Police photo of Amelia Dyer after being arrested in 1896
She was dubbed the ‘Angel Maker’, a prolific serial killer responsible for the murders of around 400 babies, horrific crimes that sent a shock wave through 19th century Britain
Amelia Dyer preyed on the down-on-their-luck, desperate unmarried mothers who paid her to have their children adopted in the naive belief she would find them a better life.
But there would be no fairytale endings, instead this despicable woman simply took the money before strangling the helpless infants with dressmaking tape and dumping their bodies in the River Thames
For over 30 years Dyer was able to conduct her grisly trade with apparent impunity. Little wonder that she is now believed to be Britain’s worst ever serial killer.
Her crimes have come to light once again after more than 2.5million criminal records from between 1770 and 1934 were placed online by the National Archives.
The intriguing records chronicle the crimes and punishments of some of the worst murderers and villains ever to roam these lands. But even among this company of loathsome individuals Dyer stands apart.
She began to conduct her grisly trade in Bristol in the late 1860s, opening a house of confinement in the suburb of Totterdown where she took in unmarried pregnant women who had nowhere else to go.
Some would ask her to smother their babies at birth, crimes that went unchallenged as Victorian doctors were unable to tell the difference between suffocation and still-birth.
A cell and the galleries at Newgate prison where Amelia Dyer was jailed before her hanging in 1896
Then Dyer moved began offering a fostering service, which involved her simply drugging the babies with laudanum, a powerful opiate, to keep them quite while she slowly starved them.
This went on for almost a decade until she was found guilty of infant neglect and sentenced to paltry six-months in prison.
By the time she came out she had a developed a new business plan. The logic was simple; why deal with all the bother of actually looking after the children when she could offer a one-off full adoption service and simply kill them.
She moved to Reading and soon found her services in high demand – eyewitnesses reported seeing as many as six babies a day coming into her home.
An artist’s drawing of three people being hanged outside Newgate prison where Amelia Dyer also met her end
Police would later find evidence of around 20 children who had been entrusted to her care in the two months before her arrest.
She was finally arrested following the discovery of the body of an infant in the reeds of the Thames. An address on the parcel paper led the police to her rented terraced house..
Inside her house of horrors they were met with the stench of rotting flesh emanating from the kitchen pantry and from a trunk under her bed.
They discovered baby clothes, vaccination papers as well as letters and receipts for her newspaper advertisements offering adoption services.
Amelia Dyer’s shocking crimes stunned Victorian Britain. Her case was so sensational that songs were written about her and Britain’s adoption and child protection laws had to be toughened up in response to the public outcry
A search of the River Thames was hastily ordered. After 50 bodies had been discovered she admitted to police: ‘You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks.
Her case was so sensational that songs were written about her and Britain’s adoption and child protection laws had to be toughened up in response to the public outcry.
Dyer was hanged at Newgate Gaol, near the Old Bailey in London, in 1896. She was 58.
Her Prison Commission file records her last moments: ‘On account of her weight and the softness of the textures, rather a short drop was given. It proved to be quite sufficient.
Hers is one of more than 2.5million records from 1770 to 1934 have been put online, chronicling the fates of fraudsters, counterfeiters, thieves, murderers and drunkards.
The collection covers England and Wales, and is published by family history website findmypast.co.uk and The National Archives. Debra Chatfield, a historian at findmypast.co.uk, said:
‘These records provide an amazing opportunity to trace any villains and victims in your own family. We have painstakingly published registers containing mugshots of habitual drunks with incredible descriptions of appearance, demeanour and identifying marks.
‘The newspaper articles available provide unparalleled detail and show how crimes were reported when they were committed.’
The collection contains scanned images of court documents and letters of appeal written by friends and relatives begging for clemency, usually in vain.
Justice was brutal and often led to the hangman’s noose.
There are also Edwardian ASBOs, banning ne’er-do-wells from pubs – including one served on a 78-year-old ‘habitually drunken’ woman.
People can search for ancestors whose crimes caused them to be sent to Australia or housed on prison ships known as ‘hulks’.
Paul Carter, a records specialist at The National Archives, said the files ‘record the intimate details of hundreds of thousands of people’.
To find villains in your family, type your surname into the ‘crime and punishment’ section of the findmypast.co.uk website.
All criminal records in that name from 1770 to 1934 will be listed, along with National Archives data.
Crimes are catalogued by name, age, occupation, court date, area, victim’s name and sentence.
A further click of the mouse takes you to scanned images of the original handwritten records.
