A dead man drinking a cocktail
The blood drained from my upper body. Dr. X stood before me, a cocktail in one hand, very much alive. But Rick had told me he’d died earlier in the year.
Without question, one of the most awkward social situations anyone can encounter is running into someone they thought was dead. My encounter with the living Dr. X happened to me at a Christmas party in the early nineties. I was working as a staff attorney for the Washington State Department of Health and attended its holiday celebration at a hotel in Tacoma.
There stood Dr. X, talking, laughing, breathing.
I’d only known Dr. X as a casual professional acquaintance. So when Rick, a physician friend of mine, told me he had died, I accepted the information with detachment. And I had no reason to doubt it until I saw Dr. X standing there and I felt my face go white. I stifled the most automatic response – “What?! But I thought you were dead!” What would Miss Manners say? I tried to act natural. I shook his hand in greeting. His hand was warm; he was really alive. I politely disengaged myself from Dr. X before my shock betrayed me, secretly glad I was wearing lipstick. Because Dr. X couldn’t see the blood drain from my lips.
How would have you handled this situation?
The walking dead in Amanda Howard’s new book
Because I’ve experienced the dismay of encountering the walking dead before, I felt for some of the people in Amanda Howard’s new book, Rope: A History of the Hanged. She recounts stories of those whose shock must have been much worse. She tells of those who’ve encountered living people declared dead – criminals who survived their hangings and returned to shock the public, or even worse, of the most egregious mistake the judicial system can make. Occasionally, someone found a supposed murder victim alive after a purported murderer had already been hung.
Amanda Howard graciously let me print an extract from her book that tells just that sort of a story. Perry’s case is an English story, but it changed the American legal landscape.
William Harrison, steward to the Lady Viscountess Campden disappeared on August 16, 1660. The 70-year-old man left his home in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire for the two-mile walk to Charringworth to collect rent. He had taken the trip many times before and would always return by evening. When Harrison had not returned by supper, his wife sent a servant, John Perry to look for him but he also went missing.
Perry claimed that he had been afraid of the dark and had returned home for his master’s horse to continue his search well after midnight when the moon was full and illuminated his way. Early in the morning, a mist fell over Charringworth and Perry had become lost, only finding his way when he came upon Edward Harrison, William’s son.
The following day, Mrs. Harrison had sent her son Edward to look for the two men and he came upon John Perry. The servant told Edward that he had no luck finding the elderly gentleman. They visited the homes that William would have visited and found that he had been to some of them.
Perry and Edward Harrison headed back to Campden. On their way, they found a hat, band, and comb which belonged to William. The two men began a search nearby having “suppose[ed] he had been murdered, the hat and comb being hacked and cut and the band bloody, but nothing more could be found.” At this stage, the entire town began a search for the man.
Mrs. Harrison grew suspicious of John Perry and claimed that his whereabouts were suspicious. Perry was interviewed numerous times by the local Justice of the Peace but confessed nothing except for what he had done that evening when Harrison had gone missing. Finally, after a week of questioning, Perry claimed that Harrison had been murdered but he did not know who had done it. He then changed his confession to claim that his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard, had killed the man.416 He claimed that they had killed Harrison, taken his money and hidden his body. Joan and Richard Perry were quickly arrested for the man’s murder and sent to trial.
Though all three pleaded guilty to the murder, the judge refused to accept the plea and neither did the jury. The trial ended without convictions. A second trial, where all three pleaded not guilty, saw them all found guilty of the man’s murder and sentenced to be hanged.
Within the week of the second trial in 1661, the trio were executed.
Joan was hanged first being declared a witch, followed by Richard, then John.
Three years after the Perry family were hanged, William Harrison returned to Campden looking disheveled and drawn. He claimed to have been “carried away beyond the seas.” He claimed that three men on horseback accosted him, made him mount one of the horses and took him away to a place called Deal where he was sold to a ship owner called Wrenshaw. He was then passed to other owners including a surgeon before finding his way back to Campden. Though many doubt his story, it is nonetheless tragic that three innocent people lost their lives for a murder that did not happen.
Perry’s case and the corpus delicti rule
This case tragically illustrates the importance of the corpus delicti rule in preventing wrongful convictions. Corpus delicti means “body of the crime.” In American law, it requires the prosecutor to present evidence that a crime was actually committed even if the defendant confesses; it protects those who confess to imaginary crimes due to coercion or mental illness.
Corpus delicti is what makes it so hard to prove no-body murder cases. In fact, it was this case, the so-called “Perry’s case,” that formed the legal foundations of the corpus delicti rule.
I got off much better than the defendants did in Perry’s case – I only suffered a shock. When I saw Rick again, I let have it. How could he be so careless with the facts and tell me a professional acquaintance of mine had died when he hadn’t? But Rick just shrugged and said he must have made a mistake.
That’s just the point. Errors happen – in private conversations, in the courtroom, and at the end of the noose. When they do, they can turn lives upside down. And some, like Perry’s case, can change the law.
