|“||The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we'd 'a' made a big fy-er
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.
|~ The infamous ballad about Dyer.|
Trained as a nurse, and widowed in 1869, she turned to baby farming – the practice of adopting unwanted infants in exchange for money – in order to support herself. She initially cared for the children legitimately, in addition to having two of her own, but whether intentionally or not, a number of them died in her care, leading to a conviction for negligence and six months' hard labour. She then began directly murdering children she "adopted", strangling at least some of them, and disposing of the bodies in order to avoid attention. There is evidence to suggest that she killed over 400 babies. Mentally unstable, she was committed to several mental asylums throughout her life, despite suspicions of feigning, and survived at least one serious suicide attempt.
On 22 May 1896, Dyer appeared at the Old Bailey and pleaded guilty to one murder, that of Doris Marmon. Her family and associates testified at her trial that they had been growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged that Dyer had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions. Evidence from a man who had seen and spoken to Dyer when she had disposed of the two bodies at Caversham Lock also proved significant. Her daughter had given graphic evidence that ensured Dyer's conviction.
The only defence Dyer offered was insanity: she had been twice committed to asylums in Bristol. However, the prosecution argued successfully that her exhibitions of mental instability had been a ploy to avoid suspicion; both committals were said to have coincided with times when Dyer was concerned her crimes might have been exposed.
It took the jury only four and a half minutes to find her guilty. In her three weeks in the condemned cell, she filled five exercise books with her "last true and only confession". Visited the night before her execution by the chaplain and asked if she had anything to confess, she offered him her exercise books, saying, "isn't this enough?" Curiously, she was subpoenaed to appear as a witness in Polly's trial for murder, set for a week after her own execution date. However, it was ruled that Dyer was already legally dead once sentenced and that therefore her evidence would be inadmissible. Thus, her execution was not delayed.
On the eve of her execution Dyer heard that the charges against Polly had been dropped. Dyer was hanged by James Billington at Newgate Prison on Wednesday, 10 June 1896. Asked on the scaffold if she had anything to say, she said "I have nothing to say", just before being dropped at 9 am precisely.
Because she was a murderess alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings, some have suggested that Dyer was Jack the Ripper. This suggestion was put forward by author William Stewart, although he preferred Mary Pearcey as his chosen suspect. There is, however, no evidence to connect Dyer to the Jack the Ripper murders, and she does not figure prominently among the Jack the Ripper suspects.
Dubbed the "Ogress of Reading", she inspired a popular ballad, and her case led to stricter laws for adoption.