The Slow Slide Into Horror
It is important to emphasize the truth that Sylvia’s life at the Baniszewskis did not turn into a horror overnight. It was a slow slide from getting unfairly punished on occasion in July to getting “picked on” and physically hurt in various ways regularly around August and September, to the mind-boggling torture that characterized the last few weeks of October.
During her first weeks with Gertrude, Sylvia went to the same church the Baniszewskis did, listened to phonograph records with the other kids, watched TV, and took trips to the park with friends. She attended high school with Stephanie and Paula. She ate with Gertrude and the other kids.
Of course, meals at the Baniszewski home were not a terribly enjoyable experience for any of its residents. Ten people had to be fed without a stove. They ate things like crackers and sandwiches. Soup formed a major part of their diets since it could be heated up on the hot plate. However, they had to eat it in shifts since they had three spoons when Sylvia got there, then two, and finally only one. The sole spoon would be used, rinsed off in the sink, and then handed to the next hungry person.
It is believed that, sometime late in August, Sylvia let it slip that she had once allowed a boyfriend to get under the bed covers with her. “You’re going to have a baby!” Gertrude announced. Then Mrs. Wright kicked the girl hard in the crotch. Many more kicks to the genitals would follow, and the autopsy would show that Sylvia’s pubic area was horribly mauled.
Sylvia’s imagined pregnancy outraged the genuinely pregnant Paula Baniszewski. Paula knocked Sylvia onto the floor, saying, “You ain’t fit to sit in a chair.”
Apparently as revenge, Sylvia told some of her fellow students at Tech High School that the two oldest Baniszewski girls, Stephanie and Paula, were “prostitutes.”
Stephanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, heard about this, flew into a rage, and beat Sylvia up. Coy was a handsome guy with dark, curly hair. He was big for his age and was frequently a disciplinary problem at school. As he would many times in the future, Coy practiced judo on Sylvia, flipping her against walls and onto the floor. Mrs. Wright gave Sylvia yet another paddling.
Mrs. Wright encouraged neighborhood children to believe bad things about Sylvia and take “revenge.” Heavyset thirteen-year-old Anna Siscoe liked Sylvia until Gertrude told her that Sylvia had said Anna’s mother was a hooker. Anna viciously attacked the older girl. During the melee, Sylvia supposedly clutched her stomach, saying, “Oh, my baby!”
It appears that Sylvia, although probably a virgin, had been convinced by those around her that she really must be pregnant. She may have been ignorant of the specifics of reproduction.
Gertrude whispered similar things about Sylvia making sexually oriented slanders into the ears of her daughter Paula as well as a girl named Judy Duke and more fights resulted.
Was Sylvia impugning the morals of the females around her? It is possible. She was being taunted about her own alleged sexual indiscretions and may have tried to direct similar negative attention elsewhere to take it off of herself. “You’re weird.” “No, you are,” is a battle heard each day in schoolyards throughout the world. However, it’s also possible that Gertrude was making false accusations to get others stirred up against her favorite scapegoat.
Paula Baniszewski soon made a hobby out of plunking Sylvia in the head with anything that came to hand, whether dish, bottle, or can. Often when a group was tormenting Sylvia, her sister Jenny would be ordered to hit her. Timidly, Jenny refused. An infuriated Gertrude slapped her face. Jenny then complied but later said she used her left hand instead of her right (she is right-handed) so it wouldn’t really hurt Sylvia.
The Sexless Sex Crime
In early October, an incident occurred that led Mrs. Wright to order Sylvia to quit school. Sylvia had no gym suit for her physical education class and Gertrude would not give her the money to buy one. However, Sylvia came home from school with just such a suit that she claimed she had “found.” Gertrude believed, not unreasonably, that the suit was a theft. Badgered about it, Sylvia confessed that she had indeed stolen it. The woman slapped and kicked the girl, then whipped her with a belt.
Mrs. Wright left the subject of Sylvia’s stealing to return to that of her alleged promiscuity and, after scolding the teenager, began kicking her in the crotch area. Later that day, still not satisfied that the girl had been adequately punished for theft, she applied a lighted match to Sylvia’s “sticky fingers” and gave her yet another whipping.
Heat would become a major feature of Sylvia’s torture. Its origin probably lies in an incident in which Gertrude Baniszewski’s abusive boyfriend, Dennis Wright, put a cigarette out on her neck.
The motley group began burning Sylvia with cigarettes and lighted matches. Paula Baniszewski broke her hand hitting Sylvia, then used the cast to beat the girl. Several kids in the area’s favorite pastime was assaulting Sylvia: kicking, hitting, flipping her around through Coy Hubbard’s judo tricks or imitations of them, and burning her.
The autopsy would disclose two indices of how much agony Sylvia would endure: She had broken each of her fingernails backward in painful clawing and had bitten her lower lip so deeply it was partially severed.
