Updated: Mar 16
Transcript and photos from the latest episode of Madames & Murderers. This week, it's all about England's most notorious female serial killer - Amelia Dyer.
I’m fairly sure I mentioned in a previous episode that female serial killers fascinate me, like a lot and I think it’s because they tend to be way more calculated than male serial killers. One of the common statements in reference to female killers is they kill by fire, water and poison which tends to be pretty true. They also tend to kill their lovers and their children or like in todays tale, other people’s children. Women are complicated emotional beings who feel a lot of things and sometimes those things are fucked up.
So on THAT cheery note, it’s time to tell the tale of English Baby killer Amelia Dyer…..buckle up and maybe pour a drink for this one.
If you’ve been following me on socials for some time or are in my life personally, you know i’m a straight up Anglophile. I have always been obsessed with English history and its stemmed from an obsession of medieval torture and Jack the Ripper and pretty much all things Victorian so, Amelia Dyer just fits the bill like OJs glove.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was born in 1837 in the small village of Pyle Marsh just outside of Bristol England to Samuel and Sarah Hobbley. Her father was a master shoemaker and her mother was at that time, well. She was one of 5 kids although her 2 sisters would die, one at age six and another at just a few months old. It’s possible the death of her sisters as well as so many youngins at the time might have lead to an insensitivity to child deaths but we can’t be sure.
In the late 1830s and 1840s, Typhus, a bacterial disease that would often kill the infected without treatment and was transmitted by lice, was running rampant in Ireland. It then crossed on down into England and thousands contracted it since lice was literally everywhere. Honestly when you think of Victorian England I think we all picture like these really posh velvet interiors and sexy ass opium dens but it was honestly more just like an open sewer that most were living in, just a straight up germaphobes nightmare. This typhus epidemic led to a very culturally insensitive nickname of “Irish Fever” very similar to the derogatory attitudes towards the Chinese with Covid. Amelia’s mum contracted the fever and although she survived, she was left mentally changed. It is not common for people who’ve had Typhus and survived to be left with mental fits, however that was the case for Sarah. This meant that Amelia who was described as bright, did well in school, loved poetry, now had to refocus most of her energy into taking care of her mother and it doesn’t sound like it was pretty.
I also have a theory that her mother had a pre-existing mental condition that was worsened by the fever and I say that because if she DID it’s possible that condition was genetic, therefore possible it was passed down to Amelia and might provide some sort of explanation for the abhorrent behavior we all need to buckle up for. But since we can’t blame it on any kind of mental disease, we’re just going to have to assume Amelia is about to become the fucking worst for no other reason aside from being the fucking worst.
Time to slide down the ladder of tragedy folks.
Her mother died and I quote “raving mad” in 1848 when Amelia was just 12 years old. I’m not sure why, but she would move in with her aunt and uncle in Bristol and then later on would leave to apprentice for a corset maker. Her familial situation doesn’t improve with the death of her father in 1859 and then the later estrangement she would have with both of her brothers who inherited her fathers business. So now we have a 24 year old Amelia, living in a sort of boarding house in Bristol where she meets the 59 year old dude named George Thomas. What is hilarious about this to me is they felt a need to lie about their ages on their marriage certificate as if people weren’t still marrying essentially minors at the time. George claimed to be 48 and Amelia claimed to be 30. Why they felt they would be shamed if they declare their true ages is so strange and led to some confusion later on when THOSE ages were published. But anyways, the two are married, and Amelia decided to get a job as a nurse, a super legit job and for a brief, fleeting beautiful moment we can hope that she became a nurse because she was a nurturing woman full of love to give after a lifetime caring for her unwell mother.
That was a nice moment, moments over.
She DID go on to be an asylum nurse now can we speculate that she did this because of her mother? Mayhaps. Can we say this is a really interesting foreshadowing of her own life? Mayhaps. The truth is she didn’t last long because Amelia caught wind of a growing fad called, Baby Farming.
Baby farming folks was essentially the Victorian version of foster care except take everything that is flawed about our current foster system and multiply it by like a million.