Serial killers: Britain’s worst
Dr Harold Shipman Victims: more than 250
The UK’s most prolific murderer was found guilty of 15 murders in 2000 while working as a doctor in Hyde, Manchester. An official report said he killed between 215 and 260 people over 23 years while working in Hyde and Todmorden, Yorkshire. He would inject diamorphine into his patients and then falsify the medical records, reporting that his patient had been in poor health. Known as Doctor Death. Hanged himself in prison.
Mary Ann Cotton Victims: 21
Born in County Durham in October 1832, she was executed in 1873 for murdering her seven-year-old stepson, but was believed to have murdered up to 21 people, mainly by arsenic poisoning.
The Dunblane school massacre occurred at Dunblane Primary School in the Scottish town of Dunblane on 13 March 1996. The gunman, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton, entered the school armed with four handguns, shooting and killing sixteen children and one adult before committing suicide
Dennis Nilsen Victims: 16
The “Muswell Hill Murderer” confessed to killing at least 15 men at his north London flat between 1978 and 1983. After having sex with them, Dennis Nilson dissected them and burned their remains or flushed them down the lavatory.
Michael Ryan: 16
The Hungerford massacre occurred in Hungerford, England, on 19 August 1987. The gunman, 27-year-old Michael Robert Ryan, armed with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun, shot and killed sixteen people including his mother, and wounded fifteen others, then fatally shot himself.
Peter Sutcliffe Victims: 13
Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, preyed on women – many of them prostitutes in Leeds and Bradford – in the 1970s. He was convicted of murdering 13 and trying to kill seven others. He claimed messages from God drove him to murder.
Derrick Bird: 12
The Cumbria shootings was a killing spree that occurred on 2 June 2010 when a lone gunman, Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria, England
Fred West Victims: 11
Fred West, working alone and later with the help of his wife, Rosemary, tortured, raped and murdered at least 11 women and girls between 1973 and 1979. He committed suicide while in police custody in 1995. She was later convicted of nine murders, including that of her daughter and Fred’s stepdaughter.
Patrick Mackay – 11
Patrick Mackay (born September 25, 1952) is a British serial killer who confessed to murdering eleven people in England in the mid 1970s. Patrick Mackay was charged with five murders, but two charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. In November 1975 he was convicted and sentenced to life means life imprisonment
Jack the Ripper: Up to 11
“‘Jack the Ripper” was said to be responsible for 11 murders, and maybe more, in east London between 1888 and 1891. Most victims were prostitutes. Nobody was ever brought to justice for the crimes which are still considered one of Britain’s most infamous unsolved murder cases.
Peter Manuel Victims: 8 (perhaps 15-18)
Peter Manuel, aged 31, was a serial killer in Scotland. He was the second to last person to be hanged in HM Prison Barlinnie and the third to last to be hanged in Scotland. Manuel will have committed at least eight murders including teenagers and children by the time the police arrest him in 1958.
John Christie Victims: at least 8
He murdered a series of women, including his wife Ethel, between the 1940s and early 1950s. He also sexually interfered with some of the corpses and was hanged in 1953.
Ken Erskine: The ‘Stockwell Strangler’ – At least 7
Ken Erskine: The ‘Stockwell Strangler’ murdered seven pensioners. Jailed for 40 years in 1988. During 1986, Erskine murdered at least seven elderly people, breaking into their homes and strangling them; most often they were sexually assaulted. The crimes took place in London.
John Haigh – At least 6
Among the more elaborate murderers lies John Haigh who was branded the “acid bath vampire”. Haigh claimed to have drunk the blood of the six victims he disposed of in vats of acid. A forger and fraudster, he befriended his victims before faking legal documents to secure money and possessions after their death. Although he tried to plead insanity, Haigh was convicted and hanged in 1949.
John Childs – 6
John Childs: burned the bodies of his six victims at his east London flat. Jailed for life in 1980. It was heard by the court that the murders were all contract killings.
“Jack the Stripper” – 6
Jack the Stripper was the nickname given to an unknown serial killer responsible for what came to be known as the London “nude murders” between 1964 and 1965 (also known as the “Hammersmith Apollo murders” or “Hammersmith nudes” case). His victimology and nickname is similar to Jack the Ripper‘s. He murdered six — possibly eight —prostitutes, whose nude bodies were discovered around London or dumped in the River Thames. The victim count is ambiguous because two of the murders attributed to him did not fit his modus operandi.
Colin Ireland – 5
Colin Ireland: terrorised London’s gay community, torturing and killing five homosexuals. He was jailed for life for the murders in December 1993 and remained imprisoned until his death in February 2012, at the age of 57.
Steve Wright – 5
Steven Gerald James Wright is an English serial killer, also known as the Suffolk Strangler. He is currently serving life imprisonment for the murder of five womenwho worked as prostitutes in Ipswich, Suffolk. The killings took place during late 2006 and Wright was found guilty in February 2008.