Looking for a plot for Book 2 in my mid-range children’s series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’, I happened on a bunch of Victorian villains. One that stood out from the others was Amelia Dyer – baby killer. At first glance, maybe she wasn’t ideal material for a children’s adventure, but I reckoned she’d be good for a bit of source material:
Having trained as a nurse as well as bringing up her own family, Amelia must have appeared to be a fairly ordinary woman in her adult life, but her childhood was another matter altogether. Amelia’s mother had developed a mental illness (a result of typhoid) and her daughter was forced to nurse her mother through many violent rages until the woman died. Amelia was barely 10 years old at the time.
After staying with an aunt, she went on to marry a man almost 40 years her senior. In the meantime, Amelia’s nursing experience had taught her how to make an extra income by taking in young women who had given birth illegitimately. She could then earn additional cash by putting the children up for adoption.
Following her husband’s death, Amelia began to develop her ‘profession’ in a rather more deadly manner. Taking in unmarried mothers, Amelia also offered her services as an adoptive parent – for a fee, of course. After some years pursuing her new calling, Amelia was caught out when a doctor reported her for a series of what he thought were suspicious infant deaths. This led to a 6-month jail sentence for neglect. But Amelia had a plan: back home, she set out to make sure that in future there wouldn’t be any evidence to convict her. Instead of calling in the doctor to confirm infant deaths, she simply got rid of the bodies herself.
Her modus operandi however, was far from perfect and her habit of stuffing victims into carpetbags and throwing them into the river was to be her undoing. When one package was discovered, the police found letters leading them to Amelia’s house. They quickly put their suspect under observation and raided the house. Although convicted of the murder of only one child, the police suspected Amelia had killed more than 400 infants over a thirty-year period. Amelia Dyer was hanged at Newgate gaol in 1896, having apparently shown no remorse for what she had done.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – maybe this is a bit too dark for a children’s book? Absolutely, so that’s why I’ve tamed my villainess down to a more acceptable level. In my novel ‘The House That Wasn’t There’ the child-snatcher Mrs McIver doesn’t kill anyone, but if it wasn’t for the investigations of my young heroes Christie and Donal, there’s no telling what the wicked woman might get up to.
Of course, that’s assuming the intrepid pair manage to catch the kidnapper before she gets out of hand…