Gertrude Baniszewski is a woman who launched a thousand nightmares. The Indianapolis native rose to national prominence in 1965. Her crime: the systematic abuse and heinous murder of Sylvia Likens. In commission of the crime, she influenced 10 other children and teenagers to participate.
The crime was made possible because Likens and sister Jenny’s parents did not want the girls. The father paid Gertrude to keep them at her house. At first, she beat both girls with paddles, but she honed in on Sylvia and things only got worse from there.
Gertrude Baniszewski saw to it that Likens was beaten, sexually abused, and humiliated in a number of ways. She had her minions force the 15-year-old to eat feces from her newborn’s diaper. She branded and carved on Likens’ naked body and starved her of food and water to the point that the victim couldn’t produce tears she was so dehydrated. Perhaps most heinous of all, she forced Sylvia’s own sister to take part in some of the beatings.
When Sylvia died, Gertrude tried to say her injuries came as the result of the teen being battered and abused in the throes of consensual group sex. Authorities weren’t buying it, and before they could leave, Jenny told them, “Get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.”
As grotesque as all of that sounds, Gertrude Baniszewski’s fate was hardly a just one. She was convicted of first-degree murder initially and on appeal but later received parole in 1985. She died, a free woman, from lung cancer five years later at the age of 61.
Gertrude Baniszewski is rightfully remembered as one of the most notorious female criminals of all time, but unlike her victim, she enjoyed a second chance and a few years of freedom before Mother Nature finally caught up to her. She never took ownership of Sylvia’s murder either, claiming she was on drugs at the time and didn’t remember any of it.
Indianapolis Monthly has an intriguing 50-year retrospective on the crime here. You can also see dramatized accounts in An American Crime (based on the actual event) and The Girl Next Door (inspired by it).
(Image: Gertrude Baniszewski, Wikipedia Commons)