During Victorian Era England filicide was at an all time high. After Parliament passed a law ruling that women who bore children out of wedlock were immoral and that fathers of illegitimate children had absolutely no responsibility in providing for their child, a rise in infant death and the use of what were called “baby farms” – similar to what we know as foster homes today – skyrocketed. Having nowhere to turn to, mothers of these illegitimate children often took up residency in these baby farms until it was time to have their child. After the child was born they either left and went into hiding with the child, paid a nominal fee for the child to be raised at the baby farm, or worst – had the child “disposed of”.
With her husband dead and left to raise her child on her own, Amelia Dyer saw baby farming as a lucrative business opportunity. Amelia had prior experience working as a nurse and midwife in a hospital and soon took to the classified ads to advertise her services. She took her own child to a baby farm to be cared for before taking in the infants. Since running a baby farm would require Dyer to travel frequently in order to meet with new clients, she decided that it would be best to have her daughter placed elsewhere.
For a fee, Dyer would take in pregnant women and for an additional fee Dyer agreed to nurse and care for the child or place the child up for adoption. She assured the young mothers that she would provide a safe and loving home for their new addition, however, things were all but safe or loving under Dyer’s care.
In the beginning she would often neglect and underfeed the children, allowing them to slowly starve to death. Feeding the children a common colic remedy made from laudanum (a liquid opiate) and brandy, a remedy in which she was known to use herself on a daily basis, in order to quiet their cries. Eventually the children would succumb to starvation or disease and the process would repeat itself. Dyer also found that smothering a child at the moment he or she began to exit the mother’s womb, making it appear that the child had been stillborn, was an efficient method to quickly dispose of the children and pocket the fees.
Eventually Mrs. Dyer took to murdering the children outright. Operating under a number of different pseudonyms, the moment Dyer collected her fees from the mother and was left with the child, she would wrap the tiny infant up in a parcel package and drowned it in the river. Other times it is believed that she would allow the infant to decompose before throwing the remains into the Thames, so that authorities would have no way to connect the dead infant to Dyer.
Spending her days in and out of mental institutions, Dyer was able to easily elude police once it was necessary for her to disappear by feigning mental disturbances. Though there were several close calls once concerned mothers came back to Dyer hoping to check in with their children, there was never enough evidence to link Dyer to murder. Fearing the exposure of her dastardly business after the prosecution and subsequent hanging of another baby farmer, Dyer attempted to go back to nursing, but before she had a chance the law finally caught up with her.
A doctor had reported Dyer to the police based on the suspicious number of deaths he was called to confirmed for children in her care, however, Dyer was only sentenced to six months hard labor for child negligence. Dyer emerged from prison mentally broken, but instead of returning to nursing as she originally planned, she went right back to baby farming and murdering infants for money.
One of the few documented cases against Dyer was the murder of baby Doris Marmon. Doris was born illegitimately to a young barmaid and was quickly placed up for adoption. Doris’ mother, Evelina, reached out to a woman named “Mrs. Harmon”, whom had placed an ad in the newspaper expressing an interest in adopting a child.
“Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10”
-Ad placed in the Bristol Times & Mirror by Amelia Dyer (AKA Mrs. Harding)
Dyer quickly responded to Marmon’s inquiry and said she would be delighted to take in her infant daughter. Marmon only wanted to board the girl on a week-to-week basis, but Dyer insisted that she pay her all the fees outright. Having little other options, Marmon agreed to Dyer’s terms. Devastated about the decision to give up her daughter, Marmon accompanied Dyer on the train back to where the infant would be living in Reading.
Dyer did not take the child to Reading, as she had told Marmon. Instead she took the infant to the home where her daughter, Polly, was staying. Now 23-years-old, Polly assisted her mother in wrapping dress making tape around the 18-month-old’s neck. Amelia was later quoted as saying “I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them.” Then the two women wrapped the dead infant in a napkin and doled out the infant’s clothing to friends as gifts.
When another child arrived a week later there was not enough tape left to wrap around his tiny neck. Amelia took the tape from the body of little Doris Marmon, left to decompose in the home of Ameila’s daughter Polly, and strangled the infant. Both bodies where stuffed into a bag, along with some bricks, and tossed into the River Thames like the many other babies that came before them.
Amelia Dyer’s downfall wouldn’t occur until March 30, 1896. A package recovered by a bargeman containing the body of an infant, identified as Helena Fry, along with the address of a woman named “Mrs. Thomas”. Police were able to track the package to Dyer, but there was still not enough evidence for a conviction. Using an undercover decoy, a young woman agreed to meet with Dyer to discuss the adoption of her child. Instead of the young woman Dyer was expecting, she was met with detectives on her doorstep.
The detectives were overcome with the sour stench of death upon entering Dyer’s home. No bodies were found, but other evidence including pawn tickets for children’s clothing , newspaper advertisement receipts, as well as correspondence letters from mothers inquiring on the health and well-being of their children were found in Dyer’s possession.
Arrested on May 4, 1896. At least 30 children were known to be in the care of “Mrs. Thomas”, later identified as Ameila Dyer, in the months before she was arrested. It is unknown exactly how many infants were murdered under Dyer’s care, but it’s been estimated to be somewhere between 300-400, making her not only the most prolific murderess but most prolific serial killer of all time.
Amelia Dyer plead guilty to the murder of Doris Marmon and was sentenced to hang after her plea of insanity was overruled. In the three weeks awaiting execution, Dyer filled three notebooks with writing, which she titled her “Last True and Only Confession”. On June 10, 1896, when the executioner came to get Dyer for her final stroll to the gallows he asked if she had anything to confess, she handed over the books and remarked “isn’t this enough?”. At exactly 9 AM the body of Amelia Dyer swung from the gallows pole, unable to ever lay harm to another child again.