As the persecution of Sylvia worsened, it became increasingly sexual in character. However, it was also a peculiarly “sexless sex crime.” The sexual aspect started with the constant teasing, alleging that she was promiscuous, and it escalated with Mrs. Wright’s vicious kicks to the girl’s crotch. There would be other sexual-like assaults, including one to be described shortly, but no “sexual assaults” in the standard meaning of the term. There are no reports of Gertrude ever touching Sylvia in any manner suggestive of lesbianism. None of the young males who took part in the beatings and torturings of the girl are believed to have either raped her or forced any type of oral sex upon her. The autopsy would disclose a gross swelling of Likens’s genital region due to the kicks, but there were no internal vaginal lacerations consistent with rape, and tests for semen were negative.
Since the group inflicted almost every sort of assault the human mind could come up with, the omission is puzzling. Mrs. Wright probably had a dread of being thought of as “perverted,” which would explain her not assaulting her victim’s sex organ with fingers or tongue. Perhaps Coy Hubbard feared offending Stephanie if his girlfriend considered a rape “two-timing.” It is also possible, as Millett speculates in some of her more credible fictional passages, that they genuinely believed Sylvia was a “slut” and feared sexually transmitted diseases or a more ambiguous sort of “contamination” from such contact.
On one awful day, Mrs. Wright was indignant because she was told that much earlier in the girl’s stay, Sylvia had had a bit of extra cash: She knew that the girl had to have been either stealing or prostituting. Sylvia could not just be turning in empty soda pop bottles as she claimed. So while several kids were at the Baniszewski house, Gertrude forced a weeping Sylvia to perform an awkward striptease in front of the bunch. When Sylvia was fully nude, Mrs. Wright made the weeping girl shove a soft-drink bottle up her vagina.
One night in October, Sylvia wet her bed. This could have been the result of psychological anxiety—if anyone ever had reason to be nervous, she did—or it could have been because the many cruel blows to her stomach and crotch had weakened control in that area. However, her tormentors decided that she must now live down in the basement with the dog because she was too dirty to live with human beings. Paula punished Sylvia’s bedwetting by preventing her from using the toilet, thus forcing her to befoul herself.
At the same time, her torturers began a regimen of forced bathing in which they tied up the “dirty girl” and forced her into the Baniszewskis’ old-fashioned claw-footed bathtub tub after filling it with scalding hot water. Sometimes she was put in the tub by Gertrude and Paula, and on some evenings 14-year-old Richard (Ricky) Hobbs was there to assist. Hobbs was a soft-featured, good-looking lad who sported straight blonde hair parted on the side, wore thick eyeglasses with black horn rims, and often hung out at the Baniszewski house.
Paula Baniszewski rubbed salt into Sylvia’s wounds.
Sylvia was often kept nude or nearly so for days at a time. She became a game for the neighborhood kids to enjoy—burning, punching, and now pushing her down the stairs to the cellar, then forcing her back up just to throw her back down again.
On one occasion, the starving teenager was allowed up from the cellar and told to try to eat soup with her fingers. Famished, she made an attempt at it, only to have the soup grabbed away from her by John. Later, Mrs. Wright and John forced the girl to eat feces and drink urine.
One of the most depressing aspects of the Sylvia Likens case is the realization that there were several times when, if people had acted just a bit differently than they did, Sylvia could have been rescued. People have always asked, “Why didn’t they tell someone?” In September, Sylvia and Jenny told someone. That someone was their older, married sister, Diana Shoemaker, a slim, attractive woman with jet-black hair. Sylvia was being picked on, both girls said. Every time something, anything, went wrong, Mrs. Wright would shout, “Paula, get the board!” Jenny backed up Sylvia’s claim that the latter was constantly punished for things she didn’t do.
Diana blew them off. They were exaggerating. They had to be. No one likes to be punished, but they probably deserved it, she thought.
The Baniszewski home had visitors. Phyllis Vermillion’s visits, the assaults she witnessed, and her failure to do anything about them have already been described.
A 12-year-old girl named Judy Duke described some of the goings-on to her mother while Mrs. Duke was washing dishes. “They were beating and kicking Sylvia something terrible,” the girl reported.
“Oh, well, they’re just punishing her, aren’t they?” Mrs. Duke asked rhetorically.
The Rev. Roy Julian tried to visit all the members of his congregation. The Baniszewskis attended his fundamentalist Christian church and he was at their home in September. He and Mrs. Wright chatted amiably while sitting on the worn couch of her living room.
Mrs. Wright complained about her husband’s failure to pay child support, her numerous medical problems, and all the troubles she had with the kids. Sylvia was by far the worst of the lot, Mrs. Wright asserted. In a horrified tone, she told the man of God, “Sylvia has been skipping school and making advances on older men—for money!”
