Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

A Dubious Start

The Likens girls' first week with the Baniszewskis passed without incident, getting to know the other kids and starting at a new school.  However, during the second week, the Likens parents' payment was slow to arrive. Gertrude screamed at her boarders, "I took care of you two bitches for nothing!" Both girls had to lie across a bed and expose their bare buttocks so Baniszewski could spank them.

The payment came the next day.

However, the next week brought another paddling for the sisters because Mrs. Wright believed that Sylvia was leading the other kids into stealing out of stores.

Three major accusations against Sylvia would recur. One of them was that she was dishonest, another was that she was physically unclean, and the third, leading to the gruesome work on her belly, was that she was sexually promiscuous.

Were any of these accusations true? Sylvia's mother had shoplifted from a store in Indianapolis and Sylvia herself was to admit that she stole at least one acquisition. However, it is also true that Mrs. Wright accused the girl of stealing, and punished her for it, when she did not. The Likens family had a custom of going through debris looking for empty soda pop bottles to turn in for refunds and Gertrude would erroneously believe that treats Sylvia acquired through this means were stolen.

There is no reason — prior to her enforced dirtiness — to think that Sylvia's hygiene was particularly bad.

Sylvia was, in all likelihood, a virgin. It is also possible that she was flirtatious.

Paula Baniszewski
Paula Baniszewski

Gertrude Baniszewski was probably projecting her personal fears outward through these charges. There is no evidence that she ever stole but theft had to be sorely tempting to one in her circumstances. Her personal hygiene and the cleanliness of her household were poor which is understandable considering that she was a chronically ill woman trying to cope with many youngsters and an infant. She had reason to fear for her own and her daughters' reputations for chastity since she had twice been pregnant out of wedlock and, at the time the Likens girls stayed in her house, her own seventeen-year-old unmarried daughter Paula was pregnant.

Early in her stay, Sylvia attended church each Sunday with the Baniszewski kids. Paula Baniszewski tattled to her mother that Sylvia had pigged out at a church supper so Mrs. Wright and some of the children came up with a punishment that had, as many of the torments inflicted on the Likens girl would, a perverse logic to it. Sylvia's frankfurter was passed around the Baniszewski table and loaded with condiments. Sylvia was ordered to eat this concoction. The girl complied, then promptly vomited — and was forced to eat her vomit.

Sometime after this, Mr. and Mrs. Likens stopped by for a visit, as they had a few days after their daughters had been paddled for the late payment. On this occasion, as on the previous visit and those that would follow, neither of the Likens girls complained about the way they were being treated.

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