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Amelia Elizabeth DYER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "The Reading Baby Farmer"
 
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: The most prolific baby farm murderer of Victorian England
Number of victims: 6 - 100 +
Date of murder: 1880 - 1896
Date of arrest: April 4, 1896
Date of birth: 1839
Victim profile: Children ("adopted" illegitimate infants for lump-sum payments)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Reading, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Newgate Prison on June 10, 1896
 
 

 
 
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Amelia Dyer was a 'baby farmer'. Someone who, for a fee, would look after children, usually illegitimate, until a home could be found for them. Born in 1829 and raised in Bristol to respectable parents and trained as a nurse before deciding that 'adopting' illegitimate infants was a more lucrative career.

In 1879 she was sentenced to six months' hard labour after being found guilty on a charge of neglect. A doctor had become suspicious of the number of infants who had died while in Mrs Dyer's care and had reported the matter to the authorities. On her release she spent several periods in mental institutions before resuming her child-care activities.

In 1895 she moved to Kensington Road, Reading and began advertising. It was not long before small bodies were being fished out of the Thames. One of the bodies recovered had a tape around its neck and was wrapped in a parcel. The paper enclosing the corpse had an address on it and this was traced to Mrs Dyer. The tiny corpse was identified as Helena Fry.

Dyer was eventually arrested on 4th April 1896. By May, seven tiny bodies had been recovered from the Thames, all had the tape around their necks and all were parcelled. Three of the bodies were identified as four-month-old Doris Marmon, thirteen-month-old Harry Simmonds and the daughter of Elizabeth Goulding. The others were to remain unidentified. She soon confessed, saying "You'll know all mine by the tape around their necks." While in Reading police station she made two attempts to commit suicide.

She came to trial at the Old Bailey in May 1896 charged with just the murder of Doris Marmon, to which she pleaded guilty. The defence tried to prove insanity but failed, despite her dubious mental history. The jury took five minutes to find Dyer guilty and she was sentenced to death. James Billington hanged her at Newgate on 10th June 1896. Police suspected that at least 20 other children had disappeared in a similar manner in the few months before her arrest.

Murder-UK.com


Dyer Amelia

Amelia Dyer was a 'baby farmer'. Someone who, for a fee, would look after children, usually illegitimate, until a home could be found for them. Mrs Dyer was 57-years-old and used the Salvation Army as a reference. In 1895 she moved to Reading and began advertising.

It wasn't long before small bodies were being fished out of the Thames. One of the bodies recovered had a tape around its neck and was wrapped in a parcel. The paper enclosing the corpse had an address on it and this was traced to Mrs Dyer, but she had moved on.

She was eventually arrested in April 1896. By May seven tiny bodies had been recovered, all had the tape around their necks and all were parcelled. She soon confessed, saying You'll know all mine by the tape around their necks.

She came to trial in May 1896 at the Old Bailey. She was in fact only tried for the murder of 4 month old Doris Marmon. The defence tried to prove insanity but failed. The motive for the murders seemed to be nothing more than greed, as soon as she was in reciept of the boarding fees she would kill the children to make room for more. The jury took five minutes to find her guilty and she was sentenced to death. She was hanged at Newgate on 10th June 1896 by James Billington.


Amelia Elizabeth Dyer née Hobley (1838 – 10 June 1896) was the most prolific baby farm murderer of Victorian England. She was tried and hanged for one murder, but there is little doubt she was responsible for many more similar deaths—possibly 400 or more—over a period of perhaps twenty years.

Background

Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was not the product of grinding poverty. She was born the youngest of 5 (with 3 brothers, Thomas, James and William, and a sister, Ann) in the small village of Pyle Marsh, just east of Bristol (now part of Bristol's urban sprawl known as Pile Marsh), the daughter of a master shoemaker, Samuel Hobley, and Sarah Hobley née Weymouth. She learned to read and write and developed a love of literature and poetry. However, her somewhat privileged childhood was marred by the mental illness of her mother, caused by typhus. Amelia witnessed her mother's violent fits and was obliged to care for her until she died raving in 1848. Researchers would later comment on the effect this had on Amelia, and also what it would teach Amelia about the signs exhibited by those who appear to lose their mind through illness.

After her mother's death Amelia lived with an aunt in Bristol for a while, before serving an apprenticeship with a corset maker. Her father died in 1859, her eldest brother Thomas inheriting the family shoe business. In 1861, at the age of 24, Amelia became permanently estranged from at least one of her brothers, James, and moved into lodgings in Trinity Street, Bristol. There she married George Thomas. George was 59 and they both lied about their ages on the marriage certificate to reduce the age gap. George deducted 11 years from his age and Amelia added 6 years to her age—many sources later reported this age as fact, causing much confusion.

