“I’m a prostitute and proud of it”
Gertrude Nadine van Fossan was born on 19 September 1929, the third of six children. In 1945 she left school to marry John Baniszewski by whom she had four children. After ten years, the couple divorced, she married Edward Guthrie, divorced him, remarried John Baniszewski, divorced him again (in 1963) and lived with 23-year-old Dennis Lee Wright by whom she had a son before he left her.
In July 1965 Lester and Betty Likens, who worked in the circus, asked Baniszewski if she would look after their two daughters, Sylvia Marie, 16, and polio-stricken Jenny Faye, 15, for $20 a week. At first, all went well but when $20 failed to materialize one week, Baniszewski beat the girls on their bare buttocks. The money arrived the next day.
So began a regular pattern of abuse — physical and mental. In August Baniszewski encouraged her children to punch Sylvia and push her down stairs. She also accused Sylvia of being a prostitute. Sylvia and Jenny said that Baniszewski’s daughters Paula and Stephanie were whores, which resulted in Sylvia being badly beaten by Baniszewski, Coy Hubbard, Stephanie’s boyfriend, and several other classmates. That same month, Baniszewski forced Sylvia to strip naked in front of local boys and thrust a Coca Cola bottle into her vagina. The trauma of the incident left Sylvia incontinent so Baniszewski locked her in the cellar where she bathed her with scalding water and rubbed salt into her burns. For much of the time Sylvia was naked and starved and Baniszewski and her 12-year-old son John Jr made Sylvia eat her own faeces and drink her own urine.
Jenny wrote to her elder sister Dianna pleading for help, but Dianna thought Jenny was making it up. However, after being refused admission to the house, Dianna rang social services but a social worker was fobbed off by a story that Sylvia had run away to become a prostitute.
On 21 October Sylvia was taken from the cellar and tied to a bed. The next day, Baniszewski again shoved a Coke bottle up Sylvia’s vagina and she and Ricky Hobbs inscribed the words, “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on her stomach with a red-hot needle. Sylvia tried to escape but Baniszewski stopped her and pushed her back into the basement. Two days later, Coy Hubbard beat the girl unconscious with a broom handle. On the evening of 26 October Sylvia died. When the police arrived, Jenny Likens whispered to one, “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.” The police arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. They also took into custody four local children for “injury to person”.
3850 East New York Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Tuesday 26 October 1965
An autopsy proved that Sylvia was still a virgin and death was caused by brain swelling, internal brain haemorrhaging and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin. On 19 May 1966 Baniszewski was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole. She appealed and at a second trial she was jailed for 18 years to life on 5 August 1971.
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Despite pleas from the Likens family and a petition of more than 4,500 signatures Baniszewski was freed on parole on 4 December 1985. She sought to excuse her behaviour, “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.” Baniszewski changed her name to Nadine van Fossan and died of lung cancer at Iowa on 16 June 1990. Jenny Likens Wade died in 2004, aged 54. Ricky Hobbs died of cancer when he was 21. Coy Hubbard has spent much of his life in and out of prison.