How one Victorian bargeman solved a 30-year murder mystery

Sometimes a certain face just sticks in your head -one of an old friend, maybe, or a stranger you flirted with on public transport, or perhaps someone more like this:

Amelia Dyer was arguably one of Victorian England’s most notorious killers. Posing as a ‘baby farmer’, she would place advertisements in newspapers claiming to be from a financially stable married couple, keen to adopt a child. Desperate women would, for fees of up to £100 and a bundle of baby clothes, leave their child in her care, in the hope that she would raise it in the loving environment the child’s mother could not herself provide. The reality was far from rosy. For several years, Dyer would feed her charges opiates, which significantly reduced the babies’ appetites, leading to malnutrition and, ultimately, starvation. After a while, doctors began to get suspicious about the number of death certificates they were writing for babies in Dyer’s care, and she was eventually charged with neglect and sentenced to six months hard labour. This apparently increased Dyer’s mental instability, and led to several attempted suicides. On one occasion, she drank two bottles of laudanum (a potent narcotic containing high levels of opium), but because of extended substance abuse, she had built up a tolerance to opium products and survived. This did not stop her ‘baby farming’. To avoid the suspicion of doctors, Dyer began disposing of bodies herself, strangling babies with white edging tape used in dress making. It is thought Dyer’s killing spree took place over three decades, and the number of victims could be as high as 400 infants.

However, despite using a number of aliases and constantly relocating to Bristol, London, Cardiff and Reading, by 1896, Dyer’s luck had run thin. On the 30th of March, a bargeman passing along the Thames at Reading spotted a parcel floating in the water. Upon retrieving the parcel, the man discovered it contained the body of a baby girl, aged between 6 and 12 months, who had been strangled using a piece of white edging tape. Although many other babies had been found in a similar condition in the same area of the Thames, this one, Helena Fry, contained vital clues. From the paper used to contain the body, police managed to decipher the address of a Mrs Thomas, and a label from Bristol Temple Meads station. It later transpired that the baby had been given to Dyer, or Thomas as she was known to the victim’s mother, at Temple Meads on the 5th of March, and Dyer had promptly killed the baby on the same day, and let the body fester in her house until the pungent smell led her to dump the package in the river. This was not the last of Dyer’s killings, though.  On the same day Fry’s body was taken from the river, Dyer (masquerading as a Mrs Harding), met with Evelina Marmon, a popular barmaid who was reluctant to give up her daughter, but was consoled by the knowledge that Mrs Harding and her husband would provide “a good home and a mother’s love”. Instead, Dyer travelled with baby Doris to Dyer’s daughter, Mary Palmer’s, house in Willesdon, London. Here, Dyer carried out her signature murder with the taping. The £10 she had been paid by Marmon to look after the child was used to pay her daughter’s rent. The following day, Harry Simmons was left in Dyer’s care. Having run out of tape, she unpicked that tied round Doris’ neck, and repeated the process on Harry. She then piled the two bodies into a carpet bag and added bricks to weigh down the bag. After returning to Reading, she threw the bag into a weir at Caversham Lock.

Caversham Lock in 1890 by Henry Taunt (c) Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive HT6417


The next day, on the 4th of April, Dyer’s home in Reading was raided by police. Officers entering the house spoke of being greeted by the stench of decomposing human bodies and, although none were found, they discovered correspondence regarding adopted babies, white edging tape, pawn tickets for children’s clothes and receipts for newspaper advertisements. This evidence, along with testaments from around the country, was enough to have her charged on the following day with murder.

Her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur Palmer, were charged as accessories to murder, but later released. In her defence, at her trial in May 1896, Amelia Dyer pleaded insanity as the reason for her murders, and despite her history of twice being committed to asylums in Bristol, the prosecution successfully quashed this argument, claiming that she may well have feigned insanity to avoid suspicion. With the evidence stacked against her, including a statement from her own daughter, it took the jury less than 10 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Dyer was sentenced to death and hanged at Newgate Prison on the 10th of June 1896, although not before she made her own feeble attempt to hang herself using a handkerchief in her cell.

Despite Dyer’s killings, and similar crimes committed in the same period, it wasn’t until 1926, 30 years after Dyer’s last murder, that the Adoption of Children Act was enacted in England and Wales, after five failed attempts to introduce such laws.

Yesterday (freeview channel 12) are currently showing Jeremy Paxman’s series, The Victorians, which includes a segment on Dyer, and the hardships of women in Victorian England.


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