Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pied Pipers of Victorian England

The British Medical Journal,
Vol. 1, No. 1577 (Mar. 21, 1891), p. 656
During the mid-late 1800s, reports like this could be regularly found inside the British Medical Journal. Baby farming, the custom of fostering or adopting-out a young child for money, was commonplace throughout Victorian England.  As continues to be the reality in many societies today, unmarried, pregnant women encountered considerable hardships. Unexpected and/or undesired children were a pecuniary encumbrance on typically already stretched resources. Family members regularly spurned these “unchaste” women, some children’s homes refused to admit babies conceived immorally, and the probability of marrying someone to help provide for you and a bastard child was laughable. Not to mention, aborting or deserting your baby was unlawful, illicit abortions could be fatal, and infanticide was punishable by death. For many women, the safest choice was putting the child “out to nurse” with a baby farmer; thanks be, there were plenty of them.

The assurances made to these commonly lower-class, unwed mothers differed. Certain baby farmers pledged to “re-home” the infants to caring families, charging a lump-sum upfront; many agreed to foster them for a monthly fee. Baby farmers usually located prospective customers using newspaper advertisements or through lying-in houses. Lying-in houses were private residences where pregnant women could stay until they gave birth. It wasn't uncommon for the proprietor of a lying-in house to operate a baby farm themselves.

Baby farmer Margaret Waters’ story appeared on the front-page of
London’s Illustrated Police News, October 15, 1870

Tragically, a high percentage of infants relinquished to baby farmers perished. Receiving a trivial stipend compared to child-rearing expenses, many foster mothers, despite benevolent intentions, could only administer rudimentary care. Conversely, there were also caregivers who deliberately neglected, or just murdered the babies under their guardianship. In fact, taking newborns to a baby farm was asserted by some to be indirect murder by the child’s parent(s). Those most vulnerable were children whose mothers paid a lump-sum; after the payment was received, baby farmers had no incentive to keep them alive.

Bar-maid Evelina Marmon believed Amelia
would “re-home” her daughter, Doris. Doris’s
was one of seven bodies recovered from the Thames. 
The most notorious of London’s blood-thirsty baby farmers was Amelia Dyer. Though she was educated to be a nurse, a strenuous occupation, Amelia discovered from midwife Ellen Danes that managing a lying-in house and baby farm was considerably more profitable. Likewise, she quickly realized murdering the infants was more cost-effective than wasting a percentage of her lump-sum on their care. If restless mothers or enquiring policemen became too suspicious, she'd relocate or feign a mental breakdown and be committed to an institution. Partway through her murderous 20 year con, she was apprehended by police; a doctor she’s employed to certify babies’ deaths became wary after too many fatalities. Though Amelia was sentenced to just six months hard labor, her incarceration was harrowing enough that she resumed nursing…temporarily.

 Amelia’s last victim was Helena Fry
Ultimately, Amelia’s sins were exposed after the body Helena Fry was fished-out the Thames, disguised as a parcel. Later, the remains of six more victims were retrieved from the river; the cause of every death was strangulation. Amelia disclosed to law enforcement, that white edging tape circling the baby’s neck “was how you could tell it was one of mine.” Though pleading insanity, the jury deliberated for just four and a half minutes before returning a guilty verdict. Amelia was hanged June 10, 1896, at Newgate Prison. She was 57 years old.

Though seven were recovered, the exact number of children Amelia murdered can never be determined; nevertheless, it’s conjectured she killed 200-400 total. This could make her Britain’s prolific serial murderer, male or female.

To read more about Amelia or her murderous cohorts, visit:

Amelia Dyer

“The baby butcher: One of Victorian Britain's most evil murderers exposed”

“Baby Farming” – a tragedy of Victorian times.

Life on the Baby Farm

The Ramifications of the Reading Horrors

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