Killing Fields

A photograph of torture and murder victim Sylvia Likens as she appeared prior to her stay with Gertrude Baniszewski.

The year was 1965 and the place was on New York Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. A 16-year-old girl, on October 26, was found by a policeman dead in the house of Gertrude Baniszewski. Sylvia Marie Likens and her sister Jenny were teenagers who had been left with Gertrude “Gertie” Baniszewski for the summer so that their parents could work in and follow a carnival.  They knew little about Gertrude before leaving Sylvia and her sister in the care of a lady who would later be described as the embodiment of evil.

I want to share Sylvia’s story though it happened over 55 years ago because of her connection with our church which at that time was called Grace Memorial Baptist Church, located on north Alabama Street near the downtown of Indianapolis.  Roy Julian was the pastor of what would become Thompson Road Baptist Church as a result of a church merger in the late 60’s.  Pastor Julian, as many pastors of that era, sent church busses out on Sunday morning to pick up boys and girls that otherwise would not be able to attend Sunday School.  Sylvia was one of those who rode our church bus and therefore Pastor Julian and our teachers and workers had an interest in both Sylvia and her family.

On at least one occasion during the summer months, Pastor Julian, informed by some of Sylvia’s teachers and bus workers that Sylvia and her sister had not been in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School that summer, made a front door visit to the last known address that the Likens sisters had been staying at, the Baniszewski residence on the 3800 Block of East New York Street.  Pastor Julian was unable to get into the house to assess the situation, and no one at the front door was willing to answer his questions as to the well-being of the Likens sisters.

Had Pastor Julian been able to have gained an entrance into the home, he would have seen a place that was “repulsive, not fit for a dog.” In fact, had the Likens mother or father bothered to meet “Gertie” and look over the accommodations their daughters would be subject to that ill-fated summer, they would have seen a place of squalor with little food, not enough beds, no stove and very few cooking utensils. (Indianapolis Star, October 2015). But sight unseen and without ever having met the lady to whom they would hand their daughters over to with the instructions that she should be firm with the girls, they left an advance of $20 with Mrs. Baniszewski and headed off to chase the carnival for the summer and into the fall months.

What happened the next three or four months to a strawberry blond teen defies a writer’s ability to portray.  Mrs. B, assisted by two neighborhood boys as well as two of her own children, all of whom would later be charged with murder, set out to torture Sylvia Likens, and their mission ended in the teen’s horrific death. Policemen who were first on the scene when her lifeless body was discovered described Sylvia’s crudely slashed abdomen: one of the neighborhood boys had carved the letters into her skin: “I am a prostitute and proud of it.” Cigarette burns framed the message. Her once pretty, youthful face was swollen, beaten and bruised; her scalded, mutilated body was lying on a stained mattress. An October 26, 2015 Indianapolis Star article recounting what would be at that time called “the worst crime in Indiana history” said that Sylvia had been “starved, clubbed, punched, smacked, kicked, scalded, cut, burned, branded, tattooed, and repeatedly thrown down or dragged up the stairs by Gertie, her children and the neighborhood children over a period of three months.” The East New York Street house governed by the devilish Mrs. Baniszewski had become a house of horrors where from July to October in 1965 there existed a torture chamber for one young girl who had her life brutally beaten out of her, in what was an unspeakable, unthinkable spiral of sadism, orchestrated by a woman who had to have been driven by the Evil One.

I became pastor of Thompson Road Baptist Church, fourteen years after the death of Sylvia Likens. It is a story that was at that time still alive in the memory of many of the church folk because of the contact TRBC had had with Sylvia as she attended our church. When all of this took place in the mid-sixties our church was then sending out 10 or 12 busses every week picking up boys and girls; we continued in an active, though scaled down, bus ministry until Covid-19 restrictions caused us to terminate that outreach ministry. We still do use a bus to pick up children from Perry Township public schools to take them to off-site locations for one-hour release time Bible lessons using the Abeka Book curriculum!  With all the sweat, toil and tears the typical bus ministry entails, and that is over a 50-year span, we have often been tempted to question whether the returns justify the investment. But if one Sylvia Likens came to Sunday School on a bus or to VBS and heard about the love of Jesus through a dedicated teacher as the Bible was taught, then case closed. Thousands of boys and girls heard and were saved.  We meet them all the time as we move about: “Oh, I attended Thompson Road Baptist Church when I was a child….”

As I reviewed this story in my heart and mind in order to share it with you, I have been reminded once again that the heart is desperately wicked, totally depraved apart from the transforming grace of God. It started in the Garden when our first parents disobeyed God at which time sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. The blackened blight of it was flushed out in earth’s earliest days when Cain slew his brother Abel, and the bloody trail of death is not hard to follow from there, through history to the present hour and as so graphically portrayed in the book of the Revelation, to the end of time as we know it. The world has become a literal killing field; witness what a few men, absent of any conscience or apparent fear of God, are now making of the beautiful country of Ukraine.

Thank God, the cure for killing and demented devilment has already been provided when the worst of the underworld threw its heaviest artillery at the sinless Son of God who died at Calvary as a sacrifice and substitute for mankind, paying for all who would believe and receive the penalty for the wages of sin, with the gift of God, eternal life. (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Paul the Apostle, once a supervisor in the arrest, prosecution, and execution of Christians, accepted Christ as Lord and Savior and would later write that “this is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (I Tim.1:15) Yes, he could save the most savage sinner or the most sophisticated one. He can save you, my friend.  Will you trust Him today?

And he brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:30,31)

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