Amelia Dyer was born in a small village near Bristol, the daughter of a master shoemaker. She learned to read and write and developed a love of literature and poetry.
Later, she trained as a nurse, a somewhat gruelling job in Victorian times, but it was seen as a respectable occupation, and it enabled her to acquire skills. From contact with a midwife, she learned of an easier way to earn a living. She began using her home to provide lodgings for young women who had conceived illegitimately.
Unmarried mothers in Victorian England often struggled to gain an income whilst bringing up their children, in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatized. This led to the practice of baby-farming, which flourished in Victorian times. Baby-farming had individuals acting as adoption or fostering agents, in return for regular payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. These businesses would take in these young women and care for them until they gave birth. The mothers subsequently left their unwanted babies to be looked after as “nurse children”.
Dyer wanted to make money from baby-farming, but rather than take in expectant women, she would advertise to adopt or nurse a baby, in return for a substantial one time payment and adequate clothing for the child. In her advertisements and meetings with clients, she assured them that she was respectable, married, and that she would provide a safe and loving home for the child. By the time she started her business, her husband and her had actually separated.
Baby farms flourished in Victorian times. Some would care for children and get them adopted out, others would neglect babies or dose them with opium to make their care easier, leading to many deaths. Dyer accelerated this process by murdering infants, usually by strangling them with a ribbon around their necks.
She operated her baby farm for ten years before a doctor, suspicious of the number of dead babies he certified, contacted police. Dyer was arrested, convicted only of neglect, and sentenced to six months labor. After her sentence was completed, Dyer spent some time in a mental asylum, and eventually went back to baby farming.
This time around, she dispensed with obtaining death certificates from doctors and buried the infants herself. Dyer moved from town to town, changing her name when parents or officials became suspicious.
In March of 1896, a bargeman retrieved a package from the Thames containing a tiny female corpse. Police traced the packaging to Dyer under an assumed name. When police raided her home, they found no human remains, but the smell of decomposition was in the air.
The police calculated that in the previous few months alone, at least twenty children had been placed in the care of a “Mrs. Thomas”, now revealed to be Amelia Dyer. It also appeared that she was about to move home again, this time to Somerset.
They did find evidence of her business. Baby clothes, telegrams, advertisements, and letters from mothers. Six more infant bodies were found when the river was dredged. Dyer was charged with one murder, that of Doris Marmon, after the baby’s mother, Evelina Marmon, identified the remains. Dyer pled guilty, but offered a defense of insanity. A jury sentenced her to death, and Dyer was hanged on June 10, 1896.
Although convicted of only one murder, Amelia Dyer is suspected of up to 400 infant deaths over a period of 27 years.