In the early 1800s, having children out of wedlock was a scandal, one that could ruin a woman’s reputation.
Young, poor women were all too eager to give up their babies to those who had the means to care for it. “The Child Protection Act” had not yet been established in England so unregulated “adoption” known as “baby farming” was a huge hit until suddenly, the infant mortality rate in Britain skyrocketed and the police quickly tuned attention to one of the longest working baby farmers, Amelia Dyer. She is suspected to have murdered hundreds of babies in the 19th century. Her crimes would shock a nation and shine a light on the Victorian practice of “baby farming.”
The Baby Farmer
In Victorian England, “Baby farming” was a common practice. During a time when single mothers were barred from the workplace, they had few options: prostitution, starvation, or “getting rid” of the baby. “Baby farmers” were a godsend for these women who would take the children off their hands and provide them with a life the mother could never have afforded. Unfortunately, this practice was terribly unregulated, and it wasn’t uncommon for children to pass away in the care of the “baby farmers.” With no one keeping track of the unwanted children, it would allow a great evil to take advantage of this practice.
Amelia Hobley was born in a small village near Bristol in 1837. The youngest of five children, she grew up in a middle-class family and was privileged enough to learn how to read and write at a time when most women were illiterate. Her life appeared perfect to the outside observer but later, she would claim that her childhood was traumatic due to her mother’s alleged mental illness. She claimed have to watched her mother succumb to violent outburst and forced to care for her. That was until Amelia was freed from caring for her mother in 1848, when she died.
After her mother’s death, Amelia moved in with her aunt and received an apprenticeship with as corset maker. In 1859, her father passed away. In two years, Amelia was completely estranged from her siblings and moved into a lodge in Bristol where she met her first husband, George Thomas. He was 59 while Amelia was just 24, the couple decided to lie about their real ages on the marriage certificate to close the gap.
Amelia trained to become a nurse and started the next chapter of her life as a midwife. A grueling profession, it was a respectable one that seemed to help Amelia on a path to a content life. That all changed when she met Ellen Dane who showed an easier and a more profitable way to make a living by using her own home as a haven for women conceiving illegitimately. Dane would farm the babies off for adoption, if the child was too much of a hassle to deal with, there were ways of making that child not be a problem anymore.
At the time, it was nearly impossible for unmarried women to find work, since the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 had removed the financial obligation from fathers of illegitimate children. This made women who were accidentally pregnant solely responsible for the wellbeing of their baby, which led to the practice of “baby farming.” It allowed individuals to act as unofficial adoption centers. Many of these businesses were set up as temporary sanctuaries where unwed, pregnant women could be taken care of until they gave birth. The mothers would leave their newborns in the hands of the nurses who hosted them.
Of course, all of this help came with a price.
The “baby farmers” required payment for taking in the mothers and their babies, in return the women would have to provide either regular or single payments. It was not unusual for “baby farmers” to exploit mothers for financial gain. For instance, if a pregnant woman came from a wealthy family, the single fee could be as much as £80 ($8,000.)
Since this form of “adoption” was ungoverned, it led numerous immoral caregivers to resort to vile acts in order to save money. They would go as far as to hasten the deaths of the babies if they became a nuisance. In most cases, there was an unspoken understanding between the farmers and the mothers. The bleak conditions that come with growing up in a working-class environment and for an unwanted child, the chances of survival were very slim.
It was a common practice among the farmers to use an easily available form of alcohol and/or opiates to quiet the noisy and challenging babies. A syrup containing opium, Godfrey’s Cordial – more commonly called “mother’s friend” – was a favorite among them, as it was a convenient way of silencing children but not without consequence. Many children died as a result of the sedative.
According to Dr. Greenhow, who was investigating the rise in infanticide at the time, “opium killed far more infants through starvation than directly through overdose,” he noted that the children were,
“kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished. Marasmus, or inanition, and death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was likely to record the death as ‘debility from birth,’ or ‘lack of breast milk,’ or simply ‘starvation.’”
To prevent suspicion, the farmers would make it very difficult for the mothers who chose to reclaim or simply check on the welfare of their children. Many would be too scared or ashamed to tell authorities, even if they did, it was nearly impossible to trace any missing children.
A Trend in Infanticide
It would be after the birth of her daughter and death of her first husband that Amelia was finally incentivized to begin a career as a baby farmer. It wasn’t long before she remarried a brewing laborer from Bristol: William Dyer.
Amelia began advertising her services as a farmer. In her meetings with the young mothers, she would assure them that their children would be in very good hands. Once she was paid and given the child, however, it was only a matter of time. Within days or hours, she would commit the murder either by: starving the child, giving opiates, or by strangulation
Amelia would travel between Bristol and Reading in Berkshire, charging anywhere between £10 and £80 for her services. She was able to elude the police for some time, but was eventually caught for the first time in 1879 after a doctor grew suspicious about the number of child death occurring under her care. Instead of being convicted of murder, she was charged with neglect and was only sentenced to six months of hard labour. Despite that it was a considerably smaller sentence, she claimed the experience almost mentally destroyed her.
Dyer returned to nursing upon her release. Every once and awhile, she stayed in mental hospitals for alleged mental instability and suicidal inclinations. All of her stays coincided with convenient times to “vanish” due to continued suspicion of child neglect crimes. Dyer had some history with alcohol and opiate abuse that could have assisted in the progression of her supposed mental illness. In 1895, she started disposing of the bodies in the River Thames.
This would be her downfall.
A Gruesome Discovery
In March 1896, police fished out a strange brown paper parcel from the Thames. After unraveling layers of linen and newspaper, there was the partially-decayed infantile body of Helena Fry. Her cause of death was believed to be strangulation since white tape was wrapped around her throat.
It was a horrifying discovery, but a necessary one. Upon further examination of the parcel, police spotted a stamp with Amelia’s married name and a former address. When the authorities arrived at her house, they were struck by the smell of human decomposition. They found piles of baby clothing hidden, unanswered letters from mothers inquiring about their children, and white edging tape that was identical to the tape found around Fry’s neck.
Although, bodies weren’t found in her house, Amelia was arrested and charged with murder. Soon after her arrest, six more little bodies were dredged from the Thames with the exact same tape around the necks.
Her trial was held in the summer of 1896. Since there was almost no way for her to deny the crimes, her defense tried to argue insanity. The prosecution, however, contested that supposed “mental illness” was a lie she used to ward off suspicion.
It took the jury four and a half minutes to find her guilty, then she was sentenced her to death.
It is impossible to determine how many children were killed during Amelia’s 30 years as a “baby farmer,” but experts claimed that she could have murdered as many as 400 children.
In 1896, she was hanged. On the scaffold, she was asked if she had any last words. She replied, “I have nothing to say.”