Amelia Dyer


Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer
Background information
Also known as: Several
Born: 1829
Near Bristol, England
Died: June 10, 1896
Newgate Prison, London, England
Cause of death: State execution by hanging
Killings
Number of victims: Unknown, probably dozens
Span of killings: Unknown–1896
Country: England
Date apprehended: April 3, 1896

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer (1829 – June 10, 1896) achieved notoriety as probably the most prolific baby-farm murderer of Victorian England.[1] She was tried and hanged for one murder, but there is little doubt she was responsible for many more similar deaths over a period of perhaps twenty years.[2]

Contents

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Background

Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was not the product of grinding poverty. She was born in a small village near Bristol, the daughter of a master shoemaker. She learned to read and write and developed a love of literature and poetry. [3]

Later, she trained as a nurse, a somewhat gruelling job in Victorian times, but it was seen as a respectable occupation, and it enabled her to acquire skills. From contact with a midwife, she learned of an easier way to earn a living—using her own home to provide lodgings for young women who had conceived illegitimately. Unmarried mothers in Victorian England often struggled to gain an income whilst bringing up their children, in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatized. This led to the practice of baby-farming in which individuals acted as adoption or fostering agents, in return for regular payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Many businesses were set up to take in these young women and care for them until they gave birth. The mothers subsequently left their unwanted babies to be looked after as “nurse children”.[3]

The predicament of the parents involved was often exploited for financial gain: if a baby had well-off parents who were simply anxious to keep the birth secret, the single fee might be as much as £80. £50 might be negotiated if the father of the child wanted to hush up his involvement. However, it was more common for these expectant young women to be impoverished, whose “immorality” even precluded acceptance, at that time, into workhouses. Such women would be charged about £5.[3]

Unscrupulous carers resorted to starving the farmed-out babies, to save money and even to hasten death. Noisy or demanding babies could be sedated with easily-available alcohol and/or opiates. Godfrey’s Cordial—known colloquially as “Mother’s Friend”, (a syrup containing opium)[4]—was a popular choice, but there were several other similar preparations.[5] Many children died as a result of such dubious practices: “Opium killed far more infants through starvation than directly through overdose. Dr. Greenhow, investigating for the Privy Council, noted how children “kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished.” Marasmus, or inanition, and death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was likely to record the death as ‘debility from birth,’ or ‘lack of breast milk,’ or simply ‘starvation.[6] Mothers who chose to reclaim or simply check on the welfare of their children could often encounter difficulties, but some would simply be too frightened or ashamed to tell the police about any suspected wrongdoing. Even the authorities often had problems tracing any children that were reported missing.[3]

Dyer’s killing career

Dyer was apparently keen to make money from baby-farming, but rather than take in expectant women, she would advertise to adopt or nurse a baby, in return for a substantial one-off payment and adequate clothing for the child. In her advertisements and meetings with clients, she assured them that she was respectable, married (Dyer and her husband had actually separated), and that she would provide a
safe and loving home for the child.[2]

At some point in her baby-farming career, Dyer was prepared to forego the expense and inconvenience of letting the children die through neglect and starvation; soon after the receipt of each child, she murdered them, thus allowing her to pocket most or all of the entire fee.[2]

For some time, Dyer eluded the resulting interest of police, and the inspectors of the newly-formed NSPCC. She was eventually caught in 1879 after a doctor was suspicious about the number of child deaths he had been called to certify in Dyer’s care. However, instead of being convicted of murder or manslaughter, she was sentenced to six months’ hard labour for neglect, an experience that allegedly nearly destroyed her mentally.[3]

Upon release, she attempted to resume her nursing career. She had spells in mental hospitals due to her alleged mental instability and suicidal tendencies.[7][8]

Inevitably, she returned to baby-farming, and murder. Dyer realized the folly of involving doctors to issue death certificates and began disposing of the bodies herself. The precarious nature and extent of her activities again prompted undesirable attention; she was alert to the attentions of police—and of parents seeking to reclaim their children. She and her family had to frequently relocate to different towns and cities to escape suspicion, regain anonymity—and to acquire new business. Over the years, Dyer had to use a succession of aliases.[2][7]

In 1893, Dyer was discharged from her final committal in a mental asylum.[7] In 1895, Dyer moved to Caversham, Berkshire, accompanied by an associate, Jane Smith, and her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Arthur Palmer. She then moved again to Kensington Road, Reading, Berkshire later that year.[3]

