Amelia Dyer: Baby Farming and Murder

amelia dyer

By Gold Member Anne Lesley

During the late Victorian Era women were stigmatised for having a child out of wedlock and to do so could force them into great poverty and be the ruination of their lives.

For these reasons Baby Farming or Fostering and Adoption as we would know it today came into being.

Women would advertise for someone to take in their child and would then pay that person to look after the child. This could be payments on an ongoing basis or a one off payment. This would allow the mother to continue as if nothing had happened and return to her normal life.

There were many women out there prepared to do this but not all followed it through. The easy option seems to have been to take the money and dispose of the child by whatever means necessary, and often this would be death.

One such woman was Amelia Dyer.

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer ‘nee’ Hobley was born in the village of Pyle Marsh in Bristol in 1837, the youngest of 5 children. Her father was a master shoemaker and the family were prosperous enough for the children to be taught to read and write.

The young Amelia had a serious love for both literature and poetry but her childhood was marred by her mother Sarah’s mental illness, which had been caused by typhus.

Because of this her mother was prone to violent mood swings and Amelia was to nurse her mother during her ordeal. How this nursing and dealing with her mother’s suffering were to affect Amelia we do not know, but could it have contributed towards her future behaviour.

When her mother died a raving lunatic in 1848, Amelia was still only ten years old.

Shortly after her mother’s death Amelia went to live with an Aunt.

During this time she trained as a Corset Maker and in 1861 she moved into lodgings where she met the 59 year old George Thomas whom she married.

At this time Amelia was only 24 and they both had to lie about their ages. He reduced his by eleven years and she added six years onto hers.

Did she marry a man so much older than herself to find a father figure as her own father Samuel had died two years previously in 1859?

amelia dyer young

In the early years of her marriage she trained as a nurse and it is possible at this time that she felt a need to help people, to satisfy the guilt she felt in failing her own mother.

Nursing was a tough but well respected profession and during her training she encountered the midwife Ellen Dane who informed her of an easier way to make money.

This involved taking women into her home who had conceived illegitimately during the later stages of their pregnancy and then farming off their babies for adoption. For this she would be well paid even though in many instances the babies were left to die from neglect and malnutrition.

This information must have stayed with Amelia because following the birth of her own daughter and her husband George’s death in 1869 she left nursing and needing to find another way to make money the industry she chose was ‘baby farming’.

Her first house in Totterdown, a suburb of Bristol, she used to take in unmarried women. Amelia also advertised her services to nurse and adopt babies for a one-off fee.

This would signal the start of her killing spree.

What possessed her to kill these children we do not know, but maybe the trauma of her own childhood, losing her mother at ten years old, her father at twenty two and being estranged from at least one of her siblings all contributed to it.

Ten years after opening her first establishment, Dyer was sentenced to six months imprisonment in 1879 for infant neglect.

People at the time could not understand why the sentence she received was so lenient. After all, she had been reported to the police by a doctor who was suspicious after being called to the house on a number of occasions to certify infant deaths.

This is when her ‘modus operandi’ changed and to avoid this happening again she now began to dispose of the infant bodies herself, and not involve the medical profession at all.

To avoid detection Amelia now remained constantly on the move taking on many aliases to retain her anonymity.

Some mothers were known to try and come and claim their children back but Amelia would have already moved and could not be found. The babies themselves would already be no more.

Amelia Dyer is known to have abused alcohol and opiates in her adult life and also to have had many confinements in mental institutions. Whether these confinements were genuine or a ruse to avoid suspicion remains uncertain and having previously worked within a mental hospital she would have been aware of the symptoms to portray.

It is believed that Amelia Dyer killed children over a period spanning thirty years but it was to be one specific case that was to convict her.

In January 1896, Evelina Marmon gave birth to an illegitimate daughter named Doris. Two months later she placed an advertisement in The Bristol Times & Mirror Newspaper.

“Wanted, respectable woman to take young child”.

Also to be found in the newspaper was another advert placed by Amelia Dyer:

amelia dyer advert

Marmon was to receive a reply to her advert from this Mrs Harding, which is known to be one of Dyers aliases:

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

A week later in Cheltenham the baby was handed over to Amelia.

Marmon was at first a little concerned by Amelia’s age but she showed what appeared to be genuine affection for the baby. Marmon handed over her baby into Amelia’s care along with some clothes and £10.

