Amelia Dyer’s Horrific Crimes Prove Need For Women To Have Control Over Their Bodies
There can be few more difficult things imaginable than handing your child over to the care of a stranger, saying a silent prayer for the life you won’t see unfold. Hoping, despite yourself, that you will one day meet again.
But for many poor, desperate women in the Victorian era, there was no other choice. There were many reasons why a woman might give up her child, putting her trust in those who promised them a way forward. A way that wasn’t headed towards the workhouse or a cold bed on a dirty street.
And so it was that a monster like Amelia Dyer arose, a nightmarish figure made possible by the restrictive, patriarchal society that kept women from having any real power or agency of their own. The same moralising society that would later ring its hands over her diabolically unfeminine crimes.
By the time Dyer swung from a rope at Newgate Prison on the morning of June 10, 1896, it’s believed she had murdered between 200 and 400 children over a 30 year period, although the true number may never be known.
Dyer was born in 1839, two years after the coronation of Queen Victoria, a reign long associated with a push for morality, and of idealised notions of motherhood and blissful domesticity.
In Andrew Halliday’s 1865 article Mothers, published in Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round, motherhood is sentimentalised in reverential terms:
It is altogether above reason; it is a holy passion, in which all others are absorbed and lost. It is a sacred flame on the altar of the heart, which is never quenched.
However, the reality of motherhood was quite different for many women, particularly for working class women who became pregnant without any sign of a wedding ring.
I spoke with Professor Tim Hitchcock, a historian from the University of Sussex with expertise in the areas of gender, sexuality and poverty.
Explaining what life was like for unmarried women of this era, Professor Hitchcock said one significant issue was employment, with a large percentage of young women working in domestic service. Those who got pregnant would find themselves swiftly dismissed.
Although we imagine the Victorians to be a prudish bunch who abstained from premarital sex, Professor Hitchcock explained this is an inaccurate perception, with ‘sexualised courtships’ being the norm:
Usually what would happen was that you would start walking out with somebody, you’d do some heavy petting, mutual masturbation.
[…] A lot of this ended up with essentially a form of fertility testing. So eventually, as you got more serious, you started having sex and the cue for getting married was pregnancy.
The real issue would of course arise if a pregnancy didn’t result in a wedding day, with the woman left to deal with the situation herself, shouldering the burden of social stigma while finding a practical solution.
During this period, attitudes towards abortion changed significantly in ways that would have had a devastating effect for countless women.
As Professor Hitchcock said, in the 19th and 18th century, and even before that, it was understood in both Catholic Church and Church of England doctrine that an unborn child became alive at ‘the quickening’. This is the moment when the baby’s kicks could be felt, usually beginning at around the 24 week mark.
Professor Hitchcock explained:
Anything before that was not really a crime, and you could buy abortifacients, for example, there were were well known abortifacients that would, in 18th century terms, result in ‘bringing down the flowers’, essentially bringing on menstruation.
Over the course of the 19th century, issues around abortion as a medical procedure became more significant.
By the time Dyer was taking the money of desperate women, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 had been implemented, meaning women who underwent abortions could be punished with ‘penal servitude for life’.
Women in such circumstances therefore had very few choices, aside from a risky backstreet abortion, or finding the child some sort of alternative home after giving birth. This second option was by no means easier.
I spoke with Adam Wood, a crime and police history author predominantly focused on the Victorian era, and the Executive Editor of Ripperologist magazine.
An alternative was the Foundling Hospital, founded in 1739 at a time when an estimated 1,000 abandoned babies were discovered each year in the streets of London alone.
The Hospital’s chairman for over fifty years, John Brownlow, provided Charles Dickens with inspiration for the kindly guardian of the perhaps most famous foundling, Oliver Twist.
Approximately 4,500 women handed over their children to the Foundling Hospital during the 19th century alone, but it wasn’t quite as simple as handing them over at the door.
Before the child could be accepted, their mothers, many of whom were illiterate, were required to submit a written petition to prove their ‘good character’.
They would also also have to describe personal details about their lives before a panel of men, who would regard them as a ‘fallen woman’.
It’s therefore no wonder the 19th century saw a steep rise in infanticide, with helpless mothers seeing no other choice but to smother the children they couldn’t provide for. Many others were abandoned, succumbing to cold and hunger on the streets.