Nursing

For a couple of years, after marrying George Thomas, she trained as a nurse, a somewhat gruelling job in Victorian times, but it was seen as a respectable occupation, and it enabled her to acquire useful skills. From contact with a midwife, Ellen Dane, she learnt of an easier way to earn a living—using her own home to provide lodgings for young women who had conceived illegitimately and then farming off the babies for adoption or allowing them to die of neglect and malnutrition (Ellen Dane was forced to decamp to the USA, shortly after meeting Amelia, to escape the attention of the authorities).

Unmarried mothers in Victorian England often struggled to gain an income, since the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had removed any financial obligation from the fathers of illegitimate children, whilst bringing up their children in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatized. This led to the practice of baby farming in which individuals acted as adoption or fostering agents, in return for regular payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Many businesses were set up to take in these young women and care for them until they gave birth. The mothers subsequently left their unwanted babies to be looked after as "nurse children".

The predicament of the parents involved was often exploited for financial gain: if a baby had well-off parents who were simply anxious to keep the birth secret, the single fee might be as much as £80. £50 might be negotiated if the father of the child wanted to hush up his involvement. However, it was more common for these expectant young women, whose "immorality" even precluded acceptance, at that time, into workhouses, to be impoverished. Such women would be charged about £5.

Unscrupulous carers resorted to starving the farmed-out babies, to save money and even to hasten death. Noisy or demanding babies could be sedated with easily-available alcohol and/or opiates. Godfrey's Cordial—known colloquially as "Mother's Friend", (a syrup containing opium)—was a popular choice, but there were several other similar preparations. Many children died as a result of such dubious practices: "Opium killed far more infants through starvation than directly through overdose." Dr. Greenhow, investigating for the Privy Council, noted how children "kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished." Death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was likely to record the death as "'debility from birth,' or 'lack of breast milk,' or simply 'starvation.'" Mothers who chose to reclaim or simply check on the welfare of their children could often encounter difficulties, but some would simply be too frightened or ashamed to tell the police about any suspected wrongdoing. Even the authorities often had problems tracing any children that were reported missing.

This was the world opened up to her by the now-departed Ellen Danes. Amelia had had to leave nursing with the birth of a daughter, Ellen Thomas. In 1869 the elderly George Thomas died and Amelia needed an income.

Murders

Amelia was apparently keen to make money from baby farming, and alongside taking in expectant women, she would advertise to nurse and adopt a baby, in return for a substantial one-off payment and adequate clothing for the child. In her advertisements and meetings with clients, she assured them that she was respectable, married, and that she would provide a safe and loving home for the child.

At some point in her baby farming career, Amelia was prepared to forego the expense and inconvenience of letting the children die through neglect and starvation; soon after the receipt of each child, she murdered them, thus allowing her to pocket most or all of the entire fee.

For some time, Dyer eluded the resulting interest of police. She was eventually caught in 1879 after a doctor was suspicious about the number of child deaths he had been called to certify in Dyer's care. However, instead of being convicted of murder or manslaughter, she was sentenced to six months' hard labour for neglect. The experience allegedly almost destroyed her mentally, though others have expressed incredulity at the leniency of the sentence when compared to those handed out for lesser crimes at that time.

Upon release, she attempted to resume her nursing career. She had spells in mental hospitals due to her alleged mental instability and suicidal tendencies; these always coincided with times when it was convenient for her to "disappear". Being a former asylum nurse Amelia knew how to behave to ensure a relatively comfortable existence as an asylum inmate. Dyer appears to have begun abusing alcohol and opium-based products early in her killing career; her mental instability could have been related to her substance abuse. In 1890, Dyer cared for the illegitimate baby of a governess. When she returned to visit the child, the governess was immediately suspicious and stripped the baby to see if a birthmark was present on one of its hips. It wasn't, and prolonged suspicions by the authorities led to Dyer having, or feigning, a breakdown. Dyer at one point drank two bottles of laudanum in a serious suicide attempt, but her long-term abuse had built up her tolerance to opium products, so she survived.

Inevitably, she returned to baby farming, and murder. Dyer realized the folly of involving doctors to issue death certificates and began disposing of the bodies herself. The precarious nature and extent of her activities again prompted undesirable attention; she was alert to the attentions of police—and of parents seeking to reclaim their children. She and her family frequently relocated to different towns and cities to escape suspicion, regain anonymity—and to acquire new business. Over the years, Dyer used a succession of aliases.

In 1893, Dyer was discharged from her final committal at Wells mental asylum. Unlike previous "breakdowns" this had been a most disagreeable experience and she never entered another asylum. Two years later, Dyer moved to Caversham, Berkshire, accompanied by an unsuspecting associate, Jane "Granny" Smith, whom Amelia had recruited from a brief spell in a workhouse and Amelia's daughter and son-in-law, Mary Ann (known as Polly) and Arthur Palmer. This was followed by a move to Kensington Road, Reading, Berkshire later the same year. Smith was persuaded by Amelia to be referred to as 'mother' in front of innocent women handing over their children. This was an effort to present a caring mother-daughter image.

