The most heinous crime:

“The Indiana Torture Slaying,” or “Helter Skelter”?

by
Denise Noe, writer and crime analyst, and

Natty Bumppo,
author (sub nom John Dean)
of The Indiana Torture Slaying

Natty Bumppo to Denise Noe, September 16, 2002:

In your article The Sexless Sex Crime,” relating to the murder of Sylvia Likens, I want to suggest respectfully that you may be overlooking the relationship between Gertrude Baniszewski and Richard (Ricky) Hobbs.

Ricky Hobbs, age 14 at the time of the murder, was not a friend of the Baniszewski children. He was a friend of Gertrude Baniszewski. He even said so, to both the police and the coroner’s investigator. There is a photograph, on page 33 of Borf Books’ republication of The Indiana Torture Slaying, that is worth thousands of words.


Denise Noe, September 16, 2002:

Thank you so much for reading my article and taking the time to write with your criticism. Your book was a major source, if not the major source, for my story.

“The Sexless Sex Crime” is not the title of the article but of a chapter of it, and it refers to there being sexual types of motivation behind this case but apparently no sexual crime in the conventional sense – i.e., neither Richard Hobbs, nor Coy Hubbard, nor John Baniszewski appears to have raped with a penis or to have forced fellatio on Sylvia Likens or anything similar. However, there was a great deal of troubling talk about sexuality with accusations against Sylvia of sexual misconduct and her alleged slandering of Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski as prostitutes. Aspects of the crime were directed against Sylvia in a sexual manner by kicking her in her genitals, making her do a striptease, and finally burning the word “prostitute” on her stomach.

You make a good point in saying I did not put enough emphasis on the relationship between Richard Hobbs and Gertrude. However, are you suggesting that they were actually lovers? Or that Ricky may have had a crush on Gertrude? The latter seems more likely to me. The photograph on page 33 of your book shows them standing beside each other in court, but neither has an arm around the other.

On page 164, Deputy Prosecutor Leroy New asked Ricky, “Were you some particular friend of Gertrude?” and he replies, “I was a friend of the kids, too. So it seems he was friendly with the whole dramatically dysfunctional family.

Then he’s asked, “Did you ever have sexual relations with Gertrude Baniszewski?”

“No, sir!” he replied; and you wrote, “It was about the only time Hobbs raised his voice.

Do you think he was lying about this?

At any rate, I think your point about the relationship between Ricky and Gertrude is well taken. I would like to hear more from you on it. I may well see if I can add to my crimelibrary.com story with more about this interaction.


Natty Bumppo, September 16, 2002:

You wrote, “ . . . neither has an arm around the other. . . . Defendants do not “hold hands” in court. Take another look at the photo. They are a couple.

This is one of the most remarkable journalistic photos I have ever seen. Ranks with the Okies, Iwo Jima, and the young girl running toward the camera in Viet Nam. I don’t know who took the courtroom photo of Gertrude and Ricky: I copped it from an uncredited, uncopyrighted reproduction in a detective magazine. Probably an Indianapolis Star or News photographer – I was friends with all of them – I would like to think it was my old friend Frank Fisse. But I cannot know: You saw how shabbily the Star treated me, in the “APPENDIX,” on page 189.

As for Ricky’s remark, “I was a friend of the kids, too,” read Louis Nizer’s book. This is the cross-examined presenting himself in the best light.

And do I think Ricky was lying about not having sexual relations with Gertrude Baniszewski? Again, read Louis Nizer’s book. Denial is fiercest when circumstantial evidence impossible to rebut is presented. I have serious reservations about the credibility of that answer. What else besides sex would motivate an otherwise decent young man to carve words upon a girl’s belly with a burning wand? Everything fits – including Hobbs’ death at a youthful age from cancer. He was a tormented young man.

By the way, I have a copy of the autopsy report (included in the entire file of the case, given to me by Detective Sgt. William Kaiser’s son, Paul). Incredibly it does not mention whether Sylvia Likens’ hymen was intact (I think this omission is righteous in terms of “blaming the victim,” but there are those who would like to know).


Denise Noe, September 17, 2002:

It doesn’t necessarily seem that way to me. For one thing, you have to take the age difference into account. Gertrude was 37, Hobbs 14. Yes, I know such a romance is possible – I just completed a story on Mary Kay Letourneau – but it makes it somewhat unlikely. And yes, I know that Dennis Wright was about 20 when he fathered Gertrude’s baby.

