When we think of crimes that shook Britain, there is one name that comes to mind almost immediately.
Jack the Ripper.
Shrouded in mystery, the nameless ghost of this elusive serial killer stills haunts the alleys of Whitechapel and makes the imagination of millions of people run wild.
And for good reason!
The brutality of his crimes along with the complete lack of any solid clues as to who he really was have turned the figure of Jack the Ripper into a cultural phenomenon. A morbid legend that still troubles criminologists and researchers to this day. It seems that even many decades after his death and the end of his reign of terror, Jack still maintains his hold over the public.
Even the mere notion than someone like him could possibly be stalking you as you walk home after sunset is enough to make your heart tremble in fear.
I know I get chills every time I think about it!
One would think that there could be nothing worse than the brutal Whitechapel murders. Such atrocity could never be surpassed, surely.
What if I told you that there is someone who could give Jack a run for his money?
And what if I told you that someone is…a woman?
Buckle your seatbelts ladies and gentlemen, for today we are getting up close and personal with one of Britain’s most prolific female serial killers!
Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was not the product of grinding poverty. She was born the youngest of five in the small village of Pyle Marsh, just east of Bristol, the daughter of a master shoemaker, Samuel Hobley, and Sarah Hobley. She learned to read and write and developed a love of literature and poetry. However, her somewhat privileged childhood was marred by the mental illness of her mother, caused by typhus. Amelia witnessed her mother’s violent fits and was obliged to care for her until she died raving in 1848.
After her mother’s death Amelia lived with an aunt in Bristol for a while, before serving an apprenticeship with a corset maker.
At the age of 24, she married George Thomas. George was 59 and they both lied about their ages on the marriage certificate to reduce the age gap. George deducted 11 years from his age and Amelia added 6 years to her age—many sources later reported this age as fact, causing much confusion.
For a couple of years, after marrying George Thomas, she trained as a nurse, a somewhat grueling job in Victorian times, but it was seen as a respectable occupation, and it enabled her to acquire useful skills. From contact with a midwife she learnt of an easier way to earn a living—using her own home to provide lodgings for young women who had conceived illegitimately and then farming off the babies for adoption.
But what was ‘baby farming’?
Unmarried mothers in Victorian England often struggled to gain an income, since the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had removed any financial obligation from the fathers of illegitimate children, whilst bringing up their children in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatized. This led to the practice of baby farming in which individuals acted as adoption or fostering agents, in return for regular payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Many businesses were set up to take in these young women and care for them until they gave birth. The mothers subsequently left their unwanted babies to be looked after as “nurse children”.
Ms. Dyer, herself, assured clients that children under her care would be given a safe and loving home.
Initially, Dyer would let the child die from starvation and neglect. “Mother’s Friend,” an opium-laced syrup, was given to quiet these children as they suffered through starvation. Eventually Dyer resorted to faster murders which allowed her to pocket even more profit. Dyer eluded the authorities for years but was eventually arrested when a doctor became suspicious of the number of babies dying under her care. Surprisingly, Dyer was only charged with neglect and sentenced to 6 months of labor.
Dyer learned from her initial conviction. When she returned to baby farming, she did not involve physicians and began disposing of the bodies herself to avoid any added risk. She also relocated frequently to avoid suspicion and took up the use of aliases.
The Case of Evelina Marmon’s Daughter
In January 1896, Evelina Marmon, a popular 25-year-old barmaid, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Doris, in a boarding house in Cheltenham. She quickly sought offers of adoption, and placed an advertisement in the “Miscellaneous” section of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper. It simply read: “Wanted, respectable woman to take young child.” Marmon intended to go back to work and hoped to eventually reclaim her child.
Coincidentally, next to her own, was an advertisement reading: “Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10”. Marmon responded to a “Mrs. Harding”, and a few days later she received a reply from Dyer, who presented herself as a childless woman of good standing who wanted to raise a little baby girl as her own.
After picking up the child, Dyer did not travel to Reading, as she had told Marmon. She went instead to London. There, Dyer quickly found some white edging tape used in dressmaking, wound it twice around the baby’s neck and tied a knot. Death would not have been immediate. Amelia later said “I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them”.
The End of Amelia’s Reign of Murder
Unknown to Dyer, on 30 March 1896, a package was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. As well as finding a label from Temple Meads station, Bristol, an ingenious constable from the Reading Police Department, used microscopic analysis of the wrapping paper, and deciphered a faintly-legible name—Mrs. Thomas, which was one of Dyer’s many aliases—and an address.
This evidence was enough to lead police to Dyer, but they still had no strong evidence to connect her directly with a serious crime. Using a clever plot and a decoy in the form of a young woman looking to employ Dyer’s services, Dyer was eventually apprehended. She was later tried at the Old Bailey in March 1896, using insanity as her defense. It took a jury less than five minutes to reach a guilty verdict. She plead guilty to just one murder, but using estimates based on timelines and years active, she likely killed between 200-400 children. On Wednesday, June 10, 1896 just before 9:00 am, Amelia Dyer was hanged.
There is even a theory, albeit not backed by evidence, that because the murders occurred during the same period, Amelia Dyer and Jack the Ripper are one in the same and that the Ripper’s victims were botched abortions committed by Dyer.
And that’s a thought equal parts comforting and terrifying!
Comforting because it’d mean that there was one deranged killer instead of two, and terrifying because it’d take a whole other level of depravity for one person to commit these heinous crimes!
What do you think? Is that possible that they were one and the same person? Personally, I don’t think they were, but the theory still makes me shudder.
There’s one thing for sure: I’m mighty glad Jack the Ripper and Amelia Dyer never met!
Written by Emma Linfield