1903: Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the Finchley baby farmers

Add comment February 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1903, the Finchley baby farmers hanged together at Holloway Prison.

Though “both repulsive in type” according to the cold notes of their hangman, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were plenty appealing to young ladies in a certain condition.

Sach’s lying-in house in the north London suburb was a destination of choice for inconveniently pregnant women for a couple of years at the dawn of the 1900s, and there they could deliver discreetly and pay a surcharge for adoption services to place the child with a family.

Except, as the mothers must have understood, few if any of those children were destined to find a doting parent.

The baby farming business stood as cover for post-partum abortion in a society exacting penalties legal, medical, and social against single motherhood and terminated pregnancies alike. The solutions an unexpectedly pregnant maid might turn to were all desperate and unappealing, and in the absence of better provisions for orphans and mothers a significant pattern of infanticide was baked into Victorian* England.


Risky home-brew abortifacients like pennyroyal were another option.

The £25-30 donative solicited of mothers by the Goodwife Sach was not enough to maintain the little darlings surrendered to her care: only enough to ease the conscience to forgetfulness. After delivery under Sach’s eye, the infants would be spirited away by Annie Walters for “adoption.” In her hands, they’d be chloroformed or strangled.

Nobody knows how many souls who might have grown up to serve as cannon meat at the Somme were destroyed untimely by our subtle duo; in the end, they were only tripped up by Walters’s surprisingly careless decision to take one of her charges home — where a neighboring, and nosy, police officer noticed it before it mysteriously disappeared.

Their joint death was the most recent occasion Great Britain carried out a double hanging in which both of the executed were women. For a novelization of the case, pick up Nicola Upson’s Two For Sorrow (review).

* For gratification of the pedants: Queen Victoria died in 1901.

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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1905: Elisabeth Wiese, the angel-maker of St. Pauli

2 comments February 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1905, “baby farmer” Elisabeth Wiese was beheaded in Hamburg.

In a luridly reported case “revolting in the extreme, proving the woman to be a monster of iniquity” Wiese stepped into a quintessential fin de siecle moral panic as a former convict whose larcenous past had forced her trade away from the legitimate field of midwifery towards the more shady precincts of mercenary fostering.

From scandal-averse single mothers in England as well as Germany, she collected children with maintenance fees running to US $1,000 plus a hush-money surcharge tacked on. For this donative, she represented a capacity to distribute these whelps to willing adoptive families: in reality, most of them she disposed of with morphine. (As an added inflammation to public opinion, she had also forced her own illegitimate daughter into prostitution; Paula, whose own infant was among Wiese’s victims, repaid that ill turn by appearing as a witness against her mother.)

When Wiese fell under suspicion, the neighbors’ reports of her kitchen glowing like hellfire and belching revolting stenches led police to the remains of these little ones burnt up in her stove.

Condemned for five murders — it’s thought that the true count must have run much higher — Wiese is known as the “angel-maker of St. Pauli” after the suburb where she plied her trade.

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1923: Daniel Cooper, baby farmer

Add comment June 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Daniel Cooper was hanged in Wellington, New Zealand for murder.

Cooper and his second wife — his first died under suspicious circumstances; many people suspected Cooper of poisoning her — had a racket as a “health specialist” in the Wellington suburb of Newlands. Their “rest care home” attracted police surveillance as a front for baby-farming/infanticide.

Baby-farming involved taking a payment from a new mother to give up her child with the wink-wink understanding that the child would be placed for “adoption.” Occasionally, this adoption might even happen; in general, however, the mother’s fee would not be enough to maintain the child for any length of time, and the newborn would either be murdered outright or kept in such meager care as to succumb to neglect.

Representative instance from Daniel Cooper’s case: a pregnant woman named Mary McLeod paid £50 for Cooper to arrange her child’s adoption by an unnamed couple from Palmerston North. McLeod delivered the child on October 12, 1922, at the Coopers’ farm, where both mother and daughter were cared for for a few days. On October 20, Cooper told McLeod that the Palmerston North family had collected the infant. Nobody ever saw it again. Cooper also had two children with a lover named Beatrice Beadle, and these were also “adopted” to parts unknown.

Daniel was finally arrested on December 30, 1922 for performing an abortion (completely illegal in New Zealand at the time), and the ensuing investigation turned up evidence of 10 additional abortions and, eventually, three children’s bodies on the couple’s property. Prosecutors would eventually argue that Mary McLeod’s child was one of these.