Does Louis Nizer’s book deal directly with the Likens case? Actually, saying Ricky was Gertrude’s “boyfriend” might be the better thing to do because it would suggest a powerful reason to want to please her. I still doubt there was an actual sexual relationship. However, the possibility – even probability – of a sexual attraction between them is something I could have dealt with in my story and did not.

You ask, “What else besides sex would motivate an otherwise decent young man to carve words upon a girl’s belly with a burning wand?” A desire to be mean. One of the things that this case brings out is the extraordinary cruelty of children. As I did point out in my piece, some people see it as a real-life Lord of the Flies incident. The cruelty of children is underlined as well in the recent media interest in childhood bullying.

Also, there could have been a “sexual-like” motivation without a promise of actual sex from Gertrude. Hobbs might have been sexually excited by the branding itself and the very word (that Gertrude had to spell for him) “prostitute.

Yes, it seems he may have been haunted by the case, both his part in it and the aftermath. That sort of stress might have contributed to his death. Of course, his mother died from cancer; so his family had a history of it.

Yes, we would like to know if Sylvia’s hymen was intact. However, even if it was not, it might not tell us anything new. Couldn’t her hymen have been broken when she was forced – twice – to insert the soft drink bottle up her vagina?

In The Indiana Torture Slaying, you don’t say that Sylvia was raped in the usual sense by Hobbs, Hubbard, or anyone else. Do you believe that it’s likely she was?


Natty Bumppo, September 17, 2002:

I think that is unlikely. If Leroy New had thought there was the slightest chance of a rape indictment, he would have gone for it.

I think sex is more basic than meanness. More significantly, unlike Coy Hubbard and Paula Baniszewski, Ricky Hobbs did not give the impression of being mean. Of course, he had to be mean at some level to do what he did; but meanness did not seem to be an element of his basic character.

I’m guessing that you never met any of these people; I rather knew them. No question of Paula Baniszewski’s and Coy Hubbard’s basic meanness. Johnny Baniszewski was too young for a fully developed personality, but he had a definite mean streak. I didn’t see it in Hobbs.

And no, Gertrude Baniszewski and Ricky Hobbs did not have to have had “sexual relations” to have had a “sexual relationship. The desire or promise is sufficient to motivate. But Gertrude Baniszewski’s obsession with appearing “young,” her history with Dennis Wright, and the truly heinous nature of what Hobbs did suggest to me a stronger motivation than mere promise or desire. Almost all young men have the desire for sex, but it is not nearly as powerful as the desire for more once it has been had, and particularly for more with a particular individual. This is but speculation, of course; we’ll never know (unless Gertrude or Ricky left some yet undiscovered memoir).

Of course, perhaps the Pepsi bottle could have broken Sylvia’s hymen. I had not thought of that. And now I am curious why there was no mention of the hymen in the autopsy report. It may be that the prosecutors, not wanting to give the defendants an opening to “blame the victim,” instructed the pathologist not to “go there.


Denise Noe, September 17, 2002:

This is precisely what I meant when I called it “the sexless sex crime. So much that was sexual about it without anyone sexually assaulting Sylvia in the usual meaning of the term.

As anyone familiar with children knows, a “mean streak” of sorts may be a kind of universal. Lord of the Flies showed how it can turn homicidal in the absence of adult supervision, and the real-life atrocity of the Likens case may show how easily it can be brought out by a cruel adult. I have a friend who has studied this case and believes that, to a large extent, the youngsters were in fact without adult supervision of any kind and operating on their own, since Gertrude was, in his words, “a basket case.

Also, Hobbs may have had a larger mean streak than you were able to see. Wasn’t he visiting the Baniszewski house fairly regularly? That would indicate he wasn’t averse to what was going on there. He and Shirley came up with the branding idea on their own and, under cross-examination, Hobbs said that the idea of writing “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” might have been his own. Another reason he might have seemed more subdued when you met him is that he had experienced the strong disapproval of his own Dad for what he had done and suffered the loss of his mother. Another point: His mother’s illness might have filled him with a sense of rage and powerlessness; so, like the others, he used Sylvia as a scapegoat for all his negative feelings.