The Rev. Julian remembered Sylvia, the pretty girl who had “come forward” one Sunday to confess her faith. How awful if she should be sinning so terribly! He asked to speak with her.
Gertrude told him, “Ask her sister.”
Jenny, who had been constantly threatened by Mrs. Wright, mechanically recited some of Sylvia’s misdeeds: “She tells lies. And at night, after all of us go to bed, she slips down and raids the icebox.” Jenny hoped she could please Gerty without having to repeat the most humiliating sexual sins attributed to her sister. It appeared to work.
Rev. Julian prayed with Gertrude, then left.
He came back for another visit in a few weeks. Again Mrs. Wright complained about the terrible problems she was having with Sylvia. “Sylvia said at school that Paula is going to have a baby,” Gertrude claimed, “but I know my daughter, and I know Sylvia. Paula’s not going to have a baby; it’s Sylvia.”
The minister was concerned about the hostility Paula had confessed she harbored. “Paula told me,” he claimed, “that there was hatred in her heart for Sylvia.”
Mrs. Wright told him it was the other way around, and the minister left the house for the last time.
Sometime in October, Diana Shoemaker came to the home to visit her sisters. Gertrude could not allow her to see the condition that Sylvia was in, so she refused to permit Shoemaker to enter the residence. Gerty claimed the Likens parents had given her permission to keep Diana away from her sisters. Diana insisted that she wanted to see her sisters and Mrs. Wright ordered her away, threatening to have the young woman arrested for trespassing.
Very shortly before Sylvia died, Jenny ran into Diana on the street. Jenny told her older sister, “I can’t talk to you or I’ll get in trouble” and hurried away from her.
A public health agency had received a report about a girl who suffered open sores at the Baniszewski house. A public health nurse came to the door on October 15. She was attired in a starchy white uniform. “Mrs. Wright?” she asked.
Gertrude nodded and invited her in.
The stranger informed Gertrude that she was a public health nurse and wanted to talk about Mrs. Wright’s children because of an anonymous report that there was a girl there with multiple sores.
Jenny was in the room at the time, terrified of Gertrude and full of hope. Was this rescue?
Mrs. Wright looked at her with eyes that must have been full of menace, repeating silently the threat she so often made to the girl verbally: “If you say anything about Sylvia, you’ll get the same treatment she’s getting.” Out loud, Gertrude ordered Jenny to go to the kitchen and do dishes. Jenny promptly complied.
Then Mrs. Wright turned her attention back to the nurse. “I know who you’re looking for,” she began, “Jenny’s sister, Sylvia. She has sores all over her body. She won’t keep herself clean. I finally kicked her out of the house. She’s not worthy to stay here. She’s a prostitute.” Gerty told the concerned nurse, “I don’t know where she would be now.”
The two of them were, in fact, sitting right above the basement in which Sylvia was locked and bound.
The nurse returned to her office. There she filed the report on the Baniszewskis on a “one time only” card, meaning there was to be no follow-up.
Just five days before Sylvia’s death, the police came to the Baniszewski residence. Gertrude called them. As reported by John Dean, “Robert Bruce Hanlon, banged on the door that evening, demanding the return of some things he said the children had stolen from his basement. Gertrude told him he was knocking on the wrong door… She called the police, telling them she had found Hanlon halfway through her window. The police locked him up on a burglary charge.”
Phyllis and Ray Vermillion witnessed these events from their car. They were parked at the curb at the time. Phyllis Vermillion became concerned about Hanlon and talked to the police about him, helping to free him of the charge. One wonders again why she didn’t tell the police, at this time or previously, about the things she had witnessed involving Sylvia.
Sylvia’s Last Weekend
The last weekend of Sylvia’s life began when Mrs. Wright decided to let her sleep upstairs in a bed again. However, she attached a strange condition to this: Gertrude instructed John and Coy to tie Sylvia to the bed so she could not get up during the night to go to the bathroom. “You can’t go to the bathroom,” Gertrude said, “until you’ve learned not to wet the bed.”
Sylvia wet the bed that night.
The next morning began with a second forced striptease, again climaxed by Gertrude forcing Sylvia to insert a soda bottle up her vagina. Then Mrs. Wright decided to take another revenge on Sylvia for having slandered Paula and Stephanie at Tech High. “You have branded my daughters so I will brand you!” she told the confused teenager.
Then Gerty suggested to Ricky Hobbs that he “tattoo” Sylvia. He eagerly accepted the assignment. Sylvia was forcibly stripped, then tied down, and gagged. Gertrude heated a sewing needle and carved an “I,” apostrophe and part of the “M” before handing the needle to Hobbs and telling him to finish the job.
