Today in Crime History: Witchcraft, and Baby Farming

Amelia Dyer

On June 10, 1632 Bridget Bishop became the first of 72 people to be tried and executed for witchcraft during what would later be known as the Salem witch trials.  

Also on this day in criminal history in 1896, Amelia Dyer–the most prolific baby farm murderer of Victorian England–was put to death by hanging in Newgate Prison in London.

Dyer was keen to make money from baby farming, and alongside taking in expectant women, she would advertise to nurse and adopt 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, and that she would provide a safe and loving home for the child.

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.

For some time, Dyer eluded the resulting interest of police. 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. The experience allegedly almost destroyed her mentally, though others have expressed incredulity at the leniency of the sentence when compared to those handed out for lesser crimes at that time.Upon release, she attempted to resume her nursing career. Dyer had spells in mental hospitals due to her alleged mental instability and suicidal tendencies; these always coincided with times when it was convenient for her to “disappear”.

Being a former asylum nurse Amelia knew how to behave to ensure a relatively comfortable existence as an asylum inmate. Dyer appears to have begun abusing alcohol and opium-based products early in her killing career; her mental instability could have been related to her substance abuse. In 1890, Dyer cared for the illegitimate baby of a governess. When she returned to visit the child, the governess was immediately suspicious and stripped the baby to see if a birthmark was present on one of its hips. It wasn’t, and prolonged suspicions by the authorities led to Dyer having, or feigning, a breakdown.

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 frequently relocated to different towns and cities to escape suspicion, regain anonymity—and to acquire new business.

Dyer’s 23-year-old daughter Polly was often an accomplice in the murders. One method of killing Dyer was fond of was to take white edging tape used in  dressmaking tape and wind it twice around a baby’s neck and tie a knot. Death would not have been immediate. (Dyer later said “I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them”).

Dyer was eventually arrested and charged with murder on April 4th, 1896. Although the killings of 247 children were attributed to Dyer it is estimated her actual body-count is in excess of 400.

Because she was a murderer alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings, some have suggested that Amelia Dyer was Jack the Ripper, (Jill the Ripper?)who killed the prostitutes through botched abortions. There is, however, no evidence to connect Dyer to the Jack the Ripper murders.

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One Response to Today in Crime History: Witchcraft, and Baby Farming

  1. John Washamn says:

    Will Crooks MP when he was with the London County Council delivered a killer blow against Baby Farming in London after the public outcry over the Amelia Dyer case. There’s a whole chapter about it in this book if anyone is interested. It’s a fascinating look at Victorian London. Will Crooks was sent to a Victorian workhouse as a boy and then grew into a social reformer who among other things humanized and reformed that very workhouse system. The book is ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way. The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP’. It’s on amazon or there is more info on Crooks on the author’s website: http://www.jimsbooksite.com/read-more-about-will–sample-chapter.html

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