It takes a certain kind of someone to engage in baby farming. It takes a whole other level of psychosis to murder babies. What kind of person would not only perform both of these horrific acts, but go undetected and unpunished for over 400 deaths over a period of around 20 years?
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was the most prolific baby farm murderer of Victorian England and was also linked with Jack The Ripper, although this was never proven. She had 3 identified victims, all aged under 14 months old, but was only tried and hanged for one murder.
Unlike most children born in the late 1830’s, Amelia was not born into poverty, and learnt to read and write as a child. Her mother was mentally ill and suffered from violent fits until she died in 1848 under the care of Amelia herself. This is thought to have contributed to her education about the behaviour displayed by mentally ill people, a behaviour she would try to mimic later on in life to explain her horrific actions.
Baby farms provided an undesirable, but convenient, ‘out’ for unmarried pregnant women in Victorian England. Unmarried mothers found it hard to gain an income after the government had removed any financial obligations from fathers of illegitimate children in 1834 and society placed a huge stigma on single mothers. Baby farmers acted as adoption or fostering agents in return for a single, up-front fee or regular payments from the babies mothers. Most baby farms would actually house the pregnant women until they gave birth and then the babies were left with the ‘farmers’ to be looked after as ‘nurse children’.
But because the cost of raising these babies well outweighed the initial amount received from the parent in most cases, the babies were left to die of neglect and malnutrition, or simply killed. These ‘farmed-out’ children were starved to save money and hasten death, drugged with alcohol to keep the noisy ones quiet and pumped full of so many drugs that they simply were too drowsy to eat and died of starvation. So many of these deaths went unreported due to the secretive nature of these baby farms and the shame associated with being connected with one.
And so this was how Amelia Dyer performed her multiple murders. After marrying and training as a nurse, Amelia found a much more lucrative career in the business of baby farming. She advertised to nurse and adopt a baby from an unwed expectant mother in return for a substantial fee and clothes for the child. She also opened up her home to the expectant women for the duration of her pregnancy. But at some point in her baby farming business boom, she decided to forgo the inconvenience and expense of waiting for the children to die through neglect or starvation and would instead murder them soon after receiving payment.
Dyer is reported to collect the babies and demand lump sum payments from the mothers, return home and strangle them with white edging tape. After attention was drawn when a local doctor became suspicious after being called to her home several times to issue death certificates for babies and young children, (which resulted in a conviction of neglect and a sentence of six months hard labour), Dyer decided she would dispose of the bodies herself and would regularly wrap them in napkins, pop them into carpet bags (usually more than one) with a few bricks and throw them into the River Thames.
But this was to be her undoing, as one night she dumped the body of a baby girl into the Thames and did not weigh it down. She had been hiding it in her house for 3 days but the smell was starting to become unbearable so she dismissed the need for weight and the parcel floated to the surface of the water and was discovered by a bargeman. Identifying marks on the paper led the police to Dyer, who was using the name “Mrs Thomas”. She was arrested and charged with murder. When the Thames was dragged merely days after her arrest, 6 more bodies were found, all identified as victims of Dyer’s by the white tape still around their necks.
“That’s how you can tell it was one of mine” she later told police.
In the end, Dyer was only charged with one murder due to lack of evidence and the only defense Dyer offered was insanity, a behaviour she mastered after watching her mother suffer from a mental illness. It took the jury only 4 and a half minutes to find her guilty and she was hanged on the 10th of April 1896.
After the execution of Dyer, adoption laws were reviewed and made stricter, giving authorities the right to police baby farms to monitor the occurrence of abuse. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the trafficking and ‘farming out’ of babies did not stop. In 1898, a baby girl was found wrapped like a parcel, on a train carriage. It was determined that this baby had been given to a “Mrs Stewart” for 12 pounds earlier that day and had been dumped shortly after. ‘Mrs Stewart’ beared a remarkable resemblance to Amelia’s Dyer’s daughter, Polly.