The Crime Readers' Association

The most prolific murderer in history? (And the chances are you won’t have heard of her) by Tessa Harris

27th June 2018

Ask a serious crime buff to name the most prolific serial killer in history and many will no doubt say Harold Shipman, the Lancashire doctor who is thought to have killed more than 200 victims. Others may cite the Colombian Luis Garavito, who notched up 138 murders  or the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer, aka the Milwaukee Cannibal, from the United States, who is said to have killed a mere 17 men and boys. Yet most people will never have heard of the person who can, most probably, lay claim to the dubious honour. Perhaps even more shocking, the person is a woman.

Amelia Dyer was her name and she was hanged at Newgate Prison on June 10, 1896, for the murder of twelve children. However it is believed that during her thirty years as what’s known as a “baby farmer” she murdered at least 300 infants. My latest novel, The Angel Makers, is loosely based on her nefarious exploits.

The term “baby farmer” was pejorative and referred to a person, almost invariably a woman, who took in and cared for the children of other women.  These “farmers” were often former nurses who would “care” for the child while remaining at home and looking after their own family. There were some, however, who regarded such interaction as a business transaction from which they could profit handsomely. Often a “premium” of £10 was handed over by a mother for the adoption of her child. The payment was supposed to cover the farmer’s expenses, but it was seldom used to buy food for the infant. The stark truth was few babies enjoyed a better life once they had been farmed out.

Emaciated corpses were evidence of her cruelty

Amelia Dyer was the most notorious baby farmer of them all for the very good reason that instead of allowing her charges to die of malnutrition as was so often the case, she murdered many of the children in her care in cold blood. She would often take in unmarried women who, unable to hide their pregnancies any longer, would give birth in her home. Some of the infants would be murdered at birth. (Conveniently for Dyer, Victorian coroners could not distinguish between suffocation and still-birth.) Other young mothers, however, left their babies with her, thinking Dyer, or “Mother” as she was chillingly known, would find them loving homes.

After serving ten years in prison for infant neglect, however, Dyer changed her methods. Emaciated corpses were evidence of her cruelty. During the latter part of career she determined to dispose of the babies’ bodies by burying them or throwing them in the river.

When she was young, Dyer’s own daughter, Polly, asked her mother where all the babies that she ‘looked after’ went when they left their house. Dyer’s reply was that she was an “angel-maker.”  She said she was “sending them to Jesus, because he wants them more than their mothers.”

“You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”

Dyer’s gruesome career began in Bristol, but after several changes of name and address she ended up in a house near Reading. The discovery of a small corpse wrapped in brown paper in the nearby River Thames lead police to her house. They were greeted by the sickly stench of rotting flesh coming from the kitchen pantry and from a trunk under Dyer’s bed. The police had uncovered a baby farm and over the next few days they sifted through a tragic haul of dozens of vaccination papers left by anxious mothers thinking their babies would be cared for and huge quantities of tiny clothes.

The police ordered a dragging operation of the Thames and for several days in the summer of 1896, ghoulish onlookers lined the river banks, their curiosity fuelled by sensationalist press coverage. When the body count rose to fifty, Dyer told police: “You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”. Her plea of insanity was rejected and she later even admitted: “I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them.”

There is a theory that the Whitechapel women killed by the so-called of Jack the Ripper around the same time were actually victims of botched abortions carried out by Amelia Dyer, no less. It’s far-fetched and with little foundation, but it means that Dyer’s status is also linked to the Ripper mythology. It’s an interesting twist that possibly the most infamous murderer in history (even though “Jack” may actually have been a media invention) should be associated with possibly the most prolific murderer in history and that they were both English.

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