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15 Chilling Facts About “The Torture Mother,” Gertrude Baniszewski

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15 Chilling Facts About “The Torture Mother,” Gertrude Baniszewski

Being a parent takes hard work, and the more children a person has, the more difficult that task can become. In theory, parents generally have at least one partner when it comes to childrearing, though an increasing number of people have gone through this journey on their own, especially in recent years. Of course, most single parents don’t find themselves taking care of seven children of their own, plus two more girls they adopted almost by accident. Even if they did, no rational human being would handle the situation in the same manner as Gertrude Baniszewski, also known as “The Torture Mother.”

At the time, it was called “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana,” and more than 50 years later, it remains hard to disagree with that claim. Over the course of about three months in 1965, Gertrude Baniszewski violently tortured Sylvia Likens, a neighbor’s child whom she had been hired to babysit. The torture didn’t end until Likens was dead, and along the way, Baniszewski compounded her horror by inviting and instructing both her children and any other children that happened by their house to join in on the abuse.

Throughout the whole terrifying ordeal, Sylvia’s sister, Jenny Likens, stood by and witnessed her murder, too terrified by the Baniszewski family to dare seek help. While it was ultimately too late, it’s because Jenny eventually came forward to police that the entire story is now public knowledge, not to mention the fact Gertrude and her children were brought to justice. With a warning this story is one of the most graphic our website has ever reported on, keep reading to learn 15 horrifying facts about “The Torture Mother,” Gertrude Baniszewski.

15. Gertrude Suffered Through Several Abusive Husbands

The story of Gertrude Baniszewski begins well before Sylvia and Jenny Likens came into her care, when she herself was a young girl named Gertrude Van Fossen. Childhood trauma comes in many forms and affects people in strange ways, and with that in mind, perhaps Gertrude’s madness began when she witnessed her father’s death of a heart attack when she was only 10 years old. If nothing else, the experience made young Gertrude feel lost, causing her to drop out of school at 16 and elope with John Baniszewski. The Baniszewski’s had six children together and stayed together ten years, with Gertrude later claiming John physically abused her throughout the entire relationship. They later reconciled after an initial divorce, causing Gertrude to suffer seven more years of abuse. After this, Gertrude moved on to an additional relationship with Dennis Lee Wright, who also abused her, and with whom she had one final child.

14. Gertrude Was Hired To Take Care Of Sylvia And Jenny Likens

Now with seven children of her own and having been abandoned by two abusive exes, Gertrude Baniszewski was in dire financial straits. When Gertrude’s neighbor Lester Likens offered her $20 a week to watch over his daughters Sylvia and Jenny, Gertrude immediately accepted solely as a way to make money. Lester allegedly never pried into the poor condition of Gertrude’s house or paid much attention to how she cared for the girls from there, too busy traveling the country as a carnival worker. Sylvia and Jenny’s mother, Betty, was in jail serving a shoplifting sentence during the three months they were in Gertrude’s care. Things seemed well and good for all of two weeks, at which point Lester missed his first payment, sending Gertrude into a rage that she took out on the innocent Likens girls.

13. Gertrude’s Abuse Soon Focused On Sylvia

Neither Sylvia nor Jenny Likens could be considered lucky in any sense of the word, and nothing makes that more clear than the unusual circumstance that saved Jenny from the bulk of Gertrude’s punishment. Jenny had suffered from polio since she was four years old, which some speculate is why Gertrude soon focused her abuse entirely on Sylvia. Of course, the psychological torture and torment inflicted upon Jenny would never stop, with Gertrude forcing Jenny to watch as her sister was slowly tortured to death. Either way, things got significantly worse for Sylvia when Gertrude heard she had spread a rumor about her daughter Pamela Baniszewski being pregnant. Whether or not Sylvia actually told anyone about this is unclear, but it later became evident Pamela indeed was pregnant, not that Gertrude would have accepted this as an excuse. Instead, the mere concept of procreation caused her beatings to take another horrific turn.

12. Gertrude Beat Sylvia While Delivering Misogynistic Sermons

Upon learning the news that people around town thought Pamela Baniszewski was pregnant, Gertrude Baniszewski refused to accept that her religious daughter would betray her. For whatever reason, Baniszewski decided to take out this frustration on Sylvia Liken, calling the girl a prostitute for daring admit to having a boyfriend at some point in her life. From then on, her beatings would be delivered alongside what has since been described as “sermons,” filled with insane ranting about the innate sinfulness of women. Somehow proving her horrific point, Gertrude also allegedly forced Sylvia to insert Coca-Cola bottles into her nether regions on at least two separate occasions. In addition to this sexual abuse, Gertrude often burned Sylvia with cigarettes, dousing her in scalding water, rubbing salt in her wounds, and forcing her to commit several degrading acts.

