Warning: this article contains descriptions of violence against children.
This is the story of one of Britain’s most prolific murderers. With possible victims numbering upwards of 300. This is the story of Amelia Elizabeth Dyer.
Pyle Marsh, Bristol, United Kingdom. 1837.
Born into a well-to-do family, Amelia Hobley was the youngest of 5 children. Amelia had a deep love for poetry and literature, but her childhood was somewhat troubled due to the typhus (infectious disease) caused mental illnesses her mother, Sarah, suffered from. Sarah would at times have violent fits, and Amelia was left to take care of her until her ultimate death in 1848. Amelia also faced the death of two of her sisters in 1841 and 1845. After her mother’s death, Amelia moved in with an aunt in Bristol, she then went on to serve as a corset maker.
Bristol, United Kingdom, 1861.
Amelia marries George Thomas, a much older man. Both of them lie on their marriage certificate to lower the age gap. He was 59 at the time. She was 24. Amelia begins training as a nurse, which was a gruelling but respectable occupation in Victorian times. However, she soon learns from a midwife, named Ellen Dane, that she could make a much better living by opening her home to young unwed soon-to-be mothers then “farming” the babies for adoption.
In this time, unwed mothers suffered greatly. There was no legal obligation of fathers of illegitimate children, and many of them died in botched back-alley abortions. It wasn’t hard to adopt a or foster a child, so baby farming became a big business. Baby farmers either collected a recurrent payment for taking care of the baby or a one-off fee to take the baby off their hands. If a man of power wanted to keep his involvement hush, the fee was much higher.
Here’s the thing though, babies are hard to look after. They’re expensive. They’re loud. And they need to eat. Godfrey’s Cordial was a syrup that contained opium, it was a popular choice for baby farmers to shut up noisy and demanding babies. This also stopped the babies appetite, so they were easily starved to death.
Bristol, United Kingdom. 1869.
George Thomas dies and Amelia stops nursing due to the birth of her daughter. Amelia needs an income, and she knows exactly how to get it. Amelia was keen to take part in the business of baby farming. As a married, well-to-do woman, she was a trusted member of the community, so women trusted her with their children. She begins advertising to nurse pregnant unwed women and then adopt the baby after birth in return for a substantial one-off payment and clothing for the child. However, Amelia did not care for those children, she left them to die from neglect and starvation.
Bristol, United Kingdom. 1872.
Amelia marries William Dyer, they have two children. She also decides at some point that waiting for a baby to die of starvation takes far too long. After the receiving payments from mothers, she would murder the baby by overdosing them with Godfrey’s Cordial, then call the coroner to confirm the deaths.
1879 saw a doctor become suspicious about the number of deaths reported coming from the Dyer home. However, Amelia avoided a charge of manslaughter or murder and was instead charged with neglect.
Details start to get a bit fuzzy here. I mean, it’s historical crime, what do you expect?
Amelia’s six months in a labour camp apparently took a toll on her mental stability, and upon her release, she was in and out of mental hospitals. Amelia’s spells in the mental hospital tended to coincide with times she needed to “disappear”, having returned to baby farming after her time at the labour camp. But this time she had learnt her lesson, involving officials had given her away.
Amelia then began to dispose of the bodies herself. She wrapped the bodies in blankets and either buried them in her yard, hid them around town or threw them in the river. Ever the creative, she killed the babies in different ways each time so she wouldn’t draw any attention to herself by forming a pattern. Every time the authorities got on her tail, she feigned a mental breakdown and went back to the hospital. She was a known alcoholic and drug abuser, so when she attempted to commit suicide with opioids, she failed due to the fact she built up a tolerance over the years.
Amelia moved frequently, setting up new baby farms and new identities. This was an attempt to throw police off her trail, along with avoiding worried parents who attempted to be reunited with their children. Her own daughter, Polly, was involved in the murders and their cover-up.
River Thames, United Kingdom. 30 March 1896.
A bargeman was floating down the Thames when he fished a carpetbag out of the water, inside was a tiny body of a baby girl wrapped in packing paper, white tape around her neck. A policeman on the scene noticed that there was a faint name on the paper, Mrs Thomas and an address that led to Amelia Dyer.
Although police suspected Amelia, they had no concrete proof she was responsible for the murder of the baby girl. The police decided to use a decoy, a woman placed an ad in the local paper for a good home for her child, Amelia responded and walked right into a police ambush.
April 3, 1896. Her home was searched, and the stench of human decomposition could be smelt throughout the entire home. They also found letters from mothers wanting to see their children, which dressmakers tape similar to the tape around the babies neck and all other belongings packed as if Amelia was ready to move again. The Thames was dredged and six tiny bodies were found, the same white tape around their necks.
Newgate Prison, London, United Kingdom. June 10, 1896. 9am.
After a jury denied Amelia’s plead of insanity, it took them four minutes and a half minutes to find her guilty of murder. And on the morning of June 10, 1896, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hanged. 30 years of murder had come to an end. The estimate of babies who fell victim to Amelia was between 300 and 400. However, there is no knowing the true number, as only three of the bodies found were identified, and some mothers probably never knew the fate of their children.
Brightside of the Dark, but also some more of the dark.
After the trial of Amelia Dyer, and her subsequent hanging, adoption laws were toughened and baby farms were more closely monitored by authorities.
Two years after Amelia’s execution, a baby girl was found on a train carriage inside a package in Devon. She was cold and wet, but she was alive. This baby was the daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, and she had been given to a woman by the name of Mrs Stewart, who dumped her shortly after receiving payment for her. “Mrs Stewart” is believed to be Amelia’s daughter, Polly.