The sinister crimes of Amelia Dyer (1837 – June 10, 1896) are often buried in history yet she is one of the most prolific British serial killers of all time.
The exact number of Amelia Dyer’s victims is unknown; it is thought, however, that over her sinister career as a baby farmer – she was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of infants.
She was tried and hanged for one murder, but there is little doubt she was responsible for possibly 300 to 600 or more infant murders that took place over a period of two decades.
She is now known as one of the most prolific female murderers in history.
5. She Was A Baby Farmer Who Preyed On Desperate Mothers
Born in Bristol, England, Amelia trained as a nurse which in Victorian Britain is considered a respectable occupation and she was able to acquire useful skills for life – however, money was poor and she took home very little.
She then learned from a midwife about the existence of baby farmers – people who opened their homes to young women pregnant out of wedlock who then promised to find adoptive homes for their babies for a fee.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 183 meant that fathers of illegitimate children were not obligated by law to support their children financially, leaving many women without any other option. These desperate mothers believed their newborns would find a new home and caring adoptive parents as promised by Amelia. The fee was set at £10 which would be about £850 ($1,100) today.
Respectable, married and a mother to children of her own – nobody suspected Amelia would be capable of any wrongdoing. Often the desperate mothers had plans to return for their children once personal circumstances had changed for the better.
Tragically, the infants would then be starved to death or smothered. Neglected babies that cried a lot were given an opium-laced syrup, known as “Mother’s Friend”, to quieten them. This led to many deaths by starvation as a baby who is given opium will eventually refuse to eat.
4. She Was Arrested and Served Only 6 Months Behind Bars
Initially, a doctor suspected Amelia of mistreating the babies due to the rising number of infant fatalities in her care. She was only charged with neglect and sentenced to 6 months of labor in 1879. She also spent time in mental institutions but as a former nurse, Amelia knew how to play the system so she had an easy ride that included extra privileges.
Amelia herself had a history of mental illness in the family as she nursed her own mother who suffered from severe psychosis and violent fits caused by typhus. She cared for her mother until her death in 1848 and later the trauma of witnessing her mother die so helplessly was used in her own defense.
Later, she returned to baby farming and this time did not want the risk of another arrest. She disposed of the babies’ bodies herself instead of asking a physician to supply a death certificate. To further avoid suspicion, she never stayed in the same location for a long time and took up the use of aliases to require new business.
She told her own children, curious what happened to the babies in their household, that she was an “angel-maker”, sending little children to Jesus.
Then in 1890, a governess became suspicious when she visited her child who had been had left in Amelia’s care. The Governess ordered the baby to be stripped so she could see her child’s distinctive birthmark but it was not there. This was reported to the authorities and they quickly investigated.
Amelia drank two bottles of laudanum – an opium mixture – in a serious suicide attempt. Amelia had built up a tolerance to opium due to long-term abuse of the drug and she survived.
Due to lack of evidence, Amelia was not charged with any crime, and once again, she returned to baby farming.
3. Mothers Were Too Frightened To Raise their Concerns
In 1896, 25-year-old barmaid Evelina Marmon gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Doris, in a boarding house in Cheltenham. She placed an ad in the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper that read: “Wanted, respectable woman to take young child.” Evelina planned to leave her daughter in the care of another woman and then collect her later.
Amelia wrote to Evelina using the alias “Mrs. Harding” and replied: “I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own. We are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances. I don’t want a child for money’s sake, but for company and home comfort. … 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”.
Evalina handed over her baby to the “Mrs. Harding” and a cardboard box of clothes. It wasn’t long before Amelia murdered the baby girl by wrapping tape tightly around the neck and then later dumping the body in the River Thames.
After receiving no reply to her worried letters, Evalina was concerned about the well-being of her daughter but she was trapped and there was nobody to turn to. Much like Evalina, many of the mothers were too frightened or ashamed to tell the police of any suspected wrongdoing due to the illegitimacy of the child.
2. More Than 50 Infants Were Discovered In The River Thames
In 1895, Amelia had moved once again, this time to Kensington Road in Reading. The following year, a package was retrieved from the River Thames by a bargeman who made the gruesome discovery it contained the body of a baby girl.
Reading Borough Police launched a full investigation and following microscopic analysis of the wrapping paper, they found an address and the name “Mrs. Thomas.” When police raided the house of “Mrs. Thomas” – now revealed to be Amelia Dyer – they discovered the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh.
The River Thames was drained and this resulted in the discovery of more than 50 infant bodies each with the tape still wrapped around their necks. Dyer was later quoted as saying about the white tape, “(That) was how you could tell it was one of mine.”
Evelina Marmon’s name was found as police discovered items that were kept by Amelia. She was later called to identify her daughter’s remains.
1. The Victim Count Is Believed To Be 300-600+
During the search of Amelia’s house, detectives found further evidence including white edging tape that was found on the victim’s bodies; telegrams linked to baby farming; pawnbroker receipts for children’s clothing; clippings of advertisements; and letters from concerned mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children.
Despite overwhelming evidence, only three victims were identified:
Doris Marmon, 4 months old
Harry Simmons, 13 months old
Helena Fry, Age unknown, 1-year-old or less
Yet it is believed she is responsible for more than 300 infant murders – even up to as many as 600.
While in Reading police station she made two attempts to commit suicide. The defense tried to spare Amelia the death penalty by pleading insanity but the jury was not convinced and it took them five minutes to find her guilty.
She was hanged at Newgate on June 10th, 1896.