The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed

The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed

Donna Patricia Ward - November 20, 2017

A man preparing his garden in 1902 dug up skeletal remains. Shocked, he notified the local authorities. What the man had found were remains of five infants that had been murdered. Each child had been strangled with white tape, “wrapped in some kind of material,” sprinkled with lime to reduce the smell of decay, and then buried. As investigators tried to identify the dead children, they realized that the man now lived in the former residence of an infamous baby murderer. Amelia Elizabeth Dyer killed up to 400 babies over several decades as Britain’s most famous baby farmer.

The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed
A portrait of Amelia Dyer. Wikimedia.

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was born in the small town of Pyle Marsh, England, near Bristol, in either 1837 or 1838. She became the youngest of seven children when her two younger sisters died. Her father was a popular shoemaker and most likely was able to provide a simple yet comfortable life for his family. Amelia’s mother suffered from mental illness. Family members reported that after she recovered from typhus fever, a bacterial infection spread by fleas, lice, and chiggers, she began to have violent outbursts that lasted days. Two years before her mother’s death, Amelia began as an apprentice with a corset maker in Bristol.

Somehow, Amelia became estranged from her family. When her father died in 1859, Amelia was about 22 years old and her oldest brother inherited the family business. Without any financial support from her family and no legal way to claim any of the business, Amelia married a man considerably older than her. George Thomas was 59 but lied about his age, stating that he was 45 and Amelia lied and stated that she was 30 instead of 24. During the marriage, Amelia had at least one child, a daughter, that remained close to her, even working with her later in life.

As a married woman, Amelia trained as a nurse and a midwife. During her studies, Amelia met a woman that introduced her to the world of baby farming. It was possible for midwives to make money off of the unfortunate circumstances of single women who were pregnant. For a brief time, Amelia operated her own boarding house for pregnant, unmarried women. After Amelia assisted the women with the delivery of their infants, they paid her to care for their newborns. Some women left the boarding house never caring what happened to their unwanted babies, while others wrote to Dyer, who rarely replied more than once, if ever.

As she maintained her career as nurse, midwife, and baby farmer, Amelia suffered from mental breakdowns and suicidal thoughts. There was suspicion that Dyer was faking her mental illness, as she seemed to suffer mental breakdowns when people became suspicious of the number of children that died in her care. Regardless, she did make one serious suicide attempt. She consumed two bottles of laudanum, a combination of morphine and codeine that tasted extremely bitter, but she was not successful. Years of extreme alcohol consumption and opium use had caused her to build up a tolerance.

Baby farming had been used in England for many centuries. For wealthy women, it was completely acceptable to send their infants to a wet nurse who would breast-feed and care for the infants until they reached toddlerhood. Poor or working class women that found themselves pregnant had very little opportunity to achieve any sort of financial stability if they were not married. In Victorian Era Britain, having a baby out of wedlock was akin to or worse than murder.

The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed
Newspaper report of arrest. Public Domain.

Baby farmers provided an out for such women. The women in trouble would place an advertisement in a newspaper seeking a loving couple to adopt their baby. Baby farmers often answered such ads, promising to provide the child with a happy and healthy home. Sometimes the situation would be temporary, while other times it was considered a permanent arrangement. Societal norms and government avoidance created a world where Amelia Elizabeth Dyer would flourish as a baby farmer and murderer.

Amelia Dyer scanned advertisements in search of desperate women looking to give up their babies. She would contact the birth mothers and offer to take the baby for a fee of generally £10 or £5. Dyer would agree to an installment plan for payment or require full payment before she would take the baby. As technology changed, Dyer accepted wire transfers or cash sent through the post. Women who wrote Dyer letters seeking information about their babies or wanting to get them back, rarely received replies. Once Dyer took possession of a child, it was hers until she murdered it.

The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed
Britain’s Baby Butcher. Wikimedia.

In already overcrowded cities, it was relatively easy for Amelia Dyer to operate her baby farming business with little suspicion. Because poverty was prevalent in England, many people went hungry. Infant mortality rates were very high. When a baby died their cause of death may read “debility from birth or “lack of breast milk.” While wealthy women were able to send their children “out to nurse,” poor single women relied on baby farmers. Neglect of children was common in the 19th century, but murder was rare.

When Amelia Dyer obtained a new baby, she immediately began the process of killing it by starvation. The cries of a hungry baby are unmistakable. To hide the cries, Dyer used Godfrey’s Cordial, known as “Mother’s Friend.” The cordial was a mixture of syrup and opium. As Dyer gave the children the elixir, they remained sedated. As they starved to death, which took time, they did so without making much of a fuss. Once the child was dead, Dyer would contact a doctor to examine the child, declare it dead, and take the body away. If a doctor became suspicious of the number of children that died in Amelia’s care, she simply moved to a new town or had a mental breakdown and entered into an asylum.

The Horrifying Truth of Britain’s Baby Butcher Amelia Elizabeth Dyer Revealed
Newspaper report of discovery of five skeletal remains. Public Domain.

In 1879, a doctor that Amelia had called on to certify the death of a child grew suspicious. After an investigation, Amelia served six months of hard labor. Prisoners sentenced with hard labor usually did manual tasks for all of their waking hours. The tasks could include laboring in a prison workshop, prison farm, or simply moving rocks from one pile and creating a new pile. When Amelia completed her sentence and was released, she resumed her career as a nurse and baby farmer with one major change. She no longer would notify a doctor to remove the corpse. From 1880 on, Amelia Dyer disposed of the bodies of the babies that she killed, making her a prolific serial killer.

Within a few hours of acquiring a new infant, she would wrap white dressmaking tape around its neck. Death was not instantaneous. According to her own confession, Dyer stated that she liked “to watch them with the tape around their neck” as they gasped for air. When the children were dead, Dyer would wrap them in cloth and bury them or tie them to rocks and throw them in the Thames. Birth mothers would send Dyer letters asking for word on the wellbeing of their children. By the time Dyer had received the letters, the children were long dead.

On March 30, 1896, a bargeman on the Thames noticed a package floating in the river. He retrieved it and found the bodies of a dead baby girl and boy. Forensics, which was in its infancy, linked the material used to wrap the babies to Amelia Dyer. The police placed a decoy advertisement seeking a loving couple to take a newborn. As Dyer left her home to meet her new client on April 3, 1896, she was greeted by four police officers. When they entered her apartment, they encountered the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh. While they did not find any dead babies, they did find enough evidence in the form of letters, advertisements, telegrams, and opium to charge Amelia Elizabeth Dyer with murder.

Amelia Dyer was placed on trial for the murder of three babies. On May 22, 1896, a jury found Dyer guilty within 4 ½ minutes. During the next three weeks, she filled five notebooks with her “last and true confession.” Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hung at exactly 9 am on June 10, 1896. While 14 murders have been directly linked to Dyer, experts believe that she murdered over 300 babies during her career as a baby farmer.

In the aftermath of Dyer’s execution, adoption laws became stricter. As a way to regulate and stop the practice of baby farming, local authorities searched personal ads in the hopes of preventing the selling of children. As the 20th century loomed, reformers began pressing Parliament for new laws that legally held fathers of illegitimate children financially accountable. Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was not the only baby farmer in the world, but she likely killed the most babies.