Ricky started carving, then stopped to ask Mrs. Wright how to spell prostitute. She wrote the message out on a piece of paper for him and he burned it into Sylvia’s belly.
In a few minutes, Ricky, Paula, and 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski decided to put another brand on Sylvia. It would be a letter “S” for Sylvia or slave (this point is confused). Ricky burned the first curve onto Sylvia’s chest. Then he and Shirley called Jenny over and ordered her to put the second burn on. Jenny was petrified. When she had tried to get out of hitting Sylvia, she had been slapped. Would she be burned if she refused to inflict this torture? Nevertheless, she refused. Shirley burned the second curve on but got it backward so that the number “3” appeared on Sylvia’s chest.
In front of Randy Lepper, Shirley Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Jenny Likens, Mrs. Wright taunted Sylvia about the words burned into her stomach. “What are you going to do now Sylvia?” Gertrude said. “You can’t get married now, you can’t undress in front of anyone. What are you going to do now?”
The weeping, mutilated girl choked out between sobs: “I guess there’s nothing I can do. It’s on there.”
That evening, Sylvia was again relegated to the basement where Coy Hubbard flipped her against the walls. Later, Jenny visited her sister who told her: “I’m going to die. I can tell.”
Sylvia was allowed to sleep upstairs that night and the next afternoon she was bathed by Mrs. Wright and Stephanie; however, this was a normal, warm bath rather than a scalding one.
Then Gertrude and Paula forced Sylvia to write a letter to her parents. Sylvia started to begin the note like the one she had previously been forced to write, “Dear Mom and Dad,” but Mrs. Wright told her to stop and made her start over with the peculiar salutation, “To Mr. and Mrs. Likens.” After Sylvia’s death, this letter would be turned over to a cop by Mrs. Wright. She would tell him that Sylvia had been absent from her house for a few days, then wandered into the backyard, clutching this epistle. The unsigned note read, in part, as follows.
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
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 got 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 doctor bills that she really can’t pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids….
Mrs. Wright discussed having someone drop Sylvia in a waste lot. She told John and Jenny that they were going to do this “chore,” but before they could, Sylvia made an escape attempt. The hideously mutilated and weakened girl ran to the front door. Gertrude ran after her, catching her just as Sylvia was about to make it to the porch. Then Mrs. Wright dragged her to the kitchen and offered the girl some toast. The sick youngster said she couldn’t swallow. Infuriated, Mrs. Wright beat her across the mouth with a curtain rod.
Twelve-year-old John Baniszewski tied Sylvia up in the basement. Apparently, not wanting her young charge to die — at least not until she was elsewhere — Gertrude went down to the basement with an offer of crackers.
“Give it to the dog,” Sylvia told her captor, “It’s hungrier than I am.” Perhaps Sylvia felt she had nothing left to lose and, so, was defiant. Or perhaps the horror of the words branded upon her had sapped her will to live. Mrs. Wright repeatedly punched the girl in the stomach.
The next day was Sunday, October 24. Gertrude and John both beat the girl. Mrs. Wright swung at Sylvia with a chair, but it broke before it hit her. The frazzled woman then tried to hit Sylvia with the paddle, but hit herself instead, blackening her own eye. Then Coy Hubbard stopped by and hit Sylvia in the head with a broomstick, knocking her unconscious.
During the night, Sylvia repeatedly pounded on the floor of her basement-prison with a shovel; neighbors were disturbed and considered calling the cops to complain about the noise, but did not.
The next day, Sylvia was taken upstairs for a final — non-torturous — bath. She was placed in the tub clothed. When taken out of it, Stephanie and Ricky realized that Sylvia was not breathing. Stephanie attempted to give Sylvia mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It did no good.
Sylvia was dead.
Mrs. Wright told Ricky to call the cops. He had to go to a pay phone since Gertrude’s home did not possess a telephone. When the police got to the house, a frantic Mrs. Wright handed them the letter quoted above, hoping it would absolve her of blame for the battered corpse lying on a mattress. However, before the officer had a chance to read it, a grieving and terrified Jenny Likens whispered to him, “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”
Gertrude Baniszewski (authorities called her by her legal name upon learning she had not been legally married to Dennis Wright) was arrested for murder. So were Paula Baniszewski, Stephanie Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard. Younger juveniles Anna Siscoe, Judy Duke, Randy Lepper, and Mike Monroe were charged with “injury to person.” Most of the youngsters readily admitted their actions but when asked for an explanation, deferred to their mother or, if unrelated, offered the excuse, “Gertie told me to.”
The poverty stricken and chronically ill Mrs. Wright was hardly charismatic; she was neither hypnotist nor dominatrix but the minors apparently had faith that her “grown-up” status would protect them from the consequences of their actions. As it turned out, they would be appallingly successful in hiding behind her skirt.