Warning: The Real Demons series is a collection of explicit stories about some of the most extreme crimes I’ve come across. These stories involve highly taboo subjects, and after much consideration, I’ve decided to keep details I initially felt were too severe to include. Thus, the stories are deeply disturbing – and, of course, all true. You can’t take comfort in them being works of fiction. You may learn horrible things that you’ll really wish you hadn’t. If you’re not fully comfortable with all of this, avoid the whole series.
Our story begins in the summer of 1965 in Indianapolis, USA, where Lester and Betty Likens lived with their two daughters, Sylvia, 16 and Jenny, 15. Lester and Betty were travelling carnival workers, and had been struggling to find somewhere to leave their daughters during the summer months, for the duration of their work.
One day in July 1965, Lester had gone looking for his daughters and was told that they were at the home of Gertrude Baniszewski, 37 and her seven kids; Paula, 17, Stephanie, 15, John, 12, Marie, 11, Shirley, 10, James, 8, and Dennis Lee Wright Jnr, 1. When Lester came to pick the girls up, he met Gertrude at the door for a few minutes, and without knowing her or even checking the inside of the filthy, ramshackle house, he arranged for Sylvia and Jenny to stay with Gertrude and her seven kids for twenty dollars a week, until Betty and Lester picked the girls up in November.
The first couple of weeks at the Baniszewski household went smoothly. Sylvia and Jenny settled into their new home well, and were having undisciplined fun with the Baniszewski kids, as well as the neighbourhood kids who’d visit the house on a daily basis, making it the designated meet up spot for them all. Sylvia and Jenny fit in well at school too, making friends quickly and being well-liked.
After the first two weeks, however, when Lester’s twenty dollar cheques began arriving a little later than expected, Gertrude would take her anger out on Sylvia and Jenny by shouting insults at them and savagely beating their naked buttocks using various instruments, with the help of her eldest daughter, Paula. During these beatings, the Baniszewski kids would stand there and enjoy the spectacle.
The Baniszeski household always lacked food, which meant that Sylvia and Jenny only ate meals occasionally. Struggling with hunger, they began to collect empty cola bottles to trade in their local store for credit to get candy. But when they shared their candy with the Baniszewski kids, Gertrude caught them and accused them of lying and stealing it, resulting in another insult-ridden beating for Sylvia.
From then on, Sylvia and Jenny resolved to blend into the background and stay out of Gertrude’s way, with the hope that they’d avoid her accusatory lies and baseless beatings. This seemed to work for a while, until the night of the local church raffle. The girls hadn’t eaten for days, so they were starving, weak and shaky. To avoid attracting attention and Gertrude’s ire, they forced themselves to eat as little of the open buffet as possible, even with their grumbling, aching tummies. When the girls came home, it was clear the Baniszewski kids, who’d also been at the church raffle, had been tattling about Sylvia and Jenny to Gertrude, as the demented woman set her sights on Sylvia again.
Gertrude accused Sylvia of eating too much at the raffle and bringing shame upon her. She forced Sylvia to eat a ‘hot dog’ (a mouldy bun with a raw sausage in it) that was overflowing with ketchup and mustard, and when Sylvia, unable to keep the stale food down, vomited it all out, Gertrude made the girl eat all her vomit off the filthy kitchen floor. As usual, the Baniszewski children watched this humiliation with laughter.
The next time Gertrude attacked Sylvia, she accused her of being a prostitute, raining insults down on her like a fire and brimstone preacher and repeatedly ramming her heel into Sylvia’s groin. This time, Gertrude got the spectator kids to help her by forcing Sylvia’s legs open while Gertrude continued her abuse. Sylvia’s screams of pain had no effect on these kids, and her sister, Jenny, kept to herself as she was afraid for her own skin. After this episode, Gertrude banned Sylvia from sitting anywhere in the house.
Having suffered so badly at the hands of Gertrude, and humiliated in front of the local kids, Sylvia lashed out by spreading a rumour at school that Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski were having sex for money. In response, Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, 15, who trained in judo, beat Sylvia up when she got home from school. Egged on by Gertrude, he practised his judo moves on her before taking her down to the basement to throw her around repeatedly, until he grew tired. On his way out of the basement, Gertrude told him that he was welcome to come over and use Sylvia as a punching bag to practise his judo whenever he wanted.
