Gertrude Baniszewski was born Gertrude van Fossan on September 19, 1929 in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. She was the third of six children born to her parents, Hugh and Mollie. In 1940, she witnessed her father succumb to a fatal heart attack. In 1945, when she was sixteen, she dropped out of school to marry an eighteen year old deputy named John Baniszewski.
Her husband John had a bad temper, but they managed to avoid divorce for ten years. During that time, she gave birth to four children. After the divorce, she briefly married a man named Edward Guthrie, before divorcing again to remarry John. They had another two children, but divorced again in 1963, this time for good. Desperate, she moved in with a man named Dennis Lee Wright, who would abuse her. She had one child with him, Dennis Jr., before Wright left her and disappeared.
In July of 1965, she met Lester and Betty Likens, two traveling carnival workers that had two daughters, Sylvia Marie (16) and Jenny Faye (15). They suggested that Gertrude take them in as boarders while they worked across the country in return for $20 a week in compensation. Gertrude agreed and took the girls in, enrolling them in high school and taking them to church with her children.
However, when the first $20 payment from Lester Likens failed to arrive on time, she started beating the two girls. Later, she beat them for having candy that they had bought and she accused them of stealing. In August of 1965, Gertrude focused her abuse on Sylvia, the elder of the two sisters, allowing her children to beat her violently and even push her down the stairs. She accused Sylvia of being a prostitute, delivering sermons about the filthiness of prostitutes and women to her children.
At one point, the two Likens sisters accused Gertrude's daughters, Paula and Stephanie, of being prostitutes. In retaliation, Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, and a number of classmates and local boys were brought in the house to assist Gertrude in beating Sylvia, even forcing her sister Jenny to hit her older sister. Around this time, two neighbors, Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion moved in next door and began noticing the abuse, but did not report it to authorities.
One time, Sylvia Likens stole a gym suit from school so she would be able to attend gym class. Gertrude found it and beat her until she confessed, then burned her with a lit cigarette. She also decided to pull her out of school and accused her of being a prostitute. As punishment for "being a prostitute", she called a group of local boys over and forced Sylvia to strip in front of them and insert a Coca Cola bottle into her vagina.
Shortly after that incident, Sylvia became incontinent due to repeated kicking of her genital area. Gertrude called her filthy and locked her in the basement as punishment. To "cleanse" Sylvia of the filth, she doused her with boiling water and rubbed salt into the burns. Most of the time, Sylvia was not given clothing or food, forcing her to live in the cold basement in the nude. Gertrude and her son John Jr., then twelve years old, also began making Sylvia eat her own feces on occasion.
Sylvia's younger sister, Jenny, managed to contact her older sister Diana and told her about what was going on, asking her to contact the police. Diana ignored her, thinking that she was displeased with being punished for genuinely bad behavior and overreacting. She still decided to visit, however, but when she arrived, Gertrude refused to let her in. Diana hid near the house until Jenny was allowed outside, but Jenny told her she wasn't allowed to talk to her and ran away.
Diana decided to contact social services based on what she had seen and heard. She told them that Gertrude had kicked Sylvia out of the house for being physically unclean and a whore and had run away. A social worker appeared at the house, but Gertrude forced Jenny to lie to the social worker, affirming that Sylvia had run away. The social worker left and filed a report on Sylvia running away, but she was really still locked in the basement.
On October 21, 1965, Gertrude instructed John Jr., Coy, and Stephanie to drag Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The incontinent Sylvia wet the bed and Gertrude punished her by once again forcing her to insult a coke bottle into her vagina. Gertrude then proceeded to carve "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into her abdomen with a heated sewing needle. She allowed Ricky Hobbs, a local boy, to finish the work.
The next morning, Gertrude dictated a letter to Sylvia, forcing her to write a fake letter to her parents saying that she had run away. Gertrude began making plans to have John Jr. and Jenny Likens take Sylvia to the local garbage dump and leave her to die. Sylvia decided to make a run for it, getting to the porch before being stopped by Gertrude, who threw her down the basement steps and locked the door.
On October 24th, Gertrude descended into the basement and began beating Sylvia with a wooden paddle, but missed and hit herself. Coy Hubbard decided to take over, beating Sylvia with a broomstick until she was unconscious. On October 26th, Gertrude gave Sylvia a lukewarm bath, shortly after which Sylvia died, despite attempts by Stephanie to resuscitate her. Stephanie told Hobbs to call the police, but when they arrived Gertrude gave them the fake letter to try to convince them that Sylvia had run away. However, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the officers, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." The police took her statement, found the body, and arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, John, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Several other neighborhood children including Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe were arrested and charged with injury to person.
Gertrude and the other ones charged with murder were held without bail until their trials. An autopsy revealed burns, bruising, as well as muscle and nerve damage. Sylvia had also bit through her lips, almost severing them completely. Her vagina was swollen shut, but her hymen was intact, proving that she was a virgin and not a prostitute as Gertrude had claimed. The death was directly due to brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from the damage to her skin.
Gertrude was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. She appealed and was found guilty again, but sentenced to 18 years to life. In prison, she was a model prisoner and became known as the prison "mom". In 1985, she was eligible for parole and Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak against her. Two protest groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, picketed in front of the court and collected a petition with 4500 signatures demanding that parole be declined. However, she was still released on parole. She stated, "I'm not sure what role I had in it because I was on drugs. I never really knew her. I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia." She left prison on December 4, 1985 and moved to Iowa, where she died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990.