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Gertrude Baniszewski was an American woman convicted of the murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens.

Biography

She was born Gertrude Nadine Van Fossan of Polish/Dutch ancestry on September 22, 1928. In 1939, Van Fossan witnessed her father die of a heart attack. Gertrude was the third of six children. On October 5, 1939, Gertrude witnessed her 50-year-old father have a sudden heart attack and die. This was something that deeply traumatized her. Just six years later, she dropped out of school at 16 to marry 18-year-old John Stephan Baniszewski (1926-2007), who was originally from Youngsville, Pennsylvania. With him, Gertrude had six children, Paula, Stephanie, John Baniszewski Jr., Marie, Shirley, and James. Though John Baniszewski had a volatile temper and was physically abusive, they stayed together for ten years. After the divorce, Gertrude, at just 34, met a young man named Dennis Lee Wright, who also abused her. With Dennis, she has one child, Dennis Lee Wright Jr. (later renamed Denny Lee White by his adoptive mother), but after his birth he abandoned Gertrude. Gertrude met another man named Edward Guthrie, but the relationship wouldn't last long.

Sylvia Likens

In July of 1965, Lester and Betty Likens, both traveling carnival workers, suggested that Gertrude Baniszewski board their daughters Sylvia Marie Likens (age 16) and polio victim Jenny Faye Likens (age 15). Baniszewski was told that she'd be paid 20$ a week for her boarding their two daughters. Both Sylvia and Jenny attended high school and social functions with the Baniszewski children, as well as go to church with them on Sunday. But when Lester's payment was late after one week, Gertrude lashes out at the girls and beats them with a belt for their father's own "failure". Baniszewski even punished Sylvia for stealing candy which she accused her of stealing. After this, Gertrude would regularly abuse both girls but soon turned the main abuse towards Sylvia.

By August of 1965, Gertrude began abusing Sylvia both verbally and physically. She repeatedly burned her with lit matches and cigarettes and allowed her own children to beat her and throw her downstairs. She eventually accused Sylvia of being a prostitute and delivered "sermons" about the filthiness of prostitutes and other types of women in general. After Sylvia and Jenny were accused of spreading rumors that Gertrude's children Paula and Stephanie were prostitutes at their high school, Stephanie's boyfriend Coy Hubbard and many other classmates and teenage boys were brought in to beat Sylvia up. Baniszewski even forced Jenny to hit her sister. When Sylvia became more "incontinent", Baniszewski locked her in the basement and began a bathing regime that involved dousing Sylvia with scalding hot water and rubbing salt into her burns. More often than not, she was kept naked and hardly fed. There were times when Gertrude and her 12-year-old son John Jr. made Likens eat her own feces. It was around this time that Jenny managed to contact her older sister Diana, at which point she described the intense abuse, and asked Diana to contact the police. Diana simply ignored what Jenny said in the letter, believing that Jenny was just displeased with being punished, and began making stories up so she could come live with her. Not long after this, Diana decided to pay her sisters a visit at the Baniszewski residence. Upon asking to see her sisters, Gertrude refused to let her inside. Diana hid in a secluded place near the house until she spotted Jenny outside, at which point she confronted her. But Jenny told her that she wasn't allowed to speak to her, before running off inside the house. It was at this point that Diana became concerned. She contacts social services and informed them that Baniszewski told her that she abandoned Sylvia for being a prostitute and physically unclean before she ran away. When a social service worker visited Gertrude's home inquiring about Sylvia, Gertrude demanded that Jenny lie about Sylvia's whereabouts, and threatened that she would get the same treatment as Sylvia if she didn't. Deeply terrified, Jenny lied to the worker and told her that Sylvia had indeed run away. When the worker returned to her office, she filed that no follow-up visits would be needed at the Baniszewski residence. On October 21, Gertrude instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to bring Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The next morning, Gertrude had apparently become enraged that Sylvia had wet the bed. She then forced her to once again insert a large glass coke bottle into her vagina. Upon doing this, Gertrude had her daughters Marie and Shirley light a sewing needle. Gertrude then says to Sylvia "You branded my daughters, so I'm gonna brand you." She began simultaneously carving the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into Sylvia's abdomen. The number "3" was also carved in by Gertrude's youngest daughter Shirley, originally intended to be the letter "S" for 'slut' or 'slave'. Pressured, she had a neighborhood kid named Richard Hobbs, who would also abuse Sylvia on a regular basis, finish. The next day, Gertrude had woken up Sylvia and started demanding that she write a letter intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents. When Sylvia finally finished the letter, Gertrude began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Coy Hubbard take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia heard Gertrude's intentions, she runs out the front door in an attempt to escape, but Gertrude meets her at the porch. She grabs her and throws her back down into the basement steps and keeps her there. On October 24, an incident had occurred where Gertrude had attempted to hit Sylvia with a paddle, but she dodged it, and the paddle hit Gertrude. Immediately, Coy Hubbard beat her into unconsciousness with a broomstick. In the early evening of Tuesday, October 26, 1965, Baniszewski told the children she would give Sylvia a regular lukewarm bath. Stephanie and Richard Hobbs brought her up from the basement and placed her into the bathtub fully clothed. However, they notice she is pale white and is not breathing. Stephanie frantically attempted to resuscitate her, only to tell Hobbs to go and call the police seconds later. Hobbs went to a nearby service phone and dialed 9-1-1. He gives the police the address "3850 East New York Street", and then hangs up. When the police arrive at Gertrude's house, she hands the police the letter she made Sylvia write days earlier. Suddenly, Jenny Likens comes forward and says "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything."

