Gertrude Baniszewski

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Gertrude Baniszewski
Full Name: Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski
Alias: Nadine Van Fossan
The Torture Mother
Origin: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
Occupation: Homemaker
Hobby: Torturing Sylvia
Goals: Kill Sylvia Likens (succeeded)
Crimes: Murder
Child abuse
Psychological abuse
Sexual abuse
Type of Villain: Sadistic Torturer

Also known as the Torture Mother, Gertrude Baniszewski was an Indiana divorcee who oversaw and facilitated a prolonged torture, mutilation, and eventual murder of a teenage girl, Sylvia Likens. It was later discovered that the death and majority of the torture was actually carried out under Baniszewski’s instruction by her teenage children and other kids from the neighborhood. When the woman was convicted of first degree murder in 1965, the case was called, “the single worst crime perpetuated against an individual in Indiana’s history."
~ Description of Gertrude Baniszewski on List 25's 25 Most Evil Women in History, on which she was the 25th entrant.

Gertrude Baniszewski (September 19th, 1928 - June 16th, 1990) was an American woman who tortured and murdered a 16 year old girl named Sylvia Likens in her own home in the state of Indiana. She encouraged her children and their friends to join in the torture-murder. The crime was considered to be the worst in the state's history.

Early Life

Baniszewski was born on September 19th, 1928 to Mollie Myrtle and Hugh Marcus Van Fossan, Sr. She dropped out from high school six years after her father died in front of her, and she then married an 18-year-old deputy by the name of John Stephen Baniszewski and had five children with him. They divorced ten years later.

She later moved in with her 18-year-old boyfriend and had one child with him. He later left her after the child was born. Both of her boyfriends were abusive and were theorized to be the reasons why she was so vicious towards Sylvia Likens, in addition to her deteriorating health and appearance.

Sylvia Likens

35 years later in July 1965, Sylvia's parents asked for Gertrude to take her and her sister in as boarders while they continued to work as carnival employees. As payment for her cooperation, they would pay her $20 regularly. The reason why Sylvia's parents did this was because Sylvia and her sister Jenny had befriended Gertrude's children a few weeks prior. During the first weeks of their day, the Likens sisters were relatively well-treated by Gertrude. One day, Sylvia's parents failed to send the payment in time, prompting Gertrude beat the two girls as a result. Thus began a long history of child abuse.


Baniszewski began to exclusively abuse Sylvia, whilst threatening her sister with the same treatment if she reported the abuse. She appointed her own children into bullying her and they would do horrible things to her like pushing her down the stairs, burning cigarettes onto her skin multiple times, kicking her vagina until it was swollen shut and forcing her to consume her excrement and vomit. Her daughter Paula, one of the torturers, once tried to repent of her hatred towards Sylvia to a pastor but Gertude prevented her from doing so by stating that Sylvia was the one being hateful. Gertrude also accused Sylvia of being a prostitute, and "preached" to her about how it was wrong to sell your body for money, and that women were filthy in general. Hypocritically, Gertrude decided to please her fellow torturers, most of them male neighborhood children, by forcing Sylvia to participate in a strip tease, where she was stripped naked and had her vagina forcibly violated by an empty glass Coca Cola bottle. The most infamous and horrific act throughout the months of torture was when Baniszewski, with the help of her child torturers, carved the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" onto her stomach with a heated needle. The letter "S" (ended up looking like a "3") was also burnt above the words with a hot iron poker.

On October 25, Sylvia attempted to escape from the basement after overhearing conversation pertaining to Gertrude Baniszewski's plan to simply abandon her to die. She attempted to flee to the front door, although due to her extensive injuries and general weakness, Gertrude caught her before she could escape the property. Sylvia was then given toast to eat but was unable to consume the food due to her extreme state of dehydration. Gertrude forced the toast into her mouth before repeatedly striking her face with a curtain rod until sections of the instrument were bent into right angles. Coy Hubbard then took the curtain rod from Gertrude and struck Sylvia one further time, rendering her unconscious. Gertrude then dragged Sylvia into the basement.

That evening, Sylvia desperately attempted to alert neighbors by screaming for help and hitting the walls of the basement with a spade. One immediate neighbor of the Baniszewskis would later inform police she had heard the desperate commotion and that she had identified the source as emanating from the basement of 3850 East New York Street, but that as the noise had suddenly ceased at approximately 3:00 a.m., she decided not to inform police about the disturbance.