You never say in The Indiana Torture Slaying that you believe Gertrude and Ricky were lovers. Gertrude doesn’t appear youthful to me. As I said in my article, she had a kind of “young-old” look and, in at least some pictures, could easily be taken for older than her 37 years. So many responsibilities plus ailments had taken their toll. You quote Gertrude as saying, “Never, never, never do anything with a boy unless you're married to him!” when she kicked Sylvia in the genital area. You also note that she had two out-of-wedlock pregnancies with Dennis Wright. However, those words suggest that she wasn’t having an ongoing sexual relationship at the time the Likens girls were boarding.

They did determine that Sylvia wasn’t pregnant at the time of her death, didn’t they?


Natty Bumppo, September 18, 2002:

Not specifically. That was merely understood from the lack of a finding of pregnancy. Unfortunately for criminal defendants, an autopsy is usually a “done deal” by the time the defense legal team is assembled. The body has been disposed of, and the defense has no real opportunity to suggest any direction to the post mortem inquiry.

All your points are well taken, and especially the analogy to Lord of the Flies. But the branding was not Hobbs’ and Shirley’s idea; it was Gertrude Baniszewski’s; and it was Mrs. Baniszewski herself who began the physical operation. See page 63. (And it was Marie, not Shirley, who assisted Ricky).

And all Hobbs said in answer to New’s question “Now, it was your idea, Mr. Hobbs, to brand and mutilate this girl, wasn’t it?” was “I don't know. It may have been my idea. It was the remorseful response of a broken boy to a leading question in a remorseless cross-examination. You will note that New continually called him “Mr. Hobbs,” not Ricky. That was an effort to portray Hobbs as a legally mature person responsible for his actions.

And so was the question. It was a rhetorical question. A good lawyer does not ask a question to which he does not already know the answer, unless he is grasping at straws while drowning in damning evidence to the contrary, or considers the question more important than the answer. This was a case of the latter. New did not care what the answer would be; he wanted the jury to consider that Hobbs had legal and moral culpability of his own. He got a bonus with the answer; it was as much a surprise to him as to anyone else.

As for my never saying in The Indiana Torture Slaying that I believed Gertrude and Ricky were lovers, my mission in writing the book was to report, not to speculate. I intentionally left speculation and interpretation to the reader (and to the “experts” – like you, Leroy New, and Kate Millett!). Also, my impression of the sexual relationship between Gertrude Baniszewski and Ricky Hobbs is one that took some years to formulate in my mind.

I think I have always considered Ricky Hobbs the most tragic figure in this case, however, even more so than Sylvia or Jenny Likens. And I have always considered Marie Baniszewski an almost equally tragic figure.

Gertrude did not appear youthful to me, either, nor did she to anyone else with any sense or cultivation. Her obsession with a youthful appearance was hers, not others’. Did Mary Kay Letourneau’s pupil fall for her because she looked youthful? Or because she was an attractive woman who wanted a boy? That’s the key.

Gertrude was not unattractive. I saw her only after she got to court; I am sure she was looking more haggard by then than she did in the summer of 1965 (and, probably to some extent, intentionally so, on advice of counsel).

Gertrude’s saying, “Never, never, never do anything with a boy unless you’re married to him!” does not suggest, to me, that she was not having an ongoing sexual relationship at the time the Likens girls were boarding with her. The whole case was suffused with hypocrisy.

But I simply do not understand the continuing fascination with the Sylvia Likens case. It is but one of many bizarre murders in our history, going back long before even the Lizzie Borden case. I find the Sylvia Likens case no more fascinating than the Richard Speck and Charles Whitman cases, which were roughly contemperaneous with the Likens case (let alone the roughly contemperaneous Charles Manson case. But that’s not saying much, about Charles Manson; I think there is more continuing fascination with the Manson case, is there not? And I had a first cousin whose death was mentioned in both Vincent Bugliosi’s and Ed Sanders’ books as one of the mysterious deaths in Manson’s ambit; and I knew two women – one of them a “member” of the “Family” – who had slept with Manson. So my fascination with that case is a little personal).

I find the Mary Kay LeTourneau case more fascinating than the Likens case; but that fascination has not stood the test of time, of course.

In general I find “understandable” crimes more fascinating than “bizarre” crimes. Thus to me, as the Speck and Whitman cases are more fascinating than the Likens case, the John Gacy case is more fascinating than the Jeffrey Dahmer case. I find even the Manson case easier to explain than the Likens case. And therein may lie the answer to my curiosity: Maybe other people find “bizarre” of more enduring fascination than “understandable” . . . .


