|Image attribution: By Wells Asylum authorities, 1893 (Wells Asylum, 1893)
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
In Victorian society, if a child was found to be illegitimate, then the father had no legal responsibilities. Furthermore, the woman would usually be sacked from any employment as soon as the fact became public knowledge. This left the mother-to-be in a virtually impossible situation. In many cases the only way she could keep her baby was to offer herself up for prostitution.
Where there is a problem to be solved there is usually also a profit to be made. A number of so-called 'baby farms' sprang up, ostensibly to help alleviate this social ill. They consisted of a person or group of people who were willing to essentially adopt newborn babies - in exchange for a fee of course. The struggling mother would either hand over her baby for temporary adoption in exchange for a weekly fee, or she would pay a one-off lump sum in exchange for permanent adoption of the child. The babies were often treated poorly; a large percentage would die. But there was one woman who would take baby farming to new, almost unimaginable levels of cruelty.
Amelia Dyer was a seemingly respectable woman of good parentage who was born in the English city of Bristol. She opened her own baby farm in the 1800s, drugging the babies in order to suppress their appetites and keep them quiet, maximizing her profits whilst minimizing her exertions. This abuse would often result in the death of the babies.
Eventually, Dyer allowed one baby too many to pass away before its time. She was arrested and sentenced to 6 months for child neglect.
Once she was a free woman again, Amelia Dyer spent a short while going in and out of psychiatric hospitals, before resuming her work as a baby farmer. But this time she worked with a different MO.
Instead of accepting a weekly fee for temporary adoptions, Dyer started demanding a one-off lump sum for permanent adoption. But once the money had changed hands, Dyer would strangle the infant and either dump his/her body in the River Thames or bury it in the garden of her rented accommodation. She moved around a lot to avoid detection, and operated under several assumed names for the same reason.
It is unclear just how many innocent babies this seemingly ordinary woman murdered. Some people estimate that it could have been as many as 300, or maybe even more. This would probably make her the most prolific serial killer in British history.
That a person could get away with killing hundreds of infants before she was finally caught shows that there was something seriously wrong with society in Victorian Britain. Thousands of children were dying in suspicious circumstances every year, but society as a whole did very little about it. It is shocking from our modern perspective to think of a time when the most vulnerable of our species were also the least protected. For more information about child abuse and how you can help to prevent it, visit the website of the NSPCC.
Amelia Dyer was eventually stopped after bodies were recovered in the River Thames that led back to her. She pleaded insanity, but this was rejected. She was executed by hanging in 1896.
You might also be interested in:
Madame LaLaurie, The Six Motivations of a Serial Killer, Richard Ramirez - The Night Stalker