The Horrific Murder of Sylvia Likens: How Did It Really Happen?

The death of Sylvia Likens has been described as one of the most diabolical and sadistic murders ever committed in Indianapolis. The story of Sylvia Likens’ murder will make you wonder if it truly happened or if it is a fictitious account of events. Likens and her sister, Jenny, were sent to live with Gertrude Baniszewski, a depressed and disturbed young woman and her children in Indianapolis. It was at this home that she was tortured, beaten, brutalized and eventually, murdered.

Human brutality is a cruel phenomenon that has existed for centuries and there have been several recorded cases of man’s violence against his fellow man but this particular case tops the chart. In the case of Sylvia Likens, the inhumanity shown by a couple of humans to another human – without cause – is beyond understanding.

Who Was Sylvia Likens?

Sylvia Likens was born to Lester Cecil Likens and Elizabeth “Betty” Frances on January 3, 1949. She was born in Lebanon, Indiana, as the third child, in between two sets of fraternal twins. The first set – Dianna and Daniel were two years older than her while the younger set – Jenny and Benny were one year younger. She lived in Indiana with her siblings and parents – who were carnival merchants that sold candy, beer, and soda at stands around Indiana. Their trade required that they travel from one place to another. On these journeys, they would sometimes go with Daniel and Benny but never with the girls as they never wanted their education to be interrupted.

Sylvia’s parents were said to have had an unstable marriage, this fact, however, didn’t affect their care for their children. The parents’ frequent travels caused them to force the younger girls to live with relatives or caregivers. This would later lead to unthinkable consequences.

Before her Murder, Sylvia Likens and her sister, Jenny, attended the Arsenal Technical High School and Sylvia earned some money on the side by taking up odd jobs ironing clothes and babysitting for families around the neighborhood. Sylvia was described as a girl who always wore a smile, was friendly, confident and lively. This vibrant young lady was very protective of her younger sister, Jenny who suffered from polio which affected one of her legs.

In the summer of 1965, Sylvia and Jenny were sent to live with Gertrude Baniszewski because their mother had been arrested for shoplifting and their father wasn’t had traveled to the East Coast with the carnival and was not available. Lester had become acquainted with Gertrude Baniszewski because her older children – Paula and Stephanie – attended the same school as Sylvia and Jenny. Sylvia’s father agreed to pay $20 per week for the upkeep of his daughters and Gertrude Baniszewski promised to take care of the girls as if they were her own. There was no way anyone would have known Gertrude would torture and murder Sylvia Likens only a few months later.

Theorist Opinions On The Source Of Gertrude Baniszewski’s Inhumanity

Maybe by understanding who Gertrude Baniszewski was, we might be able to unravel the mystery behind her behavior towards the Likens sisters and why she orchestrated the murder of Sylvia Likens.

Gertrude Baniszewski was an indigene of Indianapolis, Indiana. She was a high school drop out who got married at the age of 16 to 18-year-old John Stephan Baniszewski. After four children and 10 years of marriage, they got divorced as a result of the physical abuse she suffered at his hands. She moved on to marry Edward Guthrie, a marriage that ended 3 months later. Gertrude later remarried her first husband and sired two more children for him but divorced him again in 1963.

Soon after, she began an affair with 22-year-old Dennis Lee Wright. The relationship produced a child, Dennis Lee Wright Jr., and after his birth, his father abandoned the family. It is worthy of note that Dennis also physically abused Gertrude and she was left an emotionally and physically battered woman, suffering from depression as a result of her failed relationships and a recent miscarriage. Her distress was heightened by the fact that she had no means to take care of her children. She had to take odd jobs from neighbors and acquaintances as a caregiver to make ends meet.

Many theorists, who have analyzed the possible motivation for her cruel behavior towards Sylvia, have concluded that she was jealous of Sylvia Likens’ slender and pretty nature. They also attribute her constant invitation of neighbors to torment Sylvia to her jealousy.

How Did Sylvia Likens’ Die?

Sylvia Likens Murder
Sylvia Likens’ Murder

Sylvia Likens died of subdural hematoma, shock caused by the wounds on her skin and malnutrition. Sylvia, who started living at the 3850 East New York Street on July 4, 1965, was tortured until she succumbed to the cold hands of death. When the $20 her father promised Gertrude came late, Gertrude would carryout her frustrations by beating Sylvia and her sister, Jenny, with a paddle on their bare buttocks. This was the least of the tortures that were to come.

As time went on, Sylvia was subjected to torture, humiliation, and cruelty. She was tortured by Gertrude, her children – even her 10-year-old son – and their neighbors. The case of Sylvia Likens is so peculiar because it was perpetrated by even minors and the neighbors who saw the condition of the girls never thought to report it to the authorities.

Sylvia was malnourished, beaten, scarred, prevented from going to school and locked up in a basement. She later gave into her wounds on October 26, 1965; her killers were Gertrude, her children and some of her neighbors who joined in torturing Sylvia. Gertrude and her children were charged with first degree and second-degree murder respectively. However, they never got the punishment they deserved for Sylvia Likens’ murder as they were released a few years later after being imprisoned for only a few years.


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