In the summer of 1896, 57-year-old Amelia Dyer was executed for the murder of a baby girl.
It was a sample charge. The bodies of six more babies had been found, and further evidence pointed to at least 12 murders. Dyer probably killed many more babies, perhaps as many as 50. Some extraordinary documents, images and artefacts from the case survive, and are now housed in Thames Valley Police’s archives.
A mixture of social and legal factors had made it possible for Dyer to murder infants for financial gain and escape detection for years. She might have gone on to kill many more but for a skilful forensic and undercover operation by detectives of Reading Borough Police.
In Victorian Britain, the circumstances for most unmarried mothers were bleak. They faced a life of struggle caring for their children whilst earning enough to survive, in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were frowned upon.
Fostering and adoption services were rarely controlled by modern standards. One result was the profitable practice in which 'baby farmers' acted as adoption or fostering agents for an up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Although many baby farmers acted in good faith the practice was often misused, making it difficult to trace what had happened to the children involved. Worse still, it was often in a baby farmer’s financial interest for the children left in their care not to survive.
In a climate like this, these newspaper advertisements placed by Amelia Dyer may have seemed a better outlook than many:
At the time of her arrest, Amelia Dyer was a heavily built middle-aged woman with greying mid-brown hair, a lock of which survives in Thames Valley Police’s archives. Her letters and the reports of her clients portray her as expressive, persuasive and believable. Amelia Dyer moved to Caversham from South Wales in 1895, accompanied by her associate Jane Smith, Mary and Arthur Palmer, and her daughter and son-in-law. She then moved again to Kensington Road, Reading, later that year.
Dyer’s preferred practice was to advertise to adopt or nurse a baby in return for an up-front fee and suitable clothing for the child. In her advertisements and meetings with clients, she assured them that she was respectable, married (Dyer and her husband had actually separated), and would provide a safe and loving home for the child.
In reality Dyer pocketed the money and killed many of the babies within days - she later admitted killing one the same day it was placed in her care. Dyer strangled the infants, always with white tape, wrapped their bodies in paper packages and bags, and dumped them in rivers.
Despite her many changes of name and address, rumours about Dyer’s activities were spreading in Bristol, her former home town. Dyer was branded insane there on two occasions, though at her trial the prosecution argued successfully that this had been a ploy to avoid suspicion. Both episodes were said to have coincided with times when Dyer’s activities threatened to catch up with her.
It is unclear how long Dyer’s career as a murderer lasted, but it may have been as many as 20 years. Her family and associates testified at her trial that they had also been growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged that Dyer had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions.
From a modern view, it seems incredible that Dyer’s clients and those close to her did not realise the truth, and astonishing that she escaped detection for so long. However, in the Victorian era the trade in babies was rarely regulated, and the childhood death rate was relatively high. Dyer’s claims that children had died of natural causes, moved to other homes or been returned to their mothers could well have seemed believable. In addition, Dyer’s many changes of alias and address made it very difficult for mothers concerned at the fate of their babies to trace her.
Vital evidence linking a body to Dyer through one of these aliases and addresses was finally to prove her undoing. On 30 March 1896, a package was found in the Thames by a bargeman and found it contained the body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. Reading Borough Police Chief Constable George Tewsley immediately set his small detective force to work. Detective Constable Anderson, making a microscopic analysis of the wrapping paper that had surrounded the body, discovered and deciphered a faintly-written name and address. This evidence eventually led the detective to the Reading home of Amelia Dyer.
Mrs Dyer's Arrest and Confession
Evidence gathered from witnesses and information telegraphed by Bristol police painted a deeply sinister picture of Dyer’s activities. Detective Constable Anderson and Sergeant James of Reading Borough Police placed her house under surveillance. Their intelligence indicated that Dyer would flee immediately if she became suspicious, so the officers sent a young woman as a decoy to enquire about Dyer’s services and arrange a meeting. Perhaps this helped the detectives by firmly linking Dyer to her business activities, or by giving them a firm time and location to arrange her arrest.
If this was the case, the plan worked. Dyer, expecting her new client, opened her door to find Anderson and James waiting for her. She was arrested and charged with murder, and her son-in-law Arthur Palmer was charged as an accessory. Recent letters found in Dyer's house suggested it should have been full of babies. None were found.
During April, the Thames was searched and six more bodies were discovered. However, enquiries from mothers, witnesses and evidence found in Dyer’s homes, including letters and mountains of baby clothes, showed that she must have murdered many more.
At the inquest into the deaths in Reading in early May, no evidence was found that Mary or Arthur Palmer had acted as Dyer’s accomplices. Arthur Palmer was discharged as the result of a confession written by Amelia Dyer in Reading prison a few days earlier (her brief imprisonment there may have coincided with that of Oscar Wilde). This stated that neither her daughter nor her son-in-law were involved in the killings. This letter survives, along with a letter Dyer wrote to Arthur Palmer the same day.
Mrs Dyer's Trial and Sentencing
Dyer had confessed to the killings, but pleaded insanity at her Old Bailey trial. Her behaviour in custody had included displays of religious practice, including hymn-singing and sermonising to other prisoners. She reportedly carried a hymn-book throughout her trial. Dyer’s religious rhetoric and her hope of being “forgiven” are represented in her surviving letters, and were used by the defence as evidence that Dyer was not fully responsible for her actions.
However, the prosecution’s argument that Amelia Dyer’s behaviour was devious play-acting, and that she had used the same tactics before when under suspicion, proved more persuasive. The jury took a matter of minutes to find Dyer guilty of murder and her plea of insanity not proven. Amelia Dyer was sentenced to death and went to the gallows at Newgate prison on 10 June 1896.
After the Dyer Case
In the years following the Dyer case a number of Acts of Parliament, including the Infant Life Protection Act (1897) and the Children’s Act (1908), were passed. These included requirements that local authorities must be notified, with full details and within 48 hours, of any change of custody or death of a child aged under seven. Rules surrounding adoption and fostering were strengthened considerably, and baby farming became a thing of the past.