Monday, 24 February 2014

The Life and Crimes of Amelia Dyer....Baby Farmer.


    Amelia Dyer was born Amelia Elizabeth Hobley in 1837 at Pyle Marsh in Bristol, she was the youngest of five children, her parents were Samuel and Sarah Hobley, they had a comfortable life as Samuel had a good job as a master shoemaker.
    However, soon this childhood bliss was to change forever when Sarah contracted Typhus and suffered bouts of violent madness before dying in 1848, Amelia had nursed her throughout this time and it must have had quite an effect upon her.
    Soon young Amelia was apprenticed to a Bristol corset maker and moved in with her aunt, sadly in 1859 her father Samuel also died.
    In 1861 at the age of 24 she met and married 59 year old George Thomas, on the marriage certificate he declared his age to be 48 and she said her age was 30 so as to close the age gap a little.       Soon after her marriage Amelia began training as a nurse, this was a tough job in Victorian times and it wasn't long before Amelia heard of another way to make money, through contact with midwives she was introduced to the world of baby farming.

The Baby Farmers.

    Due to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 men who had fathered illegitimate children were not obliged to give any financial help to the mothers, at a time when single mothers were thought a disgrace and stigmatised any measures were employed in hiding or hushing up such a pregnancy, the dubious trade of the baby farmer came into it's own.
    These women would take in the mother for a fee that could be as low as a few pounds to an extortionate fee of up to £100 if the family were rich enough or were induced to supply "hush money".
    After the birth the baby would be given to the farmer and it would either end up being fostered to a childless couple or it would just die of neglect. Often the babies would die of starvation because the farmer would try to cut as many costs as possible, a hungry child is a noisy child so "mother's friend" an opium laced syrup was applied resulting in loss of appetite and eventual death.

Poor Career Choices.

    Sadly for Amelia in 1869 her husband George died and she desperately needed an income, with her nursing skills and dubious moral instincts baby farming seemed the perfect solution.
    Changing her surname to Dyer she was soon advertising herself as a respectable married woman who would nurse and adopt the babies into a loving home, in reality looking after babies was too much like hard work so she killed them, obtained a death certificate from local doctors and keeping the fees.
    It didn't take long for her to come to the attention the authorities, a suspicious amount of infant deaths is hard to cover up and a local doctor tipped off the police.
    Dyer was arrested but astonishingly she was only convicted of neglect! So 1879 ended in six months hard labour rather than a richly deserved rope.
    Upon her release Dyer went back to her old ways, she was an opium user and would take laudanum regularly, if she thought the parent or police were getting too close to the truth she would feign mental illness and get herself committed for a while until things had died down.

    But, she had learned a valuable lesson, trying to cover up a murder with an official death certificate was fraught with danger, so from now on she would dispose of the tiny bodies herself.
     For the next few years Dyer kept herself above suspicion by moving address several times and using aliases, she did her mental illness trick for the last time in 1893.
    After experiencing an awful time in Wells mental asylum, she vowed never to go back. Dyer finally ended up in Kensington Road, Reading, the year was 1895 and it was time to earn some more money.

The End of the Road.

    It is hoped that eventually someone like Dyer will make a mistake and the full weight of the law will be applied, Dyer's mistake was made at the end of March 1896 when instead of looking after a baby girl she had been given £10 to love and to bring up in a nice respectable home she instead put some white tape around her neck and watched the baby slowly die.
    Then in early April a baby boy suffered the same fate, both bodies were put into a carpet bag with a couple of bricks and thrown into the river Thames at a lonely spot called Caversham Lock.

