Known as the “Angel Maker”, Amelia Dyer was one of Victorian England’s most infamous serial killers, thought to have murdered hundreds of babies, discarding some of them in the River Thames. It wasn’t the first time the river had been used as an infant graveyard, as Professor Alice Roberts discovers in Digging For Britain's Secrets.
Dyer was alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders and not only did she have serial killer form, she had a medical background and was a woman - two of many pillars of “Ripperologist” theory. The identity of Jack the Ripper was never discovered as "he" was never caught. Could she be a prime suspect?
Jack the Ripper: a recap
The Ripper, widely thought to be male, killed at least five women in East London’s Whitechapel precinct during his reign of terror in 1888. All the women were prostitutes and all bar one were horrifically mutilated by someone with a good knowledge of human anatomy. That factor and the murder weapons found led to speculation the killer was a doctor or butcher.
Several letters supposedly sent by the killer to London police chillingly described his or her grisly methods and, just like a good slasher flick, speculated on slayings to come. The killer was never captured, and their motive and identity never discovered.
Who was Amelia Dyer?
Amelia Dyer’s descent from “respectable woman” to evil incarnate and one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers who murdered an estimated 400 babies is a chilling tale. Born in 1837, hers was a difficult childhood as the primary carer of a mentally ill mother. She would eventually become a nurse, but when she found herself a widow with a daughter to support, she looked to a shameful and thriving practice in Victorian England: “baby farming”. Baby farmers preyed on unwed mothers who were unable to take care of their infants, offering to take them in for a fee.
From 1869, Dyer lured vulnerable mothers by passing herself off in newspaper advertisements as a "highly respectable" married childless couple in a comfortable home that were looking to adopt. Some desperate women knew what these advertisements were code for, visiting Dyer in advanced stages of pregnancy for the former midwife to deliver and smother their babies to pass off the killing as stillbirth.
Those parents who thought they were giving their children up to a happy home couldn’t have known their babies would be killed in a matter of days. Dyer murdered them by starvation, strangulation or by overdosing them with Mother’s Friend, an opiate-based cordial. It says something about how dire life in Victorian England was with its high infant mortality rate that Dyer could continue the practice and profit from infanticide for some 30 years (though she was jailed for six months in 1879 for the death of a child by neglect).
In 1895, she started disposing of the tiny bodies by tossing them into the River Thames. But when police discovered the body of young Helena Fry, clues on the packaging she was wrapped in led them to Dyer. Six more babies were found strangled with white dressmaker’s tape, Dyer’s calling card. “That’s how you can tell they were mine,” she later admitted.
The 57-year-old pleaded insanity, but, after confessing to her crimes, was found guilty and hanged in 1896.
Could Dyer have been Jill the Ripper?
Since 1888, the list of suspects who could be Jack the Ripper has grown to around 100. Theories on who it is are broad and countless, so why couldn’t it be a deranged midwife?
Theory: Some believe the Ripper murders were actually botched abortions carried out by Amelia Dyer. Of course, that’s supposing the victims were pregnant.
Profile: The theory fits with Dyer’s cruel disregard for her infant victims and it’s highly likely she was still killing babies in 1888. Also, she was a midwife and would have known her way around the female anatomy - Catherine Eddowes’ left kidney and uterus were cut out and taken by the killer. And being a midwife, no one would have batted an eyelid if her clothing was bloodstained. If she was found with any of the bodies, as a nurse she could have claimed she was coming to their aid - the perfect cover. With a number of aliases, Dyer also knew how to hide in plain sight and evaded police for much of her 30-year killing spree.
Evidence: None other than circumstantial. But one Australian scientist claimed to have found possible proof the killer was, at least, a woman. Ian Findlay, a professor of molecular and forensic diagnostics used swabs from the letters supposedly sent by the Ripper to police and public officials, and built a partial DNA profile of the killer. Many of the letters are thought to be fakes, but Findlay focused on one more likely to be genuine known as the “Openshaw Letter”. While results were inconclusive, his analysis led him to believe the Ripper could indeed have been a woman.
The finding aligns with the theory of Detective Frederick Abberline, who led the investigation in 1888. He believed Jack may have been a Jill because witnesses claimed they saw the Ripper’s fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, some hours after she was murdered. Could this have been a female Ripper making a run for it in Kelly’s clothes?
Verdict: The Ripper could have been Amelia Dyer, but then the killer could also have been one of over 100 other people. Jury’s still out.
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