Naturally theres lots of sex going on, good sex, bad sex, paid for sex, rape, and anatomy lesson, sometimes sex creates babies. Sometimes those babies are uh-ohs, other times they’re out of wedlock or the baby only has the mother and the mother can’t afford the baby especially when The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 is passed and men are no longer legally obligated to financially care for their children. To answer the call of all of these babies, baby farming was born where couples or families would take in or temporarily care for the baby for a fee OR be given a one off fee by the mother and they’d keep it so she could go on and pretend it never happened. If you played your cards right, you might get money from the mother AND hush money from whoever the father was. Upshot is, usually only one payment was received for the child meaning AFTER that one payment, the child was now a financial responsibility or as most in the baby farming business would see it, a burden.
Are we all feeling where this is headed? Yea.
Ellen Dane, a midwife who practiced baby farming is the one who told Amelia about this line of profession right before she fled to America to escape the authorities because she, like so many before and like Amelia would go on to do, wasn’t treatin them babies so nice. This new career path sounded extra sweet when Amelie became pregnant with her first child, Ellen Thomas and had to leave nursing and was expedited when George died. Now Amelia is a widow with a child and no income. So she did something simple, she put an advertisement in the local paper that said, "a nice married couple without any children of their own was looking to adopt a healthy baby into a good country home for only £10."
So begins Amelia’s most notorious profession.
In the beginning, she cared for the babies, sort of. As in they didn’t die right away. It was common to let the babies kind of just starve to death I mean, you can’t be bothered feeding them right? There also was this syrup affectionately named “Mothers cure” which was an opium laced syrup women would give babies to shut them up, stop the crying, and ya give them enough, they would never cry again.
In 1872 Amelia remarries a brewer named William Dyer, they have two more kids together and he is a total accomplice to this baby farming. The problem with killing babies, besides it making you the worst monster on the planet, is you need a doctor to declare their death or reason for death or essentially create the paperwork so if the mother ever returns for her child you can present a receipt and be like, “hey so sorry but your nugget didn’t make it, try again later.” Absolutely horrendous. Except the problem with this for Amelia was a doctor took notice of all these deaths and reported her to the authorities in 1879.
Welcome to another segment in which the public does not want to believe a woman is capable of serial killing and instead of charging her with manslaughter and execution, they sentence her to 6 months of hard labor after being found guilty of neglect. These 6 months would take a toll on her bringing her to her mental brink. When her time is up, she’s not quite herself and she starts abusing opium products, specifically laudanum which was the super spicy treat of the day and something she would have had on hand because she went back to baby farming except this time, she wasn’t wasting time caring for the babies OR calling for a doctor to declare death. She instead was murdering the babies almost immediately after receiving them and then taking it upon herself to dispose of them. Usually in the river, after being strangled and weight down with a brick.
I warned you guys, this tale is not pretty.
Anytime she felt she might get caught or the authorities were sniffin around or hell, maybe a mom came back to get her kid, she’d have a “fit” and be temporarily sent to an asylum. Now all that time spent caring for her mother AND working as a nurse taught her how to both convincingly get yourself in an asylum and how to get out. She’d stay until she felt there was no more threat and then she’d start showcasing the type of recovered behavior needed to secure release. There is a lot of speculation that Amelia did in fact have a mental disease because of this behavior and the upcoming suicide attempts. Personally, I think Amelia was a smart woman who manipulated a system that she had first hand experience in. Also, she was definitely a drug addict and the long term effects of opium can be quite brutal. This, paired with moving from town to town is what kept Amelia out of the hangman's noose. For now.
During the next 10 years, Amelia would leave her husband, drink two bottles of laudanum in her most convincing suicide attempt, take work in a workhouse and serve a stint in the Somerset and Bath lunatic asylum. It was after her discharge there that Amelia set on a somewhat new course with help. In the workhouse she recruited an older woman named Jane "Granny" Smith and surprisingly got one of her daughters Polly and her now husband to move to Berkshire with her. There they had an operation where Amelia would refer to Jane as mother and all together presented this perfectly quaint family unit that women could safely surrender their children to.
If there ever was a time to not judge a book by it’s cover, this is it folks.
Not all women wanted to give up their babies and some truly resulted to temporarily surrendering their child believing they would be cared for. Such is the case with 25 year old Cheltenham barmaid, Evelina Marmon who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter named Doris. She put her own ad in the paper looking for temporary care when she saw the ad from a “Mrs Harding” that said, "a young married couple who adores children but had none of their own were looking to care for one and they weren’t in it for the money."
