Amelia Dyer Who Started Baby Farming Murdering the Babies in Her Care
Victorian England was a harsh place for women of all classes
Many true crime writers talk about prolific serial killers, such as Harold Shipman with two hundred kills and Samuel Little with ninety-three. None, though, were as prolific as this historical serial killer—a killer who was a woman and had a total estimated at four hundred, all babies.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was born in 1837 in Pyle, a small village east of Bristol. She was the youngest of five children. Her mother had a mental illness caused by typhus. She was prone to fits and confused behaviour; Amelia cared for her. Many have said that the young Amelia learned to fake mental illness in later life watching her mother.
In 1848, her mother died and she moved in with her Aunt. Under her guidance, she started an apprenticeship in corset making. She also learned to read and write and was said to love literature and poetry.
At eighteen, Amelia married fifty-nine-year-old George Thomas. Both lied about their ages on the wedding day to reduce the age gap. They had a daughter together. The marriage lasted until George passed away in 1869. Amelia found herself in need of an income. She went to train as a nurse and met midwife Ellen Dale. Ellen introduced her to an easier way to make money, baby farming.
In Victorian England, women struggled for their place in society. The expectation was that a woman would need to find a suitable man to marry to succeed in life. Therefore, the woman should be pure at this point to encourage a suitable match. To be an unmarried mother would disgrace the family and reduce the chance of a suitable partner being found.
Due to the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act, women considered immoral were not permitted to enter the workhouses. Workhouses were the Victorian version of social care. People could live there and be fed in return for their work. Pregnant women were faced with three choices prostitution, starving or getting rid of the baby. Baby farms became the answer to their problems.
Baby farms would take the infant from the mother for a price and find a suitable home to adopt the child. However, many of these women found it easier and more profitable to dispose of the babies. This was undoubtedly the path that Amelia followed.
The Practice of Baby Farming
In 1872, Amelia found another romantic match and married brewer labourer William Dyer with whom she had two children. Shortly after she left Dyer and started her baby farming business.
In 1879, Amelia came to the attention of the authorities. A doctor had become suspicious of the number of deaths that had occurred in her care. Officers investigated the case; Amelia was found guilty of neglect and sentenced to six months of hard labour.
When she left prison to return to her baby farm, she had learned her lesson. To minimise suspicion, she would have to dispose of the bodies herself.
Throughout this time and later, Amelia would be committed to several mental asylums for short stays. It is thought she also made one suicide attempt. However, many would criticise that she faked the illnesses to dampen suspicions of what she was doing.
In 1896, the authorities finally caught up with her. A bagged corpse had been found in the Thames on 30th March. When they looked at the evidence the baby was wrapped in, it led back to Amelia. Police searched her house and found piles of baby clothes. Amelia was arrested and brought to trial at The Old Bailey on 22nd March 1896. The trial was one of the most sensational of its time, and the jury found Amelia guilty in less than five minutes.
She was sentenced to be hung. Whilst awaiting her death, she wrote her full and true confession, filling five exercise books. Amelia was hung on 10th June 1896; she was fifty-nine. It was estimated that she had killed over four hundred babies in thirty years.
A Lasting Legacy
Following the sensational case of Amelia, authorities put strict adoption laws in place. Police were given the power to visit baby farms and inspect them to reduce abuse. Unfortunately, it did not work; baby farming carried on for many years, resulting in thousands of babies disappearing.
Two weeks after Amelia’s execution, railway workers found a parcel of a three-week-old girl. She was wet but alive. On investigation, it was found that the baby had been given to a Mrs Stewart for £12. Mrs Stewart, whose first name was Polly was the daughter of Amelia Elizabeth Dyer and William Dyer.