I got really into true crime novels many years ago when I read Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, her true story of her friendship with Ted Bundy. I've read books about Bundy, The Boston Strangler, the Black Dahlia, Ed Gein, Albert Fish (who is the freakiest, most f-ed up person you will ever read about), and Dr. H. H. Holmes. Their crimes are unbelievable, horrific, and disgusting. However, the only true crime story that has truly haunted me since I read it was the slow torture-murder of Sylvia Likens by her boarder, Gertrude Baniszewski, Gertrude's children, and some neighbor children.The details of this crime are best described in the only book about the case, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, written by a newspaper reporter covering the story shortly after the crime and subsequent trials of the offenders. Almost all comments I've read about this book and about the case in general say something along the lines of the fact that this is the most horrible crime of which they've every heard.
A more in-depth and mostly accurate description of the crime can be found on Wikipedia here (although I'm not sure it's the best source - some facts are contradictory to what is written in House of Evil), but I'll give a short summary of events here.
In Indianapolis, 1965, Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny (16 and 15 years old, respectively) came to live with a woman from their neighborhood, Gertrude Baniszewski (bani-SHEF-ski), while their parents held jobs traveling with a carnival. Lester and Betty Likens agreed to pay Gertrude $20 a week to board their two daughters, without ever really examining the house where they would be living. Gertrude was a sickly woman who already had seven children. She was depressed and stressed from having lived such a hard life. She began taking her frustrations out on the Likens girls, and eventually Sylvia was the main target.
The story can get a little complicated with all the people involved. Gertrude started the abuse with punishments by paddling with a fraternity-type paddle or a belt. Gertrude soon encouraged her children and other kids from the neighborhood who often visited the Baniszewski house to also abuse Sylvia under the guise of "punishment" for various acts. The abuse escalated. Cigarettes were put out on Sylvia's body (she had over 100 burns on her when she died); Gertrude twice roughly kicked Sylvia in the genitals; she was denied food; had the baby's dirty diaper shoved in her mouth; was kicked and/or thrown down the basement stairs several times; was given baths in scalding hot water; had salt rubbed into her open sores; and was twice forced to stand naked in front of Gertrude and other children and shove a Coke bottle into her vagina. The words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" were carved into her stomach with a needle and a crude "3" was burned above this with a hot branding iron. Sylvia never received real medical treatment for her numerous burns and sores, and accompanied with the malnourishment, shock, and repeated blows to the head causing subdural hematoma (brain bleeding or hemorrhaging), Sylvia finally succumbed to her injuries and died on October 26, 1965, only 4 months after arriving at the Baniszewski house.
I cried while reading the book about Sylvia and what she went through. But as horrible as this crime is, and not to diminish Sylvia's death, I had to ask myself: Why does the murder of this one girl affect me so much more than reading about the 53 murders committed by Andrei Chikatilo? Or all the young women that Ted Bundy raped and murdered? What is it about Sylvia Likens' case that gets to me? I believe it is several factors. The fact that an adult gave children permission to beat this girl; that some of her abusers were barely teenagers; that no one ever did anything to stop the abuse; that one girl could be the target of so much hostility and rage; and also that Sylvia herself apparently lost her will to live after suffering so much torture and was not able to save herself. It absolutely blows my mind that something like this could have happened. Many, many children out there are victims of abuse, I know, but this was no behind-closed-doors abuse case. Kids in the neighborhood went over to the Baniszewski house just to abuse Sylvia - it became a game to them. And not one of them had the heart to see the evil that was going on and tell somebody about it?
Author Jack Ketchum (discussed in the previous blog) was also haunted by this case and he used it to inspire his novel The Girl Next Door. His story is fairly similar to the real-life case - Meg and Susan Loughlin come to live with their aunt Ruth Chandler and her three sons after their parents die in a car accident. Ruth starts to show some resentment toward the girls (and goes a little mad) and starts to abuse them, trying to teach her boys a lesson in the process. Meg is eventually tied up in the basement, where Ruth and her sons, and other boys and girls from the neighborhood, beat and torture her.
The torture is a little more extreme than what happened with Sylvia - an incident of sexual assault and a hot tire iron to the clitoris are the penultimate events in the story - but that is really immaterial. This book spoke to me because it is written from the point of view of David, the Chandlers' next-door neighbor and long-time friend of the Chandler boys. He meets Meg before most of the other kids do and falls for her. He witnesses her torture and abuse and though he feels horror at what he sees (he never commits any of the acts himself), he also feels what the other kids feel.
The reader will often find themselves hating David more than Ruth or any of the others that torture Meg simply because of his selfish inaction. I remember one part of the book where David talks himself out of telling somebody about the abuse. He says something about how he'd be an accessory to the crime and get in trouble himself. I hated David after that - who cares what happens to you, you little shit! Save this girl's life! But by giving us insight into the mind of someone witnessing the abuse, Ketchum seems to be trying to explain to the reader how a crime like this, and in essence the crime against Sylvia, can occur. It's the repressed society that encourages keeping secrets; mob psychology; the fear that children have of disobeying or otherwise going up against adults; and the responsibility of adults. David and the other kids are fascinated by the things they can get away with, with the all-powerful credo of "We have permission!" ringing in their ears. They have permission from an adult, so that makes it okay. Kids are powerless compared to adults, and to be given permission to exert the highest form of power, the power over another person's life, must have been a high for those kids. I understand that now - even though the whole concept is sick and twisted and totally wrong. But I do understand it, and this is another theory on how such young children could have tortured Sylvia and not feel guilty about it.
In the end, David tries to help Meg escape. But you know what? I don't even care that he tried to help her, and I don't believe he redeemed himself when he killed Ruth by pushing her down the stairs. To me, it was too little too late. He never hurt Meg himself, but he never helped her either. He had the conscience to do the right thing but never followed through. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," right? Ketchum says that Meg is the hero of the piece and I couldn't agree more. She tries to keep her dignity during all the atrocities committed against her and when she has the chance to escape, she ruins it for herself because she refuses to leave without taking her sister with her. Perhaps this was part of Sylvia's psyche, as well. Her younger sister Jenny was crippled from polio and would have been the next likely target for Gertrude's abuse if Sylvia was gone.
Even with the books and the two movies made about the case (An American Crime, with Ellen Page of Juno fame playing Sylvia, and an adaptation of The Girl Next Door) there is still no definitive answer how this crime could have happened. Gertrude Baniszewski was found by many to be sane at the time of the crime, but there is no psychological evaluation out there to read that says, "This is why I hurt Sylvia." And with the major perpetrators of the crime long dead, this question will never be answered. We can speculate all we want and we can blame it on the family's poverty and anger at their life situation, but that's just not good enough for me. Sylvia deserves more than that.
My aunt lives in Indianapolis. If we ever make a family trip there again, I will make it a point to visit Sylvia's memorial and leave her the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I can find.
Rest in peace, Sylvia Likens. Rest in peace.