Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

The Slow Descent into Horror

It is important to emphasize the truth that Sylvia's life at the Baniszewskis did not turn into a horror overnight. It was a slow slide from getting unfairly punished on occasion in July, to getting "picked on" and physically hurt in various ways regularly around August and September, to the mind-boggling torture that characterized the last few weeks of October.

During her first weeks with Gertrude, Sylvia went to the same church the Baniszewskis did, listened to phonograph records with the other kids, watched TV, and took trips to the park with friends. She attended high school with Stephanie and Paula. She ate with Gertrude and the other kids.

The Baniszewski home
The Baniszewski home

Of course, meals at the Baniszewski home were not a terribly enjoyable experience for any of its residents. Ten people had to be fed without a stove. They ate things like crackers and sandwiches. Soup formed a major part of their diets since it could be heated up on the hot plate. However, they had to eat it in shifts since they had three spoons when Sylvia got there, then two, and finally only one. The sole spoon would be used, rinsed off in the sink, and then handed to the next hungry person.

It is believed that, sometime late in August, Sylvia let it slip that she had once allowed a boyfriend to get under the bed covers with her. "You're going to have a baby!" Gertrude announced. Then Mrs. Wright kicked the girl hard in the crotch. Many more kicks to the genitals would follow and the autopsy would show that Sylvia's pubic area was horribly mauled.

Sylvia's imagined pregnancy outraged the genuinely pregnant Paula Baniszewski. Paula knocked Sylvia onto the floor, saying, "You ain't fit to sit in a chair."

Apparently as revenge, Sylvia told some of her fellow students at Tech High School that the two oldest Baniszewski girls, Stephanie and Paula, were "prostitutes."

Coy Hubbard
Coy Hubbard

Stephanie's fifteen-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, heard about this, flew into a rage, and beat Sylvia up. Coy was a handsome guy with dark, curly hair. He was big for his age and frequently a disciplinary problem at school. As he would many times in the future, Coy practiced judo on Sylvia, flipping her against walls and onto the floor. Mrs. Wright gave Sylvia yet another paddling.

Mrs. Wright encouraged neighborhood children to believe bad things about Sylvia and take "revenge." Heavyset, thirteen-year-old Anna Siscoe liked Sylvia until Gertrude told her that Sylvia had said Anna's mother was a hooker. Anna viciously attacked the older girl. During the melee, Sylvia supposedly clutched her stomach, saying "Oh, my baby!"

It appears that Sylvia, although probably a virgin, had been convinced by those around her that she really must be pregnant. She may have been ignorant of the specifics of reproduction.

Gertrude whispered similar things about Sylvia making sexually-oriented slanders into the ears of her daughter Paula as well as a girl named Judy Duke and more fights resulted.

Was Sylvia impugning the morals of the females around her? It is possible. She was being taunted about her own alleged sexual indiscretions and may have tried to direct similar negative attention elsewhere to take it off of herself. You're weird. No, you are, is a battle heard each day in schoolyards throughout the world. However, it's also possible that Gertrude was making false accusations to get others stirred up against her favorite scapegoat.

Paula Baniszewski soon made a hobby out of plunking Sylvia in the head with anything that came to hand whether dish, bottle, or can. Often when a group was tormenting Sylvia, her sister Jenny would be ordered to hit her. Timidly, Jenny refused. An infuriated Gertrude slapped her face. Jenny then complied but later said she used her left hand instead of her right (she is right-handed) so it wouldn't really hurt Sylvia.

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