Baniszewski in court

Jenny Likens's statement, combined with the gruesome discovery of Sylvia's body, was all the evidence police needed. They arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, John Baniszewski Jr., Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder in the first degree. Neighborhood children Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe were arrested and charged with injury to the person. Gertrude, her children, and Hobbs and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials. A full examination of Sylvia's body revealed numerous burns, bruising, and muscle and nerve damage. In her basement throws, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, and an examination showed that her hymen was still intact, ruling out Baniszewski's accusations of her being a prostitute and pregnant. Sylvia's official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin. Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of First Degree Murder and was given life imprisonment. Baniszewski appealed and was soon granted a new trial by the Indiana Supreme Court mainly for reasons of a prejudicial atmosphere due to heavy news media publicity before and during the trial. A new trial was soon held in 1971, and Baniszewski was again found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. During the next 14 years, Gertrude became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and even becoming a "den mother" to younger female inmates.

Likens' blood carved abdomen

By the time she was granted parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname "Mom". The news of Gertrude being granted parole sent shockwaves through the state of Indiana. Jenny Likens and her family even appeared on television, angry about the court's decision. They spoke out against Baniszewski, and members of two anti-crime groups, 'Protect The Innocent' and 'Society's League Against Molestation', had traveled to Indiana to oppose Baniszewski's parole and support the Likens family, even beginning a sidewalk picket campaign. In just two months, the groups held over 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Gertrude Baniszewski be kept behind bars for good. Despite their many efforts, she was granted parole. During her hearing, Baniszewski stated "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 what happened to Sylvia. I wish I could undo it but, I can't and I'm sorry. I'm just asking for mercy and nothing else." The Parole Board voted in favor of granting Gertrude's freedom 3-2. One member had stated, "The bottom line is you cannot bring somebody who is dead and gone back to live and, I wouldn't be a member of this board if I didn't believe people can change." Gertrude Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa where she changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan, using her middle name and maiden name. She died in Laurel, Iowa, from Lung Cancer on June 16, 1990. She was 61 years old.

Trivia

  • The Baniszewski house that Sylvia was tortured at, located on 3850 East New York Street, was torn down in 2009, and the empty space is now used as a church parking lot.
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