Case study: the murder of Doris Marmon

In January 1896, Evelina Marmon, a popular 25-year-old barmaid, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Doris, in a boarding house in Cheltenham. She quickly sought offers of adoption, and placed an advertisement in the "Miscellaneous" section of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper. It simply read: "Wanted, respectable woman to take young child." Marmon intended to go back to work and hoped to eventually reclaim her child.

Coincidentally, next to her own, was an advertisement reading: "Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10". Marmon responded, to a "Mrs. Harding", and a few days later she received a reply from Dyer. From Oxford Road in Reading, "Mrs Harding" wrote that "I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own." She continued: "We are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances. I don't want a child for money's sake, but for company and home comfort. ... Myself and my husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother's love".

Evelina Marmon wanted to pay a more affordable, weekly fee for the care of her daughter, but "Mrs Harding" insisted on being given the one-off payment in advance. Marmon was in desperate straits, so she reluctantly agreed to pay the £10, and a week later "Mrs Harding" arrived in Cheltenham.

Marmon was apparently surprised by Dyer's advanced age and stocky appearance, but Dyer seemed affectionate towards Doris. Evelina handed over her daughter, a cardboard box of clothes and the £10. Still distressed at having to give up care for her daughter, Evelina accompanied Dyer to Cheltenham station, and then on to Gloucester. She returned to her lodgings "a broken woman". A few days later, she received a letter from "Mrs Harding" saying all was well; Marmon wrote back, but received no reply.

Dyer did not travel to Reading, as she had told Marmon. She went instead to 76 Mayo Road, Willesden, London where her 23-year-old daughter Polly was staying. There, Dyer quickly found some white edging tape used in dressmaking, wound it twice around the baby's neck and tied a knot. Death would not have been immediate. (Amelia later said "I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them")

Both women allegedly helped to wrap the body in a napkin. They kept some of the clothes Marmon had packed; the rest was destined for the pawnbroker. Dyer paid the rent to the unwitting landlady, and gave her a pair of child's boots as a present for her little girl. The following day, Wednesday 1 April 1896, another child, named Harry Simmons, was taken to Mayo Road. However, with no spare white edging tape available, the length around Doris' corpse was removed and used to strangle the 13 month-old boy.

On April 2, both bodies were stacked into a carpet bag, along with bricks for added weight. Dyer then headed for Reading. At a secluded spot she knew well near a weir at Caversham Lock, she forced the carpet bag through railings into the River Thames.

Dyer's downfall

Discovery of corpses

Unknown to Dyer, on 30 March 1896, a package was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. It contained the body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. In the small detective force available to Reading Borough Police headed by Chief Constable George Tewsley, a Detective Constable Anderson made a crucial breakthrough. As well as finding a label from Temple Meads station, Bristol, he used microscopic analysis of the wrapping paper, and deciphered a faintly-legible name—Mrs Thomas—and an address.

This evidence was enough to lead police to Dyer, but they still had no strong evidence to connect her directly with a serious crime. Additional evidence they gleaned from witnesses, and information obtained from Bristol police, only served to increase their concerns, and D.C. Anderson, with Sgt. James, placed Dyer's home under surveillance. Subsequent intelligence suggested that Dyer would abscond if she became at all suspicious. The officers decided to use a young woman as a decoy, hoping she would be able to secure a meeting with Dyer to discuss her services. This may have been designed to help the detectives to positively link Dyer to her business activities, or it may have simply given them a reliable opportunity to arrest her.

It transpired that Dyer was expecting her new client (the decoy) to call, but instead she found detectives waiting on her doorstep. On April 3 (Good Friday), police raided her home. They were apparently struck by the stench of human decomposition, although no human remains were found. There was however, plenty of other related evidence, including white edging tape, telegrams regarding adoption arrangements, pawn tickets for children's clothing, receipts for advertisements and letters from mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children.

The police calculated that in the previous few months alone, at least twenty children had been placed in the care of a "Mrs. Thomas", now revealed to be Amelia Dyer. It also appeared that she was about to move home again, this time to Somerset. This rate of murder has led to some estimates that Mrs Dyer may, over the course of decades, have killed over 400 babies and children, making her one of the most prolific murderers ever, as well as the most prolific murderess ever.

Helena Fry, the baby removed from the River Thames on March 30, had been handed over to Dyer at Temple Meads station on March 5. That same evening, she arrived home carrying only a brown paper parcel. She hid the package in the house but, after three weeks, the odor of decomposition prompted her to dump the dead baby in the river. As it was not weighted adequately, it had been easily spotted.

Amelia Dyer was arrested on April 4 and charged with murder. Her son-in-law Arthur Palmer was charged as an accessory. During April, the Thames was dragged and six more bodies were discovered, including Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons—Dyer's last victims. Each baby had been strangled with white tape, which as she later told the police "was how you could tell it was one of mine". Eleven days after handing her daughter to Dyer, Evelina Marmon, whose name had emerged in items kept by Dyer, identified her daughter's remains.