“Out-Heroding Herod” screamed sensational headlines around the “Newlands baby farmers” case.

While Daniel Cooper was easily convicted of murder, his wife Martha Cooper was adroitly defended by former Liberal M.P. T.M. Wilford — who characterized the wife as “a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own,” and won her acquittal on that basis.

At 8 a.m. on June 16 (shortly after releasing a confession which likewise exonerated Martha), Daniel Cooper was walked with his eyes tight shut to the gallows at Terrace Gaol,* hooded, and hanged.

Original newspaper coverage of this case can be perused freely at New Zealand’s Papers Past database of pre-1945 clippings.

* Since demolished; Te Aro school occupies the site today.

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1896: Amelia Dyer, baby farmer

5 comments June 10th, 2012 Headsman

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1896, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison in London. At 58 years old, she was the oldest woman hung in Great Britain between 1844 and 1955.

Amelia was a baby farmer, one of many from that time and place. Baby farmers would, for a fee, take an infant or toddler if its mother was unable or unwilling to care for it. The idea was that the baby farmer would either become the baby’s foster parent, or find someone else to foster or adopt the child.

In the days when illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma, this was an attractive option — indeed, often the only option — for single or impoverished mothers, and likewise for communities facing the burden of an orphaned newborn. Young Oliver in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist grew up on a baby farm after his mother died in childbirth and his father disappeared.

In many cases, everyone benefited from the transaction: the mother would go back to her life knowing her baby was all right, a childless couple would have a baby to love, and the baby itself would grow up in a secure home.

Unhappily, however, many other cases produced horrendous results: the baby was not necessarily safe once the mother had handed it over and paid money in advance for its care. Unscrupulous and greedy women realized that, once they got the lump sum payment, they could make a profit if the baby died, the sooner the better.

Victorian Britain was rife with baby farmers who would quietly do away with their helpless charges, or simply starve and neglect the infants until they expired. Authorities made unavailing, ill-enforced attempts to control the problem by, for example, requiring women who adopted or fostered more than one infant at a time to register. (And by doling out a few sporadic, but high-profile, executions.)

It was a widespread and well-known problem, as Alison Rattle and Allison Vale note in their biography, Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker:

It was impossible for newspapers of the day to keep count of the numbers of bodies found strewn about the towns and cities. Scarcely a day passed without yet another report of the corpse of some young innocent being found abandoned beneath the seat of a railway carriage, under an archway, in a sewer grating or just carelessly dumped in one of the open spaces of a city suburb. Many cases were not even reported …

Amelia Dyer was the worst of the worst.

She was convicted of a single murder, but they’d found the bodies of half a dozen more, and by the time she was caught she’d been operating for for twenty years or more. Her victims may well have numbered in the hundreds, making her a mass killer of Harold Shipman-like proportions.

Amelia was born in Bristol to a respectable working-class family. Unlike most children of the time, she was able to attend school until age fourteen, and her four siblings. But there was tragedy in her family: her mother went insane (apparently brain-damaged by the effects of typhus), and died when Amelia was eleven years old.

In 1861, at age 24, Amelia married George Thomas, a 57-year-old widower. They had a daughter together before his death in 1869. Three years later, she married William Dyer and they had a daughter and a son, as well as several children who didn’t survive infancy. Eventually she left him.

She was a qualified nurse and did work in that field off and on for several years, but for most of her life after her first husband’s death, her primary occupation was baby farming. At first, Amelia acted only as an intermediary, taking babies from their mothers for a fee and, for another fee, handing them over to other baby farmers who, often as not, let them die. She also kept pregnant women in her home and nursed them until delivery, and the newborns were reported stillborn as often as they survived.

It isn’t known just when she started murdering the infants herself, but by 1879 she came to the attention of the authorities: four nurse-children in her care had died within two weeks of each other.

They wanted to get her for manslaughter, but there was insufficient evidence. Amelia was found guilty of criminal neglect and served the maximum, six months at hard labor. She tried to go straight, working a variety of low-paying jobs.

Inevitably, however, she returned to what she was best at.

She had learned an important lesson from her previous brush with the law: don’t bring in a doctor to sign the death certificate, don’t leave a paper trail. Instead, she started disposing of the bodies herself.

Like her colleagues she put out notices in the newspapers, advertising herself as a respectable married woman who wanted to adopt or foster a baby in exchange for money. Sometimes there was an understanding that the mother would be permitted to visit the child, or take it back once she was in a position to care for it.