This would be the worse decision of Evelina Marmon’s life.

Dyer travelled to 76 Mayo Road, in Willesden, London where her daughter was currently staying. There she wrapped dressmaking edging tape twice around the baby’s neck, knotted it and watched her die.

Following this another baby Harry Simmons was taken to 76 Mayo Road. He too suffered the same fate with the exact same piece of edging she had used on Doris. It had been removed from Doris’ neck and used on Harry’s as she’d had no more spare at the time.

On 2 April 1896 the two bodies were placed in a carpet bag, weighed down with bricks, and tossed into the River Thames at Caversham Lock near Reading.

Prior to this on 30 March a bargeman had found a package floating in the Thames near the same spot. This package had contained the body of a baby girl later identified as Helena Fry. From the packaging the police managed to identify the name ‘Mrs Thomas’ and an address that was to lead them to Amelia Dyer. Although the death of Helena Fry was not to be the murder she would be convicted of.

The police put Dyer under surveillance and eventually raided her home on 3 April 1896. No human remains were found in the house but the stench of human flesh was apparently unbearable.

Other evidence however was found such as ‘White Edging Tape, telegrams arranging adoptions, receipts for advertisements and mothers letters asking how their children were’.

Upon finding this evidence, Amelia Dyer was arrested on 4 April and charged with murder. She was initially imprisoned at Reading Police Station.

Following her arrest she tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide but later confessed stating:

“You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”.

During April the River Thames was dragged and further bodies were found. The carpet bag that had been dumped with the bodies of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons was found on 10 April

As evidence had been found in the home of Dyer that related to Doris Marmon, her mother was bought forward to identify the body – she had trusted her daughter’s care to Amelia Dyer and just eleven days later she was identifying her remains.

Evelina Marmon was then requested to attend a line up and identified Amelia Dyer as the woman she had handed her baby to.

amelia dyer in court

Amelia Dyer went on trial at The Old Bailey on 21 May 1896 charged with the murder of 4 month old Doris Marmon.

Her trial was to last just two days and she was to plead guilty but on the grounds of insanity. This was rejected and when the jury were sent away for deliberation it took them under 5 minutes to find her guilty of murder.

amelia dyer hanged

She was hanged on Wednesday 10 June 1896 at Newgate Gaol in London.

While waiting on the scaffold she was asked if she had anything to say but answered without a tinge of remorse: ‘I have nothing to say’.

During her confinement, waiting for the day to come she wrote what might be thought of today as her ‘confession diaries’.

amelia dyer paper2

It is believed that Dyer may have been responsible for over 400 deaths but it only required one to rid this country of her presence. She was however not the first person nor the last person in Britain to be convicted of infanticide in relation to ‘baby farming’.

That onerous title goes to Margaret Waters who was suspected of murdering between 16 and 35 babies by poisoning or starvation.

She was hanged on 11 October 1870 at Horsemonger Gaol in London.

The last person convicted in Britain of baby farming infanticide was Rhoda Willis who was hanged in Wales in 1907.

But Amelia Dyer remains the most prolific and notorious baby killer and as a popular ballad written at the time states:

“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 wasted so nicely that wicked old jade”

‘Baby Farming’ was practiced in countries all across the world and there are many other killers that I could write about. Here I mention but a few.

Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were known as the Finchley Baby Farmers.

amelia sach

Amelia Sach operated a ‘lying in’ home where pregnant women could stay and give birth. The mother would then leave the newly-born baby behind with the mother paying for the child’s upkeep and care, but there would be no care.

annie walters

Annie Walters would collect the new born baby and poison it using chlorodyne which contained morphine. It is believed they killed dozens of babies by this method.

They were the first women to be hanged at Holloway Gaol in London on 3 February 1903, and it was to be the only double hanging in modern times.

Minnie Dean was another notorious baby killer, although the children in her care died of various different ailments. She was convicted and hanged on 12 August 1895 in Invercargill in New Zealand.

John and Sarah Makin were Australian ‘baby farmers’ convicted in March 1893 of infanticide.

John Makin was hanged on 15 August 1893 at Darlinghurst Gaol in New South Wales whilst Sarah Makin’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

She was to be paroled on 29 April 1911 and died seven years later on 13 September 1918 in Marrickville in New South Wales in the process acquiring the longevity that was so brutally denied her victims.

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