Considering Dyer’s heinous crimes and baby farming in general, Professor Hitchcock said they are built on a long tradition of ‘numerous instances where small babies were killed’, reflecting the desperation of single mothers.
Professor Hitchcock said:
If you look at the murder rates where women are being accused of murder in places like the Old Bailey, what you find is that infanticide and manslaughter by neglect is actually really high.
The 1890s for example, I think there’s something like 200 cases of manslaughter and infanticide where either the mother was accused of killing the child at birth, or within the first year or two of the child’s life. A lot of that comes down to neglect.
He added: ‘What happens in law, and infanticide is a unique instance of this case in legal terms, is a child is born and dies, and there’s no evidence that you’ve prepared for it, i.e. bought clothes, told anybody, all that. You would then be accused of infanticide and could be hanged for that.’
Notably, Dyer’s own birth also came a few short years after new legislation took away the little rights single mothers had to seek help from their baby’s father.
Before the 19th century, the Poor Law of 1733 stipulated that the father bore responsibility for children born outside of marriage. Failure to provide child support could result in the mother having him arrested on a justice’s warrant and imprisoned until he agreed to accept his responsibilities.
However, in 1834, the Poor Laws were reformed, absolving fathers of responsibility towards any children born before the exchange of marriage vows, placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the mother.
The intention was to restore female morality and a sense of industriousness, with illegitimate children treated as a social ailment to be corrected, rather than human beings deserving of support. This led to baby farming businesses becoming highly profitable, allowing for a true evil to flourish.
Baby farming involved accepting custody of a child in exchange for payment, sometimes involving lump-sum payments for adoptions, other times offering care based on periodic payments.
According to Wood:
Although the term ‘baby farmer’ today carries a menacing air, the practice was rooted in good intention, with fostering and adoption offered – the childminders of the nineteenth century.
Genuinely caring child nurses and carers gave an unwed mother an opportunity to continue or begin a career.
However, Wood explained, there were those who motivated by profit rather than empathy:
While many carers were legitimate, others offering to ‘take on’ an infant were driven by purely financial desires, with little or no interest in the child’s welfare.
They would adopt a baby from a desperate mother, usually for regular small payments but sometimes for a one-off upfront amount, on the understanding that the payments included provision for the child’s care.
The baby farmer would then attempt to maximise profits by spending as little as possible on food, resulting in infants becoming severely ill through malnutrition – hundreds of them dying as a result.
According to Wood, many mothers were simply ‘too ashamed’ to maintain any contact with the newborns they had handed over, so questions weren’t often asked when the child became ill. If they had any suspicions about the business, they would rarely contact the police.
Dyer’s own childhood in Pyle Marsh, Bristol was one of relative privilege. Her father was a respected master shoemaker who seemingly made every effort to ensure his children had the best possible start in life.
Dyer was very well educated for a woman of her time, attending school up until the age of 14. She also notably possessed impressive literary promise at a time when just 50% of the population were literate, harbouring a great passion for literature and poetry.
Tragedy struck when her mother developed Typhus, which resulted in a terrible mental illness. As the only surviving daughter, Dyer cared for her mother until she died ‘a raving lunatic’ in 1848.
For reasons which may never be fully understood, it is believed Dyer became estranged from her brothers after their father’s death. By the age of 24, she was living at a boarding house on Bristol’s Trinity Street.
It was at these lodgings where Dyer met George Thomas, a widower 35 years her senior. After their marriage, Thomas supported Dyer through nursing school, where she learnt basic midwifery skills.
By this time, thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Florence Nightingale, nursing was increasingly regarded as a respectable, if difficult, path in life for a young woman, and would have suited an intelligent, highly-organised person like Dyer.
By the time she turned 26, Dyer was pregnant with her first child and, like many women before her, got to a point where her bump could no longer be concealed. In those days, continuing her nursing career after crossing over into the lauded realm of motherhood wouldn’t have been optional.
By the time her daughter Ellen arrived, Dyer was completely reliant on her husband’s wage. However, after becoming acquainted with a midwife by the name of Ellen Dane, Dyer soon learned there were far more lucrative ways to line her pockets.
Dane – who later fled to the US after her illegal operations became known – used her home as a ‘lying in house’ for unmarried mothers who wanted to farm off their babies. But this was no charitable enterprise.
