Amelia Dyer may have started her career as respectfully as a “baby farmer” could, but her care soon transformed into terror for the poor infants she took under her wing. Years passed before the so-called caregiver was finally exposed as the Ogress of Reading—at which point she had claimed numerous young lives.
During the 19th century, adoption, foster care, and out-nursing were normal practices across England. Mothers and families paid these institutions to take in and care for their newborns. Often, this was done out of desperation; impoverished new mothers, unable to afford longterm childcare, would pay the comparatively lower charge to send away their child. Yet wealthier families also paid for such services. Sometimes, a newborn was sent away in secret, thus hiding the result of a scandalous or unwanted pregnancy. Other times, newborns were sent to nearby villages to be cared for in their early years, returning to the family when they were toddlers.
In a rather well known example, Jane Austen’s family was accustomed to sending their children to a “wet nurse” in a nearby village for the beginning months of an infant’s life. Jane spent more time than usual with her parents in the beginning but was in the care of a nurse for the first two years of her life. These wet nurses were reputable, a part of the family in many ways, and her mother and father visited regularly.
Later, James Edward Austen, Jane’s nephew, would write disapprovingly of this practice though he recognized the value in the out care system. Many babies who were provided for by a credible wet nurse would survive infancy in a time when this was not typical.
But not every institution was on the level. Infants who ended up at baby farms were frequently lost in the system. Others died of neglect—or worse. Once again, working class and single mothers were most likely to fall victim to these disreputable operations. Often, they could afford no other option.
Cue Amelia Dyer, one of the most infamous baby farmers of Victorian England. Amelia Hobley was born in a small village near Bristol in 1838. She was the daughter of a successful shoemaker and was privileged enough to learn to read and write at a time when the majority of women were illiterate. Later, she was trained as a nurse and soon began her adult life as a nurse and midwife.
At age 34, she married William Dyer, a brewers laborer from Bristol. William was her second husband—her first, much older husband had passed away in 1869. The Dyers had two children together, Mary Ann, who was better known as Polly, and William Samuel. Though she eventually left her husband and not much is known about her son, Polly became something of Dyer’s assistant.
Her life as a midwife proved to be an arduous one, and Dyer was not keen on continuing it. It did, however, lead to her next business venture. Her friend and fellow midwife, Ellen Dane, put an idea into Dyer’s head: Charging families to care for their infants was far easier—and more lucrative—than bringing the newborns into the world.
Working under numerous aliases Dyer put out ads in the newspaper offering a “nice family with no children, quaint country home, £10”. Unwed, desperate mothers responded to this seemingly respectable “Mrs. Harding” and be thrilled to find a good home for their children.
Dyer wrote back, assuring the mother that she would do her “duty by that dear child. I will be a mother, as far as lies in my power.” Once the mothers were put at ease, the baby and adoption fees were handed over. Regardless of what the mother wanted, Dyer always insisted on a full adoption with no further contact. Desperate, the mother relented.
It's unclear just when Dyer's operation turned deadly; records indicate she initially tried to care for the newborns she adopted. At some point, however, whether intentionally or not, the babies under her care began to die. A cruel math then materialized: the quicker a newly adopted infant died, the less money Dyer spent on care, and the more profit went into her pockets.
Where Dyer once assisted in the process of welcoming life, she soon felt more content in her role as an Angel of Death.
Eventually, however, one too many death certificates were issued to Dyer. A doctor grew suspicious, and authorities were alerted. In 1879, Dyer was arrested. At the time, she was charged with allowing children to die by neglect rather than manslaughter or murder. She was sentenced six months of hard labor—an experience she later claimed left her mentally ill.
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Once released, Dyer went in and out of mental hospitals. She also returned to baby farming. This time around, she took extra care to cover her tracks.
She no longer called for death certificates. Bodies were wrapped in bags, weighted down with bricks, and tossed into bodies of water. Dyer and her family frequently moved—through Bristol, Reading, Cardiff, and London, never remaining in one place for too long, never leaving a trace.
Until one cold March day in 1896.
A bargeman sending cargo up the Thames in Reading noticed a box lying along the riverbank. Upon further investigation, he discovered the body of an infant within. The bargeman called the police. They confirmed that the body was that of a little girl, between six and 12 months old.
They also discovered faint writing on the box that pointed to one “Mrs. Thomas” and a barely visible address.
On April 3, they raided this home. Upon entering, authorities were apparently hit by the stench of death, though no bodies were actually discovered on the premises. What they did find, however, was a mountain of evidence: telegrams about adoption arrangements and letters from concerned mothers inquiring about the health and safety of their children, receipts for newspaper adverts and pawn tickets for children's clothing, and edging tape used to strangle babies to death. Authorities estimated that upwards of 20 children had been in the care of this “Mrs. Thomas” within the last few months alone; all told, the death toll may have been as high as 400.
Authorities eventually connected the name and address to Amelia Dyer. She was tracked down, arrested, charged with murder and brought to Newgate Prison where her plea for insanity was rejected. After a jury meeting of just four minutes, Dyer was condemned. On June 10, 1896, Amelia Dyer was hanged outside the Newgate Prison.
Dyer’s disturbing story dominated headlines and soon led to stricter adoption laws. Unfortunately, the baby trafficking did not stop all together after this horrifying case. Polly, Dyer’s daughter who got off scot-free from any charges after her mother testified that Polly had never been involved, was rumored to continue in her mother’s scam after Amelia's hanging. A number of advertisements by a Mrs. Stewart for adoptable babies said “the little one would have a good home and a parent’s love and care.” Many observers believed that Mrs. Stewart was Polly’s pseudonym, following in the footsteps she knew so well.
Featured photo: Murderpedia; Additional photo: Alchetron