Inquest and trial

At the inquest into the deaths in early May, no evidence was found that Mary Ann or Arthur Palmer had acted as Dyer’s accomplices. Arthur Palmer was discharged as the result of a confession written by Amelia Dyer. In Reading gaol she wrote (with her own spelling and punctuation preserved):

Sir will you kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates on Saturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do know I shal have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in Heaven a on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither of them had any thing at all to do with it, they never knew I contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was to late I am speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be forgiven, I myself and I alone must stand before my Maker in Heaven to give an answer for it all witnes my hand Amelia Dyer.

—April 16, 1896

On 22 May 1896, Amelia Dyer appeared at the Old Bailey and pleaded guilty to one murder, that of Doris Marmon. Her family and associates testified at her trial that they had been growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged that Dyer had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions. Evidence from a man who had seen and spoken to Dyer when she had disposed of the two bodies at Caversham Lock also proved significant. Her daughter had given graphic evidence that ensured Amelia Dyer's conviction.

The only defence Dyer offered was insanity: she had been twice committed to asylums in Bristol. However, the prosecution argued successfully that her exhibitions of mental instability had been a ploy to avoid suspicion; both committals were said to have coincided with times when Dyer was concerned her crimes might have been exposed.

It took the jury only four and a half minutes to find her guilty. In her 3 weeks in the condemned cell, she filled five exercise books with her "last true and only confession". Visited the night before her execution by the chaplain and asked if she had anything to confess, she offered him her exercise books, saying, "isn't this enough?" Curiously she was subpoenaed to appear as a witness in Polly's trial for murder, set for a week after her own execution date. However it was ruled that Amelia was already legally dead once sentenced and that therefore her evidence would be inadmissible. Thus her execution was not delayed. On the eve of her execution Amelia heard that the charges against Polly had been dropped. She was hanged by James Billington at Newgate Prison on Wednesday, 10 June 1896. Asked on the scaffold if she had anything to say, she said "I have nothing to say", just before being dropped at 9am precisely.

Later developments

It is uncertain how many more children Amelia Dyer murdered. However, inquiries from mothers, evidence of other witnesses, and material found in Dyer’s homes, including letters and many babies' clothes, pointed to many more.

The Dyer case caused a scandal. She became known as the "Ogress of Reading", and she inspired a popular ballad:

The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we'd 'a' made a big fy-er
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.

Subsequently, adoption laws were made stricter, giving local authorities the power to police baby farms in the hope of stamping out abuse. Despite this and the scrutinizing of newspaper personal ads, the trafficking and abuse of infants did not stop. Two years after Dyer's execution, railway workers inspecting carriages at Newton Abbot, Devon found a parcel. Inside was a three-week-old girl, but though cold and wet, she was alive. The daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, the baby had been given to a Mrs. Stewart, for £12. She had picked up the baby at Plymouth—and apparently dumped her on the next train. It has been claimed that "Mrs. Stewart" was Polly, the daughter of Amelia Dyer.

Identified victims

  • Doris Marmon, 4 months old

  • Harry Simmons, 13 months old

  • Helena Fry, Age unknown, 1 year old or less

Jack the Ripper Speculation

Because she was a murderer alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings, some have suggested that Amelia Dyer was Jack the Ripper, who killed the prostitutes through botched abortions. This suggestion was put forward by author William Stewart, although he preferred Mary Pearcey as his chosen suspect. There is, however, no evidence to connect Dyer to the Jack the Ripper murders.

Wikipedia.org


Amelia Dyer – The Reading Baby-farmer

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was perhaps the best known and most prolific murderous baby farmer.

Mrs Dyer was 56 years old when she moved from Bristol to Caversham in Reading in 1895 and began advertising for babies to look after. On the 30th of March of 1896, a bargeman recovered the corpse of 15-month old Helena Fry from the river Thames at Reading. Helena's body was wrapped in a brown paper parcel which had the name of a Mrs. Thomas and her address on it – Piggott’s Road Lower Caversham. Mrs. Thomas was one of Mrs. Dyer's aliases.

It took the police some time to trace Mrs. Dyer as she had already moved on, changing her address quite frequently and also using various aliases. In the meantime, a Cheltenham barmaid, 23 year old Evelina Marmon, had answered a newspaper advert from a "Mrs Harding" seeking a child for adoption. She met "Mrs Harding" and paid her a £10 fee to take her four month old baby daughter Doris on the 31st of March 1896. She felt comfortable with the arrangement as "Mrs Harding" appeared to be a respectable and motherly person. The following day Mrs. Dyer “adopted” another child, Harry Simmons.

The police finally located Mrs. Dyer, who they kept under surveillance for several days before mounting a “sting” operation using a young woman to pose as a potential customer. She was arrested on April the 4th, 1896 when she opened the door to the person she thought would be this customer only to find two policemen standing there.

