There have been more than enough cases in history of shocking deeds, with serial killers occupying a special category. When it comes to Victorian England, one of the most appalling murderers went by the name of Amelia Dyer, a woman who took the lives of the most helpless.
The Bristol-born woman built a career for herself in “baby farming,” the practice of taking in unwanted infants for a sum of money. Things went out of control at a certain point for Dyer, and she eventually got caught. Unfortunately, before that happened, hundreds had been made victims at her hands.
Amelia Dyer’s story emerged in 2013, when authorities published centuries of historical criminal accounts. Though she may have been forgotten for a time, the crimes of Dyer made for one of the most lurid of all trials in Victorian England, which also shed light on the alarming issue of infanticide. Dyer was sentenced to death for her crimes during the summer of 1896 and, as the story goes, the jury didn’t require more than five minutes to find her guilty.
It appear that Dyer had her own ritual of killing and disposing of the remains. In a great number of the reported cases, she strangled the infants with white tape, after which she dumped them in the River Thames. The police investigated her after one of the tragic victims was retrieved from the river, in the vicinity of Reading.
When officials entered her residence, they were faced with overwhelming evidence of her gruesome deeds: enormous amounts of clothes for babies, letters negotiating adoptions, receipts for advertisements sent to newspapers, and other leftovers of her numerous sordid business arrangements. To keep going full time, she had been running her baby farming affairs under several false identities.
Probably the most disgusting aspect of the search was the odor of rotten flesh that spread from cupboards in the kitchen as well as from the bedroom. Following the apartment investigation, it was obvious that there were many victims, and officials started a detailed search of the river areas.
The entire effort quickly became a spectacle of its own. Crowds of people came to follow events from the riverbanks and the newspapers kept up their standard of sensational coverage. Records indicate the bodies of around 50 children were found who could be attributed to Amelia’s cruelty by her admission “You’ll know all mine by the tape around the necks.”
Dyer commenced her baby-farming career during the mid-1860s after becoming a nurse. Given she was born in 1837, Amelia would have been in her late twenties.
Back in those years, baby farming, sadly, made for a lucrative business. Advertisements for the services were available in almost any local newspaper, offering to take care of unwanted children, for a fee. In reality, though, many of them were anything but well treated, or as we learn from Dyer’s case, some were murdered under the cruelest of circumstances.
The profits were high. The lack of contraception and stigma of having an illegitimate child left an unmarried mother with very few options. Perhaps the law was to blame for such a situation, as a father was not legally obliged to support a child financially if it arrived out of wedlock.
Investigations revealed that Dyer managed to deceive the vast majority of her clients by using false identities to offer her services. As soon as she had negotiated a baby, promising the parent that a warm and cozy home awaited, she at once started starving the child. Death from negligence followed.
During her earlier years of service, Dyer allegedly gave the babies opium-based medicine to quiet them as they endured malnutrition. After some time, she opted for faster means of killing, so that she could take in more babies and generate more profit.
Dyer kept to such a work tempo for years, and she successfully managed to stay unnoticed by authorities. Until one day, when a physician she sometimes collaborated with reported her, raising doubts that too many babies lost their lives under her care. Regrettably, at this point, Amelia Dyer was charged with a sentence of only six months’ labor.
As soon as the sentence was through, Dyer continued working as a baby farmer. But at this point, she cut contacts with any doctor. Once a baby died on her watch, she would get rid of the remains alone. She also began shuffling from place to place, so as to avoid any further suspicions, and that is when many more of her aliases started appearing too.
This inhumane baby farming case was ultimately exposed when the remains of the first infant found in the Thames led to her through one of her false identities, that of a certain Mrs. Thomas. It was only after her residence was thoroughly searched that everyone became aware of the caliber of crime they were dealing with.
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By no means was Amelia Dyer the sole baby farmer across the island, but she certainly went down in history as the most prolific, and sadly, as the most horrific. Although she was charged for only one murder, estimates suggest she had managed to kill roughly 300 babies, perhaps even more.
After her trial, some attempts were made for the government authorities to monitor these “baby farms.”