During a time when the people of London were living in the fear of Jack the Ripper, there lived a nurse, Amelia Dyer, who soon earned the name “Ogress of Reading”. What Amelia did got her listed on the list as Britain’s most infamous serial killers. She was born in 1837, to master shoemaker, Samuel Hobley, and his wife Sarah Hobley. Unlike most families during this time, her family was not plagued by poverty. She was the youngest of five children and had three elder brothers and a sister. Despite being from a well off family, her childhood was not without trouble. Her mother had a mental illness which left a mark on Amelia, as she took care of her till her death in 1848. Nine years later her father also died, passing on the business to his eldest son. Soon after that Amelia herself got married to George Thomas. Since George, at the time of marriage, was 59, they lied about their ages to reduce the age gap, which caused a lot of confusion later on.
Amelia trained as a nurse, considered a respectable occupation at that time, and it was during this training that she met Ellen Dane, a woman who would change her life forever. Ellen Dane was a midwife, and introduced Amelia to a twisted yet easier way of earning money, Baby Farming. Here, poverty stricken mothers in Victorian England, who were not married, would give up their child to adoption agents for a certain fee. The Agents would then nurse the child till either the mother can afford it or they get adopted by another family. Pre-marital sex was taboo during this time, and unmarried mothers were stigmatized. In order to avoid humiliation that society flung at them, they would immediately hand their children over to these agents and some, because of poverty, would starve their infants to death or feed them opiates and narcotics to shush their cries and hasten their death. Meanwhile Ellen Danes quickly relocated to avoid the eye of the authorities and during this time Amelia gave birth. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Amelia’s husband expired which left with a need for a steady income.
Amelia took to baby farming almost immediately after her husband passed away and opened a nursing home and took in expectant mothers. Apart from that, she advertised her baby farming business in the newspapers, with a reasonable single payment for food and clothing for the infant. On meeting her clients she would assure them that she is trustworthy and respectable and was it was her love for children that inspired her to set up this business. Contradicting her claim, she soon reasoned that it would save her money to just murder the child than rather let it die from neglect and starvation and that is exactly what she started doing. She would smother the child and pocket the entire fee given by the parents to sustain the baby. For years she thrived with this unscrupulous business until in 1879, a doctor, found the alarming mortality rate of her nursing home suspicious. He reported her to the police and she was then put on trial. Shockingly, she was given only a six months sentence in prison for neglect, a sentence that disgruntled everyone, considering the measure of her crime.
Amelia’s experience in prison started her mental disintegration. She started abusing alcohol and opium and was regularly admitted to mental asylums for her mental illnesses and suicidal tendencies. She eventually returned to baby farming and murder, and now instead of handing them over to doctors to issue death certificates, she disposed of the bodies herself. She started to draw the attention of the authorities yet again which prompted her to move to Berkshire with an innocent associate and her daughter and son-in-law. She cajoled her associate, Jane Smith, to refer to her as ‘mother’ when clients came to meet her. This loving mother-daughter presentation convinced most of her clients that she was trustworthy. Lastly, she disguised her identity as Mrs. Thomas Harding to get her business up and running again.
An advertisement in the miscellaneous section of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper prompted Evelina Marmom, a 25-year-old barmaid, to get in touch with Amelia. She had an illegitimate child and since she couldn’t afford it she decided to hand her baby under the care of Mrs. Harding till she could get back to working and eventually reclaim her infant. Amelia went to Evelina’s hometown, Cheltenham, and although she was a little surprised with the old, haggy appearance, her affection towards her child Doris convinced Evelina that she was making the right decision. Distressed on having to give her child away, Evelina accompanied Dyer to the station and went back to her lodge weeping. Amelia instead of going to Reading, as told to Evelina, went to her daughter’s house in Willesden. She then found some white edging tape used to make dresses and strangled the infant slowly. She then handed the clothes of the infant to a pawnbroker. The very next day she admitted another child called Harry Simmons into her evil grasp and this time, since there was no more tape, she used the one around Doris’s corpse and strangled Harry to death. She wrapped both the bodies in a carpet bag and added bricks to add weight, made her way to a secluded spot and dumped the bodies in the River Thames.
On April 1st, a bargeman retrieved a floating package from the River Thames which contained the body of a dead baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. When the police were called, Detective Anderson was assigned to the case and he soon made a crucial breakthrough on inspecting the package. Using a magnifying glass, he deciphered a faint yet legible name, “Mrs. Thomas Harding” and her address. On April 3rd, when Amelia was waiting for a client, she instead had detectives at her door step. They raided her house and were traumatized by the stench of human decomposition that dwelt in the house. Apart from the smell they found the tapes used to strangle the children, tickets from the pawn broker for children’s clothing, recipients for advertisements and concerned letters from mothers inquiring about their infant’s well-being. The evidence was overwhelming and she was charged with Murder. Later the bed of the River Thames was searched and six more bodies were discovered including that of Doris and Harry.
The police speculated that Amelia, considering that she had been working for 20 years in baby farming, had killed almost 400 or more infants. Based on the confessions of her family, associates and clients, within four and a half minutes the jury charged her with the murder of Doris Marmon. She was sentenced to death. She filed a confession in a book and handed it over to the Chaplin the night before she was executed. At 9 a.m. on the 10th of June, she was hanged without saying a word.
Some even suggested that Amelia was actually Jack the Ripper, who disemboweled and killed prostitutes by performing botched abortions on them. However it was only a theory and there was no evidence to sustain the claim. The adoption laws, after the case of Amelia Dyer, were made stricter to avoid abuse and authorities played a vital role in the procedure henceforth.