Baby farmers were people who would take custody of children and babies in the late Victorian Era, in exchange for payment. The term itself was actually a negative term for these people, and was usually used to imply that the person caring for the children was treating the children improperly (Wikipedia 2019). This is was Amelia Dyer was known for. While Dyer became one of the most prolific serial killers in British history, she didn’t start there. Born in 1837, to a popular shoemaker and a mother who suffered from mental illness, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was the youngest of seven children after her two younger sisters died. By the time her father died in 1859, Amelia had become estranged from her family and had received no inheritance or rights to the business her father had run. Amelia wed a man much older than her, George Thomas, who told her he was 45 when he was actually 59. She had also lied about her age, telling him she was 30 when she was actually 24 at the time they were married; the two had one daughter together, with whom Amelia was close with throughout her life (Ward 2017).
Amelia Dyer was trained as both a midwife and a nurse before becoming a baby farmer in the 1860s after meeting a woman who introduced her to the business during her training (Ward 2017). Starting in 1834, those who sired illegitimate children no longer had to support those children thanks to the Poor Law Amendment Act. Thanks to this act, many women were left with few options if they became pregnant before being wed. Raising the child themselves or paying a baby farmer to take the child were essentially it. Baby farmers were intended to temporarily care for children and find them new homes, but, like with Dyer, many children were mistreated and killed under the hands of baby farmers (Crime Museum).
Amelia Dyer began her affairs with a boarding house, where she looked after pregnant women, who were unmarried, and helped them deliver their babies. After the deliveries, the women would leave their children with her and continue on with their lives. Some of these women would write Amelia, but she rarely replied (Ward 2017). When she began killing, she did so by allowing the children within her care to die through starvation, using an opium-laced syrup known as “Mother’s Friend” to keep the children quiet as they died. Unsurprisingly, Amelia would eventually begin killing in a quicker manner and draw attention to herself. A doctor, suspicious of the large number of children dying under her care, spoke out and Amelia was arrested and charge with neglect. She served six months of hard labor, which likely lead to her using aliases later on and moving around somewhat regularly. Along with these precautions, she also began to avoid the use of doctors (Crime Museum). Before her arrest, Amelia seemed to be enduring bouts of mental illness much like her mother had. She appeared to be having break downs and to be suffering from suicidal thoughts, but some believe she was faking these episodes to veer attention away from the babies dying in her care. She was known to have made one serious suicide attempt, ingesting two bottles of laudanum. However, after years of alcohol abuse, as well as opium us, she had likely grown a tolerance for such things and survived (Ward 2017).
Amelia found her victims through the newspaper. She would look for young, unmarried women who placed advertisements looking for someone to take their child from them. She would contact these women and offer to take the children off their hands, for a fee. The fee was either £5 or £10, and she would either offer these women a way to pay in smaller portions, or would demand the fee upfront. When it became available, Dyer would also use wire transfers, as well as allowing cash payment through the mail (Ward 2017).
It was easy for Dyer to get away with her crimes in Britain at the time. Poverty was common place, and many infants died due to starvation at the time. Young mothers who lived in poverty couldn’t send their infants away to a wet nurse the way mothers from higher classes could, and so those children died more frequently. By allowing the infants in her care to starve, her crimes were not as noticeable to those watching from the outside. After her six months of hard labor, Dyer began to kill the infants in a new manner: by strangling them with dressmaking tape. As soon as she was alone with the infants, she would begin to strangle them with the white tape. She reportedly enjoyed seeing them gasp for air as they died (Ward 2017). She apparently later claimed that she was an “angel maker” and thought she was returning children who were unwanted to Jesus (Carney 2019). Upon their deaths, she would wrap them in a cloth of some kind and either bury them, such as she did with the ones found in the garden of one of her boarding homes that were found in 1902, or she would weigh them down and drop them into the Thames (Ward 2017).
While Amelia Dyer was killing infants, it was the infant that would some day become forensic science that lead to her capture. The bodies of two infants, a boy and a girl, were found floating on the Thames by a bargeman on March 30, 1896. The cloth she had wrapped them in was linked to her through forensics, and police began their investigation. They set up a false advertisement as exactly what Dyer looked for: an unwed young mother looking for someone to adopt her infant. April 3, 1896, Dyer fell for the trap and went to meet the young mother; she was subsequently arrested and the police raided her home. While they found no children there, they could smell rotting flesh and letters from young mothers, opium, telegrams, and the advertisements she answered. This was enough evidence for her to be arrested and charged with murder (Ward 2017). The police dredged the Thames after her arrest, and while many bodies were found, Dyer made sure to point out that her victims were only infants with white tape around their necks. When she confessed to the crimes, she made sure to convince the police that her daughter and son-in-law were not involved in her crimes. It is unknown if her daughter was innocent or not, but a couple years after her death a young couple who later turned out to be her daughter and son-in-law received an infant at their door step. It seemed that she may have been following in her mother’s footsteps and working as a baby farmer (Carney 2019).
Dyer was found guilty on May 22, 1986, of the murders of three babies, and sentenced to death by hanging. She wrote a last confession so long, it filled five notebooks. It is believed she may have killed up to 400 babies during her career (BBC 2017), but only 14 deaths have actually been linked to her. She was hung at 9 AM on June 10, 1896. In the aftermath of her crimes, a call was made for stricter adoption laws and for the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act to be changed or stricken from law. If the act was stricken, it would mean that men would be required to support their illegitimate children, and it would hopefully make crimes like Amelia Elizabeth Dyer’s harder (Ward 2017).
Dyer’s crimes are still on the minds of the public today. In 2017, evidence was rediscovered by a relative of one of the arresting officers, and it made headlines. The evidence, which was brown paper packaging and a string of rope, as well as white dressmaking tape and an evidence tag, was actually the packaging the baby that would lead to her arrest was found in (BBC 2017). When looking at the packaging, you can actually make out a name and address. The name, Mrs. Thomas, was one of Amelia’s aliases, and the address was the boarding house she was suing at the time (Carney 2019). The evidence was found in an attic, and it should be no surprise: likely, during the Victorian era, police would be responsible for evidence making it to the court house. The name of the baby that would lead to her arrest was Helena Fry (BBC 2017).
“Amelia Dyer ‘The Reading Baby Farmer.’” Crime Museum, www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/serial-killers/amelia-dyer/.
“Baby Farming.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Oct. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_farming.
Ward, Donna P. “The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed.” HistoryCollection.co, 20 Nov. 2017, historycollection.co/liked-watch-tape-around-necks-amelia-elizabeth-dyer-baby-farmer-serial-killer/.
“Victorian Baby Killer Amelia Dyer Evidence Found in Loft.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Mar. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-berkshire-39186837.
Carney, Ann. “Amelia Dyer: The Victorian Baby Farmer.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 4 Nov. 2019, owlcation.com/humanities/Amelia-Dyer-Victorian-Baby-Killer.