By the morning of October 26, Sylvia was unable to either speak intelligibly or to correctly coordinate the movement of her limbs. Gertrude did move Sylvia into the kitchen and—having propped her back against a wall—attempt to feed her a doughnut and a glass of milk, although she threw Sylvia to the floor in frustration when Sylvia was unable to correctly move the glass of milk to her lips. She was then returned to the basement.

Shortly thereafter, Sylvia became delirious, repeatedly moaning and mumbling. When Paula asked her to recite the English alphabet, Sylvia was unable to recite anything beyond the first four letters, or to raise herself off the ground. In response, Paula verbally threatened her to stand up or she would herself inflict a Long jump upon her. Gertrude then ordered Sylvia—who had moved her bowels—to clean herself.

That afternoon, several of Sylvia's other tormentors gathered in the basement. In what can only be assumed to be Sylvia's state of desperation and delirium, she jerkingly moved her arms in an apparent attempt to point at the faces of the tormentors she could recognize, making statements such as, "You're... Ricky" and "You're Gertie" before Gertrude tersely shouted, "Shut up! You know who I am!" Minutes later, Sylvia unsuccessfully attempted to bite into a rotten pear she had been given to eat, stating she could feel the looseness in her teeth. Upon hearing this, Jenny replied: "Don't you remember, Sylvia? Your front tooth was knocked out when you were seven." Jenny then left Sylvia in the basement to perform gardening chores for neighbors in the hope of earning spending money.

In an attempt to wash Sylvia, a laughing John Baniszewski Jr. sprayed her with a garden hose brought to the house that afternoon by Randy Lepper at Gertrude's request. Sylvia again desperately attempted to exit the basement but collapsed before she could reach the stairs. In response to this effort, Gertrude stamped upon Sylvia's head before standing and staring at her for several moments. Stephanie then decided to give Sylvia a warm, soapy bath, although Sylvia ceased breathing before she could be carried out of the basement. She was 16 years old. When Stephanie realized this fact, she attempted to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as Gertrude repeatedly shouted her belief to the children and teenagers present in her house that Sylvia was simply faking her death.


The formal statement provided by Jenny Likens prompted officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, and John Baniszewski Jr. on suspicion of Sylvia's murder within hours of the discovery of her body. The same day, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs were also arrested and charged with the same offenses. The three eldest Baniszewski children, plus Coy Hubbard, were placed in the custody of a nearby juvenile detention center; the younger Baniszewski children and Richard Hobbs were detained at the Indianapolis Children's Guardians Home. All were held without bail pending trial.

Initially, Gertrude denied any involvement in Sylvia's death, although by October 27 she had confessed to having known "the kids"—particularly her daughter Paula and Coy Hubbard—had physically and emotionally abused Sylvia. Gertrude further admitted to having forced the girl to sleep in the basement on approximately three occasions when she had wet the bed. She became evasive when one officer stated the likely reasons Sylvia had become incontinent were her mental distress and injury to her kidneys.

Five other neighborhood children who had participated in Sylvia's abuse—Michael Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe—had also been arrested by October 29. All were charged with causing injury to person and each was subsequently released into the custody of their parents under subpoena to appear as witnesses at the upcoming trial.

Trial and aftermath

On May 19, 1966, after deliberating for eight hours, the panel of eight men and four women found Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder, recommending a sentence of life imprisonment. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder, and Hobbs, Hubbard and John Baniszewski Jr. were found guilty of Sylvia's manslaughter. Upon hearing Judge Raab pronounce the verdicts, Gertrude and her children burst into tears and attempted to console each other, as Hobbs and Hubbard remained impassive.

On May 25, Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were formally sentenced to life imprisonment. The same day, Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. each received sentences of 2-to-21 years, to be served in the Indiana Reformatory.

Over the course of the following 14 years, Gertrude Baniszewski became known as a model prisoner at the Indiana Women's Prison. She worked in the prison sewing shop and was known as somewhat of a "den mother" to younger female inmates, becoming known to some within the prison by the nickname "Mom". By the time of Gertrude's ultimate parole in 1985, she had changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan (a combination of her middle name and maiden name), and described herself as a devout Christian.

Taking Gertrude's good conduct in prison into account, the parole board marginally voted in favor of granting her parole. She was released from prison on December 4, 1985. Following her release from prison, Gertrude relocated to Iowa. Despite her clean image, she never accepted full responsibility for being the ultimate architect in Sylvia's prolonged torment and ultimate death; insisting she was unable to precisely recall any of her actions in the months of Sylvia's prolonged and increasing abuse and torment within her home. She primarily blamed her actions upon the medication she had been prescribed to treat her asthma. She lived in relative obscurity in Laurel, Iowa until her death due to lung cancer on June 16, 1990, at the age of 61.

See also