Human kind often remembers the horrors of the world. We hold on to them as reminders of our past and as preventative measures for our future. So in Victorian Britain when the unheard cries of hundreds of new-borns were muffled to sleep only to ignite mass public outrage, why have we now forgotten them? We all know of the horrific crimes of Jack the Ripper, the inhumane acts of Sweeny Todd, but what of the crimes of the vile and loathsome Amelia Dyer? Killing what is estimated to be around 400 babies in her 30 years of crime, provoking mass media attention, immense public outcry and the toughening of adoption and child protection laws.
Figure 1: Most famous picture of Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer whose birth name is Hobley, was born into a loving and caring family in Bristol in 1837, the youngest of 5 siblings to a shoemaker and his wife. After the death of Amelia’s mother (from mental illness) and her father, Amelia leaves the family home and moves to Trinity Street where she marries 59 year old George Thomas. George Thomas passed away shortly after the birth of their daughter leaving Amelia without any means of income. From this point onwards Amelia Hobley became Amelia Dyer, to Amelia Smith, using a number of aliases to commit her horrendous crimes.
Amelia would target unmarried pregnant women who wanted to give their babies up for adoption. Working class unmarried women with children had very little chances of survival without having to resort to begging or prostitution in order to provide for themselves and their family, even the workhouses would often turn them away. These women would give Amelia Dyer a fixed sum of £10 to adopt their babies in the hope that they would receive a better life with her than they would with themselves, but they were sadly mistaken. Within a few hours of taking their money, Amelia would strangle the infants to death with white duct tape to then wrap them in parcel paper and either throw them in The River Thames or bury them in the garden of her current rented accommodation. Occasionally Amelia would dispose of the babies straight away, but often she would wrap the babies up and allow them to decompose so they wouldn’t be traced back to her if they were found.
Dyer continued this vicious cycle until the 30TH March 1896 when a man was taking his cargo down the River Thames at Reading when he found a parcel floating in the water. As he opened the parcel he uncovered a tiny baby girl with duct tape wrapped round her ear twice and knotted under left ear, dead from suffocation. The man alerted Reading police who began an investigation on the death of the baby girl. The address on the parcel paper that the baby was wrapped in led the police to a midwife who was described by her co-workers as “motherly” and “homely” but what was discovered at her home was not at all what she suggested to society.
Figure 2: Newspaper clipping of Dyer's story
Dyer’s house was filled with evidence ranging from numerous vaccination papers to large bundles of baby clothes alongside pawn tickets for them. The police found dozens of newspaper advertisements, letters and receipts regarding adoption using a number of names including Harding and Smith. As the police further searched Dyer’s home the smell from the kitchen was becoming incredibly pungent. Inside the kitchen the smell of rotting flesh filled their noses and a baby farm of dead infants was discovered. The police ordered an immediate dragging operation in Dyer’s home which attracted the first of its media attention and public interest as onlookers stayed to see the commotion. As the body count rose to 50 babies, Amelia told Reading Police “You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”. The depraved and inhumane acts of Dyer had finally been caught after 30 long years of cruel murder.
On the 18th of May Dyer was charged with the wilful murder of Doris Marmon, the five month old girl found in the Thames River. Amelia Dyer had posed as Mrs Harding looking to foster the child of Evelina Marmon, Evelina told Reading Police “She appeared to be an affectionate woman… I was satisfied with her looks”. The next time Evelina saw her baby daughter was to identify her corpse. Dyer was hanged for her crimes “On account of her weight and the softness of the textures, rather a short drop was given. It proved to be quite sufficient.” - Newgate Gail on June 10, 1896.
Figures 3 and 4: Police report including Dyer and Marmon's statement
Further investigation into Dyer’s case showed that she had made her way through Bristol, Reading, Liverpool and even Plymouth. Dyer had opened a house of confinement in Bristol to keep and charge pregnant women who could not hide their pregnancies any longer as well as killing some babies at birth per request of the mothers as many coroners could not distinguish between suffocation and death at childbirth. As if Dyer’s reign of terror couldn’t end, she also fostered children for a weekly fee and starved the children by providing them with their daily doses of liquid opiate, laudanum known as “the quietness which stifled the appetites of the children as well as their cries to make a profit which lead Dyer to her first encounter with the British legal system as she received 6 month imprisonment for child neglect. Once she had been released, she changed her twisted game plan to simply adopting and murdering the children. Even with an estimated minimum of 1 child per month, in her 30 years of crime this will reach a total of 360 babies.
Sadly in Victorian Britain dead infants littering its cities was too commonplace to be reported, and endemic infanticide had become the solution to drive away illegitimacy. Legislation at the time benefitted males as it removed financial obligation from fathers, leaving the mothers to handle the burden of a child and the label of an unmarried mother in a society who was not kind or accepting of it.
So why was this forgotten? Why within all the commotion of male murderers in a society growing in the empowerment of women and the acceptance of male responsibility of crime was this horrendous person forgotten? Under all the societal advancements with women’s rights and avocation for the voices unheard the fault in our legal system, society’s treatment of unmarried mothers, and the hundreds of infants’ cries were forgotten.
Figure 1: http://24tanzania.com/britains-worst-ever-serial-killer-the-victorian-angel-of-death-that-murdered-400-babies/
Figure 2: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2283302/Britains-worst-serial-killer-The-Victorian-angel-death-murdered-400-babies.html
Figures 3 and 4: http://www.getreading.co.uk/news/berkshire-history/victorian-crime-reading-amelia-dyer-9578906