Denise Noe, September 18, 2002:

Now that you have got me thinking about it, I realize I should have paid more attention to Gertrude Baniszewski’s relationship with Ricky Hobbs. I still don’t believe they were “a couple,” but I understand more about Ricky’s attraction to Gertrude. His Mom was in the hospital dying of cancer. Thus, Gertrude may have become a kind of mother substitute to him. These feelings could have easily mixed with amorous type of feelings in a teen-age boy.

But I strongly disagree with your suggestion that Ricky Hobbs was the most tragic figure in this case. Yes, it was pitiful for Marie Baniszewski to take the witness stand. But Sylvia Likens is one of the most tragic figures I’ve ever encountered.

Actually, Mary Kay Letourneau did look youthful. Like Gertrude Baniszewski, she was the financially struggling mother of a very large family; but Mary Kay was one of those rare, lucky women who bloomed during pregnancy. She was a pretty, young-looking woman and got cuter when she was pregnant.

The photo of Gertrude Baniszewski at page 23 of your book shows an expression of utter despair. She looks pathetic.

There are many reasons the Likens case fascinates. One is the sheer amount of torture, both physical and mental, that was imposed on the victim. Part of it is the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” being carved into the stomach of a young woman who may even have been a virgin. This latter is what led Kate Millett to obsess with it.

When I discussed the case with the friend who made the Lord of the Flies analogy, he said another factor was Sylvia’s passivity and her failure to seek help when, in Jenny’s words, “things started to get rough. Another factor is, as I said above, the way it focuses attention on the brutality of which children are capable.

I wrote an essay about Speck. It’s called “‘Supermale’ in Blue Panties: Why the Woman Murderer Self-Womanized.

In my opinion, the Manson case was blown out of all proportion by Vince Bugliosi and his grandiose “Helter Skelter” motive as well as his depiction of Manson as a Svengali and Rasputin. I also published an essay on that one; it appeared in the Gauntlet.

Shirley Baniszewski assisted Ricky Hobbs in branding what they intended to be an “S” on Sylvia Likens and became a “3.


Natty Bumppo, September 18, 2002:

Right you are.

I don’t mean to belittle Sylvia Likens’ suffering, but it was mainly physical; it lasted only three months, and it was intense only the last two or three weeks. Ricky Hobbs spent nearly three years in jail and prison from age 14 (he was two years younger than Sylvia Likens), and – if he was the moral being I suspect he was – suffered intense guilt the remaining seven years of his life: A full third of his life (Sylvia’s “life percentage” of three months of suffering was about 1½ per cent, by contrast). Ricky Hobbs was every bit as much a victim of Gertrude Baniszewski as Sylvia Likens was, and he probably felt guilty about his mother’s death as well as Sylvia’s.

Sylvia was Christlike; Hobbs was her Pilate. Historically, would you prefer to be the crucified or the crucifier? This is the stuff of tragedy. Christ – whose physical suffering was comparable to Sylvia’s, if not as prolonged – was not a tragic figure; he was heroic.

Sylvia resigned herself to death. I suspect that Hobbs welcomed it.

So Mary Kay Letourneau did look youthful. It was her age, her authority, her maturity – not her youthfulness – that attracted her pupil. Was it not?

“The Manson case was blown out of all proportion by Vince Bugliosi . . . ”? Aw, come on! You gotta say something for a crime that blew My Lai off the front page!

Manson was in prison and old news by the time Helter Skelter was published; and before that Bugliosi, like Leroy New, was only doing his job as a prosecutor. Bugliosi didn’t even write the first (or the best) book about the case. That was “The Family,” by Ed Sanders.


Denise Noe, September 19, 2002:

I’m not even sure Sylvia was “Christlike. That makes her a martyr. A martyr dies for something, and it does not seem to me that Sylvia had a “cause. She was a victim without heroism. Hobbs was an active torturer, not someone who just watched and let it happen.

But you are right about the allure of Mary Kay LeTourneau.

Have you read Manson In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons? That book isn’t perfect; but I think it is close to the truth in making Manson less of a hypnotic, charismatic figure. He was, as I say in my essay, a “sad sack of a man. Bugliosi as prosecutor presented a motive that made Manson seem a would-be King of the World and emphasized his supposed “power” over his “followers. That’s what I think was a terrible distortion. The killers were part of a rag-tag band living day-to-day, not the group of deluded fanatics bent on world conquest they were made out to be.