The two tiny bodies of Doris and Harry were found in the Thames on April the 10th, 1896, both wrapped in a carpet bag and both white tapes round their necks. In all, the corpses of seven babies, all of whom had been strangled, were recovered from the Thames and each one had the same white tape around their neck. She soon confessed saying, "You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks.".

She made two attempts to commit suicide in Reading police station. She came to trial before Mr. Justice Hawkins at the Old Bailey on the 21st and 22nd of May 1896 charged with Doris' murder in the first instance, so that if she was acquitted, she could be tried for another. This was standard practice until recently in cases of multiple murder. Miss Marmon identified Mrs Dyer  in court as "Mrs Harding". The defence tried to prove insanity but failed to convince the jury who took just 5 minutes to find her guilty. Although there was strong evidence of her dubious sanity, her crimes were also appalling and the jury seemed to give far more weight to that aspect. Mr. Justice Hawkins sentenced her to death.

During her three weeks in the condemned cell, she filled five exercise books with her "last true and only confession." In a compassionate move the authorities removed her from Newgate for a few hours so that she would not have to hear the hanging of Milsom, Fowler and Seaman the day before her own execution. The chaplain visited her on the evening of the 9th and asked her if she had anything to confess - she offered him her exercise books saying "isn't this enough?"

She was hanged the following morning (10th of June 1896) by James Billington, becoming at 57, the oldest woman to be executed since 1843. She was given a drop of five feet as she weighed some 15 stones.  Her ghost was said to haunt Newgate prison. No one will ever know the exact number of her victims but at the time of her arrest, she had been carrying on her trade for 15 to 20 years.  She may have murdered as many as 400 babies in all.

CapitalPunishmentUK.org


Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was perhaps the best known and most prolific murderous baby farmer. She was convicted of the murder of 4 month old Doris Marmon who had been entrusted to her care, having received £10 to look after her.

Doris' tiny body was found in the Thames on April the 10th 1896, together with that of one year old Harry Simmons, both wrapped in a carpet bag and both with her trade mark white tapes round their necks. The Crown decided to proceed only with Doris' murder in the first instance, so that if Mrs. Dyer was acquitted they would be able to try her for another. This was standard practice until recently.

Mrs Dyer who was fifty-seven years old at the time of her arrest moved to Reading in 1895 where she began advertising for babies to look after.

On the 30th of March of 1895 a bargeman recovered the corpse of 15 month old Helena Fry from the river Thames at Reading. Helena's body was wrapped in a brown paper parcel which had Mrs. Dyer's address on it. It took the police some time to trace the identity of the owner of the parcel as Mrs. Dyer had moved on, changing her address quite frequently and also using various aliases.

They eventually caught up with her and she was arrested on April the 4th 1896. The corpses of seven babies, all of whom had been strangled had been recovered from the Thames, all had the same white tape around their necks. She soon confessed, saying "You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks." While in Reading police station she made two attempts to commit suicide.

She came to trial at the Old Bailey the 21st of May 1896, the trial lasting two days. The defence tried to prove insanity but failed to convince the jury who took just five minutes to find her guilty. Although there was strong evidence of her dubious sanity her crimes were also appalling and the jury seemed to give far more weight to that aspect. Mr. Justice Hawkins sentenced her to death and while in the condemned cell she filled five exercise books with her "last true and only confession."

She decided not to appeal and so her execution was set for three weeks after sentence. The chaplain visited her the night before her execution and asked her if she had anything to confess - she offered him her exercise books saying "isn't this enough?"

She was hanged the following morning (10th June 1896) by James Billington at Newgate, becoming the oldest woman to be executed since 1843. No-one will ever know the exact number of her victims, but at the time of her arrest she had been carrying on her trade for fifteen to twenty years.


The baby butcher: One of Victorian Britain's most evil murderers exposed

By Tony Rennell

September 28, 2007

The advertisement in the "Miscellaneous" column of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper was poignant.

"Wanted," it read, "respectable woman to take young child."

It was a sadly common request in Victorian Britain, where life was particularly hard for unmarried mothers.

The ad had been placed by 25-year-old Evelina Marmon, who two months earlier, in January 1896, had given birth in a boarding house in Cheltenham to a little girl she named Doris.

Evelina was a God-fearing farmer's daughter who had gone astray, left the farm for city life and resorted to work as a barmaid in the saloon of the Plough Hotel, an old coaching inn.

With her blonde hair, busty figure and quick wit, she was popular with its male customers - though which one of them made her pregnant has gone unrecorded.

And now she was deserted, with a baby she loved but knew she could not bring up on her own.

She would have to find a foster home for little Doris - to have her "adopted out", in the language of the time - go back to work and hope in time to be able to reclaim her child.

Quite by chance, next to her own ad, was another: "Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10."

It seemed the answer to her prayers, and she quickly contacted the name at the bottom, a Mrs Harding.

From Oxford Road in Reading, Mrs Harding replied in ecstatic terms.

"I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own."

