Sylvia Likens: A tortured life and death in Let’s Go Play at the Adams’

Photo: Let's Go Play at the Adams.. Image Courtesy Valancourt Books
Photo: Let's Go Play at the Adams.. Image Courtesy Valancourt Books /

It’s not unusual for the most compelling true crime stories to become books and movies, and Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is one of the most sought after examples of fact-to-fiction literature.

Mendal W. Johnson was a one-hit wonder as a novelist, but his one novel, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, was a doozy. Released in 1974, the novel about a babysitter held captive and tortured by five children was perhaps inspired by the very real (and very horrible) story of young Sylvia Likens.

Two years after the release of Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, Johnson died from cirrhosis of the liver. Reportedly, he had three novels in process at the time of his death.

In 1989, Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door, which was definitely based on Likens’ story, was released. Unlike Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, The Girl Next Door became a film adaptation. It is definitely a film that is hard to watch due to its subject matter, and Stephen King proclaimed it “The first authentically shocking American film I’ve seen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”

In 2007, the film An American Crime was released on Showtime. This was a fairly accurate telling of Sylvia’s story, starring Catherine Keener as Gertrude and Ellen Page as Sylvia. A note for AHS fans: Evan Peters also appears as one of the teens who participates in the torture sessions.

Sylvia Likens: Torture and Murder in the Suburbs

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As shocking as both movies may seem, they pale in comparison to the very real-life tragedy of Sylvia Likens, which has fascinated and repelled Americans since it happened in 1965.

16-year-old Sylvia Likens and her 15-year-old sister Jenny were the children of carnival workers, who regularly left their daughters with family or friends while they were travelling around working. In July of 1965, Sylvia and Jenny were boarded with Gertrude Baniszewski, whose teenage daughters attended school with the girls. In return for boarding them, Baniszewski would be paid $20 per week.

Let's Go Play at the Adams
Photo: Let’s Go Play at the Adams.. Image Courtesy Valancourt Books /

Everything seemed to go fine until the weekly payments started to fall behind, and that’s when Gertrude began abusing the Likens girls. At first she would beat each of them with a paddle and withhold food from them, but soon she reserved the worst punishments for Sylvia alone.

Eventually, the Baniszewski children, along with kids in the neighborhood, began participating in beating, force-feeding, kicking and humiliating Sylvia. They practiced judo on her, cut her, and burnt her with cigarettes. She was soon confined to the basement, where she slept on an old mattress, and was often tied up.

When a neighborhood parent called an anonymous report in to the school, the school nurse visited Gertrude, and was told that Sylvia had run away. The abuse continued. Finally, on October 25, Sylvia attempted to escape from the basement. Unfortunately, she was caught, beaten with a curtain rod and returned to the basement, where she died the following day.

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The Baniszewskis lied to the police about what had happened, forcing Sylvia’s sister Jenny to lie as well. But Jenny whispered quietly to the officers, “You get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.” Smart girl.

Gertrude, two of her children and two neighborhood boys were tried together, and ultimately Gertrude was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. Her daughter Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder, and the other three were found guilty of manslaughter.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ tells the story of babysitter Barbara, who is held captive by five children while their parents are away on vacation. Calling themselves the Freedom Five, the kids revel in the opportunity to do whatever they want, no matter how depraved and violent. It’s a hard read at times.

The book has been out of print for many years, and used copies fetched a pretty penny. Now Valancourt Books has re-released it as part of their Paperbacks From Hell series. Valancourt is a small, independent press specializing in rare, out-of-print fiction, including the novels of the great Michael McDowell (The Elementals, Cold Moon Over Babylon, Blackwater).

Last year, Valancourt began releasing a limited monthly series of five out-of-print paperback horror novels from the 1970’s and 1980’s. They tied their series in with Grady Hendrix’s popular book Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror, and the first five books were The Nest, When Darkness Loves Us, The Reaping, The Tribe and The Spirit.

Valancourt’s second series of Paperbacks From Hell became available in October. In addition to Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, the  series consists of Black Ambrosia, Nightblood, A Nest of Nightmares and The Pack.

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Paperbacks From Hell are available individually or as a set, and you can find more information on the series and Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ at They are also available for purchase on Amazon.

Have you read Sylvia Likens’ story, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’? Are you interested in ordering it from Valancourt Books? Tell us what you think in the comments section.