Amelia Dyer: The Victorian Baby Farmer
She called herself an ‘angel maker’ and claimed that she was sending unwanted and unloved children home to Jesus. Her contemporaries called her the ‘Ogress of Reading’, sickened by her heinous crimes. Today we call her a ‘serial killer’. Amelia Dyer, Victorian baby farmer, murderess and unlikely suspect in the quest to discover the true identity of ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Dyer’s Early Life
Born Amelia Hobley in 1836, Dyer came from a small village near Bristol, England. Her father was a master shoemaker with his own shop. Dyer lived a life more fortunate than many in Victorian Britain. She was fed, clothed and educated, developing a love of literature. Sadly, her mother became seriously ill with the side effects of typhus and was driven mad. The young Amelia was expected to tend to her ailing parent, enduring her violent rages and frequently being beaten. It has been suggested that the seeds of Dyer’s own later violence and insanity were sewn at this time. When her mother passed away, ten year old Amelia was sent to live with an aunt in Bristol. As a teenager she became apprenticed to a corset maker and her life seemed to be following a mundane but respectable route. At twenty four she met and married a man much older than herself, George Thomas. Early in that marriage, Dyer made a decision that was to change the course of her life and seal the fate of hundreds of children, she decided to train as a nurse.
A Change of Occupation
At the start of her nursing career, Dyer was introduced to a midwife, Ellen Danes. Danes made her living as a baby farmer. When Amelia was left widowed and with a young child in 1869, she realised that, like her friend, she could make a better living taking in illegitimate children. Baby farming as an industry received a huge boost when an 1834 Act of Parliament absolved men of any responsibility towards their illegitimate children.This left unmarried mothers in a terrible predicament. For most there were only three choices, starvation, the workhouse or a baby farm.
What Was Baby Farming?
Baby farmers plied their trade through the newspapers of the day. An advertisement was placed by the baby farmer purporting to be one half of a respectable married couple willing to adopt or foster a young child. Of course there was a fee to be paid.The more worldly wise understood that this was often code for the disposal of an infant. If a desperate woman couldn’t find a midwife willing to smother her child at birth, a baby farm where the child was drugged and starved was an alternative. Sadly, many women in their naïveté took the advertisements at face value and believed they were doing what was best for their child. After a few weeks some would receive a letter informing them their baby had died of natural causes. Others would turn up months later to visit or collect their infant only to discover the baby farmer had disappeared into the night.
A Long Career
Dyer’s career was long and very profitable spanning thirty years. During that period she is suspected of killing over 400 children. Even childbirth and marriage did little to slow her in her tracks. In 1872 Amelia married William Dyer and gave birth to two more children, Mary Ann (known as Polly) and William. Moving from town to town, she sometimes spent short periods in mental asylums, usually at times when it was convenient for her to lie low. Whether she was genuinely ill is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is Dyer’s increasing confidence and cruelty. When drugging and starving babies proved too time consuming and expensive, she resorted to suffocation or strangulation. Within hours of collecting a baby, Dyer would murder them. By 1879, her sick trade was thriving. Dyer moved confidently about the country renting properties and farming babies before moving on. In 1879 however, she came to the attention of a doctor. Suspicious about the number of death certificates he was asked to sign for young babies in the nurse’s care, he reported her to the police and she was arrested. Astonishingly, Dyer was only found guilty of neglect and sentenced to six months hard labour. When she was released she returned immediately to baby farming but was careful never to involve a doctor again.
Caught at Last
By 1896, Dyer, her daughter Polly and son-in-law Arthur had moved to a house in Reading. On 30 March, a bargeman on the nearby River Thames retrieved a parcel floating on the water. Inside was the body of a baby, later identified as Helena Fry. The child had been strangled using white dressmakers’ tape. Dyer had made a fatal mistake by not weighting the parcel but worse she had failed to remove a scrap of paper bearing the name and address of one of her pseudonyms. Dyer sometimes reverted back to the name of her first husband and called herself Mrs.Thomas. When detectives visited the property, neighbours directed them to Dyer’s new residence on Kensington road, Reading. Inside the house police found yards of white dressmakers’ tape, pawn tickets for baby clothes, receipts for newspaper advertisements, telegrams arranging adoptions and letters from mothers enquiring after the welfare of their children. There were no children in the house but a large trunk and the kitchen pantry reeked with the overwhelming stench of death. The River Thames was dredged and more bodies were retrieved. Realising that she was not responsible for all of the discovered bodies the wicked baby farmer pointed out that she was only guilty of the babies strangled with white tape. Dyer was arrested and confessed to murder but not before she convinced police that her daughter and son-in-law were not involved in her crimes. She was hanged on the 10th June at Newgate Prison, her death commemorated in rhyme.
