The Girl Next Door (2007) based on the Jack Ketchum novel, and An American Crime (2007) written and directed by Tommy O’Haver are both based around the same true story.
The story is that of Sylvia Likens, the daughter of two carnival employees who, in 1965, along with her younger sister Jenny, were placed in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski. Their care was paid for with $20 a week by their father Lester. Their mother Betty was arrested and jailed for shoplifting shortly before this.
Gertrude wasn’t in the best health, suffering from depression and the stress of several failed marriages with seven dependents of her own. She began to snap, taking out her frustrations on the Likens girls. It started with spanking and beating the girls with paddles, gradually increasing in severity, reaching a point where Sylvia was forced to eat her own vomit at the dinner table as punishment for overeating at a church picnic.
Sylvia was accused of spreading rumors that Paula and Stephanie, daughters of Gertrude, were prostitutes, and this supposedly provoked Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Sylvia. Gertrude had encouraged Hubbard and other neighborhood children to torment the poor Liken girl, including extinguishing cigarettes on her skin and forcing her to remove her clothes to insert a glass bottle into her vagina on at least two occasions.
Likens became incontinent, urinating in her bed, and as a result, Gertrude locked her in the basement, keeping her out of school and forbidding her to use the toilet. Gertrude then began a bathing regime to “cleanse” Sylvia, involving dousing her with scalding water and rubbing salt into the burns. She was often kept naked and rarely fed, sometimes being made to consume her own feces.
Jenny Likens managed to contact her older sister, Diana, outlining the intense trauma and asked Diana to contact the police. Diana ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply making up stories so that she could come live with her but came by to visit the sisters unexpectedly one day. Gertrude refused to allow her into the home stating that Sylvia had ran away. Concerned, Diana Likens contacted social services. When a social services worker showed up at the Baniszewski home inquiring about Sylvia, Gertrude made Jenny lie to the worker, threatening her that if she did not, she would get the same treatment as Sylvia. Terrified of what Gertrude might do to her Jenny lied and told the social services worker that Sylvia had indeed run away. The social services worker returned to her office, where she filed a report stating that no more follow-up visits needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.
Sylvia was brutally tortured, mutilated, and humiliated for months at the hands of her Getrude who was supposed to be her caregiver.
Gertrude had her children bring Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed. The next morning, Gertrude was enraged that Sylvia had wet herself, and again forced her to insert a Coke bottle into her vagina, before beginning to carve the phrase “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into her abdomen with a hot sewing needle. All this while a ten-year old Shirley Baniszewski used a heated eye bolt to burn the number 3 into Sylvia’s chest. That next day Gertrude woke Sylvia, dictating a letter to her, intending it to look like a runaway letter to her parents.
When Sylvia overheard plans of Gertrude intending to have her thrown at a dump and left to die, she attempted to escape. She was stopped by Gertrude who pulled her back inside the house and again threw her down the basement steps and kept her there.
On October 26, 1965, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, Sylvia Marie Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition. She was just 16 years old.
Gertrude Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. After a re-trial and being given the same sentence, Baniszewski became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and becoming a den-mother to younger female inmates; by the time she came up for parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname “Mom”.
The Parole board voted in favor of granting Gertrude’s freedom 3-2 and Gertrude Baniszewski walked out of prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa, where she called herself Nadine Van Fossan, using her middle name and maiden name. She died in Laurel, Iowa, from lung cancer, on June 16, 1990, aged 60.