Baby Farmers: The Forgotten Killers
In Victorian Britain having a child out of wedlock was deeply shameful. The practice of an older woman accepting custody of a baby in exchange for a weekly fee or a one-time ‘premium’ was an attractive solution for many unwed new mothers. These baby farms became very popular and lucrative businesses, with over 2000 baby farms existing in the 1890’s. Mothers were told that their infants would be placed in happy, nurturing homes. However all too often, babies ended up neglected and left to starve to death, with others meeting an even more chilling and murderous fate. Here are 5 cases of the most horrifying baby farm murders.
Amelia Dyer is one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, having killed approximately 400 babies. Dyer was a nurse at the Bristol Royal infirmary, who after the death of her first husband George Thomas, set up a baby farm as a quick and easy way of making money. Motivated only by greed, Dyer began to neglect the infants in her care, by starving them and using an anti-colic cordial known as ‘The Quiet Nurse’, containing liquid opium, to silence the starving babies’ screams.
But this was not a quick enough method for Dyer.
Following a doctor’s suspicion over the number of babies dying in her care, she was arrested and charged with neglect, for which she served just six months. Following her release from prison, Dyer continued her baby farm business, but instead began strangling her defenseless victims, placing them in paper parcels and disposing of their bodies in the Thames River. It has also been suggested that, she may have held on to a baby’s corpse for a while to make sure that it was decomposed enough such that it could not have been traced back to her. She would later state in her confession that:“After I got a Baby something seemed to say in my ears ‘Get rid of it’”.
Amelia Dyer also provided lodging for women who were heavily pregnant, smothering the child before it took its first breath. This made it impossible for a doctor to distinguish between stillbirth and murder. Dyer’s adverts in local papers and charming personality made her a very successful baby farmer and murderer.
However, eventually Dyer became careless. On March 30th 1896, a brown paper parcel containing the remains of a baby girl was found in the Thames River at Caversham Lock. The address of one of Amelia Dyer’s aliases was written on the paper, leading the police straight to her. The investigating officers found many more bodies of babies in the Thames. Amelia allegedly stated to police that:
“You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”.
Amelia Dyer was convicted at the Old Bailey, with the jury taking only 5 minutes to find her guilty of murder. She was put to death by hanging on Wednesday 10th June 1896.
Margaret Waters’ case was extremely high profile, making it instrumental in bringing awareness to the scale of baby farming and infanticide in Victorian society. Waters aged 38 and her sister and accomplice Sarah Ellis 28 lived in Brixton, South London. Together, the sisters ran a baby farm, advertising their malevolent business in many newspapers, pretending to be a married couple looking to adopt a baby.
The sisters would cruelly neglect the infants, leaving them to starve as they lay in their own waste before they died. To save on costs of burial for the babies they murdered, Margaret would place the children in brown paper and dispose of them on the side of the streets – a common site in Victorian Britain. In 1870, 16-year-old Janet Cowen had become pregnant with her baby John. Attempting to rid the family of John, Cowen’s father answered an advert placed by Margaret Walters under one of her aliases.
The sisters’ luck would soon come to an end however, when Sergeant Richard Relf, who was investigating infant deaths in the Brixton area, became suspicious over an advert placed by a Mrs Oliver, in a local paper. Mrs Oliver was a pseudonym of Sarah Ellis, who was interviewed but refused to give her address. Sgt. Relf however, was able to follow her to her home at Fredrick Terrace.
Sgt. Relf accompanied by Mr Cowen – Janet’s father, went to Fredrick Terrace where they made a horrifying discovery.
Baby John was discovered along with four other babies, all in an emaciated and filthy state. A bottle of laudanum was also found, it had been used by the sisters to help dull the starving infants’ cries. Margaret Waters admitted that she and her sister had ‘adopted’ as many as 40 children. All five of the babies discovered by Sgt. Relf and Mr Cowen later died, due to the way they had been treated by Waters and Ellis.
Waters was tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the murder of baby John, though there was a large amount of evidence to suggest that she had killed many other infants. Her sister Sarah Ellis was convicted only for obtaining money under false pretences and served 18 months in prison. During the trial, evidence which connected Margaret Waters and one of Amelia Dyer’s aliases was found.
Margaret Waters was hung on 11th October 1870 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, London.
Unlike the other murderers on this list, Annie Tooke was only responsible for the death of one child. In 1878, Tooke was given £12 by a mother of a malformed illegitimate boy- Reginald Hyde, in exchange for one year’s keep. The mother of the boy told Tooke that she did not want to see the child again.
On the 17th May the following year, the dismembered torso of a malformed baby was found in a rubbish pile. The head, legs, arms and genitals were found nearby. Locals who knew of Annie Tooke and Reginald became suspicious and demanded that Tooke show them the baby. Annie claimed in a police interview that a mysterious stranger had taken the boy. Though she was believed at first, her story failed to add up and she was arrested.
While Tooke was in custody, she gave a full confession, describing at great length about how she smothered the child and dismembered his body before dumping it. She later withdrew this confession. But, it was too late for Annie. The court believed her initial confession when considered along with other evidence such as blood stains found on her clothes. She was tried at Exeter and found guilty of murder.
Annie Tooke was hung on Monday 11th August 1879 at Devon County Gaol.
The Finchley Baby Farmers
Amelia Sach aged 29 and Annie Walters 54 were a murderous duo operating in East Finchley, London. The dynamic duo ran a nursing home for heavily pregnant unmarried mothers, allowing these expectant mothers to have their children without drawing unwanted attention. Sach and Walters also offered to arrange for the babies to be adopted, for an additional fee.
The two women were cold and brutal. After giving birth, Sach would tell the mother to kiss the baby goodbye. The babies were never to be seen again. Sach would give the newborn baby to Walters who would drug them with chlorodyne which contained morphine. When this failed to seal the infant’s fate, she would strangle them. However, in 1902, their brutal killing spree was about to come to an abrupt end.
Walters aroused the suspicion of her landlord, who was also a police officer, after the second child she had brought home died under strange circumstances. Annie Walters was questioned and her confessions implicated Amelia Sach. After both women were arrested the police found many babies’ clothes at the nursing home, but there was no sign of the babies that they had belonged to.
Both Sach and Walters were tried at the Old Bailey for their crimes. On February 3rd 1903, they were executed by hanging. This was the first hanging in the new Holloway Women’s Prison and the first double hanging in Britain.
The Tranmere Baby Farmers
Why do couples kill together? Is there a sadistic leader and a submissive follower, or do both wish to satisfy a shared sadistic fantasy? These are questions that we ask ourselves when we look at the crimes of Catherine and John Barnes, also known as the Tranmere baby farmers.
Mr and Mrs Barnes ran a baby farm, where they looked after approximately 18 children over their 10-year murder career. They operated from many different addresses in the Liverpool area to avoid detection from the police and advertised their services in various papers. The infants they ‘adopted’ were subjected to cruel conditions and starved until their death caused by inanition.
Their torturous killing spree was soon to end, when the mother of Alice Hamilton gave Mrs Barnes £30 to adopt her child. Alice and another baby, Mable, were slowly and sadistically starved and subsequently died. In October 1879, the Barnes were imprisoned and charged with the wilful murder of two infants and were sentenced to penal servitude for the rest of their natural lives.