Case study: the murder of Doris Marmon

In January 1896, Evelina Marmon, a popular twenty-five year-old barmaid, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Doris, in a boarding house in Cheltenham. She quickly sought offers of adoption, and placed an advertisement in the “Miscellaneous” section of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper. It simply read: “Wanted, respectable woman to take young child.” She intended to go back to work and hoped to eventually reclaim her child.[3]

Coincidentally, next to her own, was an advertisement reading: “Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10″. Marmon responded, to a “Mrs. Harding”, and a few days later she received a reply from Dyer. From Oxford Road in Reading, “Mrs Harding” wrote that “I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own.” She continued: “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”.[3]

Evelina Marmon wanted to pay a more affordable, weekly fee for the care of her daughter, but “Mrs Harding” insisted on being given the one-off payment in advance. Marmon was in desperate straits, so she reluctantly agreed to pay the £10, and a week later “Mrs Harding” arrived in Cheltenham.[3]

Marmon was apparently surprised by Dyer’s advanced age and stocky appearance, but Dyer seemed affectionate towards Doris. Evelina handed over her daughter, a cardboard box of clothes and the £10. Still distressed at having to give up care for her daughter, Evelina accompanied Dyer to Cheltenham station, and then on to Gloucester. She returned to her lodgings “a broken woman” (A few days later, she received a letter from “Mrs Harding” saying all was well; Marmon wrote back, but received no reply).[3]

Dyer did not travel to Reading, as she had told Marmon. She went instead to 76 Mayo Road, Willesden, London where her twenty-three year-old daughter was staying. There, Dyer quickly found some white edging tape used in dressmaking, wound it twice around the baby’s neck and tied a knot. Death would not have been immediate.[3]

Both women allegedly helped to wrap the body in a napkin. They kept some of the clothes Marmon had packed; the rest was destined for the pawnbroker. Dyer paid the rent to the unwitting landlady, and gave her a pair of child’s boots as a present for her little girl. The following day, Wednesday April 1, 1896, another child, named Harry Simmons, was taken to Mayo Road. However, with no spare white edging tape available, the length around Doris’ corpse was removed and used to strangle the 13 month-old boy.[3]

On April 2, both bodies were stacked into a carpet bag, along with bricks for added weight. Dyer then headed for Reading. At a secluded spot she knew well near a weir at Caversham Lock, she forced the carpet bag through railings into the River Thames.[3]

Dyer’s downfall

Discovery of corpses

Unknown to Dyer, on March 30, 1896, a package was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. It contained the body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. In the small detective force available to Reading Borough Police headed by Chief Constable George Tewsley, a Detective Constable Anderson made a crucial breakthrough. As well as finding a label from Temple Meads station, Bristol, he used microscopic analysis of the wrapping paper, and deciphered a faintly-legible name—Mrs Thomas—and an address.[2]

This evidence was enough to lead police to Dyer, but they still had no strong evidence to directly connect her with
a serious crime. Additional evidence they gleaned from witnesses, and information obtained from Bristol police, only served to increase their concerns, and D.C. Anderson, with Sgt. James, placed Dyer’s home under surveillance. Subsequent intelligence suggested that Dyer would abscond if she became at all suspicious. The officers decided to use a young woman as a decoy, hoping she would be able to secure a meeting with Dyer to discuss her services. This may have been designed to help the detectives to positively link Dyer to her business activities, or it may have simply given them a reliable opportunity to arrest her.[2]

It transpired that Dyer was expecting her new client (the decoy) to call, but instead she found detectives waiting on her doorstep. On April 3 (Good Friday), police raided her home. They were apparently struck by the stench of human decomposition, although no human remains were found. There was however, plenty of other related evidence, including white edging tape, telegrams regarding adoption arrangements, pawn tickets for children’s clothing, receipts for advertisements and letters from mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children.[2]

The police calculated that in the previous few months alone, at least twenty children had been placed in the care of a “Mrs. Thomas”, now revealed to be Amelia Dyer. It also appeared that she was about to move home again, this time to Somerset.[3]

Helena Fry, the baby fished from the Thames on March 30, had been handed over to Dyer at Temple Meads Station on March 5. That same evening, she arrived home carrying only a brown paper parcel. She hid the package in the house but, after three weeks, the odor of decomposition prompted her to dump the dead baby in the river. As it was not weighted adequately, it had been easily spotted.[3]

