The Tragic Murder of Sylvia Likens

The murder of Sylvia Likens is a haunting and tragic tale that continues to shock and disturb people to this day. The case, which unfolded in 1965, shed light on the depths of human cruelty and the devastating consequences of neglect and abuse.

Sylvia’s story serves as a reminder of the importance of recognizing and addressing signs of abuse, and the need for a just legal system to hold those responsible accountable.

Background

Sylvia Likens was a young girl who found herself at the center of a horrific ordeal that would ultimately lead to her death. Born on January 3, 1949, Sylvia was the third of five children in her family. Her parents, Lester and Betty Likens, were carnival workers who struggled with alcoholism and were unable to provide a stable home environment.

In 1965, Sylvia and her younger sister, Jenny, were left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman who would become infamous for her role in Sylvia’s tragic fate.

The horrific abuse

Gertrude Baniszewski agreed to take in Sylvia and Jenny in exchange for a weekly payment from their parents. What started as an arrangement quickly turned into a nightmare for Sylvia. Gertrude, along with her children and other neighborhood kids, subjected Sylvia to unimaginable physical and emotional abuse.

After approximately two weeks, these payments failed to consistently arrive upon the prearranged dates, occasionally arriving one or two days late. In response, Gertrude began venting her frustration at this fact upon the sisters by beating their bare buttocks with various instruments, such as a one-quarter-inch-thick paddle, making statements such as, “Well, I took care of you two little bitches for a week for nothing!”

On one occasion, in late August, both girls were beaten approximately 15 times on the back with the aforementioned paddle, after Paula had accused the sisters of eating too much food at a church supper the household children had attended.

By mid-August, Gertrude Baniszewski had begun to focus her abuse almost exclusively upon Sylvia, with her primary motivation likely being jealousy of the girl’s youth, appearance, respectability, and potential.

On one occasion, as the family ate supper, Gertrude, Paula, and a neighborhood boy named Randy Gordon Lepper, force-fed Likens a hot dog overloaded with condiments, including mustard, ketchup and spices. Likens vomited as a result, and was later forced to consume what she had regurgitated.

On another occasion, Paula beat Likens about the face with such force that she broke her own wrist, having primarily focused her blows upon Likens’s teeth and eyes. Later, Paula used the cast on her wrist to further beat Likens. Gertrude repeatedly falsely accused Likens of promiscuity and of engaging in prostitution, ranting about the filthiness of prostitution and women in general. Gertrude would later occasionally force Jenny to strike her own sister, beating Jenny if she did not comply.

Coy Hubbard and several of his classmates frequently visited the Baniszewski residence to both physically and verbally torment Likens, often collaborating with Baniszewski’s children and Gertrude herself. With Gertrude’s active encouragement, these neighborhood children routinely beat Likens, sometimes using her as a practice dummy in violent judo sessions, lacerating her body, burning her skin with lit cigarettes in excess of 100 times, and severely injuring her genitals. To entertain Gertrude and her teenage accomplices, Likens was forced at one point to strip naked in the family living room and masturbate with a glass Pepsi-cola bottle in their presence, with Gertrude stating to all present that this act of humiliation was for Sylvia to “prove to Jenny what kind of girl you are.

Neighbors and acquaintances were aware of the abuse Sylvia was enduring, but fear and complicity prevented many from intervening. The prolonged suffering Sylvia endured highlights the importance of reporting suspected abuse and protecting those who are vulnerable.

Escalation

Due to the increase in the frequency and brutality of the torture and mistreatment Likens was subjected to, she gradually became incontinent. She was denied any access to the bathroom, being forced to wet herself. As a form of punishment for her incontinence, on October 6, Gertrude threw Likens into the basement and tied her up. Here, Likens was often kept naked, rarely fed, and frequently deprived of water. Occasionally, she was tied to the railing of the basement stairs with her feet barely touching the ground.

Physical and mental torment such as this would occasionally pause when the Baniszewskis watched their favorite television shows. Neighborhood children were also occasionally charged five cents apiece to see the “display” of Likens’s body and to humiliate, beat, scald, burn, and—ultimately—mutilate her. Throughout Likens’s captivity in the basement, Gertrude frequently, with the assistance of her children and neighborhood children, restrained and gagged Likens before placing her in a bathtub filled with scalding water and proceeding to rub salt into her wounds.

On one occasion, Gertrude and her twelve-year-old son, John Jr., rubbed urine and feces from Gertrude’s one-year-old son’s diaper into Likens’s mouth before giving her a cup half-filled with water and stating the water was all she would receive for the remainder of the day.

The tragic end

Sylvia’s ordeal came to a tragic end on October 26, 1965, when she succumbed to her injuries and malnutrition at the age of 16. The extent of her injuries was so severe that it was impossible to ignore the horrors she had endured. Her death led to a trial that captured the nation’s attention and exposed the horrifying details of her abuse.

The autopsy of Likens’s body revealed she had suffered in excess of 150 separate wounds across her entire body, in addition to being extremely emaciated at the time of her death. The wounds themselves varied in location, nature, severity, and the stage of healing. Her injuries included burns, severe bruising, and extensive muscle and nerve damage. Her vaginal cavity was almost swollen shut. Moreover, all of Likens’s fingernails were broken backwards and most of the external layers of skin upon the child’s face, breasts, neck, and right knee had peeled or receded. In her death throes, Likens had evidently bitten through her lips, partially severing sections of them from her face.

Legal proceedings

In 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski and several individuals involved in the abuse were brought to trial. The trial revealed the extent of Sylvia’s suffering and the shocking cruelty she had experienced. Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Other defendants received varying sentences for their roles in the abuse.

The trial underscored the importance of justice and accountability, while also prompting discussions about the responsibility of society to protect vulnerable individuals.

Aftermath

Following her 1985 release from prison, Gertrude Baniszewski relocated to Iowa. She never accepted full responsibility for Likens’s prolonged torment and death, insisting she was unable to precisely recall any of her actions in the months of Likens’s prolonged and increasing abuse and torment within her home. She primarily blamed her actions upon the medication she had been prescribed to treat her asthma. Gertrude Baniszewski lived in relative obscurity in Laurel, Iowa, until her death due to lung cancer on June 16, 1990, at the age of 61.

Conclusion

The tragic murder of Sylvia Likens is a harrowing reminder of the capacity for cruelty within individuals and the responsibility of society to protect the vulnerable. Her story stands as a testament to the importance of recognizing signs of abuse, intervening when necessary, and advocating for justice. It is our duty to ensure that no one else suffers a fate as horrific as Sylvia’s and to strive for a world where every individual’s right to safety and dignity is upheld.

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