She described her situation. "We are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances. I don't want a child for money's sake, but for company and home comfort.

"Myself and my husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother's love."

Mrs Harding sounded every bit the respectable, caring woman that Evelina hoped to find for Doris and she wrote at once begging her not to consider anyone else until they had met.

The reply came back: "Rest assured I will do my duty by that dear child. I will be a mother, as far as lies in my power.

"It is just lovely here, healthy and pleasant. There is an orchard opposite our front door." Evelina could visit whenever she wished.

The only issue between them was that Evelina really wanted to pay a weekly fee for her daughter to be looked after whereas Mrs Harding preferred - indeed, insisted on - a full adoption and a one-off payment in advance of £10, for which "I will take her entirely, and she shall be of no further expense to you".

Reluctantly, the desperate mother agreed, and a week later Mrs Harding, clutching "a good warm shawl to wrap round baby in the train for it is bitter cold", arrived in Cheltenham.

Evelina was surprised to discover that the woman she had been corresponding with was more elderly than she had expected and thick-set beneath her long cape. But she seemed affectionate as she swaddled little Doris in the shawl.

Evelina handed over a cardboard box of clothes she had packed - nappies, chemises, petticoats, frocks, nightgowns and a powder box - and the £10, and received in return a signed receipt.

She accompanied Mrs Harding to Cheltenham station and then on to Gloucester, where she stood weeping amid the choking steam on the platform as the 5.20pm train took her little girl away. She returned to her lodgings a broken woman.

A few days later, she had a letter from Mrs Harding saying all was well. Evelina wrote back straight away. She never received a reply.

Evelina and little Doris Marmon had fallen victim to one of the murkiest of all the many social evils in Britain just over a century ago - the "baby farmers".

Infant mortality was high and children's lives were cheap. Many families in straitened circumstances were happy to dispose of an infant to a new home and not ask too many questions about where and to whom it was going.

Some, like Evelina, had every intention of retrieving their youngsters.

Others were just glad to see the back of them - one less mouth to feed, one less burden in the struggle to survive.

They were prey to the unscrupulous, the immoral and the murderous, and none was quite as chillingly evil as the "caring woman" to whom Doris had just been entrusted.

"Mrs Harding" was one of the many aliases of Amelia Dyer, a hardfaced brute of a woman, whose crimes are recalled in a new book.

In our child-centred society today, it is hard to comprehend a time when there were dead babies by the thousands, droves of missing Madeleines, scores of Myra Hindleys, and hardly anyone batted an eyelid.

It was in such an environment that Amelia Dyer plied her gruesome trade for more than a quarter of a century.

She was "the angel-maker", as she once explained to her own little daughter, Polly, curious about the babies that kept appearing in the household and then disappearing.

She was sending little children to Jesus, she said, because He wanted them far more than their mothers did.

At 9pm, the train from Gloucester pulled into Paddington station in London - not Reading, as she had told Doris's mother - and Dyer struggled off, carrying a carpet bag, the box of baby clothes and the baby herself, whimpering in the shawl. She took a bus to Willesden, and got off at Mayo Road.

At the door of No 76, she was greeted by her daughter Polly, now aged 23, a grown-up, married woman.

Once inside their rented rooms, Dyer lifted the lid of a work basket and rifled through the tangle of threads and thimbles for some white edging tape, enough to wrap twice around the soft folds of Doris's neck.

Next the tape was pulled tight, held for a second, and then tied in a knot. Doris would have struggled until her limbs went limp, her mouth opening and closing in a last, silent bid for life.

Then she joined the scores - no one ever knew exactly how many - Dyer had already sent to their maker.

The two women bound the body in a napkin, then picked over the clothes in the cardboard box, keeping the good items, earmarking the rest for the pawnbroker. From Evelina's £10, Dyer paid the rent she owed to her unwitting landlady, and even gave her a pair of child's boots as a present for her little girl.

The very next day - Wednesday April 1, 1896 - another infant, 13-month-old Harry Simmons, was brought to Mayo Road in return for a £10 payment.

This time there was no spare tape to be found in the work basket, so the knot was unpicked around Doris's neck and the same white length used to strangle him.

The following evening, the two corpses were stuffed, one on top of the other, into Dyer's carpet bag and weighted down with bricks.

Then she took the bus to Paddington and the train to Reading.

There she lugged her heavy load though the streets down to the river and a lonely spot she knew well, by a footbridge over a weir at Caversham Lock.

In the darkness she pushed the bag through the railings until it fell and she heard it smack into the waters beneath.

As she turned to leave, a man hurried passed on his way home and called out "Goodnight".

Later, his evidence at the Old Bailey would help send 58-year-old Dyer to the gallows.

Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was not the product of grinding poverty.

She was born in a small village near Bristol in 1838, daughter of a master shoemaker, and learned to read and write and had a love of literature and poetry.

She trained as a nurse, a gruelling job but a skilled and respectable one.