Evelina responded to the ad saying she wanted to pay a weekly care fee but this “Mrs. Harding” responded that a one off fee was the only option. Without other prospects, Evelina agreed and Mrs. Harding aka Amelia, shows up in Cheltenham for the baby. She is not young or what Evelina expected but without another choice, she surrenders her child having already sent the 10 pounds and a box of clothes. She travels with Amelia all the way to Gloucester where they part. Evelina thinks Amelia or Mrs. Harding, is heading to Reading but instead she travels to London where she meets up with her 23 year old daughter Polly. It is there where they take white edging tape and slowly wrap it around Doris’s neck, slowly suffocating her to death. Since they’re in London, they pick up another child, this time a 13 month old boy named Harry Simmons. His fate would be the same as Doris's.
The bodies of the two children where wrapped in a white napkin, placed in a carpet bag and then filled with bricks and tossed into the River Thames.
Back in Cheltenham, Evelina receives a letter from Amelia saying the she and the baby are well, she responds, she will never get a reply. It is around the same time that a bargeman back in Reading discovered a floating carpet bag containing the body of an infant, Helena Fry. Upon microscopic inspection of the paper the corpse was wrapped in they could make out a name and an address which led them directly to Dyer.
The detective work in this case is actually quite impressive because they don’t just bombard her, they instead do the best 19th century job of creating a murder case. They interview people in Bristol, doctors, police officers, people who knew her and they start building their case. They employ the services of a young woman to act as a potential client for Amelia and set up a meeting. When she expects the woman on Good Friday of 1896, she instead finds detectives at her door who raid her home. What they discovered was both grim and devastating. The house was ripe with the smell of decomposing flesh although no bodies were recovered in the home. White edging tape, letters from parents asking about their children and receipts of adoption were plentiful. Amelia was arrested and the Thames was combed for bodies, 6 more were recovered including Doris Marmon who's mother, Evelina, identified her just 11 days after surrendering her. There are no words to describe that kind of pain.
The trial of Amelia Dyer was sensational. She showed no remorse for her acts, instead she showed signs of pride, of enjoyment. She said she liked using the white tape because you could watch them slowly die, it was also a way of and I quote, “knowing which one is mine.” Thankfully because of this, a plea of insanity wasn’t used despite her two stints in the asylum and multiple suicide attempts. All of which I believe were staged for her own benefit.
Originally both Amelia and her son in law were arrested, later Polly would be as well. April 16th, 1896 just a couple weeks after their arrests, Amelia released this statement from her jail cell, it reads,
"Sir will you kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates on Saturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do know I should have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in Heaven an on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither of them had anything at all to do with it, they never knew I contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was too late I am speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be forgiven, I and I alone must stand before my Maker in Heaven to answer it all witness my hand Amelia Dyer."
This is effective, her son in law is released. Do I think they were in on it? No fucking doubt in my mind. But in any case, her family and friends testified at her trial and it was her daughter Mary’s testimony that provided the nail in the coffin so to speak. Amelia was found guilty of murder after a jury deliberation of just 4 minutes and sentenced to death by hanging. She requested to be at her daughter Polly’s trial but was denied, later Polly would be released.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer would die at Newgate prison June 10th, 1896. She’d filled 5 notebooks with her confession, it is believed around 400 babies died at her hands. When asked if she had any final words before the drop she responded, “I have nothing to say” and at 9am sharp, the lever was pulled, the door opened and her body dropped to its death.
Killers like Amelia and Jane Toppan, the American nurse who loved to poison her patients slowly, are often given nicknames like the Angeles of Death or Angel Maker. Personally, that shit pisses me off. These women were serial killers, atrocious humans who planned and executed out the murders of helpless people and children for their own perverted and financial gain. The historical pattern of society not comfortable or willing to accept women as heartless killers was and is a detrimental flaw in our system. In Amelia’s trial there were many a people who said they suspected her of ill play but no one said anything because she seemed nice, or maybe she wasn’t well or purely because she was a mother. Until we can accept that women are capable of the same atrocities as men, people like Amelia Dyer will still have the opportunity to kill.
What do you guys think of Amelia's story? Tell me in the comments below!!!