Tessa Harris is becoming a fairly regular guest on Being Anne, and it’s always a real pleasure to welcome her. I’ve never managed to plan in the reading of one of her books, but my summer break will give me that much wished for opportunity. Her latest Constance Piper mystery, The Angel Makers, was published by Kensington Books on 29th May, in hardback and for Kindle, and it’s one I’m very much looking forward to.
In Victorian England, flower seller Constance Piper goes searching for the truth behind a new rash of murders in London’s East End…
In November 1888, the specter of Jack the Ripper instills fear in every woman who makes her living on the streets of London. But there are other monsters at large, those who shun fame and secretly claim their victims from among the city’s most vulnerable…
Options are few for unmarried mothers in Victorian England. To avoid stigma, many find lodging with “baby farmers”—women who agree to care for the infant, or find an adoptive family, in exchange for a fee. Constance Piper, a flower seller gifted with clairvoyance, has become aware of one such baby farmer, Mother Delaney, who promises to help desperate young mothers and place their babies in loving homes. She suspects the truth is infinitely darker.
Guided by the spirit of her late friend, Emily Tindall, Constance gathers evidence about what really goes on behind the walls of Mother Delaney’s Poplar house. It’s not only innocent children who are at risk. A young prostitute’s body is found in mysterious circumstances. With the aid of Detective Constable Hawkins, newly promoted thanks to Constance’s help with his last case, Constance links the death to Mother Delaney’s vile trade. But the horror is edging closer to home, and even the hangman’s noose may not be enough to put this evil to rest…
Here’s Tessa, to tell us more about the book’s background…
Lovers of classical literature may be familiar with the baby farmer in Oliver Twist. Mrs Mann was her name and Dickens described her as being “a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself.” The children in her care were all starved with the result that in ‘eight and a half cases out of ten’ the child would die in infancy.
Mrs Mann was, however, a veritable Mary Poppins compared with a woman known as Amelia Dyer, history’s most notorious baby farmer whose exploits form the backbone of my latest novel, The Angel Makers. My first encounter with Dyer was about ten years ago in a bookshop (now sadly closed) near Reading, not a mile from where, just over a century before, she used to live. It was the photograph on the front cover that first attracted, or rather repulsed, me. It was as if I was staring evil in the face. I found her eyes so mesmerizingly frightening.
It was only when I began to read the blurb on the back of the book that I discovered I had every right to be disturbed by the way she looked. Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer all right, but the difference between the usual Victorian plier of the despicable trade and Dyer was, that instead of allowing her charges to die of malnutrition as was so often the case, she murdered many of the children in her care in cold blood.
When she was young, Dyer’s own daughter, Polly, asked her mother where all the babies that she ‘looked after’ went when they left their house. Dyer’s reply was that she was an “angel-maker.” She said she was “sending them to Jesus, because he wants them more than their mothers.” When police dredged up the babies’ corpses that she’d thrown in the River Thames she even admitted: “I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them.”
In an industrialized society where more and more women were going out to work to support themselves, baby farmers found it terrifyingly easy to find custom. Dyer used to advertise in local newspapers. A small ad would read: “Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms £10.” Another one declared: “Couple with no Child want Care of or would Adopt one.”
Young mothers, nearly all of them unmarried, would beat a path to Dyer, who used many different aliases. She would meet the women on mutual ground, such as in railway stations, to avoid being tracked and moved house several times. The details of only a few sample cases emerged during Dyer’s murder trial, but they show the extent of the heart-wrenching agony felt by so many desperate women who discovered that they had delivered their babies into the hands of a monster.
One such was barmaid Evelina Marmon. Made pregnant by a customer who abandoned her, she gave up her baby, Doris, to Dyer, along with the child’s vaccination certificate – a sure sign that she was a loving mother. Instead of being found a caring home as promised, however, within the next few hours the child was strangled with dress-making tape and her body stuffed in a bag and thrown into the Thames.
One of the most troubling aspects of this case – and there are many – is that Dyer’s motivation was never discovered. True, she spent two short stays in asylums, but this was only when she was dangerously close to being arrested. The court rejected her plea of insanity and she was hanged at Newgate Prison on June 10, 1896.
Of course Amelia Dyer wasn’t the first baby farmer to be convicted and hanged, nor sadly was she the last. Six years later two more baby farmers: Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were charged with murder in January 1903 and hanged at Holloway. Yet she remains to this day certainly the most notorious plier of this evil trade and indeed may well be the most prolific serial killer in history, having possibly murdered more than three hundred infants and young children over the course of thirty years.
I’d heard about baby farmers before, Tessa, but I found that absolutely fascinating – and I’m very much looking forward to reading and reviewing your book.
With many thanks to Tessa, I’m delighted to offer one lucky reader the chance to win a signed hardback copy of The Angel Makers (UK only). Here’s the rafflecopter for entry:
Terms and Conditions
The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to UK entrants aged 18 or over. Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time I will delete the data. I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.
About the author
Tessa Harris is the author of the acclaimed Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mysteries, including Secrets in the Stones and The Anatomist’s Apprentice. The Sixth Victim, the first book in her new historical series, was published in paperback in March: the next Constance Piper Mystery, The Angel Makers, was published on May 29th. A graduate of Oxford University with a History degree, Tessa has also been a journalist and editor, contributing to many national publications such as The Times and The Telegraph. She has also acted as a literary publicist for several well-known authors. Readers can visit her website, and also read more about The Sixth Victim here in her earlier guest post.