From a midwife, she learned of a less arduous way of earning a living - providing lodgings in her own home for young women who, in an unforgiving age, were pregnant outside of wedlock.

From the moment their bump began to show they were shunned by polite society or sacked if they were in work.

So for a fee, unscrupulous businesses offered to take in these young women and see them through to the birth. After the mothers left, their unwanted babies would be looked after as "nurse children".

The money differed. If the girl was from a well-off background with parents anxious to keep her plight secret, it might be as much as £80.

Or, say, £50 if the father of the child was prepared to contribute in order to hush up his involvement.

But more often these were impoverished girls, whose "immorality" meant even the workhouse wouldn't take them, and for them the deal might be done for a fiver.

To cut costs, the farmed-out babies were starved, and to reduce the aggravation of looking after them they were sedated with easily-available alcohol and opiates.

Godfrey's Cordial, a syrup laced with laudanum and known colloquially as "The Quietness", was a favourite to put a child fast asleep. And if the child died, so be it. Most did, sooner or later.

One such establishment was described with horror by a police officer who uncovered it in Brixton, London.

In one room, five three and four-week-old infants were lying in filth, three under a shawl on a sofa and two stuffed into a small crib.

They were ashen-faced and emaciated like miniature crones, their bones visible through transparent skin.

They lay open-mouthed, in a state of torpor, eyes glazed, scarcely human. What chilled the policeman was the silence: "Instead of the noises to be expected from children of tender age, they were lying without a moan from their wretched lips, and apparently dying."

Five infants were in another room, in slightly better condition because a weekly fee was still being exacted for them instead of the single "premium" that had been paid for the ones encouraged to die quickly.

However immoral this business - and the immorality usually stretched to those who deposited children there, in full realisation of their fate - it was one much in demand, and lucrative. There was a pile of cash to be made here, as Amelia Dyer realised.

Her own particular refinement was not to bother with letting the children die through neglect and starvation, but to murder them straight away and pocket all the money.

Year on year, Dyer dodged the police and the inspectors of the newly-formed NSPCC.

She was caught once after a doctor was called to certify the death of one child too many and raised the alarm.

But instead of manslaughter, she was convicted of causing a child to die by neglect and served six months' hard labour in prison, an experience that nearly destroyed her.

After that she tried going back to nursing. She had spells in mental hospitals after suicide attempts.

But always she returned to baby farming, eventually drawing her own family into the business.

She stopped calling doctors to issue death certificates and disposed of the bodies secretly.

They moved homes frequently - Bristol, Reading, Cardiff, London - as often as they scented the police closing in or mothers and fathers on their trail trying to reclaim their children.

The killing stopped only after a bargeman piloting a cargo up the Thames at Reading saw a brown paper parcel lying in in shallow water near the bank.

He fished it out with a boat hook, pulled at one end and a leg and a tiny human foot appeared.

A police inspection revealed the body of a little girl, aged six to 12 months.

White tape was knotted round her neck. One piece of the brown paper had a railway label on it from Temple Meads Station, Bristol and the faint outline of handwriting.

A name - "Mrs Thomas" - and an address in Reading could just be made out.

Four days later, on April 3, Good Friday, police raided that address and were immediately struck by the stench of human decomposition, though no body was found.

But white tape was, in a sewing basket, and in cupboards were bundles of telegrams arranging adoptions, pawn tickets for children's clothing, receipts for advertisements and letters from mothers inquiring after their little ones.

In the past few months alone, they worked out, 20 children at least had been placed in the care of "Mrs Thomas", now revealed as Amelia Dyer.

The police had arrived just in time. She was about to do a moonlight flit again, this time to Somerset.

The body found by the bargee turned out to be that of Helena Fry, illegitimate offspring of Mary Fry, a servant girl from Bristol, and a well-to-do local merchant.

The child had been handed over to Dyer at Bristol Temple Meads station on March 5.

But when Dyer got home to Reading that evening, all she had with her was a brown paper parcel two feet long.

She hid it in the house, until, after three weeks, the smell became unbearable.

Then she was seen leaving the house with the parcel, saying she was going to the pawnshop.

In fact she threw in the bundle in the river. But it did not sink, as the bargee discovered.

The river was now dragged. Three tiny bodies were found, then the carpet bag with Doris and Harry inside, her last victims.

The next day, Evelina Marmon, whose name had cropped up in Dyer's correspondence, was brought to Reading and identified her daughter on the mortuary slab.

It had been a mere 11 days since she had entrusted her child to "Mrs Harding".

"She was in perfect health when I sent her away," was all the distraught woman could mutter.

Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison after a trial in which her plea of insanity was rejected.

Her daughter gave graphic evidence that ensured her conviction (while going unpunished herself for reasons still not clear). The jury was out for just four-and-a-half minutes before condemning her.

The details of what she had done caused a scandal. Stricter adoption laws gave local authorities the power to police baby farms and stamp out abuse. Personal ads of newspapers were to be scrutinised.

