Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Baniszewski's Background

Gertrude Baniszewski's life up until the time she met the Likens family had been difficult and sad but in no way criminal (at least on her part). She was born Gertrude Van Fossan in 1929, the third of six children in a lower-class family. She always liked her Dad better than her Mom and suffered the trauma of watching her beloved father die of a heart attack when she was only eleven years old. Sometimes clashing with her mother as a teenager, she dropped out of high school when she was sixteen to marry 18-year-old John Baniszewski — and seems to have lived pregnantly ever after. Although John Baniszewski was a police officer, charged with enforcing the law, he frequently broke it to assault his wife when she annoyed him. John often ended disagreements between himself and Gertrude with his fists. The couple split up after a decade.

Awhile after she was divorced, Gertrude met and married Edward Guthrie but the marriage lasted only three months because Edward did not want the responsibility of caring for children who were not his (at that time, Gertrude had four kids). She and John remarried each other, then divorced seven years and two more kids later in 1963. A much younger man named Dennis Lee Wright took an interest in Gertrude. He was twenty-three and she thirty-seven when their romance blossomed. Although it was unfashionable at the time, they lived together for a while out of wedlock. Dennis could be abusive to his live-in girlfriend. He impregnated Gertrude twice. She suffered a miscarriage, then gave birth to Dennis, Jr. before her boyfriend absconded.

Gertrude Baniszewski
Gertrude Baniszewski

At the time of her fateful meeting with the Likens family, the underweight Baniszewski had a kind of "young-old" look about her. She had a sadly careworn and prematurely lined face. Although not yet forty years old, she had been pregnant no less than thirteen times, giving birth seven times and enduring six miscarriages. A chain smoker, she suffered from asthma, bronchitis, and nervous tension. Her income consisted of haphazard child support payments (both of the fathers of her children were seriously delinquent) and the few dollars she managed to scrape together from occasional work like ironing and baby-sitting. Not wanting people to know that her youngest child was "illegitimate," she called herself and was called by others, "Mrs. Wright."

Betty Likens, together with daughters Sylvia and Jenny, had recently moved into one of the many rundown, boxlike little houses in the neighborhood. Betty and Lester Likens were recently separated. The family moved often as their father searched for jobs to keep the family's financial head above water. They had previously resided in this very area.

Sylvia and Jenny, together with a new friend named Darlene McGuire, were walking around the sidewalks in a normal, aimless teenaged manner when they met up with a girl named Paula Baniszewski. Paula was an overweight seventeen -year-old with a decided mean streak. Although not yet showing, she was also pregnant as the result of a brief fling with an adult, married man.

The bunch of teenagers headed to the Baniszewski house where they shared soft drinks and laughs. Paula invited them to spend the night. Sylvia and Jenny didn't have to ask their Mom for permission since she was in jail.

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