Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

A Young, Tortured Girl is Dead

On October 26, 1965, Indianapolis police answered a call saying that a girl had died. The call came from a pay telephone in front of a Shell station in a poor section of the city. The caller was a teenaged boy whose voice had not finished changing into that of an adult man. He sounded very nervous and directed the police to the address, 3850 East New York Street, at which they would find the dead female.

When the cops got to the dingy, rundown, clapboard home to which the anonymous caller had directed them, they found the emaciated dead body of 16-year-old Sylvia Marie Likens. She was covered with bruises and small wounds, later revealed to be cigarette and match burns that numbered over 100. There were also large areas where the outer layer of skin had peeled off. Likens also had a large letter "3" branded on her chest. However, the most remarkable injuries, by far, were the words in block letters that had been burned directly onto her stomach: "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!"

Room where Sylvia's body was found.
Room where Sylvia's body was found.

Thus ended one of the most horrible crimes ever committed against a single victim.

The crime had been perpetrated by an informal group of teenagers and children, some as young as 11 and 12, led by a 37-year-old woman. That woman's name was Gertrude Baniszewski (pronounced "Ban-i-SHEF-ski" rather than the more fittingly ominously sounding way it looks like it should be said: "Ban-i-ZOO-ski"). Sylvia and her younger sister, the 15-year-old disabled Jenny Fay Likens (she had a limp due to polio and a brace around that leg) had been boarding with Baniszewski since early July.

At that time, the Likens parents had left Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Mrs. Baniszewski — they knew her as "Mrs. Wright" — so they would be free to travel the carnival circuit operating a concession stand.


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