The Quietness


Being a child in Victorian England was no walk in the park—extreme poverty and filth lead to widespread disease, and often, death. If you made it out of infanthood, chances were pretty high that a nasty bout of Cholera or a case of good ol’ Typhus would swoop in and take you down, sometimes in a matter of hours.

For British children in the late 1800s, disease wasn’t the only thing getting in the way of growing old and gray—a set of laws that were put in place to deter adultery and relations out of wedlock made it near impossible for a woman to raise a child on her own. It was commonplace for women to either commit infanticide or turn to so-called baby farms as a last resort.

Baby farms were somewhat similar to modern-day orphanages or even foster homes: Women would pay the “farmers” a sum of money to take their newborns under the assumption that they would offer them a brighter future. One such baby farmer was Amelia Dyer, a middle-aged former nurse, who by all accounts was built like a house and rarely cracked a smile. At first, Dyer used her experience as a midwife to open up a home for young women who needed care during and after their pregnancies. After they would give birth, Dyer would either arrange for their adoption or keep them on the grounds, only to let them die of neglect or starvation.

Over the years, Amelia Dyer cut out the hospitable side of her operation and resorted to placing ads in various papers either offering a home for unwanted babies or posing as a woman interested in adopting a newborn child. Dyer took in baby after baby, often feeding them a liquid opiate commonly known as “The Quietness” to keep the children silent as they slowly starved to death under her roof.

Dyer moved her sordid operation often, and as she descended further into madness and uncontrollable greed, she shifted the methods in which she would rid herself of the poor young souls in order to accelerate the flow of cash. Mere hours after meeting desperate mothers, who would fork over 5 to 10 pounds for her services, Dyer would reach into her trusty sewing kit for a length of white dressmaking tape to wrap twice around the babies little necks. Once they had taken their last breath, she would wrap their bodies in a variety of packages and throw them into the River Thames near Reading.

That’s where, one Spring morning in 1896, a bargeman fished up one such package, alerting the police as soon as he spotted something resembling a small foot sticking out of its soggy edge. Stupidly enough, Dyer’s own faded address still appeared on the package. Dyer was arrested and confessed immediately to her crimes, reportedly telling police who were preparing to dredge the river for more victims that “’You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks.”

In the 30 years Amelia Dyer ruthlessly committed murder after murder, it is believed she sent anywhere between 300 and 400 babies to their watery graves, though only six victims have ever been confirmed. She had previously been committed to insane asylums, twice, but the jurors at her trial were not swayed by the weak insanity defense she presented. Three weeks after they found her guilty, she was hanged at Newgate Prison. Her last words? “I have nothing to say.”


—Alix / @alixmcalpine

Artwork by Richard Colman

One Comment, Comment or Ping

  1. Howard

    And this is different than abortion how?

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