Angels of Death and Babyfarming

The Death's Head Hawkmoth was Buffalo Bill's calling card in Silence of the Lambs. The skull image on the moth in the film's poster was actually Salvador Dali and Phillipe Halsman's In Voluptas Mors, shown on the right.

In the popular imagination, serial killers come in two distinct flavours:

1. The socially isolated weirdo who breeds moths for a hobby and won’t let anyone look in his freezer.

2. The charming businessman/politician/doctor of high standing in the community who appears completely normal but has a secret predilection.

The first type is much more terrifying and fascinating, but for a number of reasons it’s the second type we should be afraid of. For one thing, the respectable killer is more likely to escape suspicion than the socially awkward loner. Often highly intelligent and charismatic, they are frequently able to supply convincing explanations for any unusual behaviour or circumstance. Second, being entrusted with more power, they are more likely to find opportunities to kill. That power also sometimes enables them to get away with a crime once discovered.

A perfect storm occurs when the killer is entrusted with the care of vulnerable people.


Harold Shipman and John Bodkin Adams

Doctors figure prominently in lists of the most prolific serial killers for the reasons above. Harold Shipman, a successful and respected British GP, is suspected of murdering more than 250 of his patients over a twenty-three year period. Most of his victims were women with non-terminal health complaints. Shipman killed using an overdose of diamorphine then falsified medical records and death certificates to cover the true cause of death. By 1997 he is thought to have been killing one patient every ten days.

He was convicted of fifteen murders and was sentenced to fifteen consecutive life sentences. He committed suicide four years into his sentence.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of Shipman’s crimes is that he was preceded by another British doctor who combined his medical practice with prolific murder. Over a ten-year period from 1946, more than 160 patients of British GP John Bodkin Adams died under suspicious circumstances. Most had left substantial sums to Adams in their wills.

His trial in 1957 was highly controversial. Adams had many powerful friends and there appears to have been some interference in the case particularly regarding the uncharacteristic ineptitude of the prosecution under Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller. Unlike Shipman, Adams was acquitted.

For many years, debate over his guilt continued. In 2003, the police archives on the case were released, demonstrating that Adams was almost certainly a serial killer who murdered by administering a drug overdose.

The extensive list of medical practitioners/serial killers and the number of deaths resulting demonstrate how effectively the two pursuits can be combined.

Baby farming

This is one of the most tragic things I’ve come across in a while.

In the nineteenth century, baby farming was the unsentimental term given to a type of professional foster caring that occurred in Europe, the US and elsewhere. For a fee, a mother could hand her baby over to a baby farmer, however, it was understood that the quality of care was unlikely to be good. Only the most desperate or uncaring mothers entrusted their infants to baby farms.

With little to no regulation of the practice and a high natural infant mortality rate, it was a relatively simple process for baby farmers to pocket the cash and dispose of the children in their care.

Amelia Dyer began her baby farming career in the 1870s. It’s likely that initially she allowed her charges to die through neglect. Unsettled children might be given a dose of Godfrey’s Cordial which, containing opium, had the dual benefit of keeping them quiet and suppressing appetite.

At some stage she resorted to the more expedient option of killing babies directly by tying tape around their necks and dumping the bodies. She was apprehended, tried and hanged in 1896. It’s estimated that Amelia Dyer murdered as many as four hundred babies over her twenty year baby farming career.

Amelia Dyer was probably the most prolific baby killer but many other examples exist. Australian baby farmers John and Sarah Makin murdered twelve babies entrusted to them and were convicted partially on the evidence of their own children. Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the Finchley Baby Farmers, killed up to two dozen using suffocation and poisoning with chlorodyne. They were executed in a double hanging in 1903. American baby farmer Helen-Giesen Volk was responsible for 53 murders. A full list of baby farm killers would be depressingly long.

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