True Crime is a sensitive topic because the nature of it is awful. It is difficult to realize the extent that some people will go with harming other people. Though true crime is inherently focused on difficult topics, some cases resonate with us than others. The Murder of Sylvia Likens is largely considered being one of the worst cases of torture, abuse, and murder that anyone has ever been subjected to. This tale, built around a vivacious sixteen-year-old girl, is one that has haunted many for ages. Its terrors are so plentiful that many horror films have been made about what this poor young girl endured. If you are particularly upset by extreme violence, torture, or sexual assault, this might not be a case that you want to read about.
Sylvia Likens was one of two adolescent daughters born to traveling carnival workers. In 1965, a carnival setting wasn’t the best place to raise two young girls. Though her parents, Lester and Betty, were known for taking their sons with them, they wanted a more stable life for their daughters. This led them to leave the girls with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of some girls that Sylvia and her sister, Jenny, had become friends with. It was this decision that would ultimately doom Sylvia Likens to an unimaginably terrible fate.
At first, everything seemed to go well. Sylvia and her sister Jenny would spend their time having fun with the other girls in the home. Raising children is not cheap, which is why Sylvia’s parents had agreed to pay Gertrude for caring for the young girls. Being on the road, the payments were sometimes a day or two late. It was this development that seemed to spur Gertrude into quite a rage.
Suddenly, her otherwise aloof demeanor was filled with hatred and anger for the young girls in her care. She began actively punishing them when the checks showed up late, often beating them severely with a paddle as she reminded them how much time she wasted caring for them.
Over time, the abuse began to intensify. Gertrude was known to punish Jenny, the younger sister, but she seemed to direct more of her energy towards Sylvia. Jenny, having suffered from polio, had problems with her leg and had to frequently wear a brace. It is unclear if this played a role in Gertrude focusing on Sylvia, but many believe that it was out of jealousy that Gertrude began to become more cruel towards beautiful young Sylvia. It began with beatings, then moved into Sylvia being starved. Gertrude would often spend time tormenting Sylvia, looking for any reason to terrorize her.
There are many instances of abuse that Sylvia endured, many beyond what even seem imaginable. She was frequently subjected to cruel acts of violence, often being hit, punched, and kicked for no reason other than Gertrude’s pleasure. As Gertrude’s cruelty increased, she began to include other children in the mix, encouraging her kids and children from the neighborhood to beat Sylvia for fun. Paula, the pregnant and supposedly unattractive oldest daughter of Gertrude began to enjoy actively abusing Sylvia. In one instance, she beat Sylvia so hard that she actually broke her own wrist administering the beating.
Before long, Gertrude’s children and the neighborhood kids had completely normalized mistreating Sylvia. Given her poor state, Sylvia was pulled from school and tied up in the basement, where she was often left naked. When the school nurse came looking for her, Gertrude claimed that she had run off with some boys and that ended the inquiry. Behind the walls of the home, however, Sylvia was being mutilated and tortured daily. She was actively burned with cigarettes, frequently whipped with a thick belt, and repeatedly forced to assault herself with coke bottles in front of the family and neighborhood children.
Seeming to lose themselves to bloodlust, Gertrude and her accomplices continued to find new ways to torture Sylvia. She was frequently forced into baths filled with scalding hot water and beaten if she passed out. Salt was consistently rubbed into her wounds. The family rarely gave her water to drink and generally gave her small bits of dry food that she couldn’t swallow due to dehydration. As the abuse continued, Gertrude began to charge the neighborhood kids to stare at Sylvia’s naked body and torture her in terrible ways. Further into the abuse, terrible words were carved into Sylvia’s skin and her death seemed imminent.
Sensing that Sylvia’s death was coming, Gertrude began to make plans to dispose of her as she slipped towards death. The family decided that they would leave her in the woods and they forced her to write a note that claimed that she had run away with a group of men and agreed to have sex with them. The plan was to pin her torture and mutilation on some mysterious assailants so that no one would go looking for answers. This plan fell through when Sylvia died in the basement after a particularly violent beating.
When the cops came, Gertrude claimed that Sylvia had arrived at their home just before dying, but the truth came out when young Jenny was questioned. Five people went to jail despite the larger number of tormentors since many of those involved were minors. To date, it is still considered the worst crime ever to happen in Indiana.