Amelia Dyer was arrested on April 4 and charged with murder. Her son-in-law Arthur Palmer was charged as an accessory. During April, the Thames was dragged and six more bodies were discovered, including Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons—Dyer’s last victims. Each baby had been strangled with white tape, which as she later told the police “was how you could tell it was one of mine”.[3] Eleven days after handing her daughter to Dyer, Evelina Marmon, whose name had emerged in items kept by Dyer, identified her daughter’s remains.[3]

Inquest and trial

At the inquest into the deaths in early May, no evidence was found that Mary or Arthur Palmer had acted as Dyer’s accomplices. Arthur Palmer was discharged as the result of a confession written by Amelia Dyer. In Reading gaol she wrote (with her own spelling and punctuation preserved):

Sir will you kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates on Satturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do know I shal have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in Heaven a on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither of them had any thing at all to do with it, they never knew I contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was to late I am speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be forgiven, I myself and I alone must stand before my Maker in Heaven to give a answer for it all witnes my hand Amelia Dyer.
April 16, 1896[9]

On May 22, 1896, Amelia Dyer appeared at the Old Bailey and pleaded guilty to one murder, that of Doris Marmon. Her family and associates testified at her trial that they had been growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged that Dyer had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions.[9] Evidence from a man who had seen and spoken to Dyer when she had disposed of the two bodies at Caversham Lock also proved significant. Her daughter had given graphic evidence that ensured Amelia Dyer’s conviction; it remains unclear why or how her daughter completely escaped punishment.[3]

The only defence Dyer offered was insanity: she had been twice committed to asylums in Bristol. However, the prosecution argued successfully that her exhibitions of mental instability had been a ploy to avoid suspicion; both committals were said to have coincided with times when Dyer was concerned her crimes might have been exposed.[2]

It took the jury only four and a half minutes to find her guilty. She was hanged by James Billington at Newgate Prison on Wednesday, June 10, 1896.[10]

Jill the Ripper?

Due to the fact that she was a murderer alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings, some have suggested that Amelia Dyer was Jack the Ripper, who killed the prostitutes through botched abortions. This suggestion was put forward by author William Stewart, although he preferred Mary Pearcey as his chosen suspect.[11] There is no evidence to connect Dyer to the Jack the Ripper murders.

Later developments

It is uncertain how many more children Amelia Dyer murdered. However, inquiries from mothers, evidence of other witnesses, and material found in Dyer’s homes, including letters and many babies’ clothes, pointed to many more.[2]

The Dyer case caused a scandal. She became known as the “Ogress of Reading”, and she inspired a popular ballad:

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 roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.[10]

Stricter adoption laws gave local authorities the power to police baby farms and stamp out abuse. Personal ads
of newspapers were to be scrutinised.[10]

The trafficking and abuse of infants did not stop. Two years after Dyer’s execution, railway workers inspecting carriages at Newton Abbot, Devon found a parcel. Inside was a three-week-old girl, but though cold and wet, she was alive. The daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, the baby had been given to a Mrs. Stewart, for £12. She had picked up the baby at Plymouth—and apparently dumped her on the next train. It has been claimed that “Mrs. Stewart” was the daughter of Amelia Dyer.[3]

Footnotes

  1. ^ “‘Baby Farming’ – a tragedy of Victorian times.”. Retrieved 2008-10-28
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Thames Valley Police Museum. Retrieved 2008-10-22
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s The baby butcher: One of Victorian Britain’s most evil murderers exposed“, Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-484575/The-baby-butcher-One-Victorian-Britains-evil-murderers-exposed.html, retrieved 2008-10-21 
  4. ^ “WHAT WERE GODFREY’S CORDIAL AND DALBY’S CARMINATIVE?, Pediatrics. Retrieved 2008-10-23
  5. ^ Opium and Infant Mortality Retrieved 2008-10-24
  6. ^ Quoted in: Opium and Infant Mortality Retrieved 2008-10-24
  7. ^ a b c Rose, Lionel (1986). The Massacre of the Innocents, Routledge, p.160
  8. ^ Rose, Lionel (1986). The Massacre of the Innocents, Routledge. [1] Retrieved 2008-10-24
  9. ^ a b , Thames Valley Police Museum, http://www.thamesvalley.police.uk/news_info/info/museum/dyer2.htm, retrieved 2008-10-23 
  10. ^ a b c Rose, Lionel (1986). The Massacre of the Innocents, Routledge, p.161
  11. ^ Stewart, William (1939), Jack The Ripper: A New Theory, Quality Press 

References

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