11. Gertrude Invited Local Children To Join In On The Beatings

It should already be overwhelmingly clear that Gertrude Baniszewski was an absolute monster, and yet the most shocking element of her crimes has barely been discussed. It would be horrible enough had Baniszewski tortured Sylvia Likens entirely by herself, but she took the terror to another level by using her victim as a training tool for future abusers. Whenever Baniszewski felt tired or sick, or perhaps just to mix things up, she would instruct her children and other neighborhood kids who happened to wander into her house to enact the punishment on her behalf. Gertrude’s daughter, Pamela Baniszewski, was the second worst abuser of the bunch, once beating Sylvia so hard she broke her own wrists. The eldest daughter Pamela wasn’t the only one getting in on the abuse, though, as all but one of the Baniszewski’s children were somehow implicated in the crimes, with only her infant son free from guilt.

10. None Of The Children Ever Tried To Stop Gertrude Or Get Sylvia Help

One of the most shocking elements of Gertrude Baniszewski’s torture of Sylvia Likens is how many children found out about it without informing a single adult. It’s already been covered that Sylvia’s sister, Jenny, was understandably too terrified to ever speak out, worried the abuse would get worse or turn to herself if she ever did. Chances are, the Baniszewski children, at least the younger ones, were equally worried their mother might harm them if they tried to stop her from hurting Sylvia, or in a more cynical way of looking at things, they may have liked joining in on the abuse. That still leaves the neighborhood kids who got involved and remained silent, none of whom told their parents or any other adults about the girl kept in a basement down the street, whom they were all invited to torture whenever they visited the house.

9. Gertrude Stopped Sylvia’s Sister From Saving Her

As terrified as Sylvia and Jenny Likens were of Gertrude Baniszewski, everyone possesses certain survival instincts they would attempt employing in a desperate attempt at escape from their captor. With their father on the road and mother in jail, the Likens girls had few places to turn for help, though they did have one other sister named Diana whom they hoped could come to their aide. Somehow or other, Sylvia contacted Diana and informed her she was getting punished. Diana had been estranged from the family for some time for reasons that are unclear, but she nonetheless found interesting the news that her sisters were living nearby, in trouble, and no longer in the care of their parents. When Diana tried visiting her sisters at the Baniszewski home, Gertrude immediately turned her away, saying Sylvia and Jenny weren’t allowed to see her.

8. Gertrude Also Foiled A Public Health Nurse’s Attempt At Saving Sylvia

While none of the children involved in the torture ever spoke up against Gertrude Baniszewski, it turns out there were some other adults in town who noticed things weren’t right with Sylvia Likens. Exactly how public health nurse Barbara Sanders found her way to the Baniszewski home is unclear, though the visit seems to have stemmed from a report to police that children with open sores were seen on the property. Though Gertrude admitted to Sanders that Sylvia had lived there and did indeed have open sores, which she claimed was due to Sylvia’s refusal to clean herself, Gertrude also claimed Sylvia ran away some time before Sanders’s visit. Sanders nonetheless reported both Gertrude and her daughter Pamela spoke about Sylvia with pure disdain, calling all of their remarks into question. However, without any hard evidence Sylvia was still in the house, all Sanders could do was write her report about the situation and leave for the time being.

7. Gertrude, Her Daughter, And A Neighbor Branded Sylvia

Four days before Sylvia Likens’ nightmare finally ended with her death, Gertrude Baniszewski enacted, without a doubt, her most horrible method of tortuous abuse to date. Not satisfied with repeated beatings, degradation, or humiliation that would inevitably fade away, Baniszewski looked to inflict permanent damage on Sylvia’s body by branding her across the stomach with the message “I’m a prostitute and proud of it.” Gertrude instructed her 10-year-old daughter Shirley to heat up an iron poker that Gertrude herself then used to scald this horrible message on Sylvia’s stripped naked body. Mere seconds into her punishment, Gertrude grew sick and weak, forcing 15-year-old neighbor Ricky Hobbs to finish the branding. The pointed phrase was another reference to the alleged rumor about Pamela Baniszewski’s pregnancy, which Gertrude felt unfairly branded her daughter, thus inspiring her to do the same thing to Sylvia in retribution.

