The Baby Farmer: Amelia Dyer
The literal worst babysitter of all time
Today, our topic includes such potential triggers as infant deaths, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, neglect, and abuse. Read on at your own discretion.
Killer: Amelia Elizabeth Dyer
Victim(s): Up to 400 suspected; confirmed victims are Doris Marmon, Helena Fry, and Harry Simmons
Dates active: 1869 - 1896
Location: Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Plymouth, London, and finally Reading, Berkshire
Method of murder: Starvation, strangulation
1834 | Poor Law Amendment Act 1837 | Dyer is born in Bristol 1848 | Dyer's mother dies of typhus 1859 | Dyer's father dies 1861 | Dyer moves to Trinity Street, Bristol, and | marries George Thomas 1869 | George Thomas dies 1869 | Dyer first advertises to 'adopt' children 1879 | Dyer does six months' hard labour for neglect 1893 | Dyer is discharged from Wells Asylum 1895 | Dyer relocates to Caversham, Berkshire, and then | to Reading 5.3.1896 | Dyer agrees to take care of Helena Fry 30.3.1896 | Helena Fry's body found 31.3.1986 | Dyer agrees to take care of Doris Marmon 4.4.1896 | Dyer is arrested and charged 22.5.1896 | Murder trial begins 10.6.1896 | Dyer is executed by hanging
It was the 30th March, 1896.
Detective Constable James Beattie Anderson1 was called to examine a gruesome discovery fished out of the River Thames by a bargeman. It was a small brown paper package weighed down with a brick, seemingly innocent enough in itself - but the contents were enough to turn any stomach.
Inside the layers of newspaper, brown paper, and linen was the dead body of a 15-month-old baby girl.
It was partially decomposed, and the cause of death was obvious. White tape had been wound around her neck and knotted under her left ear, causing her to asphyxiate.
She was later identified as Helena Fry.
When the sad contents were removed, it was up to DC Anderson to examine the packaging for clues. And he found them. There was a Midland Railway stamp dated 24 October 1895, and with Bristol Temple Meads marked on it. Below that he found smudged handwritten text which bore the name and address of the person the packaging had originally been sent to: Mrs Thomas at 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham.
He knew where to go next.
Three years before Amelia Dyer was even born, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 18342 was passed. This act ruined the lives of countless women whose only sin was giving birth outside of wedlock - a “crime” in which the male participant was not punished, while the mother was. The act’s amendment meant that fathers were not legally obliged to support their illegitimate children financially, leaving many women with few options.
If you worked, you couldn’t look after your child. If you didn’t work, you couldn’t feed yourself or your child. If you already had a child out of wedlock, marriage and financial support from a husband seemed impossible to reach.
For some, the grim situation led them to ask for their babies to be killed as soon as they were born, knowing that coroners would not distinguish between stillbirth and suffocation3.
But a solution was not far away. Victorian baby farmers would offer to take the child on and raise it for a small fee. Unbeknownst to the mothers, however, the children were often mistreated, killed, or neglected - left to starve while the baby farmers spent their ill-gotten gains on themselves.
Sarah Hobley and Samuel Hobley were blessed with five children. Thomas, James, William, and Ann were joined in 1839 by Amelia. The family were not poor - thanks to Samuel’s work as a master shoemaker, his daughters were even able to learn to read and write.
Amelia’s life of relative privilege was interrupted, however, when her mother was afflicted by typhus. The disease left her mentally ill, resulting in violent fits, and Amelia had to care for her until she died. It must have had a lasting effect on her young mind - to see her mother succumb to the illness, the signs and symptoms she exhibited, and finally to lose her after such a difficult time.
Things continued to get harder for Amelia as her life went on. After living with an Aunt for a while, she trained as an apprentice corset maker before her father died, leaving his shoe business to one of her brothers. She ended up estranged from her family, and she married a man named George who worked in a vinegar factory.
George was 59 years old, to Amelia’s 24. As a result, they both lied about their ages on their marriage certificate to avoid scandal. She pretended to be 30 while he was 484, a factor which caused a lot of confusion about her real story when it began to come out.
With George’s encouragement, Amelia trained as a nurse and midwife, a respectable position in Victorian times. But it didn’t last. She met a woman named Ellen Dane at this time who was making a living a different way: lodging women who had become pregnant with illegitimate children, helping deliver their babies, and then taking the children to baby farmers to cover it all up. Danes had to flee to America not long after due to her investigation by the authorities, but the seed had been sown.
The arrival of their own daughter, Ellen, should have been a happy event for Amelia and George. Sadly, however, their disparate ages caught up with them: George died in 1869, leaving his wife both a widow and a single mother, in desperate need of an income.
That was when she took out her first ad in a newspaper. It was the first of many, a sample of which would read like this: “Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10. - Harding, care of Ship’s Letter Exchange, Stokes Croft, Bristol”5.
When DC Anderson arrived at 26 Piggott’s Road, he didn’t find the answers he was expecting. The Caversham address was no longer occupied by Mrs Thomas - but there was, at least, a silver lining.
The current residents knew she had moved to Kensington Road in Reading.
Anderson continued his chase across the country, and this time when he stepped into the house, he knew he was on the right track. The place was littered with clues: piles of baby clothing. Receipts from advertisements in newspapers that ran across the country. Even white edging tape.
The same edging tape that was found wrapped around poor Helena Fry’s neck.