No one was more intrigued than I was with Manson or suckered more by Helter Skelter. I really believed Bugliosi’s depiction of Manson as a charismatic proto-Hitler able to sucker his susceptible followers into embracing a grandiose series of delusions and murder for them.


Natty Bumppo, September 19, 2002:

No, I have not read Manson In His Own Words. I have watched some of Manson’s parole hearings on television and have found him enormously convincing personally (if not of the parole board).

The description of a “rag-tag band living day to day” is accurate from all I have read and know personally. Whether Manson was a would-be King of the World or a charlatan, his power over his followers cannot be questioned. His charisma also was unquestionable, even if it affected mainly only a band of rag-tag hippies. The one girl I know who was part of that rag-tag band was a bit of a “hippie,” but not what I would call “rag tag,” before meeting Manson, and was an otherwise intelligent woman from the middle class who obviously was inclined to fall for the pitch. The other girl – who did not join the “Family” – did not fall for the pitch; but she acknowledged its power, and Manson’s charm. She also was educated, intelligent, and as middle class as you and I.

And, although I have not read the books lately, it is not my recollection that the killers were made out to be deluded fanatics bent on world conquest. They were deluded, but Manson was the fanatic. And the proof of his power and charm – whether you would find yourself susceptible to it or not – was his ability to persuade people – drugged, crazed, otherwise deluded or not – to carry out such heinous crimes for the cause he preached.


Denise Noe, September 19, 2002:

That is precisely where we disagree. In my opinion, the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed in a boneheaded attempt to free Robert Beausoleil who was in jail for murdering Gary Hinman rather than for any “cause” Manson espoused. The “girls” came up with the plan. Manson urged them to put it into action. For a mass murderer, he may be unusual only in being pitiful rather than powerful. See my article in the Gauntlet.

Manson’s “power over his followers cannot be questioned”? It can be and has been. When it suited their purposes, his supposed followers easily went against his wishes. Susan Atkins took LSD when she was pregnant even though he tried to talk her out of it, saying, “Children are precious. She and Tex Watson had a cache of amphetamines they hid from Manson because he opposed speed. Watson also lied to Manson on at least one occasion that he wrote about in his memoirs.


Natty Bumppo, September 20, 2002:

I think Bugliosi was just puffing the case a little. He was the prosecutor; he saw himself as a hero, and he had a book to sell. What Bugliosi said, in so many words, was that Manson was a Hitler wannabe (although I don’t think the slang word “wannabe” was out yet). See pages 639-641 of Helter Skelter (paperback printing). Bugliosi drew numerous parallels between Hitler and Manson in that passage. He did write, “I do believe that if Manson had had the opportunity, he would have become another Hitler. I find that a little exaggerated, but I accept the possibility; I think Bugliosi is entitled to his speculation, and I think also that a reader can use his or her own judgment on the severity of the menace. It’s a small part of Bugliosi’s book. What made it a good book was its exhaustive detail in the presentation of a huge web of murder and other crime.

As for the defections (or mere transgressions) of Manson’s disciples you spoke of (using LSD when pregnant, keeping a stash of speed, lying to the Messiah, etc.), so what? General Rommel served Hitler well both in Africa and in France, and he was involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Jesus’ disciples were not altogether loyal, either. Did Peter not deny him shortly after the crucifixion? And “three times,” as Jesus himself predicted? Not to mention Doubting Thomas and Judas . . . .




A policeman’s wife in Lizton, Ind., and former Likens neighbor
wrote to Natty Bumppo July 5, 2003:

Something you wrote really bothered me:

“I don’t mean to belittle Sylvia Likens’ suffering, but it was mainly physical; it lasted only three months, and it was intense only the last two or three weeks. Ricky Hobbs spent nearly three years in jail and prison from age 14 (he was two years younger than Sylvia Likens), and – if he was the moral being I suspect he was – suffered intense guilt the remaining seven years of his life: A full third of his life (Sylvia’s ‘life percentage’ of three months of suffering was about 1 per cent, by contrast). Ricky Hobbs was every bit as much a victim of Gertrude Baniszewski as Sylvia Likens was, and he probably felt guilty about his mother’s death as well as Sylvia’s.
Lasted only three months? Can you sir imagine being tortured daily for three months? I do not think you would be saying after words “I was only tortured three months,” and “it was intense only the last two or three weeks. Can you really believe or for 100% without a doubt believe this? Ricky spend nearly three years in jail and prison rightly deserved.