However, a mother usually never saw either Amelia or child again after handing over her infant.

Amelia kept herself constantly on the move and used a number of alias names to avoid attention. At times she was receiving as many as six babies a day. Her youngest daughter, Polly, grew up helping her mother take care of the babies; for her, it was a way of life.

When she married and moved away from home, she and her husband, Arthur Palmer, ultimately set themselves up as baby farmers too, sometimes working alongside Amelia. The Palmers habitually neglected and abandoned their charges, and at least two of their babies died.

Amelia started showing signs of mental illness after her release from prison: she had violent fits, claimed to hear voices, made at least one serious suicide attempt and ultimately was admitted four times to three different asylums. Her mental illness may have genuine, possibly caused or exacerbated by her substance abuse (she was addicted to both laudanum and alcohol), or she may have been malingering: her breakdowns tended to happen after the authorities or parents seeking to reclaim their babies started poking their noses around in her business.

The end came on March 30, 1896, when a bargeman pulled the body of fifteen-month-old Helena Fry out of the River Thames. She’d been strangled with dressmaking tape, which was still tied around her neck. When the police closely examined the paper she was wrapped in, they were able to make out an address: 26 Piggotts Road, Reading.

When the authorities searched that home, they found numerous items of interest including more dressmaking tape, piles of baby clothes and pawn tickets for more clothes, and letters from mothers asking about their children. The house reeked of human decomposition.

The police set up a sting to catch Dyer, using a young woman to act as a decoy. But on April 4, the day they were supposed to meet to talk business, she found herself arrested instead and charged with the murder of Helena Fry. Shortly thereafter, her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur and Polly Palmer, were charged as accessories.

Investigators dragged the Thames and found four more bodies, three boys and one girl. All of them had white dressmaking tape knotted around their throats. Two of the victims were later identified as Harry Simmons, thirteen months, and Doris Marmon, four months. They had been killed only a few days before Amelia’s arrest, stuffed into a carpetbag together and thrown off a dock. Later, two more bodies turned up: another girl and another boy.

The investigation determined that at least 20 children had been given over to Amelia Dyer’s care in the few months prior to her being caught. During the previous year, between thirty and forty bodies had been pulled from the Thames. Almost all of them were of infants and authorities suspected most of the deaths were the work of one person.

Within a few days, Amelia had confessed everything, but denied that Polly and Arthur had any guilty knowledge of the murders, and the Palmers also maintained their innocence. Amelia confirmed that she’d dumped most of the babies’ bodies in the river. “You’ll know mine,” she said, “by the tape around their necks.”

The charges against Arthur Palmer were dropped for lack of evidence just before Amelia went to trial. Polly, anxious to save herself, became the main witness against her mother and claimed she had had no inkling of the murders of Doris Harmon and Harry Simmons, although they’d been killed in her house within a day of each other and she’d been present at the time. Her statements were contradicted by other witnesses.

Amelia was first tried for the murder of little Doris; the idea was that if she was acquitted, they could try her in the other cases one by one. She pleaded insanity, emphasizing her own mother’s madness and her own stays in insane asylums — but two of the three doctors who examined Amelia did not believe she was mentally unsound.

The jury deliberated four and a half minutes before finding her guilty.

Polly’s trial was supposed to take place on June 16, and her mother was summonsed to testify, in spite of the fact that she was due to be executed a week beforehand. Amelia appears to have really loved her daughter and was focused solely on saving her from suffering the same fate. In a letter she wrote on June 5, she said,

I was glad to see her looking so well dear child. God only knows how grieved I am to know she is suffering for no fault of her own. She did nothing, she knew nothing.

If only Amelia’s concern for her own child had extended to other people’s, too.

On the eve of her mother’s execution, the case against Polly was dropped. Amelia expressed great relief about this in her final letter to her daughter. But Polly and Arthur didn’t give up baby farming and in 1898 they were caught after they abandoned a (living) baby girl on a train.

On the scaffold, when asked for a last statement, Amelia answered, “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9:00 a.m.

In the aftermath of her trial and execution, Parliament enacted more laws in order to protect helpless infants from suffering the same fate as Amelia’s nurse-children. Nevertheless, during the next ten years, three more baby farmers would suffer the ultimate penalty for infanticide.

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1900: Ada Chard Williams, the last woman hanged at Newgate

Add comment March 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1900, Ada Chard Williams was hanged for murdering an infant girl.

