In Victorian England, following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (which removed any financial obligation from the fathers of illegitimate children), unmarried mothers were stigmatized, struggled to make ends meet, and were subsequently forced to give away their unwanted children to the local “baby farm” for a small fee. These were supposedly a safe haven for the illegitimate foundlings to flourish with food, warmth, clothing and – maybe – an education, but more often than not, baby farms were established to make money, by exploiting the weak, impoverished and the vulnerable.
Whether overwhelmed by a deluge of bastards, or unable to adequately care for the illegitimate, many babies died of a lack of nutrition, measles, mumps or cot-death, but many unscrupulous “baby farmers” simply starved the babies (once payment had been made) to save money, or poisoned them with a lethal mix of syrup and opium, curiously known as “Mother’s Friend”.
One such baby farmer was Amelia Dyer; midwife, nurse and married mother-of-two, who easily reassured her clients – all distraught mothers with the hardest decision to make – that with her pleasant home, stable marriage and two healthy children, that she was the right choice to give their unwanted offspring a chance. But for Amelia… “baby farming” was nothing more than a lucrative way of making her money. And so, being unwilling to waste any time, money or effort by letting the children die of neglect or starvation, Amelia simply murdered each child the second their distraught mother was out of earshot, and pocketed the cash.
Was she ever caught? Of course. As a mentally unstable alcoholic with a growing opium addiction and a history of suicidal tendencies, whose mood swings and temperament swung between high-as-a-kite and hateful beyond the extreme, a local doctor became suspicious of the number of child deaths he’d been called to certify in Amelia Dyer's care and called the authorities. So, she was convicted of murder, manslaughter, or maybe infanticide, right? No. She was sentenced to just six months hard labour… for child neglect.
But wasn’t she even imprisoned for murder when caring for an illegitimate baby, as the governess grew suspicious that this baby that had been returned to her… wasn’t hers, stripped off the baby’s clothes to reveal a birthmark, which wasn’t there? No. Amelia Dyer feigned a breakdown and committed suicide by drinking two bottles of laudanum. Or she would / should have died, had she not built up a tolerance, owing to her long-term substance abuse, and survived.
Upon release from hospital – and having been declared “sane” - Amelia stopped relying on doctors to issue a death certificate for each child she'd dispatched, as this only aroused suspicion from the Police and even mothers desperate for their child’s safe return, their fortunes now better, so she began disposing of the diminutive little bodies herself. Often by wrapping them in carpet, weighed down with bricks, and dumping them in the River Thames.
But unknown to Dyer, on 30 March 1896, a package was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. The package Amelia dumped had not weighted down adequately and was easily spotted. It contained the decomposing body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. It was while examining the paper that the baby was wrapped in that Detective Constable Anderson made a crucial breakthrough, using a microscope he deciphered a barely legible name—Mrs Thomas (one of Amelia’s many aliases)—and an address.
On 3 April 1896, police raided Amelia’s home, and were immediately overpowered by the stench of human decomposition. And although no human remains were found, there was enough evidence in the form of white edging tape (used to strangle the babies & children), telegrams making reference to “adoptions”, pawn tickets for the child's belongings and letters from distraught mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children to have her arrested.
At the inquest, Police calculated that, in just a few months, Amelia Dyer had “cared” for at least twenty children, leading some experts to estimate that over the two decades of which she was a “baby farmer”, she may have killed over 400 babies and children, making her one of the most prolific murderers ever, as well as the most prolific female serial killer ever.
On the 10th June 1896 “baby farmer” Amelia Dyer (aged 69) was charged with three counts of murder and was executed by hanging at Newgate Prison, drawing in one of the largest gatherings in London to a public execution in the 1890's.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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