Amelia Dyer photographed shortly after her arrest. She is thought to have killed as many as 400 babies.
"The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss DyerAt the Old Bailey her wages is paid.In times long ago, we'd 'a' made a big fy-erAnd roasted so nicely that wicked old jade"~ Popular Ballad
The killing of children has always created a special category of revulsion in most people. While serial killers of adults such as Jack the Ripper obviously loom large in the imagination, the most virulent hatred is held for those such as Brady and Hindley or Robert Black who choose to murder children. But if there is one category beyond even this heinous crime it must surely be the murder of babies. Amelia Dyer - a largely forgotten figure today - was found guilty of murdering 6 babies, but is suspected of actually having a tally perhaps in the hundreds. Even in the grim world of serial murder, few have surpassed her crimes.
Born into a relatively well-to-do background near Bristol, she was the daughter of a master shoe maker and showed a keen interest in literature - particularly poetry. However, her early years were also blighted by her mother's ill health. Having contracted typhus, she developed severe mental difficulties, and young Amelie was forced to care for her as she slowly died, suffering from violent, raving fits.
She began her working life as an apprentice corset-maker but soon moved into nursing where she began to see new possibilities for herself away from the legitimate practice of medicine. Her murderous activities, however, did not begin in earnest until the death of her husband in 1869 when she faced poverty herself.
Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, fathers of illegitimate children no longer had to provide financial assistance to the mothers of their children. The lot of a poor, single woman was bleak enough in the mid 19th century, but the additional burden of bringing up a child was simply beyond the means of many. In response to this need, the shadowy practice of 'baby farming' grew.
Already it was relatively common for well-to-do women to give their children for temporary fostering at birth (Jane Austen was raised under such circumstances) but the practice spread slowly to be used as a cover for illegitimate children or, eventually, children that simply couldn't be afforded.
In exchange for a lump sum or periodic payment, baby farmers would take on babies on the promise that they would look after and care for the child. It did not take much imagination, however, to see that it would be more profitable for the baby to die as soon as possible. With infant mortality still vastly higher than today, and with many mothers simply not having any interest in their children having given them up, the temptation for baby farmers to let their young charges die was simply too much for several of them. Unregulated, unwatched and often untraceable, women like Dyer could acquire and dispose of babies with frightening ease.
For a wealthy woman seeking "adoption" for her baby, charges of up to £50 were common, but for those at the bottom strata of society - prostitutes and those bound to the workhouse - a baby could be removed for as a little as £5.
It was in this murky world that Dyer moved and soon began to extract the maximum possible profit from her terrible deeds. It was never established how many babies met their ends at her hands, but figures as high as 400 have been seriously suggested - which would make her Britain's deadliest ever killer, and among the worst the world has ever seen.
In 1879 she had her first brush with the law when a doctor became suspicious about the number of death certificates he had issued for children in Dyer's care. Somehow, she evaded a murder charge and served just 6 months for hard labour. Following this near-fatal encounter with the criminal justice system, she quickly realised that asking a doctor to certify death was foolish and began to dispose of her victims herself.
Over the next few years she moved frequently and changed names in order to avoid being detected. On several occasions she was admitted to asylums on displaying signs of insanity. Many at the time and since have commented how convenient it was for her to use this to escape investigation - especially as she had seen at first hand how a true case of insanity presented itself.
Finally, however, she was undone.
When the body of one of her victims was found floating in the Thames, enough information was gleaned from the baby's possessions and clothing to establish her identity. On the 3rd of April 1896, detectives raided her home and quickly uncovered evidence that hinted at the enormity of her crimes.
The house smelled strongly of decomposition - although no bodies were found. What was found, however, were pawn tickets for baby clothing, telegrams and adverts from people seeking 'adoption' and letters from mothers asking after the well being of the children they had left in Dyer's care. While she was charged with just one murder, police had found 6 bodies in the same stretch of the Thames - and it was apparent that given the time she had spent at large there were countless more that could never be accounted for.
Faced with the mountain of evidence she pleaded guilty, and a jury agreed with her plea after just 4 and a half minutes of deliberation. On the 10th June, 1896, Britain's most prolific serial killer was hanged from the Newgate gallows.