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The Victorian War Against Innocence

Amelia Sachs

Baby farming, have you ever heard of such a thing? In the late Victorian period, it became a widespread practice. Babies, particularly babies born out of wedlock, could be handed, with a sum of money, into the care of surrogate mothers. Back then, society deemed single parent situations shameful. Anybody, including the criminal minded, could advertise themselves as an 'adoption service'.

The child abuse stories from this era are off the scale.

In 1861 The Times newspaper reported that 250 infants were suffocated, and 150 more recorded as "found dead", many of which were discarded like rubbish onto the streets. The report noted that "infancy in London has to creep into life in the midst of foes."

In 1870 Margaret Waters of Brixton placed twenty-seven adverts claiming to be a married couple wanting to adopt a young child because they were unable to have one of their own. Her asking price was £4. Police Sergeant Richard Relf is on record as the first person to specialise investigations into child disappearances and deaths in London. He already had eighteen cases on his books when he answered one of Margaret Water's adverts. He visited her house and found five malnourished babies. Nearby to the babies he found a bottle of laudanum, which is a mix of opium and alcohol commonly used at the time to sedate small children. The babies were taken away to a workhouse, where they all died. Waters was hung at Horsemonger Lane gaol on 11th October 1870.

In 1896 a young unmarried mother named Florence Jones answered an advertisement offering adoption for five pounds cash. Florence met up with a woman outside Charing Cross train station. The woman introduced herself as Mrs Hewetson. They travelled together to an address in Hammersmith. Florence didn't have the full asking price, so she gave Mrs Hewetson her child Selina, and three pounds. A couple of days later she went back to the house in Hammersmith with the outstanding two pounds. But Mrs Hewetson had moved on, without leaving a forwarding address. Florence contacted the police, who were unable to help. A few days later, a child's body washed up on the banks of the Thames at Battersea. Mrs Hewetson sent a pre-emptive letter to the police saying that she'd read about the dead baby. She admitted taking custody of the child, but insisted that she had sold her on to a woman in Croydon. The police traced the letter back to a woman named Ada Chard Williams. Chard Williams was found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, and on the 6th March 1900, she became the last woman to be hanged at Newgate Prison. The police suspected her of many more child murders.

Ada Chard Williams

In the late 1800's twenty-nine-year-old Annie Walters ran an adoption house in Finchley. She offered unmarried mother's a safe place for childbirth, and secure homes for their unwanted babies. Yet whenever a baby was handed over, Walters immediately passed it to her friend, fifty-four-year-old Amelia Sachs, who administered an overdose of chlorodyne. The child's body would then be thrown into the Thames, or buried among rubbish. The scheming couple's ploy began to unravel when Walters took one of the babies back to her private lodgings. She introduced the child as a girl, to her landlord, a policeman. The policeman's wife offered to change the babies' nappy and realised that it was in fact a boy. Their suspicions were raised even further when the little boy disappeared. Walters told them the child had died whilst sleeping. A couple of months later, she bought another baby boy home. One night, the policeman trailed her to South Kensington where she was apprehended, carrying the recently murdered child wrapped in a blanket. Walters made a full confession, and detectives were able to locate several more dead bodies. They found enough items of child's clothing to suggest at least twenty victims. On the 3rd February 1903, Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters became the first women to be hanged at Holloway Prison. Theirs was the last ever double female hanging in Britain. Sachs collapsed out of fear on her way to the gallows, and had to be assisted. Walter's last words before the drop were: "goodbye Sachs"

Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters

Nobody embodied the heartless dark side of the Victorian era, more than Amelia Dyer. Born Amelia Hobley in 1836, she learned to read and write at an early age, she also developed a love of poetry. But her childhood was turned upside down by her mother's enduring mental illness. Young Amelia grew up in the shadow of violent fits and seizures. She eventually trained as a nurse, and married George Thomas, of Bristol. Whilst training she befriended a midwife named Ellen Dane who introduced her to baby farming. Dyer opened her house as a lodging place where, for a negotiable price, unmarried mothers could give birth to their babies. She assured the young mothers, that their babies would be forwarded to caring homes. But after the mothers had moved out of the house, the infants were drugged and neglected. In 1869 George Thomas died, leaving Amelia with a young daughter. She placed several advertisements offering nursing and adoption - the wholesale drugging and neglect continued. In 1872 she married William Dyer, and they had two children. Unless I'm missing some information here, it appears that she never killed any of her own offspring. The relationship with Mr Dyer failed, and she left him.

Amelia Dyer

At this point in her war against innocence, she realised that drugging and neglecting children took too much time. The quicker they died, the more money she'd get to keep for herself. This is where the killing spree accelerated. As soon as an unsuspecting mother had handed over her child and walked away, Dyer would move in for the kill. With so many death certificates being issued, it's no wonder the authorities became interested. In 1879 Amelia Dyer was arrested and charged with neglect. She received six-months 'hard-labour'. During this spell in prison her mental state deteriorated. Shortly after being released, she attempted suicide by drinking poison, which led to a spell in a lunatic asylum. In 1890 Dyer, in the grip of opium addiction, killed the baby daughter of a private teacher, the teacher alerted the authorities, but Dyer suffered another mental breakdown, and avoided questioning. Suspicions arose that Dyer faked mental illness having learned how to behave by watching her mother's fits. Yet more suicide attempts followed, and yet more child murders. Her preferred method was strangulation using white dressmaker's tape. To avoid all the bother and suspicion raised by the issuing of death certificates, the bodies were usually dropped into the Thames. She advertised widely using various different names and addresses. Neighbours at one address stated that they saw six children a day being bought to her. In April 1896 she adopted little Doris Marmon for a £10 cash fee, Doris's unmarried mother had answered an advert placed by Dyer who masqueraded as a loving couple in need of a child to complete a happy home. Doris was taken to 76 Mayo Road, Willesden and strangled with dressmaker's tape. The following day Dyer took custody of another baby, Harry Simmons, having run out of tape she removed the length from baby Doris' neck, and used it to kill him.

The length of dressmaker's tape used to kill Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons A month later, a bargeman pulled a dead baby out from the reeds of the Thames at Reading. The body, with white tape around the neck, had been wrapped in paper, and on that paper a faint name and address. The name turned out to be one of Dyers' aliases and the address led detectives straight to her. They arrested Dyer on April 4th 1896, the detectives who entered her home remarked that it smelled unmistakably of death. While she sat under arrest, six more bodies turned up floating in the Thames, each one with white dressmakers' tape around the neck. The new resident of a house once occupied by Dyer found the skeletons of five small children buried in the garden. It is estimated that, over a period of thirty plus years, Amelia Dyer murdered four hundred children. She was tried at The Old Bailey and found guilty of 6 murders. To kill time in the condemned cell she filled five exercise books with further confessions. On the night before her execution a chaplain visited her to ask if she had anything else to get off her chest before she died. She gave him the five exercise books and said "isn't this enough?" Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison, 9am, Wednesday 10 June 1896. Asked on the scaffold if she had anything to say, she replied "I have nothing to say." The whisper is that, after Dyer was 'launched into eternity', her daughter Polly carried on killing.

Here's to every child that didn't make it. And here's to Metropolitan Police Sergeant Richard Relf, the first British policeman to specialise investigations into child deaths and disappearances. He certainly had his work cut out. Relf once posed as the father of a fictitious child in order to identify a suspect. Hats off to his memory.

The biblical proverb comes to mind: "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." And there's an ancient Japanese proverb that says it all: "Respect old people, and be gentle with children."

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