This, coupled with a sting operation which had seen the resident agree to take a child for a fee, was enough evidence to act.
DC Anderson concluded his raid successfully - by arresting Mrs Thomas for the felonious killing of a child.
At first, Amelia played it by the rules. She took in the babies and cared for them. But, soon, it became clear that they would cost her more to keep and raise than she was making.
Some of her clients claimed they would come back for the children once they had more money. As time went on, she learned this was hardly ever the case. For the other infants, unwanted children who would bring shame and poverty on their mothers, no one was going to look for them again.
So, why spend all that money feeding, clothing, and raising them?
There was a cordial known as “Mother’s Friend”6, an opiate-laced solution which would quiet babies, even to the point of preventing them from crying in hunger. It was all too easy, then, to give the babies Mother’s Friend instead of milk, letting them slowly starve until Amelia could register their deaths and move on.
She got away with it for thirty years.
Well, almost. There were times when suspicion fell on her. In 1879, the coroner became concerned that so many children were being issued death certificates at Amelia’s address. She was sentenced to six months’ hard labour for neglect, a charge which only served to make her learn how to get away with her crimes more easily.
She just stopped asking for death certificates, disposing of the infant bodies in other ways instead.
She moved to Reading in 1895, giving her one more base of operations from where she could source her clients. She would travel from her homes in Bristol or Reading as far as Plymouth or Liverpool, charging between £10 and £80 for her services. That value would be more like £1000 and £80007 today.
Evelina Marmon was a 23-year-old barmaid8, evidently considered to be quite pretty in her time. She had had a child out of wedlock, her baby girl Doris, and needed someone to care for her daughter. Finding herself unable to get a good enough wage with a baby in tow, Evelina answered the advertisement of Mrs Harding who had written about her desire to adopt a baby in the local paper.
When Evelina contacted her, the response was instant: “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.9"
Evelina was so entranced that she asked Mrs Harding not to consider any other babies until she had at least met Doris. Mrs Harding replied: "Rest assured I will do my duty by that dear child. I will be a mother, as far as lies in my power. It is just lovely here, healthy and pleasant. There is an orchard opposite our front door." Evelina was even told she could visit whenever she wished, and take back her daughter in time when she had earned enough to support them both.
Evelina met Mrs Harding on the 31st of March, 1896, and found her to be a respectable woman with a motherly attitude that impressed her. She handed over the £10 fee and left Doris in Mrs Harding’s care, feeling sure that her daughter would be well looked-after.
On the 10th of April, 1896, the police dredged the River Thames and brought up two more sad packages. Wrapped up in them were four-month-old Doris and another baby, Harry Simmons. They both had white tape around their necks.
They were two out of an eventual seven bodies recovered from the dredging.
Amelia had done a lot to evade capture over the years of her work as a baby farmer. She moved home frequently, even going from Bristol to Reading. She placed and answered advertisements in London and all across the country to avoid being traced back to her real home. At times, she even feigned insanity - using the symptoms she had seen her own mother exhibit - in order to get into asylums, where she found she often received good treatment and free board and food10.
After leaving Evelina Marmon in Gloucester, Amelia got off the train at Paddington Station in London at 9pm that evening. She was carrying the baby she had been given, along with a box of baby clothes to aid in caring for her, and her own carpet bag. She took a bus to Willesden, where her own daughter Polly was now a 23-year-old married woman.
Amelia went into her daughter’s home, took some white edging tape out of a work basket, and wrapped it twice around tiny Doris’s neck. Next she pulled it tight, knotted it, and then held the baby down until her small limbs went limp for the last time.
Polly and Amelia - for Polly was also involved in her mother’s business now - bound the body up in a napkin. They separated the clothes Evelina had lovingly packed into piles: some for the pawnbroker, and the best items to keep for themselves.
The day after Doris had been taken and murdered, the mother of Harry Simmons dropped him off directly at Mayo Road for another £10 fee, supposedly to keep him looked after for life. Amelia had no more edging tape, and since it was her favoured method, she unpicked the stuff on Doris’s body and used it again on Harry.
Both of the tiny bodies were then packed into the carpet bag, weighted down with bricks, and then carried back on the same route: bus to Paddington Station, train back to Reading. It was here, at Caversham Lock, that Amelia threw the bag through a gap in the railings until it hit the water.
But this time, she was seen. A man called out “goodnight” to her as he passed on his way home. It was his evidence in part that would help convict Amelia at the age of 58 - and send her to the gallows. It took the jury just four and a half minutes to return the guilty verdict.
Amelia Dyer, formerly Amelia Thomas, was hanged on the 10th June 1896 after giving a full confession11. It is estimated that she killed hundreds of babies over the course of her career, though the true number is simply unknowable. Mothers may not have documented the births, and for those that did, there’s often no way to trace whether their children ended up with Amelia Dyer or one of the other baby farmers of the time - all of whom were also likely to have killed the infants to save money.
The last, vicious footnote in this story comes in the form of another baby found, alive thankfully, but abandoned on a train after a certain Mrs Stewart was paid to adopt her. The identity of Mrs Stewart was never confirmed, but many people believe they know who she was: none other than Polly, Amelia’s daughter, carrying on the gory tradition even after her mother was hanged.
Ah, but one more thing: Amelia Dyer’s case is credited with helping raise the cause of the then-newly-fledged NSPCC, changing the course of the law on infant neglect and abuse forever.