I as most normal people would probley agree that justice was not rightly served on the whole group of misfits. Ricky has zero sympathy or respect from me. Anyone that can be a part of something so sick of a crime as this should suffer as much as the victim. I hope that you know no one close to you that will ever go through what she did, you may have a different tune about your “only three months, and it was intense only the last two or three weeks. That to me is as sick as Ricky Hobbs and the whole bunch. Looks little got it in the end huh?.


Denise Noe, July 5, 2003:

Her sentiments are similar to mine on the subject. I also would have made the point that Sylvia’s tortures fused physical and mental suffering. Much of what she was subjected to was intended to produce feelings of intense disgrace.


Natty Bumppo, July 5, 2003:

I understand – this woman’s sentiments and yours.

I still regard Hobbs as more a victim than a perp. He was a kid, you know?


Denise Noe, July 6, 2003:

Yes, I know. His judgment was somewhat distorted since he was so young.

However, to burn words into another’s flesh is a horrendous action. Richard Hobbs didn’t have to do what Gertrude Baniszewski told him to. She wasn’t his own mother.


Natty Bumppo, July 6, 2003:

That’s my point: He was seduced by her.


Denise Noe, July 6, 2003:

My point is that Ricky Hobbs had less excuse for obeying Gertrude Baniszewski than John or Paula Baniszewski did. He lacked the maternal attachment. Also, even at 14, he had to know that “Gertie told me to” would not be approved of by other adults. Do you think he told his father about the horror he had perpetrated when he got home?


Natty Bumppo, July 6, 2003:

Again, I respectfully disagree. Seduction is an invitation to passion; and passion is a much, much stronger emotion than filial fealty. It’s even in traditional wedding vows: “For this shall a man leave his mother . . . . .

Of course Hobbs did not tell his father. You’re making my point.

And I am not apologizing for what Hobbs did. All I am saying is that he was a victim as well as a murderer, and I am not at all convinced that he did not suffer as much as Sylvia Likens did.


Denise Noe, July 7, 2003:

I still don’t believe that Hobbs and Gertrude were lovers. Rather, it seems that Hobbs had confused feelings for Gertrude, whom he may have regarded as a kind of replacement mother since his own mom was dying. He may also have had a bit of a crush on her. In a 14-year-old boy relating to an adult woman, these feelings can easily overlap.


Natty Bumppo, July 7, 2003:

You don’t have to be “lovers” to be seduced.


Denise Noe, July 7, 2003:

There is a photo of Hobbs with his head down. He looks pathetic. You are probably right that he was haunted by guilt, and the tension may have contributed to his early death from cancer. It’s possible also that that guilt led him to put off seeking treatment.

But it doesn’t seem that this psychic burden compares to the agony of 150 to 200 cigarette burns, day after day of being subjected to scalding baths, repeated kicks in the genital area, and constant beatings. Nor does his psychic torment seem greater than that of being forced to perform a grotesque striptease and insert a pop bottle up oneself (twice, according to your book), being repeatedly forced to urinate on oneself, having feces rubbed in one’s mouth and being forced to drink urine, and, worst of all, having cruel stigmata burned directly into one’s flesh. This last, done by Hobbs, may have taken away Sylvia’s will to live. After all, what could she hope for? If she survived, she probably would have believed she would be an unmarriageable outcast.

I think my friend “Craig Kelly’s” observation about the Likens case’s resemblance to the novel “Lord of the Flies” is relevant. Children can be extremely brutal in the absence of adult supervision.

Of course, in this case, an adult – Gertrude Baniszeski – was present although the precise degree of her guilt is one of the fuzzier elements in this troubling event. I don’t for one minute believe the story she told at her trial that she lived in blissful unawareness of what was going on under her own roof, but I’m not sure we can know to what extent she orchestrated it. After all she was, in your apt phrase, “a whiny medicine hound,” chronically sick and overburdened. Kelly said that the fact that the household got down to one spoon convinced him, more than anything else, “that Baniszewski was a basket case, incapable of managing her own affairs. To have a household of ten people (Gertie, her seven, the two boarders) and one spoon is remarkable.

Don Johnson’s “Let’s Go Play at the Adamses’,” which I believe was inspired by (although not “based on”) the Likens case, also underlines Kelly’s point by getting rid of a Gertrude stand-in.