A baby farmer, Williams took in unwanted children for money … money that went a lot further when the child died. The milestone nature of her hanging in the yard of Newgate Gaol, which would be closed two years later,* was entirely unforeseen at the time.

Justice moved fast in the Williams case, as evidenced by the London Times blurbs covering the case.**

Monday, December 11, 1899

POLICE COURTS. — At the South-Western, William Chard Williams, 41, and Ada Chard Williams, 24, his wife, were remanded, charged with the wilful murder of a child entrusted to their care, and whose body was found in the Thames at Battersea with the skull battered in. The female prisoner said they were perfectly innocent of the charge. The child was delivered by her to another woman and was then quite well.

Saturday, December 30, 1899

POLICE-COURTS. — At the South-Western the charge against William Chard Williams, 41, and his wife, Ada Williams, 24, of the murder of a child named Selina Jones, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to their care, was further investigated. Mr. Bodkin, who prosecuted for the Treasury, stated the facts of the case as already published, and added that the bodies of two other children tied up in the same way as that of the child Jones had been found in the Thames in July last, and the suggestion of the prosecution was that they had been put in the river by the prisoners. After some evidence had been given the prisoners were again remanded.

Saturday, January 20, 1900

POLICE-COURTS. — At the South-Western, William and Ada Chard Williams, man and wife, were finally examined and committed for trial charged with the murder of Selina Jones, an illegitimate child, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to their care.

Monday, February 19, 1900

CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT. — Before Mr. Justice Ridley, the trial was concluded of William Chard Williams, 41, clerk, and Ada Chard Williams, 24, his wife, charged with the murder of an illegitimate child named Selina Ellen Jones, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to the care of the female prisoner in August last. On September 27 its body was found in the Thames in a condition which indicated that it had been stunned and strangled before being put into the river. The jury found the female prisoner guilty, and she was sentenced to death. The male prisoner was acquitted.

Wednesday, March 7, 1900

EXECUTION AT NEWGATE. — Ada Chard Williams, 24 years of age, who was convicted at the Central Criminal Court of the wilful murder of Selina Ellen Jones, a child which had been placed in her care, was executed at Newgate yesterday morning. There were present at the execution Lieutenant-Colonel Milman, Governor of Newgate and Holloway Prisons, Mr. Under-Sheriff Metcalfe, representing the High Sheriff of the county of London, Dr. Scott, medical officer of Newgate and Holloway, and other officials. Billington was the executioner. An inquest was subsequently held in the Sessions-house, Old Bailey, before Mr. Langham, Coroner for the City. Lieutenant-Colonel Milman gave evidence, stating that the execution was carried out satisfactorily. Death was instantaneous. The prisoner made no confession. The jury returned the usual verdict.

* Male executions were transferred to Pentonville Prison and female executions to Holloway Prison thereafter.

** With the exception of the last, these items are all from the Times index summarizing its news articles, and not the articles themselves.

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1870: Margaret Waters, baby farmer

6 comments October 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first woman in England to hang for baby-farming.

Waters was condemned for murdering an infant she had taken in as a contractual temporary adoption; there is the matter in the dry language of the law.

But Waters’ import — and in fact, since press outrage that her ward’s death had initially been ruled only manslaughter by the coroner, the extremity of her legal straits as well — derived from her milestone symbolism in a burgeoning Victorian-era moral panic.


Margaret Waters’ case dominates the cover of the Oct. 15, 1870 Illustrated Police News, with a central illustration of Margaret Waters hanged … surrounded, appropriately, by men.

“Baby farming” hit the papers in the 1860’s with sensational exposes of a gray market business whose model was:

  1. Relieve unwilling mother of her newborn infant for a fee
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

It’s the “???” that’s up for grabs.

To the newspapermen, and the day’s elite crusaders for reform, and especially to the nascent medical industry whose British Medical Journal was instrumental in fomenting public alarm,* it signified nothing short of infanticide, a sort of post-partum abortion.

Thus, the Times of London’s sermonizing post-hanging editorial (Oct. 12, 1870):

A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred … The wretched woman and her sister were proved to have systematically published advertisements offering to “adopt” children for a remuneration which no one in his senses could believe to be adequate. In other words, they offered to the parents of illegitimate children a means of getting rid of charges at once burdensome and shameful to them … For the sake of a paltry and precarious gain MARGARET WATERS and her sister had the heart to make away with the helpless little creatures … nothing can palliate the hideous spectacle thus brought to light. A murder in hot blood, the deliberate gratification of revenge, or even a premeditated act of violence in the pursuit of some selfish object, fall short in some respects to the heinousness of this offence. The deepest instincts of a woman’s heart must have been deadened, and the most ordinary feelings of human nature extinguished, before such slow murder could be perpetrated upon piteous little innocents.

