that the girl was pregnant who had gotten pregnant after servicing married men.
Diana came by to visit her sisters shortly after this, and Gertrude refused to allow her in the home. First, her excuse was that Lester had contacted her and instructed her not to let Diana in, and then when Diana questioned this, Gertrude threatened to call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Concerned about the whole incident, Diana contacted social services.
A social worker arrives
When the social worker arrived at the home, Gertrude informed her that she had kicked Sylvia out for being physically unclean and a prostitute and that Sylvia had run away. Then she managed to get Jenny alone long enough to threaten her that if she told the social worker anything, Jenny would join her sister naked in the basement. The social worker returned to her office and filed a report stating that no more calls needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.
The death of Sylvia Likens
Gertrude called the police on October 20th to arrest a boy at her home. Robert Bruce Hanlon was a local youth who claimed that the Baniszewski children had stolen things from him. He had come earlier that day to demand his things back; when she refused, he attempted to sneak in to take them back.
Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Hanlon being put in the back of a squad car and approached the police to speak on his behalf as she had heard the argument. Yet, she had still made no mention of Sylvia during her conversation.
The next day, Gertrude instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to bring Sylvia up from the basement, tie her to a bed, and said that if she could hold her bladder through the night, she could sleep upstairs again.
When she checked Sylvia the next morning and discovered she had wet the bed, Gertrude made her dress, hen took her into the living area, where she was again forced to striptease for the sons and neighborhood boys, and climaxed by a Coca Cola bottle again.
When she was finished, she was allowed to dress. Then Gertrude brought up Sylvia’s lies about Paula and Stephanie and declared, “You have branded my daughters so I will brand you!” She was forcibly stripped naked, tied down, gagged, while one of the children heated a sewing needle under matches.
Once it was orange, they used it to carve and burn the phrase “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT.”
When the process was finished, the tattoo was not only the carving but third-degree burns, which were left by the heat of the needle, so that modern plastic surgery would have been unable to correct it.
Once Gertrude left the room; however, the children began to give Sylvia another tattoo, and meaning to do an “S” on her chest accidentally made a three when they carved the curve backward.
Gertrude re-entered the room and said, “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?”
She was ungagged and responded, “I guess there’s nothing I can do. It’s on there.”
In the middle of the night, Jenny snuck to visit her sister, where Sylvia told her, “I’m going to die. I can tell.”
Shortly after Jenny’s visit, Gertrude oddly went into the basement, brought Sylvia back upstairs, and allowed her to sleep in one of the beds. She was allowed to sleep until noon on October 23, when Gertrude woke her and took her to the bathroom to give her a warm, soapy bath. Then she and Paula dressed Sylvia and told her what to write in a letter to look like a runaway letter to her parents. For reasons unknown, Gertrude told her to open the letter “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Likens.” The words Gertrude dictated were:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted… and when they finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause [sic] Gertie more money than she’s got. I’ve tore up a new mattress and peaed [sic] on it. I have also cost Gertie more doctor bills that she really can’t pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids.
Just as strange, she instructed Sylvia not to sign it.
After she finished the letter, Gertrude began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran for the door. But due to her emaciated and mutilated state, she moved so slowly that Gertrude was able to grab her just as she reached the door and drug her back in the house.
Then Gertrude took Sylvia into the kitchen and made her some toast. Sylvia attempted to eat it but then said she wasn’t able to swallow. In response, Gertrude took down the curtain rod in the kitchen and beat Sylvia in the mouth with it. John then took Sylvia into the basement and tied her up while Gertrude prepared a plate of crackers.
When she offered the plate, Sylvia replied, “Feed it to the dog. It’s hungrier than I am.” Gertrude repeatedly punched Sylvia in the stomach before leaving her in the basement.
The next day October 24, Gertrude came to the basement and attempted to bludgeon Sylvia. First, trying to hit her with a chair but missed and broke it against the wall. The second time she tried to beat her over the head with a paddle but swung in such a wide arc that it came back against her own face, blackening her own eye. To stop the strange show, Hubbard stepped in and beat Sylvia unconscious with a broomstick.
Over the course of that night and into the next morning, Sylvia beat the basement floor with the scoop portion of an iron shovel. Nextdoor neighbors would report that they considered calling the police but chose not to.
On the 26th, Gertrude wanted to give Sylvia a warm bath. Stephanie and Ricky brought Sylvia upstairs and laid her in the tub with her clothes on. But when they took her out shortly thereafter, they noticed that she was not breathing. Stephanie gave Sylvia CPR, but by this time, she was already dead.
Gertrude 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 to call the police (as her house didn't have a working telephone).
When the police arrived, Gertrude gave them the letter she made Sylvia write, and in the midst of the commotion, Jenny managed to whisper to one of the police “Get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.” This statement and the 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.” If it weren’t for Jenny’s statement, they may not have found the need to search the house and would not have found Sylvia’s body.
The trial of the Baniszewskis and others
Gertrude Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard, were all held without bail pending their trials. The charges against Siscoe, Duke, Monroe, and Lepper were all dismissed. Stephanie’s lawyer got a separate trial, and before it was able to begin, the district attorney dropped the murder charges.
Sylvia Likens' autopsy turned up over 100 cigarette burns on her body, in addition to various second and third-degree burns, muscle and nerve damage, and severe bruising. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination showed that her hymen was still intact, largely discrediting — along with a lack of any ripping or tearing to the rectum — that Gertrude’s assertions that Sylvia was a prostitute 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 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, even including John and Hobbs, who were thirteen and fourteen, respectively. Paula’s time in court was interrupted when she was rushed to the hospital to give birth to the child her mother insisted she wasn’t carrying, and in a show of solidarity, Paula named the child Gertrude after her mother.
One problem with the case was that it was exacerbated by the fact that they were all 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.
Gertrude’s attorney tried to flip the blame on the children, playing the mentally ill and sick card, portraying her as weak and incapable of preventing or perpetuating any of the abuse. The children’s attorneys did the opposite.
The most damaging testimony against Gertrude was surprisingly due to her own self-incrimination. She recounted bizarre and wild tales of Sylvia being a neighborhood prostitute and of her trysts with middle-aged, married men and accusing her of frequently starting fights in the home. To corroborate her testimony, 11-year-old Marie was called to the stand.
The nail in the coffin
Initially, Marie backed up everything her mother said, until, during cross-examination, she suddenly screamed “God help me!” before admitting everything she’d said was a lie and went on to recount in blunt, graphic detail how her mother and siblings had tortured and murdered Sylvia.
The young girl’s shocking turn against her own family was largely responsibly for the eventual verdict: Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. To the shock of the citizens of Indiana, she did not receive the death penalty, but rather life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Paula Baniszewski pictured here was convicted of second-degree murder, and she appealed and was granted a new trial. But before it began, she struck a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She served three years in prison and was then paroled.
John Baniszewski, Hobbs, and Hubbard were all 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 and began heavy-chain smoking, which killed him of lung cancer by the time he was only twenty-one.
Gertrude Baniszewski appealed and was granted a new trial. She was again found guilty, though this time sentenced eighteen years to life. Over the course of those next eighteen years, she became a model prisoner, and by the time her chance of parole came around, she had earned the prison nickname “mom.”
The news of her parole hearing sent shockwaves through Indiana. Along with two anti-crime groups, Jenny Likens spoke out against her parole to support the Likens family and began a sidewalk picket campaign. Over the course of two months, they collected 4500 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding Gertrude Baniszewski be kept behind bars. Despite all of this, she 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.
She walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa under the name Nadine Van Fossan. She died there of lung cancer in 1990. The fates of the Baniszewski children is largely unknown.