“A woman concerned in baby farming at Warsaw has been charged with murdering seventy five infants. She was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment.” Notice in the Wednesday, April 2, 1890 edition on the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, a newspaper distributed in Australia and New South Wales.
“Mrs. Geisen-Volk Gets 3 ½ to 7 Years: Judge Calls her Fiend Incarnate after Reading Report About her Baby Farm,” screamed the New York Times headlines on July 23, 1925. According to the prosecutor, she had abused and murdered 53 babies at the time of her arrest; according to Mrs. Geisen-Volk, the death count was “only twelve or fourteen.”
And, of course, there was baby butcher Amelia Dyer, believed to have murdered at least 400 infants after duping desperate, pregnant women into handing over their illegitimate child for a fee with the promise of placement with a loving adoptive family. She was ultimately hanged, but only after 20 years and having previously served only six months in jail for causing a child to die by neglect.
Born Into Bad Times
Three years in prison for the murder of 75 babies? A maximum of 7 years for infanticide in the double digits? How could this happen?
To explain this, or at least attempt to, we must travel back in time to what life was like for unmarried, pregnant women and what health care was like for everyone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
First, to set the stage: Abortion was illegal. Conception was poorly understood. Infant mortality rate was high and unwanted children were often a strain on a family (or girl) already in precarious financial circumstances. Pregnancy out of wedlock was a mortal sin; most families ostracized their “fallen” family member and she was forced to travel to another city where, friendless and alone, she had her child. (If she was lucky, she was allowed back into the fold after delivery and her family could either come up with a plausible reason for a new baby or she returned without one.)
Once she delivered, there was no organized child care available and no way an unskilled, single woman could support herself and care for her child at the same time. If her family didn’t help her, there was no one else to step in. Many orphanages, convinced a bastard child would inherit the parent’s immoral nature, refused to accept children born out of wedlock. And, the odds of getting married with an illegitimate child in tow were slim indeed; after all, what self-respecting man would take on a woman of such poor moral character?
Out of these circumstances arose “baby farmers,” unregulated and untrained women who agreed to either care for, or adopt out, a woman’s illegitimate child. (Sometimes the baby farmers also provided places where a pregnant woman could live until she gave birth.) Sometimes they would function like professional foster parents (although the birth mother might go for weeks or months without seeing her child or forego visits altogether even while continuing to pay the weekly or monthly fee and, sometimes, hoping to one day reclaim her child). Other times, the baby farmer would agree to find a loving family to adopt the child or agree to adopt the child herself. The child would be handed over to the baby farmer (for a fee, of course) and the birth mother would never hear from the child again.
In fact, because of the stigma attached to unwed mothers, the entire matter was often shrouded in secrecy, especially when the child was being adopted out. Baby farmers weren’t required to keep records of the children they took in, grateful or ashamed birth mothers were reluctant to ask questions, and doctors rarely raised their eyebrows when an infant died.
The Birth of Criminal Childcare
There’s no doubt that these baby sitters filled a crack through which many unfortunate women slipped. And most of them were not ill-intentioned; in fact, some of the baby farmers were good-hearted women who continued to care for their charges even when the birth mother could no longer pay. Some were childless women who did exactly what their advertisements proclaimed—they adopted a child out of love and treated the child just as if it had come out of their wombs.
Unfortunately, the situation was also the perfect storm for corruption. First of all, the baby farmers themselves weren’t exactly living a life of luxury; many of them who went into the baby business did so after failing at the few other business avenues available to her. Margaret Waters (hanged in England in 1870 for infant murder), for instance, reportedly lived a respectable life until her husband died unexpectedly when she was only twenty-eight years old. After starting—and failing—at a garment business and losing money while renting rooms out of her house, she agreed when a pregnant border asked Waters to adopt her newborn baby in exchange for three pounds. The first of her 27 ads in Lloyd’s newspaper looking for children to adopt appeared shortly after she “flipped” her child by selling it to a wealthy family for three times what she had been paid by the birth mother.
The financial arrangement itself was partially the problem. On the one hand, women who paid for their child’s care by the month gave the child care provider a reason to keep the child alive but by the cheapest means possible. These children were often neglected and given the minimal amount of care. Worse were the lump sum clients; morals aside, there was no financial incentive whatsoever to keep a child alive once the payment was made (it would only eat away at the profits). As such, hundreds of these babies died from neglect, either directly from malnutrition or from a secondary disease as a result of a weakened immune system.
The Bottom Line
It has been argued that the times in which we live shape the form evil takes. The three women at the beginning of this article certainly give credence to this argument. We’ll never know whether or not they would have taken some other malevolent path if the one they chose had not been available to them, a path that started with deception and ended in murder.