Police forces all over the Thames Valley were alerted in March 1896 when a Thames bargeman hauled a brown paper parcel containing the body of a baby out of the river. The child had been strangled with a bootlace that was still around its neck, and the parcel was weighted with a brick.
In the previous six months the bodies of no fewer than 40 children, strangled with bootlaces or tape and wrapped in parcels, had been lifted out of the river. But this latest one yielded a vital clue. Written on the inside of the brown paper was a name and a Reading address, still legible despite long immersion. The paper had once wrapped a parcel sent to the home of a Mrs. Amelia Dyer.
Not that she was there any more. A frequent mover, she was now at another address, in Caversham. By the time police traced her, two more babies had been found in the river.
Detectives soon discovered that Mrs. Dyer, a huge, overweight woman of 56, was also known as Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Harding, and Mrs. Stanfield. There were lots of baby clothes at her home, but no babies.
So who were the babies mothers? Evelina Marmon, a Cheltenham barmaid, was one. With no money to keep her illegitimate daughter Doris, she answered a newspaper advert from a woman seeking to adopt a child. Relieved to find that the seemingly kindly Mrs Stanfield wanted only £10, she parted company with Doris. Twenty-four hours later Mrs. Stanfield, aka Dyer, strangled little Doris and threw her body into the Thames.
The body of another child, found at the same time as Doris, was identified as having been in the care of a Mrs. Amelia Sergeant, who gave evidence when Mrs. Dyer was brought before Reading magistrates. I said to Mrs. Dyer, Youll be kind to him, wont you? she testified. She replied, Trust me for that!
While Mrs. Dyers minimum charge for adopting a child had been £10, receipts proved that she was paid as much as £100 for some of her so-called charges. Other evidence showed that she killed the children within 24 hours of taking them into care.
At her Old Bailey trial in May 1896, one of the witnesses against her was her daughter Margaret Palmer, who described an occasion when her mother came to see her with a baby.
I was putting my own baby to bed. The one she had with her was crying bitterly, and she undressed it to quieten it. Later I went into the bedroom to see my little one and when I returned I saw the baby that my mother had brought with her lying on the couch, closely muffled in a shawl, apparently asleep. My mother wouldnt let me go near it.
Next morning there was no trace of the child, but she saw a bundle under the couch. She later found some tape had disappeared from her workbox. Her mother left with the bundle under her arm.
Amelia Dyer was in a state of collapse when the jury found her guilty after an absence of only six minutes. Before her execution she made a feeble attempt to strangle herself by twisting a handkerchief around her throat. She was hanged on Wednesday, June 10th, 1896, at Newgate. Her great bulk reduced to a quivering and helpless mass, she staggered out to meet her end.
The corpses of seven children were directly linked to her, but police were convinced that she was responsible for dozens more hauled out of the Thames and the Kennet.