The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid
In times long ago, we’d made a big fire
And roasted so nicely, that wicked old jade
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Amelia Dyer went to the gallows knowing that her daughter had been spared prosecution. Was she the innocent her mother portrayed? The answer is probably no.Two years after her mother’s death a parcel was discovered on a train from Bristol to London. The parcel contained a new born babe, still alive. The infant was eventually traced back to its mother, Jane Hill. The desperate young woman had handed over her baby to a Mr. and Mrs. Stewart along with the sum of £12. The Stewarts were eventually unmasked as Dyer’s daughter Polly and her son-in-law Arthur.
Jill the Ripper
In 1888, the Whitechapel area of London was terrorised by a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’. The identity of the deranged murderer has never been discovered but this hasn’t stopped Ripperologists throwing hundreds of names into the hat. Most of these names have been men. Astonishingly, a growing number of people are now convinced that Jack was in fact a female serial killer, ‘Jill the Ripper’. Surprisingly,this is not a new theory but one put forward by a leading detective right in the midst of the Ripper investigation itself.
“Do you think that it could be a case not of Jack the Ripper but Jill the Ripper?”— Detective Abberline 1888
The Evidence for a Female Killer
It was the murder of the Ripper’s last known victim, Mary Jane Kelly, that threw up the notion of a female killer. A reliable witness and close friend of the victim, Caroline Maxwell, swore that she had seen her friend walking briskly down a Whitechapel street hours after she was murdered and mutilated in her lodgings. How could this be? One answer, concluded Detective Abberline (an officer investigating the case) was that Maxwell had seen, not Kelly but another woman wearing Kelly’s clothes. Evidence from the scene of Kelly’s death goes some way to support this theory. A bundle of womens’ clothes, including a hat, were found smouldering in the grate of Kelly’s small fireplace. Her friends swore that the clothes were not Kelly’s, what is more she had never owned a hat. Had the blood soaked killer been forced to swap her own clothes with the victim’s in order to escape?
Profile of a Female Killer
In his 1939 book ‘Jack the Ripper: A New Theory’, William Stewart attempts to build a profile of a female killer. He concludes that the most likely murderer was a midwife and back street abortionist. A Victorian midwife would know how to render a woman unconscious within seconds using pressure points on the neck. She would also be able to walk down the streets of Whitechapel soaked in blood without raising suspicion. What motive could a midwife have for committing such terrible murders?Stewart theorised that she had been betrayed to the law by a woman and was seeking revenge. Further evidence possibly pointing to a female killer working as a midwife include,
- The basic knowledge of anatomy required to mutilate the victims. In three cases the uterus was removed
- The fact that none of the victims were sexually assaulted
- Scratches made to the victims bodies by somebody with long nails
- Three ladies boot buttons found near one victim who was wearing laced up boots herself
- The neat pile of clothes folded at Annie Chapman’s feet ‘in a typically feminine manner’
Amelia Dyer is certainly a strong candidate to be ‘Jill the Ripper’. She lived in the Whitechapel area at different points in her life. A trained nurse and midwife, she had the skills and knowledge to remove the organs of her mutilated victims. For periods of time she was an inmate of various mental hospitals and was certainly psychologically unstable. She deeply resented her treatment as a child by her maniacal mother but managed to repress her resentment while her mother was alive. Did her hatred spill over as an adult, urging her to seek her revenge on other women? Most damning though is Dyer‘s psychopathic personality. A woman without conscience, pity or remorse who could flick out an innocent life for a £10 note. She was surely more than capable of slitting the throats of the women in Victorian society who were the lowest of the low, the prostitutes who walked the streets of London.
Could Jack the Ripper be a Woman?
Jill the Ripper. Was Jack the Ripper a Deranged Midwife? (whitechapeljack.com)
The Jack the Ripper Tour
Jill the Ripper -Jim Mitchell (sbs.com.au)
The Daily Mail
Thames Valley Police Museum
Amelia Dyer: the woman who murdered 300 babies -Alison Dyer (The Independent)
BBC News- Sarah Lee