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Amelia Dyer: The Nurse Who Killed Babies for Business

BY Bir Singh July 19, 2019
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Amelia Dyer.

Amelia Dyer. (Wells Asylum authorities / Wikimedia Commons)

The reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901) is generally seen as the period of all-round peace and progress in British History, except for one blemish. The ruling, that a child born out of wedlock would have no paternal rights. The law was made to discourage illegitimacy. But it ended up putting unwed mothers, and their newborns, on a slippery road. Baby care centers, called baby-farms, sprang up in huge number, promising to bring up such children on a contract fee. Some mothers desired death for baby, setting in motion the practice of killing babies covertly, and showing it as a natural death. Amelia Dyer was one such baby-farmer who was caught, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Eventful childhood, unconventional marriage and career shift from nursing to baby farming

Born in Bristol, England in 1836, Amelia grew up in a well to do family. When she was 10 years old, her mother died following a spell of mental illness. Amelia then moved to live with her aunt. At 24, she married a much older man (59 years old) and thereafter got trained in nursing. She began her nursing career with a midwife, Ellen Danes, who worked as a baby – farmer.

Amelia’s husband, George Thomas, died in 1869 and the charge of raising their young child fell on her. The 1836 act of Parliament absolving men of any accountability towards illegitimate children had left unmarried mothers high and dry. They could either kill their newborn, become prostitutes for survival or seek help from baby farmers. Most turned to baby farms. Widowed Dyer saw better prospects in baby farming and settled down into this business.

Baby farming was more about disposing of babies than good care of them

The underbelly of baby farming was an open secret. Many ladies would want their child smothered during delivery and shown born-dead. If the midwife didn’t agree to do this, the baby farm was their next choice. At the baby farm, the newborn was ill-treated, doped and starved to death. As greed overtook business, quick death by strangulating and other means became frequent. That spared money that would otherwise be spent on children, howsoever miserly. Dyer took sadistic delight in choking her charge and see them gasp to death. Mothers who really cared for their children were given evasive replies. When pressure from mothers mounted, baby farmers would run away to an undisclosed location.

Cashing in on her image as a female nurse, Dyer killed babies unchecked

Dyer’s deceit worked for 30 long years, thanks to her feminine gender and nursing profession. Getting married for a second time and bearing 2 more children didn’t change her ways. She spent time in mental asylum feigning madness, shifted places, and changed names; all to escape the law. But a doctor, in 1879, pinned her down. Alarmed at a number of death certificates she wanted for children in her care, he suspected foul play and reported the matter to Police. Dyer, surprisingly, wasn’t charged for murder. She was only charged for neglecting her duty and sentenced to a 6-month jail term. However, that didn’t deter her. She came out of the jail like a hardened criminal and decided to remain away from doctors in future.

Discarding babies in river Thames proved to be her undoing

A clever and long inning in crime ended in 1896. Dyer was then living with her daughter Polly and son-in-law at Readings, Berkshire. On March 30th, a package was seen floating in river Thames. On inspection, it revealed the corpse of a human baby wrapped in a paper carrying name and address of Mrs. Thomas. That was her identity with respect to her first husband. On given address, the neighbors redirected cops to Kensington Road, Reading, the new address of Dyer.

Search at Dyer’s house revealed incriminating evidence. These included dressmaker’s tape, purchase of baby clothes, ads inviting mothers to baby farm, correspondence related to adoption and mothers inquiring welfare of their wards. There were no dead or living children in the house, but in some corners, the stench of dead bodies prevailed. In the meanwhile, River Thames was extensively searched and many more cadavers recovered.

Accepted her crime in all humility

Stunned Dyer had little to say in her defence. All bodies recovered from the river weren’t her doing, she said. Only those with white tape around the neck were her victims, she blurted. The truth weighed heavy on her mind as her sins stared her in the face. She had taken care to attach weights to bodies trashed in the river. Obviously, weights weren’t heavy enough to sink babies deep. Bodies floated on the surface, and Dyer was fixed. She confessed to her crime and was awarded capital punishment. Convinced that her end was justified, she wrote a detailed confessional statement while interned in jail. When asked about her last-wish as she walked to gallows, she said her confessional statement was enough for her last wish.

Her death restored human rights of the illegitimate children

It was saving grace for Dyer that her daughter and son-in-law were not convicted along with her. She pleaded vehemently for their release saying she alone, and none else was guilty of killing babies. Two years after her execution though, her daughter Polly’s name surfaced in a case of ‘baby disposal’. But by and large, by then, it was a safer environment for illegitimate children. Local authorities were empowered to monitor baby farms and the adoption laws were made more stringent. By the dawn of the 20th century, the British Parliament was forced to ensure that illegitimate children got financial security and other rights from their biological fathers.

Though Dyer was formally charged with 14 murders, experts believe she killed more than 400 children. And that made her Britain’s most notorious serial killer.


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