6. Gertrude Forced Sylvia To Write A Farewell Letter Before She Died

Once Gertrude Baniszewski and her accomplices had successfully branded Sylvia Likens a prostitute, there was nowhere else for her torture to go. The only way abuse like that could escalate further was for it to become murder, which was exactly how Baniszewski planned on ending this horrific tale. Before Gertrude could simply dump Sylvia in the woods and be done with it, though, she still possessed the slight sense of mind to realize doing so put her at great risk of getting caught. To deflect police attention whether Sylvia’s body was found or not, Gertrude forced her victim to write a letter crafted like a goodbye note from a teenage runaway. At Gertrude’s demand, Sylvia wrote she had fallen in with a bad crowd, admitting to prostitution and other negative behavior that had never actually happened. Amazingly, when Gertrude showed this letter to police, it served as the first clue she was lying about what happened to Sylvia—no one could believe the poor girl would say the horrible things Gertrude made her write.

5. Gertrude And Her Children Were Arrested When Jenny Likens Came Forward

On October 26, 1965, Sylvia Likens’ torture finally came to an end, albeit at the cost of her life. Sylvia died blindfolded and tied up in a basement, succumbing to her months of abuse with an official cause of death listed as brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition. Ricky Hobbs, the same boy who had branded Sylvia not four days earlier, called police from a nearby pay phone and reported the death. When police arrived at Baniszewski’s home and discovered the body, she gave them the letter she had earlier forced Sylvia to write, which police were immediately suspicious of, as noted. Even so, investigators had nothing but a hunch to continue their search, and were about to leave, until Jenny Likens finally experienced a moment of bravery and stepped forward. Jenny approached the officers with a direct and simple plea: “Get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.” Thankfully, they listened, and Baniszewski’s crimes came to light at long last.

4. Gertrude Was Sentenced To Life In Prison

Immediately after Jenny Likens gave her statement to police, officers arrested Gertrude Baniszewski, her children Paula, Stephanie, and John, plus no less than seven children or teenagers who happened to be on the scene at the time. Gertrude, her kids, and the eldest neighbors were charged with murder, while the younger onlookers faced lesser charges of “injury to a person” and other types of assault. At the trial, Baniszewski pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming that she was so heavily addicted to pills during Sylvia’s torture she had no recollection of anything that had happened. More than that, Baniszewski argued her pill addiction made her incapable of committing the crimes, her role having merely been that of a neglectful parental figure. Courts didn’t buy any of this, knowing Baniszewski both committed the worst of the terror and knew full well what she was doing. For her crimes, Baniszewski was given a life sentence.

3. Gertrude Was Released On Parole After Serving 20 Years

Since the concept of prison was invented, people have debated what the true purpose of incarceration should be. Without question, the most important role of the prison system is to keep violent and dangerous personalities away from the public. However, the more forgiving amongst us view prison as a method of rehabilitation, which is why parole exists. Despite the severe nature of her crimes, Gertrude Baniszewski may stand out to some as evidence the prison system works in this regard, as all reports indicate life behind bars genuinely made her a better person. No longer a terror to the children in her care, Baniszewski grew into a role as “den mother” to her fellow prisoners, acting with such good behavior, she was released from life imprisonment after serving only 20 years. Believe it or not, Gertrude’s life was fairly demure from then on, if nothing else, free of torture or any other notable crimes.

2. Gertrude’s Daughter Paula Has Been Unable To Escape Her Past

Whenever children commit violent crimes, psychologists are bound to wonder what inspired them to create such terror. In the case of Gertrude Baniszewski’s children and the other neighborhood kids who tortured Sylvia Likens, there’s really not much of a debate. Gertrude was almost, without question, the sole reason any of her children beat their houseguest, and the same is doubly true of the other youngsters she invited (if not forced) to join them. That said, as the eldest child, 17-year-old Pamela Baniszewski should have had the sense to stop herself, and never did. Decades later, this would come back to bite her when she tried to restart her life under an assumed name and find a teaching job. Unfortunately for the woman now calling herself Pamela Pace, the past proved impossible to escape, and she was fired as soon as the school found out about her past.

1. Multiple Films And Documentaries Have Been Made About Gertrude’s Crimes

Such is the nature of media’s morbid fascination with death and torment that Gertrude Baniszewski’s story has become well publicized amongst those who study true crime. It takes an incredibly unique menace for a killer to become this infamous with only a sole victim, and yet the nature of Gertrude’s crimes against Sylvia Likens should, by now, speak for themselves. Because of this reputation, countless media outlets have taken great interest in this story. Included amongst those to document Baniszewski was an episode of Deadly Women, plus two mainstream films, The Girl Next Door and An American Crime. The story has also served the basis for a number of novels and nonfiction books, making The Torture Mother amongst the most notorious American killers and indeed the most violent criminal in Indiana history, as her prosecutor darkly described.

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