“Victorian Supersleuth Investigates … Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders”
Manor Vale Associates
In the late 19th century a series of bundles weighed down with bricks were recovered from the waterways of Berkshire. Their contents appalled the local community and led to the discovery of one of the most prolific serial killers in history: Amelia Dyer.
A lack of support for single or struggling parents combined with poverty and poor contraception to ensure there was a market for baby farming. The social values and secrecy of the age allowed these illicit businesses to flourish. They also gave this English ex-nurse and countless other Victorians a financial incentive to mistreat, starve, and ultimately murder the children entrusted to their care – and the ability to get away with it, at least for a while.
Adverts placed in newspapers offered hope to parents unable to look after their children. Many answered ads like this one: “Couple, with no child, want care of or will adopt one. Terms £10.”
Except there was often no care involved, and the ‘adoption’ might only last a matter of weeks, or even hours, before the child was disposed of. Some of these supposedly loving caregivers would demand a lump sum up front before dumping the baby under a seat on the train home or leaving a toddler to wander in the rain, or even passing the child on to someone else (or worse). Some would accept a small but regular sum – which might persuade the baby farmer to keep the child alive – and drug them so they would remain quiet and still in a pile of other similarly unlucky charges. The luckiest would be relatively well cared for and used to reassure would-be customers of the baby farmer’s parenting skills.
Buckley notes that there were other baby farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is impossible to gauge how many other people took in children for a fee then neglected, abused, and/or murdered them, but it was the inclusion of her address in one of the makeshift shrouds and the white tape she left knotted around the necks of these often anonymous children that saw her hanged for her crimes on 10th June 1896. She even had the audacity to brag that this evidence of strangulation “was how you could tell it was one of mine.”
Covering almost thirty years of murder and mistreatment by the vile Amelia Dyer, Buckley clearly lays out the evidence put together by police forces across England as they tracked down this remorseless killer in a case that led to the creation of modern child protection laws. For readers keen to learn more about this disturbing episode but wary of the emotional impact of images of the children and parents involved, this is the perfect book, as the only picture included is of Amelia Dyer herself.
Angela Buckley first came to my attention with her well received debut “The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada” (Pen & Sword, 2014), and her new series of crime books is off to a great start with this compact true story of despicable deeds and deception.
Gill Hoffs is a writer and editor. She is the author of The Lost Story of the William and Mary, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur, and Wild: a collection. She lives in Warrington and tweets here @GillHoffs.