CSI Amelia Dyer

CSI Amelia Dyer

Do you enjoy a stroll by the river? If so, join us in Reading for a tour of the crime scene, where Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer, disposed of her young victims. Hosted by H Division Crime Club UK, I’ll be giving my very first guided walk of the key locations connected with this sinister story. The tour is on 3 June 2017, beginning at 12.30 pm, at the Malmaison Hotel. Originally the Great Western Railway Hotel, it was built in 1844, and is believed to be the oldest existing railway hotel in the world. It is an appropriate starting point for the tour, as Dyer used the railway line between Bristol, Reading and London Paddington to carry out her nefarious baby farming business.     The first stage of the tour will visit the key places in Reading’s town centre, including the police headquarters and magistrates’ court, where Dyer was arrested and tried, before her case was transferred to the Old Bailey.     On our way to the crime scene by the river, we’ll pass by Reading Prison, immortalised by Oscar Wilde, who was there at the same time as Dyer, in his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.     The second part of the tour will begin at the very spot on the river Thames where Dyer’s victims were discovered and her crimes were brought to light. We will follow the same paths she walked by night to carry out her gruesome tasks, and we’ll visit two of the streets where she and her family lived.     If you would like to join...
The Mind of a Murderer

The Mind of a Murderer

One of the mostly frequented asked questions at my talks is whether the notorious Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer was mad or bad. One hundred and twenty years after her conviction, it’s difficult to comprehend her motivation for killing so many infants in her care. It was also hard for contemporary observers to understand what drove her to profit from the wholesale trade in infants and ultimately to be able to murder them with her bare hands. Her trial at the Old Bailey, held in May 1896, discussed this central issue in detail. On 20-22 May, Amelia Dyer was tried for the wilful murder of four-month-old Doris Marmon, one of the two babies found in a carpet bag submerged under the Clappers footbridge at Caversham, Reading. Her defence was led by Sharporji Kapadia, an experienced barrister and a qualified medical doctor. Mr Kapadia entered a plea of insanity and began by calling witnesses to testify to Dyer’s suicidal and homicidal tendencies.     During the early 1890s, life had begun to unravel for Dyer. A governess whose child she had fostered, returned to reclaim her baby after marrying the father. As was the case with most of Dyer’s nurse children, the infant was not to be found. The governess and her husband persisted in trying to track down their child, returning repeatedly to Dyer’s home, sometimes with a police officer. Each time, Amelia Dyer had a mental breakdown, was certified insane and detained in an asylum. Three doctors, who treated her at these ‘moments of madness’ gave their testimonies in court. Frederick Logan had attended Dyer on 24 December...
‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘It appeared…a most startling thing that at so short a distance from Manchester, and in one of the most respectable suburbs of the town, in a public highway, well lighted…a policeman could have been shot down in his duty’ (Manchester Courier, 28 November 1876)   At midnight on Tuesday 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was on duty in a leafy suburb of Manchester. It was a dry and cloudy evening, with little moonlight. The police officer had left Chorlton-cum-Hardy an hour earlier, and was approaching the end of his regular beat, at the intersection of three main roads, known as West Point, which bordered Chorlton, Old Trafford and Whalley Range. As he walked along a wide footpath overhung with trees towards the ‘Jutting Stone’, which marked the limit of his beat, two men accompanied him for the last few yards: another police officer, PC James Beanland, and law student, John Massey Simpson, who was on his way home after a night out.     The three men exchanged pleasantries before Simpson left. When he was 150 yards away, he heard two loud shots ring out in the night. The student turned round to see flashes of light behind him in the pitch dark and screams of, ‘Oh, murder, murder; I’m shot, I’m shot’ rang out in the night. Simpson rushed back where he had left the officers to find 21-year-old PC Cock slumped on the pavement near the garden wall of a large house. Even in the dim light, he could see the unmistakable stain of blood spreading across the police officer’s chest: Nicholas Cock had been shot. PC Beanland blew...
The Silent Killer

The Silent Killer

A keen collector of ‘crime artefacts’, I was thrilled to find an authentic Victorian laudanum bottle in an antiques emporium, and for only £6. It now sits alongside my poison bottle in my study. Recently I attended a conference on poison and poisoners, it piqued my interest in the lethal substance once sold in my precious bottles. Self-Medication was rife in the Victorian era and laudanum was the drug of choice for many. The narcotic was the most popular derivative of opium and was easily available over the counter. A mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy) and flavoured with spices, laudanum was widely used as a stimulant. Costing about the same as a pint of beer, the Victorians bought laudanum from the local druggist a pennyworth at a time, to relieve the rigours of life. As well as being an effective analgesic, it was used to alleviate a variety of ailments, such as rheumatism, coughs, insomnia and diarrhoea. Highly addictive, the body soon became accustomed to the drug, requiring a higher dose to achieve the desired effects.     For some, laudanum was used to combat depression and ‘low spirits’ and, according to contemporary journalist Angus Reach, the most habitual users of laudanum were women. In 1862, Elizabeth Siddal, artist, poet and wife of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, died of a laudanum overdose. Other Victorian celebrities who took the drug included Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. Laudanum was also widely used for babies and young children. Druggists sweetened it with syrup or treacle and sold it as concoctions such as ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’, to make...
The Henley Poisoner

The Henley Poisoner

On a visit to Oxford Castle, I was particularly intrigued by the tragic story of Mary Blandy, who was executed for poisoning her father in Henley-on-Thames, which is close to where I live. Although this case took place in the 18th century (outside my historical comfort zone), I decided to investigate…     Mary Blandy was born in Henley, around 1720. Her father, Francis Blandy, was a successful lawyer and the town clerk. The family lived at 29 Hart Street (now a dental practice) in the town centre. Mary’s mother died about 1749, but by this time, Mary had already met her future husband. Captain William Henry Cranstoun was a captain in the army. The son of a Scottish nobleman and some 20 years her senior, he had met Mary when his regiment was in the district. The couple fell in love and planned to marry, but there was one major obstacle: William already had a wife. Captain Cranstoun returned to Scotland several times to try to have his marriage dissolved and, in the meantime, he sent letters and packages to Mary, whose father disapproved of the match. In August 1752, Francis Blandy fell ill, complaining of bowel pain, a sore throat and ‘a stench in his nose’. As his condition worsened it became apparent that his daughter had been adding a white powder to his porridge. The powder had come from her lover, Captain Cranstoun, who had sent her ‘Scottish powder’ to clean some pebbles that he had given her to be set into earrings. It is unclear why Mary was adding the powder to her father’s food,...