… MARGARET WATERS confesses to receiving children for purposes of profit, whom she, at least, knew she could not support. She confesses to receiving them for 5 l. or 10 l., and finding other people who would receive them for a fortnight’s expenses paid in advance, and would then let her hear no more of them. She confesses to taking them into the streets, placing them in the hands of children, and then running away and leaving them to their fate. She confessed to all this, and yet she professed to see in it nothing but “falsehood and deceit.” It was not murder, and nothing seems to have astonished her so much as the sudden vengeance which overtook her … while admitting the most damning facts, she extenuates their criminality. It is well that the stern sentence of the law has pronounced a terrible condemnation of these heartless excuses. “Baby Farming” as practiced by MARGARET WATERS was ruthless and systematic murder, and her doom will indelibly stamp this brand upon her infamous trade.

We wish it could be thought this unhappy woman was a solitary instance of such wilful blindness. It is to be feared she has expiated the sins of others who have actually perpetrated similar crimes, and it is certain there are many who are direct accomplices in her guilt. When she says that “the parents of illegitimate children who seek to get rid of them are more culpable than persons like herself, and that if there were no such parents there would be no ‘Baby Farmers,'” she does but exaggerate a just charge. When MARGARET WATERS abandoned children in the streets to the casual care of passers-by, she did but repeat what had been done by those who had first abandoned them to her in the dark of the night at obscure railway stations. It cannot be too strongly asserted that this execution reflects more or less the brand of murder upon all who contributed to the offence — upon the parents who only sought to get rid of their children, and upon those who allowed their journals to be the instruments of what they might have known to be an infamous traffic. It must be acknowledged that the justice of the law is but brought justice, and spares many who deserve punishment. That is inevitable. But one of the great uses of the law is to depict in true colours the real meaning of common offences. Selfish and licentious men and women will know for the future what is the natural issue of the offences against morality and society which they lightly commit. It is murder, and nothing less, that is the ultimate meaning of these social evils, and this is the contamination incurred by those who facilitate such offences.

Sounds pretty bad.

But then … all those other “selfish and licentious men and women”: had Waters somehow been the bad apple to spoil an entire bushel? (Reformers of the time write often of illicit behavior as a contagion whose example inspires a wider moral deadening.) Or was there something else going on?

Even the Times agrees that our culprit “never entertained the intention of becoming a ‘Baby Farmer’ and a Murderess. She drifted into it under the pressure of want and temptation. … It is, according to her statement, only six years since she was a married woman in good circumstances.”

According to Waters’ own account, summarized third-hand in the Times a few days prior to the hanging, (Oct. 7, 1870) her fall from respectable wedlock to public enemy number one began with the 1864 death of her husband, leaving the woman

with 300 l. in her possession. Intending to turn her capital to account, she took a house in Addington-square, Camberwell, and put into it a number of sewing-machines. Her plan was to make collars and other such articles, and sell them to the city houses. She knew little or nothing of the business, however, and, partly owing to that circumstance and partly to the miserable prices which were paid for such goods, she was at the end of the year a loser of 250 l. She then resolved to save herself by letting lodgings, and that step led her imperceptibly into her career of baby farming. … she was steadily going down-hill, and she found herself obliged to leave Addington-square and go to Bournemouth-terrace, Peckham, where she commenced baby farming as a system. She advertised for children, and she had answers from persons in all stations … She drifted along in this course, getting from bad to worse. But she protested that she had no idea of injuring the children, though she did some things she was very sorry for, owing to the difficulties of her position … She took the Clerkenwell News, and there she used to find a whole string of advertisements — three of them were put in for a shilling — from women who wanted children to nurse. She advertised herself for children to adopt, and she generally got 10 l. with one. When she got the child and the money she went to one of the other advertisers in the Clerkenwell News and arranged to put the baby out to nurse. Upon paying two weeks in advance she was hardly ever asked even for her address, and when she went away of course she never heard anything more of the child. She gained the difference between the 10 l. given her for adopting the child and the fortnight’s payment for nursing it. This was, after all, a very precarious resource, and she fell into great distress … The time came soon when she was unable to pay the money-lender his instalments, and he threatened to strip her of everything under her bill of sale … When she went to Brixton five children died, some from diarrhoea and wasting, and others from convulsions. She was very poor, and determined to save the price of burial by leaving them about. She wrapped the bodies in brown paper and took them out at night, and left them where they were found by people afterwards. She maintains that she did what she could for these children, and attended to them to the best of her power. There were also four other children whom she got rid of in a way for which she is now very sorry. She took them, one at a time, into the streets, and when she saw little boys and girls at play she called one of them and said, “Oh, I am so tired! Here, hold my baby, and here is sixpence for you to go into the sweetstuff-shop and get something nice.” While the boy or girl went into the shop she made off. The babies, she believes, were generally taken to the workhouse.

