The word looks odd there, impossible, trivial. Too large. Nearly as long ago as my dad was old then, forty-five to an eleven year old kid looks like an archeological dig. Forty years from then was the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, Paris between the Wars, Buster Keaton and biplanes. And too short just the same; forty years now is like blowing apart a dandelion. Does forty years ago look to my neighbor's twelve-year-old daughter like it looked to me then, a silly ghost world that adults for some reason think of as real?
Wednesday, October 27, 1965.
I was in the sixth grade. A couple of months from turning twelve. A hormonal internee, trying to learn the new language the girls had started speaking the previous year. I had a red Gibson Melody Maker with black pickups that would shortly slip off the strap and break its neck. Gibson replaced it a couple months later with a red SG, a better guitar; I learned only recently that the Melody Maker had a bad neck design--for forty years I thought it was my fault. I played rock and roll with a guy from the white trash part of town, across the street from Stand J at the track. I took lessons, but they were jazz-oriented and boring. I played the grooves off of Beatles 65 and Bringing It All Back Home. I'd heard "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on my transistor radio that spring and bought the album. Highway 61 I got about the time school started. I was the only Dylan fanatic in grade 6. My buddy and I played "Tombstone Blues" and "Maggie's Farm" along with "Louie Louie" and "Walk Don't Run".
After a year of fighting my parents were separated. My dad lived in an apartment a half-mile up the street. We saw him on Sundays. The divorce would be final before school was out.
My dad ate shredded wheat for breakfast every morning, and he'd read the entire paper, holding it in this weird stainless steel contraption he still has. He started me in reading the comics, what he called "The Funnies", when I was in kindergarten, listening while I spelled out words I didn't know. By fourth grade I was reading the whole thing myself every morning. By sixth grade he wasn't there anymore, and neither was that contraption, and my sister wasn't talking to anybody. I read on in a silence like the silence that follows a car wreck.
It was the blackest headline I ever saw. They'd used blacker ink, somehow, blacker than the day Kennedy was killed.
October 27, 1965. Wednesday.
A 16-year-old girl named Sylvia Marie Likens had been found dead in a house on the east side of town. Over a period of three months she'd been starved, beaten, burned with cigarettes, scalded in a tub of hot water. The words "I Am A Prostitute And Proud Of It!" were carved on her abdomen. Above that a numeral '3' was branded onto her chest because her tormentors had reversed the C-shaped hook heated on the gas stove while attempting to make an 'S'. She'd been thrown, finally, into the basement to live, and finally, die, with the dogs.
It wasn't the work of a madman. It was the work of a family. And their neighborhood.
The cause of death, a subdural hematoma and traumatic shock, is almost beside the point. The young medical examiner who performed the autopsy testified:
...over the forehead there were multiple abrasions and yellow brown discolorations of the face...each lesion would range from a day or so [old] up to one or two weeks...Both eyes demonstrated ecchymosis, essentially what is known as a black eye, and edema surrounding the eyelids....multiple scratches over the entire face...a large area of scraping over the left cheek and down to the jaw.....the lips were markedly torn and essentially in shreds...
Over the neck there were more areas of loss of superficial skin....this was either done with a sharp or a hot object....[The many small burns] did not appear to have been caused with hot water because water would have burned the surrounding area....Over the right shoulder there is an area with linear shape where again there is loss of superficial skin....along the border of the collar bone are two more areas where there is a patchy loss of superficial skin. Over the left shoulder there is another area, from the top of the shoulder extending down the anterior aspect of the arm. Going to the chest, over the right breast are more areas of loss of skin. The nipple itself is not involved....A similar pattern on the left also did not involve the nipple itself. Present in the midline of the abdomen, between it...essentially the level of the umbilicus...between it and the sternum...was [a numeral] three....
Present over the abdomen...were the words "I am a prostitute and proud of it" with an exclamation point. *
There is similar damage up and down her arms and legs. The cigarette burns number about one hundred and fifty. Her nails are all broken, backwards, probably self-inflicted from scratching the basement floor in her agony, self-inflicted like those chewed-through lips. Her liver and body weight indicate malnutrition. There is edema and a severe hematoma of the external genitalia, but no evidence of vaginal laceration. She died a virgin.
Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny, a small, frail polio victim, had been living in that house under the charge of a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski while their parents toured the country with a carnival that season. They were beaten--"paddled"--at the end of the first week when the $20 for their care did not arrive. It came the following Monday.
Gertie, as the neighbors knew her, was thirty-seven. She had seven children living with her and not enough beds for them. She'd had six miscarriages. The house had a total of three spoons. What income there was came from child support payments (sporatic, not surprisingly) and taking in laundry and babysitting. Lester Likens consigned his daughters to her care after knowing her for twenty-four hours.
No one knows why the beatings escalated. The first few weeks were reasonably normal. Sylvia and Jenny went to Tech High School with Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski. They went to church together, saw friends. But the physical punishments began to quicken in August. It was alleged that in retaliation Sylvia had told fellow students at Tech that Paula and Stephanie were prostitutes. Stephanie's fifteen-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, beat Sylvia up when he heard.
By the end of August, Gertie and Paula were supervising some of her other children, and some neighborhood children, in continual beatings ("judo flips" were Hubbard's speciality; various household objects also were employed, and after Paula broke her hand hitting Sylvia she beat her with the cast), burnings, and sexual humiliation as "punishment" for various sins. By early October it had escalated, if that word can even be employed, into the branding and scalding episodes, into Sylvia being thrown into the cellar, fed nothing more than crackers, until she died there. Neighbors heard her pounding a shovel on the concrete floor that night until it finally stopped and they could get to sleep. No one ever called the police.
No motive was ever presented at trial, nothing beyond a pure mean poverty of a woman who'd had seven kids and six miscarriages, a poverty beyond their having to take turns using a single spoon in that sordid clapboard house after the other two disappeared, and jealousy over a pretty young girl on the verge of womanhood, the promise of something bright neither Gertrude nor the pregnant Paula would ever know. A few days before she died they'd made her write a letter to her parents--stupidly addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. Likens"--telling them she'd gone with a "gang of boys" who had done those things to her. When she finally rebelled in the only way left, by dying on them, they lugged her up to the third floor, gave her a bath, tried to pull some pedal pushers on her, and dumped her on the filthy mattress where the police found her. Her hands were folded across her chest.
Dozens of local children had taken part in the game. Only two--Hubbard and the fourteen-year-old Richard Hobbes, the boy from two houses down who'd done the branding and helped drag her corpse upstairs--were charged. Stephanie got a separate trial; eventually the charges against her were dropped. Gertie, Paula, her thirteen-year-old son John, and the two neighbors were charged with first-degree murder.
Gertrude's defense was that she had been too sick and too doped up to know what was going on. She had only punished Sylvia a couple of times, but was too weak to make much of an effort or to rein in her children. Jenny Likens disputed her testimony, of course, but the sensation of the trial was when the prosecutor broke eleven-year-old Marie Baniszewski, who had been backing her mother's story. Yes, she finally sobbed, it was her mother who had started carving the words on Sylvia's stomach, who only managed the "I" before the stench of burning flesh made her sick and Ricky took over.
Only Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder, and the jury refused the prosecution's demand for the death penalty. Paula, convicted of second-degree murder, would eventually receive a new trial, plead to manslaughter, and be released in 1973. The three boys were convicted of manslaughter; each served eighteen months in juvenile. Charges against four other neighbor children were dropped.
Gertrude, suffering from terminal cancer, was paroled in 1985 and died in 1990. Paula is said to be married, living on a small farm in Iowa. John Baniszewski drove a truck and became a lay minister. Richard Hobbes died of cancer at 21. Coy Hubbard was later charged and acquitted of the murder of two men. Names changed, whereabouts unknown. So many escaped justice, and those who didn't did not really pay, as if they ever could. If I waste a thought on any of them these days it's just to wonder if they really did escape.
I've walked those ugly streets two or three times, looking for ghosts. A few years ago the house was fixed up and turned into a woman's shelter, but I understand it's empty again. I've been up to Boone County and found her small headstone, and cried for someone I never knew. I'll go back later today. But I know I'll never say goodbye to her.
*testimony taken from The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, by Kate Millett, who's carried Sylvia around with her as I have.