But baby trafficking did not stop. Two years after Dyer's execution, railway workers inspecting carriages shunted into a siding at Newton Abbot from the Plymouth express found a parcel tied up with string.

Inside was a three-week-old girl, cold and wet but just alive.

She was the daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, and had been given to a woman named Mrs Stewart for £12.

"The little one would have a good home and a parent's love and care," Mrs Stewart had written. Then she had picked up the baby at Plymouth - and dumped her on the next train.

Who was "Mrs Stewart"? None other, it was thought, than Polly, Amelia Dyer's daughter. The evil lived on.


DYER, Amelia Elizabeth (England)

That a man should kill a child is appalling; that a woman should kill a child is unthinkable; but a woman who kills eight children and perhaps many more . . .

Amelia Dyer was known as the Reading Baby-farmer; having once been a member of the Salvation Army, she was a figure of trust to those parents or guardians who, over the years, accepted her offer to adopt unwanted children, and were more than happy to pay her the regular boarding fees for their upkeep. But their trust was badly shaken when in 1885 a boatman on the Thames noticed something unusual floating in the water. Rescuing it, he was shocked to find that, wrapped in a brown paper parcel, was a dead baby, with a tape tied tightly round its neck. The parcel bore an address: Mrs Thomas, Piggotts Road, Lower Caversham.

The police immediately went to the address, only to discover that their quarry had moved away and had, moreover, changed her name. Worse was to follow, for within the next few days two more bodies were found floating in the river, each in a separate parcel, each having been strangled by the tape around its throat.

In the widespread hunt that ensued, Mrs Dyer, alias Thomas, alias Harding, alias Stanfield, was found, and when arrested on a charge of murdering a little girl named Fry, admitted her guilt, adding, ‘You’ll know all mine by the tapes around their necks.’

That statement was tragically borne out when no fewer than a further four small corpses were fished out of the Thames, and it was suspected that there could have been many more similarly strangled over the years during which she had been a babyfarmer, four more children having recently disappeared.

It would appear that she would place an advertisement in local papers, worded as follows:

I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own. First I must tell you we are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances. We live in our own house. I have a good and comfortable home. We are out in the country and sometimes I am alone a good deal. I do not want a child for money’s sake but for company and home comfort. Myself and my husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother’s love and care. We belong to the Church of England. Although I want to bring the child up as my own, I should not mind the mother or any other person coming to see the child at any time. It would be a satisfaction to see and know the child was getting on all right. I only hope we can come to terms.

The latter offer of access was impossible, of course, Amelia Dyer repeatedly changing her name and address. Women who responded to the advertisement usually handed over a parcel of clothes, ten pounds in cash, a considerable sum in those days, and the baby – which she never saw again.

When her house was searched by the police, no less than three hundredweight (336 lb) of children’s clothes were found, together with a large number of pawn tickets for baby clothes.

In May 1896 Amelia appeared in court charged with murdering a four-month-old baby girl named Doris Marmon and a boy, Harry Simmons. Her plea, that she was insane, was not accepted, the jury taking only five minutes to find her guilty, and she was sentenced to death. Confident of a reprieve, doubtless because of her age – she was 57 – she spent her time in the condemned cell praying and writing poems, one of which survives:

By nature, Lord, I know with grief,

I am a poor fallen leaf

Shrivelled and dry, near unto death

Driven with sin, as with a breath.

But if by Grace I am made new,

Washed in the blood of Jesus, too,

Like to a lily, I shall stand

Spotless and pure at His right hand.

And not content with the hypocritical tone of the verse, she had the appalling gall to sign it ‘Mother’.

In accordance with the regulations, which stipulated that executions should take place at 8 a.m. on the first day after the intervention of three Sundays from the day on which the sentence was passed – in this case 10 June 1896 – Amelia herself was taken into care, James Billington, the public executioner, a muscular ex-coalminer, having temporarily adopted her. He escorted her up the steps of the scaffold behind the high walls of Newgate Prison and there guided her on to the trapdoors, where he hooded her. The prison bell had already been tolling for the past fifteen minutes and would continue to do so for the same length of time after the execution had taken place. Crowds had gathered outside, waiting to see the regulatory black flag which would be raised on the prison’s flagpole at the moment the trapdoors opened, and also, within the next few minutes, to read the Certificate of Death which had to be displayed near the principal entrance to the prison. They did not have long to wait, for Billington, never one to linger, and no doubt recalling the manner in which Amelia Dyer had strangled her helpless charges, positioned his version of a tape, the noose, around her neck and swiftly operated the drop – sending the cold-blooded killer plummeting into the depths of the pit.

Whether Amelia’s spirit departed with her, though, is another matter, it being rumoured that her ghost haunted the chief warder’s office for some years following her execution.

Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott


SEX: F RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE

MO: "Baby farmer" who killed infants of unwed mothers.

DISPOSITION: Hanged June 10, 1896.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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