Caversham Lock.
     Also that fateful March a bargeman on the Thames had found another carpet bag.
    On fishing it out of the water and opening it he discovered the body of a baby girl.               Immediately the police were called and detectives were soon investigating, in the carpet bag a Temple Meads Station, Bristol label was found and also the name Mrs Thomas and an address in Bristol.
    It didn't take the police long to trace the bag to Dyer but without better evidence they couldn't convict her for the serious crime they suspected she was guilty of, so they put her house under surveillance and arranged for a young woman to call on Dyer as a decoy.
    When the time came for the arranged meeting instead of a young woman Dyer opened the door to a bunch of burly detectives who then proceeded to search her house thoroughly.
    It was said the house stank of decomposition and yet no bodies were found, so while the river was dredged the police discovered masses of evidence alluding to babies that were plainly unaccounted for in Dyers house.
    Soon the river also gave up it's dreadful secrets when six bodies were recovered, however, the paper evidence suggested the disappearance of twenty babies for the period of January to April 1896.

Launched into Eternity.

    At her trial in Reading two members of Dyers family were charged with being accomplices but they were soon discharged for want of evidence.
    Dyer herself was tried at the Old Bailey on 22 May 1896 and she pleaded guilty to one murder, her only defence was that old trick of hers, insanity.
    It didn't work, the jury took just four and a half minutes to come back with a guilty verdict. In her Newgate prison cell Dyer fill several exercise books with her confessions, finally at 9am on the 10th June 1896 Dyer punctually kept her appointment with the hangman and was launched into eternity.

    Dyer's total number of victims will probably never be known, but it has been calculated that if she killed twenty in four months then over the years she was active she could have killed as many as 400.
    I think we can certainly estimate the number to be well over 200 at least.

    The Dyer case shocked the nation and adoption laws were tightened but abuse carried on, although not to this degree.
    Dyer got the nickname "The Ogress of Reading" but she is far less remembered today than many of her contemporary murderers, which is odd as her tally outstrips them all.

    Fear Incorporated, who describe themselves as a "theatre macabre avant garde band" released a song called "Amelia Dyer" on their "Cloak and Dagger" album (2016), the video can be seen here Fear Incorporated, Amelia Dyer.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Scratching Fanny.

A most terrible event......

    William Kent married Elizabeth Lynes in 1757, they settled in the town of Stoke Ferry near Downham Market in Norfolk. Kent.
    He became the landlord of a local Inn then became the Post master, soon after their wedding Elizabeth fell pregnant, to look after her at this time Elizabeth's sister moved in, her name was Fanny.
    Sadly Elizabeth died during the birth of the Kent's son, Fanny stayed on to look after the baby and William but tragically the baby also died.
    After a while William and Fanny fell in love but they couldn't marry because of Canon Law, so Kent moved to London and tried to forget.

    Fanny found he was living at an address in East Greenwich and soon began sending him love letters, relenting he asked Fanny to join him and they soon found new lodgings in Mansion House.
    Not long after Kent had a run in with the landlord, he had found out they were not married, Kent had lent him some money which the landlord withheld paying back as a kind of protest, so Kent had him arrested.

    The couple had to find somewhere to live and quickly, as Fanny was pregnant. Whilst attending church near Newgate Kent met Richard Parsons who owned a property in Cock Lane, it was a little run down but Kent accepted it readily, not long after they moved in the strange occurrences began.

The Scratching Begins.

18th century Cock Lane.
    Kent was attending a wedding out of town that night, Fanny had Richard Parson's daughter Elizabeth for company. At some point during the night they both heard rapping and scratching noises.

    Unable to locate where the sounds were coming from they asked Mrs Parsons if anyone was working next door to which the answer was no, undeterred the ladies went to the landlord of the Wheat Sheaf public house, a Mr Franzen who returned to the house and upon entering observed a transparent white figure going up the stairs, he turned and fled.

    In late January 1760 Fanny went into labour, as she was already suffering from a fever which was thought to be smallpox her chances were not good and she died on 2nd February.
    Kent was Fanny's sole beneficiary and she had quite a sum of money from inheritances, and so began a long legal wrangle with her family, in 1761 Kent married again.