A lot of things are murky to a child including the concept of death. Their time frame is notoriously limited. They have to be taught compassion. I don’t see Hobbs as a victim; but I do understand that, as he aged, he probably was tormented by the atrocity he committed.


Natty Bumppo, July 7, 2003:

I strongly disagree with “Craig Kelly’s” comparison. The Likens case was not an instance of “the absence of adult supervision. It was a case of adult supervision.

It makes no difference that the adult may have been a “whiny medicine hound,” a “basket case,” a “space cadet,” a passive observer, or even an absentee at critical junctures. She was there (and at critical junctures, and giving directions. So much for “passive observer” and “absentee”). The children had her sanction.

Richard Hobbs may have been a cold-blooded murderer, but “Lord of the Flies” this was not.


Denise Noe, July 7, 2003:

Craig Kelly’s view of the incident (like perhaps Don Johnson’s) depends on how disabled by her various ailments one believes Gertrude Baniszewski to have been. Kelly thinks she was guilty since she had to know what was going on, but not directing much of it since he believes she was flat on her back and sick so frequently during this horror.

There is a lot of adult failure in this case, beginning with Lester Likens, who was so dense, so lacking in discernment and judgment, that he left two of his kids in the care of a woman he had known for a mere three days and whom anyone could see had her hands full with the responsibilities she already had and looked sickly and run ragged.

I think the neighbor, Phyllis Vermillion, also was negligent in not reporting to the police that she saw Paula throw boiled water on Sylvia. This practice is not within the bounds of normal discipline or normal adolescent horseplay.

But I see Gertrude closer to how you do than Kelly does. I don’t believe she was thoroughly disabled.


Natty Bumppo, July 7, 2003:

Well, there’s another sympathetic figure who has taken too much blame – Lester Likens. He wasn’t much of a parent in this drama; but he, too, was a victim of seduction – his wife’s.

The poor shlub found an opportunity not only to make some money, but also to lure his wife back. Now, what to do with the kids? Oh! Here’s this lady who seems nice and is willing to take them in for just a little money; the neighborhood is decent and Diana and Grandma Grimes live just a few blocks away, and the kids like it here. . . .

Sylvia and Jenny were with Betty Likens, not Lester, before Betty was arrested; and they found their own way to the Baniszewskis’, not through Lester. Seems to me that Betty is as much to blame as Lester, if not more.

And let’s not be too quick to pick on Mrs. Vermillion: There’s a red line of courage to cross between being a good neighbor and a cop (and a new neighbor, at that); and the abuse she witnessed, which included two confessions of beatings by Paula Baniszewski, did not appear to be life-threatening (it was hot tap water, not boiled or boiling water). What about Mrs. Sanders, the public health nurse, who, as an official, heard reports of severe abuse, knew that Sylvia Likens had withdrawn from school, and merely “wrote it up” on a “one time only” card?




Denise Noe, January 18, 2004:

What do you think would have happened to Sylvia Likens if she had lived? My friend “Craig Kelley” once asked me if I thought she would have drifted into abusive relationships.

I’m uncertain about her fate but doubt her story could have had any kind of happy ending. Abusive relationships would be a very high probability, in my opinion. I also think it’s quite likely a rescued Sylvia would have ended up mentally ill for life, perhaps one of our mentally ill homeless.


Dan Shreffler, January 18, 2004:

Even if the events at 3850 East New York Street had never happened to Sylvia, her acceptance of abusive behavior, demonstrated by her torture, would have probably led to her being abused at some point.

Some people have a “fighting spirit” when it comes to life. Others let themselves fall victim to stronger people. Even if someone is not rippled with muscles, they can still have autonomy over their own lives if they have this fighting spirit. I think young Sylvia could have cleaned old Gertie’s clock at some point early in the abuse, but she was obviously lacking in this fighting spirit.


Natty Bumppo, January 18, 2004:

Stripper in a carnival. Her dad the barker.


Denise Noe, January 20, 2004:

Natty, is this a serious reply? It seems oddly callous, especially from the author of the book about her tragedy. It also seems doubtful to me that a woman with the physical scars Sylvia had would have done well as a stripper.


Natty Bumppo, January 20, 2004:

Well, isn’t what I said just about what Mr. Shreffler said?

It’s just a little more specific. Some will find gallows humor in it, but no one knows for sure. If you want something specific, that’s my guess.

And those scars would be quite a draw at a side show – they’d even turn some men on.


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