Gertrude knew no limit when it came to bullshitting, freely using accusations of theft, prostitution, pregnancy and lying – things that Gertrude and her own kids were guilty of – as an excuse to attack Sylvia. Gertrude’s behaviour clearly indicated her own feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem; she’d been in two failed marriages and a sexual relationship with a much younger man, Dennis Lee Wright Snr., 22, who’d abandoned her when she had his baby, Dennis Jnr. On top of this, Gertrude’s teenage daughter Paula was pregnant out of wedlock. This was in 1960s America, when things like sex outside of marriage and teenage pregnancy were highly frowned upon and would earn you an unsavoury reputation.
Thus, Gertrude was deeply jealous of Sylvia, as she represented the youth, beauty and virtue that Gertrude so desperately desired herself. She revelled in taking the moral high ground and preaching 'sermons' about the filthiness of women and prostitution, and making up lies about Sylvia to the local kids to justify her attacks and get them to join in too. Even Jenny was made to hit her sister, which she did to avoid receiving the same treatment.
The abuse continued as the summer weeks rolled by, with Hubbard using his free reign to practise his judo on Sylvia, and Gertrude regularly beating her with whatever instrument she pleased (often a wooden paddle.) Gertrude carried on encouraging the kids to join in, and they’d continue the torture by burning her with lit cigarettes and matches, essentially using her body as an ashtray. Sylvia’s body was weak with starvation, torture and lack of sleep, and because of this, her many wounds – inflicted by a collection of inhumane children listening to a savage woman – were not healing.
Sylvia had changed dramatically since she and Jenny had first been introduced to the community as Gertrude’s new lodgers. Aside from her extreme weight loss, Sylvia’s eyes were sunken and bruised, and her body had many wounds, including burnt fingers. These were all clear signs of the torture she was receiving at the Baniszewski household, and yet, no one did anything to help her. Not her school, her friends or her neighbours – not even her own sister. Gertrude’s lies about Sylvia had spread throughout the community and turned them against the innocent girl, so no one helped her.
THE COLA BOTTLE INCIDENT
One evening, aching for some food, Sylvia went around collecting empty cola bottles again to trade in for food money. She’d done this hoping that Gertrude wouldn’t notice her absence, though once she finished her food and went home, Gertrude was waiting for her, along with the kids, most of whom were boys this evening.
As usual, Gertrude accused Sylvia of prostitution, claiming that she’d been out working the streets. Amid the humiliating insults, she forced Sylvia to strip naked in front of everyone and ordered her to put a cola bottle into her vagina. Surrounded by eager boys and too terrified to resist, Sylvia tried to do as she was told but she struggled with the pain and wasn’t able to push it inside much. When she could do no more, Gertrude violently slapped the bottom of the bottle, forcing it inside her vaginal canal. Bleeding and in agony, Sylvia fell over and desperately tried to pull out the bloody glass. In response to her cries for help, Gertrude yanked the bottle out of her, causing her to faint from the pain.
When Sylvia woke up the next morning on the dirty pile of clothes that was her bed, she was in a puddle of bloody urine. The harm done to her vagina had made her incontinent. Gertrude dragged the naked girl downstairs and threw her into the pitch black, cold basement. Later on, she got a few of the boys to carry Sylvia upstairs to the bathroom, where they dumped her in the bathtub filled with scalding hot water and rubbed salt into her wounds. This painful routine was regularly repeated over the next few weeks.
Sylvia was rarely given food or water. If she wasn’t taken up to be cleaned, she was left alone and naked in the basement, surrounded by her own urine and faeces. She was given a tin can to use as a toilet, and every day, she was forced to eat its contents.
Sylvia had become after-school entertainment for the neighbourhood kids; they’d come over on a daily basis to stand around and ogle the naked girl, and hurt her in some way just for fun. The Baniszewski kids, deranged as they were, decided to make some money out of the situation by charging the kids who came for Sylvia.
By now, Sylvia’s scar-riddled, skeletal body had already shut down, and she was barely able to move or speak. She was so dehydrated that she couldn’t even form tears when she cried. Still, the kids would torture her, throwing her down the basement stairs and stubbing out cigarettes on her skin, and the sadistic Hubbard would continue his judo practise on her naked body.