Under Dane’s cold-hearted care, the children were often left to die from neglect or malnutrition, an outcome that proved more cost-effective for her enterprise. Noisier babies were kept sedated with alcohol and opium, which would frequently expediate their deaths.
When Thomas died in 1969, Dyer was left a young widow with a small daughter to care for. And she remembered the cruel lessons taught to her by Dane.
Dyer set about establishing her own baby farm, taking in expectant women about to give birth. She also advertised to nurse and adopt infants in return for steep one-off payments and clothing, promising a loving home.
At some point, Dyer became greedy, and the turnaround of infants sped up considerably. She would no longer wait for the babies lying around her home to die of neglect, and began to slaughter them directly, turning a quicker profit.
Authorities grew suspicious, but the full extent of her malevolence was yet to be understood. In 1879, the number of deaths in her care led to her being sentenced to six months hard labour.
Upon her release, Dyer returned to work as a nurse, this time working at an insane asylum. However, it wasn’t long before she returned to baby farming once more, the bodies of her victims continuing to fill the Thames.
Further suspicions were raised in 1890, after Dyer took in the baby of a governess who had become pregnant by her employer’s son. The family had initially been against the marriage, and so the governess had felt forced to give her child away.
However, in a turn of events straight out of a Brontë novel, the governess ended up betrothed to the man after all, and they were keen to know what had become of their child. They returned again and again to ask questions of Dyer, who moved frequently to avoid detection, never getting a good answer.
Dyer was committed to an insane asylum after a suicide attempt, and upon her release, in 1893, started yet another baby farm in Caversham, Berkshire, assisted by her unsuspecting elderly friend Jane Smith.
Smith became worried about Dyer’s trade on account of the sheer volume of ever changing children, so much so that she consulted child protection experts at the then newly-formed NSPCC. The attitudes towards child abuse were changing by then, and time was running out for Dyer.
Professor Hitchcock told UNILAD that Dyer, with her nursing background, was ‘pretty typical’ in terms of the sort of people who entered the baby farming profession:
You need a house. You need space to keep them. You need to advertise, as in her case, or have a relationship with the local community and the local workhouse possibly, which said you were going to set up as a contract facility. And arguably it’s very like the privatisation of social care now.
It’s easy to imagine those driven to Dyer’s door would have trusted her, a clever, educated woman with a good knowledge of midwifery. Dyer marketed herself appealingly as a responsible wife and mother, the Victorian ideal which had ultimately caused her victims such hurt.
As recalled by Evelina Marmon at Dyer’s eventual trial:
She told me about her husband and about her circumstances, that was all – she said she was fond of children – she appeared to be an affectionate woman, from her appearance and her conversation I parted with my baby; I was satisfied with her looks – I should not have thought she was capable of committing such a crime as she is charged with.
Evelina had been a 25-year-old barmaid when she entrusted her daughter Doris to Dyer’s care for £10 in March 1886, just a few months before Dyer’s execution.
Days later, the body of baby Helena Fry was pulled from the River Thames at Reading by a bargeman, a length of edging tape around her neck. The paper Helena had been wrapped in bore a faint address that had survived the water damage, leading police directly to one of Dyer’s previous residences.
Doris’s body, alongside the body of baby Harry Simmons, was later recovered from a carpet bag that had been tossed into the River Thames. Dyer was finally arrested on April 4, 1896.
At her trial, Dyer attempted to plead insanity to avoid the noose, but doctors were unconvinced. Her sentencing was handed down in under six minutes, her life deemed too hideous an abomination to be allowed to continue.
Dyer was driven by profit, although there is evidence to suggest she took pleasure from her crimes, later telling police, ‘I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them’.
Some looking back on Dyer’s life have suggested she may have had a Sadistic Personality Disorder, although we can never truly know.
Others have suggested her laudanum addiction had numbed to the extent that she could commit horrific acts without much emotion, her deadened state leading her to balance her victims’ worth only in coins.
However, the ‘Ogress of Reading’ was very much a monster created by a moralising and unsympathetic society, one which placed greater importance on puritanical ideals than alleviating the everyday struggles of ordinary women.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence regarding the welfare of a child, contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, 8am–10pm Monday to Friday, 9am–6pm weekends. If you are a child seeking advice and support, call Childline for free on 0800 1111.
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