    However, the house in Cock Lane was now being occupied by a Mrs Friend who stated that the scratching was getting worse, workmen came and searched for a solution but nothing was found.      Richard Parsons approached a local clergyman called John Moore and asked him what he should do.
    The two men stayed in the house one night and asked the spirit questions (one rap for yes, two for no), the answers they received were quite surprising. The first ghost (seen by Franzen) was Elizabeth Kent's first wife who had come back to warn Fanny of her impending doom and now a second ghost, Fanny, appeared saying she had died from arsenic poisoning and Kent was the murderer!
     As a clergyman Moore thought it was quite right that he should put his faith in this ghostly revelation!
The Haunted House.
    The story soon became public knowledge through a newspaper called the Public Ledger and to clear his name Kent visited Moore.
    They then went to Cock Lane and attended a seance, no spirit came so Mary Frazer (a relation of Parsons) decided to call for the ghost by running around the room shouting "Fanny, Fanny, why don't you come? Do come, pray Fanny, come; dear Fanny, come!
    Eventually they made contact and Fanny's spirit was asked the same questions, this time Fanny declared Kent had not poisoned her, someone else had, would Kent hang for this?
     Yes was the reply, Kent was outraged saying this was not Fanny's ghost, she would never say such a thing. 
    Other seances were performed with various persons attending, most notably Kent who still wished to convince everyone of his innocence, Moore even asked if the ghost would stand up in court in defence of Kent!


    The fame of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane spread, Parsons started to charge money for people to come and talk to the ghost, this eventually led to an investigation. Accusations of fraud were just as vociferous as the credulous calls to have faith, many more seances were performed with ever more illustrious visitors.
     Alderman Gosling, Horace Walpole, Lady Northumberland and Dr Samuel Johnson being but a few, the press were having a field day, a Captain Wilkinson brought a pistol to shoot any fraudulent knocker (or scratcher) and a stick to fight his way out, just in case.

    The daughter Elizabeth Parsons (who was 13 years old) seemed to be possessed with the spirit of Fanny, the scratching centered on her and most times she was the focal point during a seance.
    During the investigation in February 1762 she was made to sleep in a hammock, her hands inside the hammock there were scratching noises, hands out there was silence.
    Parsons was threatened with imprisonment in Newgate if he proved false and when young Elizabeth was caught with a piece of wood given to her by her father to sneak into the hammock, the game was up.


Modern day Cock Lane.
      10th July 1762 Richard Parsons, his wife Elizabeth, John Moore, Mary Frazer and tradesman Richard James were found guilty of conspiring to take William Kent's life by charging him with the murder of his wife, the sentences were reported in the Gentlemen's Magazine;

    "The Court choosing that Mr. Kent, who had been so much injured on the occasion, should receive some reparation by punishment of the offenders, deferred giving judgement for seven or eight months, in hopes that the parties might make it up in the meantime. 
    Accordingly, the clergyman, and tradesman agreed to pay Mr. Kent a round sum—some say between £500 and £600 to purchase their pardon, and were, therefore, dismissed with a severe reprimand.
   The father was ordered to be set in the pillory three times in one month—once at the end of Cock–Lane; Elizabeth his wife to be imprisoned one year; and Mary Frazer six months in Bridewell, with hard labour. 
    The father appearing to be out of his mind at the time he was first to standing in the pillory, the execution of that part of his sentence was deferred to another day, when, as well as the other day of his standing there, the populace took so much compassion on him, that instead of using him ill, they made a handsome subscription for him."
Hogarth's "Credulity" knocking ghost is on top of the thermometer (far right) with priest on left.
     The Cock Lane ghost became very famous, Charles Dickens mentions it in Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and Tale of Two Cities. 
    The satirist William Hogarth's painting "Credulity, Superstition & Fanaticism" shows the ghost knocking to the girl in the bed, a is priest slipping a ghostly icon into the cleavage of a woman and in the congregation several people are holding icons of the ghost. 
    In The Times Plate ii we see the ghost pilloried. The house in Cock Lane was demolished in 1979.
Hogarth's The Times Plate ii, the Fanny is on the far right in the pillory.