Gertrude had an endless hunger for hurting Sylvia, and this reached another peak on the second occasion that she forced Sylvia to put a cola bottle into her vagina. Since Sylvia’s body had shut down, she wasn’t responsive to the painful assault as she had been previously, which only further aggravated Gertrude. She got the kids around them to hold Sylvia down and gag her screams, while she used a heated needle to carve the words ‘IM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT’ onto Sylvia’s stomach. The haggard woman soon got tired and passed on the task to one of the neighbourhood boys, Richard Hobbs, 14, who even went as far as trying to burn an additional ‘S’ (for slave) on Sylvia’s chest with the help of Shirley Baniszewski.
Left alone again with her thoughts in that dark basement, Sylvia knew she was going to die, and she confessed as much to Jenny. Gertrude knew it too, as she began preparing to get rid of her without incriminating herself. She made Sylvia write a letter to her parents, telling them she’d gone off with a gang of boys who'd inflicted all these wounds on her, and painting Gertrude as the victim of her immoral behaviour. Gertrude then planned to have the kids dispose of Sylvia at the local garbage dump, and use the letter she wrote as evidence of her running away.
Once Sylvia had written the letter, Gertrude tried to make her eat some bread, however, after all the times she'd been choked, as well as the extreme dehydration, her throat was too swollen to swallow anything. Gertrude, angered by this, went to the closest window, grabbed the curtain rod and rammed the end of it into Sylvia’s mouth and teeth, as if this would open up her throat.
Later on, in the basement, Gertrude tried to make Sylvia eat some crackers, though she rejected them. Gertrude, angered again, lashed out at her by punching her in the stomach over and over, until she started bleeding. This assault continued the next day, when Gertrude returned with Hubbard to batter Sylvia some more.
The next morning, 26th October 1965, they discovered that Sylvia had died. Her body was cold, indicating that she’d died, all alone in that dark basement, during the night. Gertrude called the police, still with her plan in mind, and began to demonise the ‘runaway’ Sylvia to the two officers as soon as they got there. The officers took a statement from Gertrude and were about to leave when Jenny, finally plucking up some courage, said to them, ‘You get me out of here and I'll tell you everything.’ Finally, Gertrude and her kids had been caught. But it was too late for Sylvia.
According to the coroner’s report, Sylvia’s emaciated body had over one hundred cigarette burns, and several dozens of severe bruises, lacerations and scars. She’d suffered second and third degree burns, and had severe muscle and nerve damage. In pain, she’d bitten her lips almost clean off, her throat and vagina were swollen shut, though her hymen was still intact.
Gertrude’s accusations of Sylvia being a prostitute, pregnant, and mingling with abusive boys was all proven to be lies; lies that she made up, motivated by jealousy and hatred, to justify her torture of the innocent girl. Gertrude couldn’t deal with her own teenage daughter being pregnant, so she took it all out on Sylvia, who was everything her kids weren’t.
Unfortunately, the severity of the punishments handed out did not match the crimes that were committed against Sylvia. Gertrude was convicted of first degree murder and given a life sentence instead of the death penalty – a decision that angered many, especially when she was released just twenty years later. Her daughter, Paula, who'd often emotionally and physically abused Sylvia, was charged with second degree murder and spent around six years in prison, and her son, John, spent eighteen months in juvy. Despite their involvement, most of the neighbourhood kids went unpunished, except for Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, both of whom also got a measly eighteen months in juvy.
The truth is, the whole local community, with their collective silence, could be held responsible for Sylvia’s death to some degree. Sylvia’s abuse had definitely not gone unnoticed by them, yet they all treated it as normal. The Baniszewski’s next door neighbours knew what was happening and did absolutely nothing to help the girl. Everyone simply believed Gertrude’s lies about her and ignored her. When it came to their parents, neither Sylvia or Jenny had known where to contact them as they were always on the move with the carnival, and Gertrude kept all the letters they’d sent.
I've had to write concisely about Sylvia's ordeal as it would take a book to cover everything she was put through during those months in detail. Whenever I've revisited Sylvia's case over the years, I've always thought that one of the saddest things about it is how Jenny could watch her own sister being tortured like that for months, and do absolutely nothing to stop it. Yes, she was scared. But she had plenty of opportunities to tell anyone what was going on. She could’ve saved her sister and she didn't.