England was not a safe place for children in Victorian times. On the other hand, it wasn’t even for adults, if we think of serial killers like Jack the Ripper or Harold Shipman (1946-2004), who killed around 250 of his patients during his medical career and is considered the most ferocious of British serial killers. However, forgotten in the archives of the police and courts, is also the story of Amelia Dyer, one of the most prolific serial killers in history, murdering infants in her care over a 30-year period.
The number of children killed is not clear, but it is estimated that it can vary between 200 and 400.
Her case, one of the most sensational (and terrible) of that period, has opened a horrible Pandora’s box, bringing to light how widespread the practice of infanticide was in the country, by stimulating drastic measures aimed at protecting children, also in case of adoption. To say that infanticide was a widespread practice in 19th century England is not an exaggeration. A law of the time, which theoretically was to discourage conception outside of marriage, allowed illegitimate fathers not having to worry financially with the child, leaving the burden of maintenance to the mother alone.
Thus, a single mother didn’t have many choices: either prostitute herself, or starve, or “make an angel” of her baby.
The so-called Baby Farmers, offered a last hope to a minority of desperate unmarried mothers, even if in reality were few the women who did not know what destiny their child would face.
Amelia Dyer, when she was widowed at only 32 and with a daughter to support, trained as a nurse. However, from contact with a midwife, Ellen Dane, she learned 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. Unfortunately, among the midwives it was common practice to starve the babies, keeping them sedated with something like alcohol or opium. Ellen Dane herself was forced to decamp to the US, shortly after meeting Amelia, to escape the attention of the authorities.
Thus, Amelia decided to devote herself to this activity, boasting her qualification as a nurse, and offering a safe and “loving” place to the unfortunate children.
She was apparently keen to make money from baby farming, and alongside taking in expectant women, she advertised to nurse and adopt a baby, in return for a substantial one-off payment and adequate clothing for the child.
However, at some point the woman decided that it was more convenient (and profitable) to immediately kill the children entrusted to her, strangling them with a white ribbon, rather than waiting for their death by starvation.
In 1879, Amelia was accused of negligence towards children, after a doctor noticed that the number of deaths was a little too high among the children entrusted to her care. So, after serving a six-month sentence of forced labor, the woman began to have mental problems and suicidal tendencies, which led her to abuse alcohol and opium.
However, Amanda returned to her midwife-homicidal activity, trying to avoid the involvement of the doctors who had to draw up the death certificate of the children.
She then began to personally get rid of the corpses.
To escape the requests of mothers who asked for news about their children, and also not to get noticed too much by the police, Amelia often changed city and identity, assuming several false names, until one day, by chance, the body of a child was found in the Thames. She was Elena Fry, wrapped in packing paper, on which a zealous policeman managed to decipher an inscription, which was none other than the name and address of a certain Mrs. Thomas.
Investigators pointed their suspicions on Amelia Dyer, and discovered, thanks to a fake client, the immense and profitable adoption business.
Searching the midwife house, they found a lot of evidence: financial agreements, mothers’ letters, advertisements, and above all the cloth tape that the woman used to strangle the children, twisting it around their neck twice.
After her arrest, the police dredged the Thames, finding six other bodies, but making an estimate of how many children she could have killed in the course of twenty years: it came to an exorbitant number, from a minimum of 200 to a maximum than 400 innocent.
On trial on May 22, 1896, the woman was found guilty of one murder, but was nevertheless sentenced to death (in just four and a half minutes).
On June 10, 1896, she was hanged, her case caused a scandal and she has since become famous as “Ogress of Reading”.
As a result, Adoption laws were subsequently made stricter, giving local authorities the power to police baby farms in the hope of stamping out abuse. But, despite this and the scrutinising of newspaper personal ads, the trafficking and abuse of infants did not stop.
In the common vision of Victorian-era cities, characterized by dirt, thieves and small beggars, a sad detail is often missing: the corpses of children scattered along the streets, insignificant victims who did not attract anyone’s interest.
Images from web.