The slide into the vast but shadow world of poverty, in short … a timeless story.

While intentional infanticide undoubtedly formed some part of the baby farming picture, its nature and extent is also nothing to presume. In an era of staggering child mortality, dead infants were a norm, sometimes the norm. In the context of desperate penury, it was all the more likely. Middle-class authorities who raided Waters’ “farm” saw (and testified to) a slum purposely structured to kill off children. They may simply have beheld indigence.

Waters herself always rejected any notion that she had intentionally killed any of her charges.

Summing up the doomed woman’s testimonial, the doctor who took it underscored the point with an entirely plausible counter-narrative.

Dr. Edmunds, in concluding the recital of the remarkable and instructive statement Margaret Waters made to him a few hours before, said that when children, even under the best conditions, were taken from the breast and brought up by hand, the chances were all against them. What, then, was the chance of infants taken out in the open air the moment they were born and brought up with only such appliances as Mrs. Waters, at her wits’ end for money, flying from money-lenders and dodging landlords, had at her disposal? From what he could judge she had no intention of murdering any of the children, but they died off, as they might have been expected to die off, from diarrhoea, thrush, and convulsions, and when they died she callously got rid of their bodies as best she could when she became poor.

If Waters’ story holds water, her fees so inadequate to the long-term maintenance of children represent much the same calculated gamble involved in insurance: foul play or no, she had no reason to expect to maintain children long-term.** Cold … but hardly incomprehensible.

(It should also be observed babies to adopt actually were in demand.)

Interestingly, one of the key antecedents of the baby farming scandals in the 1860s and 70s was the codification of prim sexual mores for which the Victorian era is a byword.

Earlier in the 19th century, financial responsibility for illegitimate children had shifted from the (putative) father to the mother, and government Poor Relief to single mothers had been slashed — a bit of abstinence-only social engineering meant to stigmatize single motherhood to the greater good of the softer sex: “We trust that as soon as it has become … burdensome and disgraceful, it will soon become … rare.”

Surprisingly, welfare reform did not stop Victorians having sex. Given a milieu where birth control and abortion are illicit and single motherhood severely stigmatized, the policy implied a swath of single mothers powerfully incentivized to have burdensome and death-prone children taken off their hands … and an industry of entrepreneurs ready to meet the demand.

Waters was the first of eight women in England, Scotland and Wales hanged as baby farmers from 1870 to 1909. Her execution would help lead to the 1872 adoption of the Infant Life Protection Act, which introduced a regimen of license and registration in the heretofore libertarian economy of freelance child-brokering.

Books about Baby Farming and its Context

* In “Wolves in Women’s Clothing: Baby-Farming and the British Medical Journal, 1860-1872” (Journal of Family History, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2001), Ruth Ellen Homrighaus argues that

[b]y using their ‘expertise’ to stake a claim on infanticide and to relegate female reformers to the ranks of amateurs, writers for the BMJ made one of many moves to professionalize medicine … [and] establish a monopoly over health care by improving and standardizing medical education and restricting competition from untrained ‘charlatans.’

Infanticide writ large being a complex social problem, it found in baby farming a specific target amenable to outraged public mobilization, with a “subtext … [that] denied that working-class women were fit to manage childbirth and infant care.”

Margaret Waters had the ill luck to be discovered just as this campaign was in need of a potent emblematic villain. Despite the pestering of the moralistic set, police interest in hounding the persons who attended England’s considerable produce of disposable children rapidly waned in the 1870’s.

** Reviewing the still-lively baby farming scene in early 20th century America, Lawrence Friedman notes that

baby farms made a profit from a “grisly calculus”: most babies, in the days before reliable bottle-feeding, simply died when separated from their mothers. Add to this filthy conditions and poor care, and it is no surprise that most babies in baby farms did not survive. Allegedly, up to 80 percent of all babies admitted to one Baltimore baby farm died within weeks.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

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