Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

The Sexless Sex Crime

In early October, an incident occurred that led Mrs. Wright to order Sylvia to quit school. Sylvia had no gym suit for her physical education class and Gertrude would not give her the money to buy one. However, Sylvia came home from school with just such a suit that she claimed she had "found." Gertrude believed, not unreasonably, that the suit was a theft. Badgered about it, Sylvia confessed that she had indeed stolen it. The woman slapped and kicked the girl, then whipped her with a belt.

Mrs. Wright left the subject of Sylvia's stealing to return to that of her alleged promiscuity and, after scolding the teenager, began kicking her in the crotch area. Later that day, still not satisfied that the girl had been adequately punished for theft, she applied a lighted match to Sylvia's "sticky fingers" and gave her yet another whipping.

Heat would become a major feature of Sylvia's torture. Its origin probably lies in an incident in which Gertrude Baniszewski's abusive boyfriend, Dennis Wright, put a cigarette out on her neck. 

The motley group began burning Sylvia with cigarettes and lighted matches. Paula Baniszewski broke her hand hitting Sylvia, then used the cast to beat the girl. The favorite pastime of several kids in the area was getting Sylvia: kicking, hitting, flipping her around through Coy Hubbard's judo tricks or imitations of them, and burning her.

The autopsy would disclose two indices of how much agony Sylvia would endure: she had broken each of her fingernails backward in painful clawing and had bitten her lower lip so deeply it was partially severed.

As the persecution of Sylvia worsened, it became increasingly sexual in character. However, it was also a peculiarly "sexless sex crime." The sexual aspect started with the constant teasing, alleging that she was sexually promiscuous and escalated with Mrs. Wright's vicious kicks to the girl's crotch. There would be other sexual-like assaults, including one to be described shortly, but no "sexual assaults" in the standard meaning of the term. There are no reports of Gertrude ever touching Sylvia in any manner suggestive of lesbianism. None of the young males who excitedly took part in the beatings and torturings of the girl are believed to have either raped her or forced any type of oral sex upon her. The autopsy would disclose a gross swelling of Likens's genital region due to the kicks but none of the internal vaginal lacerations consistent with rape and tests for semen would be negative.

Since the group inflicted almost every sort of assault the human mind could come up with, the omission is puzzling. Mrs. Wright. probably had a horror of being thought "perverted" (assuming she was even familiar with the term) which would explain her not assaulting her victim's sex organ with fingers or tongue. Perhaps Coy Hubbard feared offending Stephanie if his girlfriend considered a rape "two-timing." It is also possible, as Millett speculates in some of her more credible fictional passages, that they genuinely believed Sylvia was a "slut" and feared sexually transmitted diseases or a more ambiguous sort of "contamination" from such contact.

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