The corpus delicti rule has recently fallen into disfavor. Some courts have abandoned it in favor of a looser corroboration rule, arguing that Miranda rights are sufficient to guard against false confessions. What do you think?
Amanda Howard biography
Amanda Howard is a true crime author, fiction writer and serial killer expert who has written 18 books. This includes ten books on a wide range of true crime cases. She has also interviewed some of the world’s most heinous serial killers over two decades and has collected a vast pool of information on various types of killers, their motives and rituals. Coupled with this are studies of criminology, law and psychology.
Amanda has appeared in many critically acclaimed international documentaries regarding famous serial killers, including Jack the Ripper, The Backpacker Killer, David Birnie as well as acted as a criminal consultant on many more. She authored many journal articles on serial killers as well as been a guest on crime shows on radio, online, television and in print. Amanda has worked as a consultant for many current affairs and news programs in Australia regarding vicious crimes, juvenile murderers, serial killers and sex offenders.
Following on from her successful career as a non-fiction author, she has coupled her knowledge of serial killers to develop a series of novels following the life of a police detective who is an international expert on ritual crimes and ancient societies. The fourth book in the series, Shrouded Echoes will be released in November 2016. She has also released a series of short stories and novellas.
Amanda is also currently studying for her Masters of Arts (Writing) and runs successful YouTube channels: Truly Disturbing, Mystery and History, Botched Executions and Forgotten Brutal Crimes.
Literature on point:
Amanda Howard, Rope: A History of the Hanged (New Holland Publishers, September 2016).
David A. Moran, “In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule,” Ohio State Law Journal (2003) 64:817-854. Page 828 discusses Perry’s case.
When bargeman Charles Humphreys and his mate leaned over the gunwale to hook the floating parcel and pull it aboard, the last thing they expected to find inside was a dead baby.
Humphreys had been navigating his barge upstream on the River Thames when he first spotted the brown paper parcel bobbing in the water. He and his mate hooked it as they maneuvered his barge towards the shore near Reading. The men brought the package ashore to a towpath. There the mate tore open the wet packaging – paper and two layers of sodden flannel. An infant’s foot emerged. Leaving his mate to guard the parcel, he ran to town to fetch the police. That police report, on March 30, 1896, became the first clue in a case of baby farm murders. The ensuing investigation not only exposed one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, with an estimated victim count of 300. It also led to the creation of modern child protection laws.
There can be little doubt that the police have unearthed a case which will prove the most remarkable in the annals of crime for many years past. – Berkshire Chronicle, April 18, 1896.
The package concealed a dead baby girl, aged 6-12 months old, with a ligature around her neck. A local surgeon examined her and confirmed the police’s suspicions. The baby had been strangled. An address on the brown wrapping paper led the police to Amelia Dyer, a woman who made her living as a foster mother – by running a “baby farm.”
As the police investigated her and dredged the Thames for more bodies, the emerging body count and evidence of child abuse appalled the country more than Jack the Ripper’s five murders even had. The baby farm murders revealed a dark underbelly of Victorian society. Period laws made it almost impossible for single mothers – sometimes even widows – to keep their own children. Thousands gave their babies up to foster parents, who charged fees for childcare. A few foster mothers took advantage of the situation. They collected the fees but killed the babies.
Historical true crime author Angela Buckley, who recently published a book, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders (Victorian Supersleuth Investigates), joins us today for an interview about one of Britain’s most horrific serial killers. I’ve added a few block quotes with additional information.
Welcome, Angela Buckley!
Is “Victorian Supersleuth Investigates” going to be a historical true crime series?
Yes, it’s a series of short true crime cases, which all start with a murder and then follow the investigation as it unfolds, with all the clues, challenges, and obstacles that the detectives encountered. The books are written like crime fiction and are ‘quick reads’– perfect for a true crime coffee break!
Are you planning another book?
My next book in the Victorian Supersleuth Investigates series is Charlie Peace and the Murder of PC Cock. At midnight on 1 August 1876, PC Cock was shot in the leafy suburbs of Manchester. Superintendent James Bent thought he knew who the killer was succeeded in bringing PC Cock’s murderer to justice but, in an astonishing twist, the killer’s real identity was revealed some years later. Charlie Peace and the Murder of PC Cock will be published in spring 2017.
How many babies did Amelia Dyer kill?
It is not known how many babies died at the hands of Amelia Dyer. By the time of her arrest, she had been active as a baby farmer for almost three decades, and most of those children probably perished, perhaps more often from neglect than cold-blooded murder. Although there is no concrete evidence, it is likely that she was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of babies, given the length of time she ran her baby farming business.
According to an article in the Independent, Amelia Dyer killed at least 300 babies. She was probably Britain’s most prolific serial killer.
What was “baby farming”? Was it a common practice?
Baby farmers were the Victorian equivalent of child minders. Also known as ‘nurses’, they advertised in the newspapers to care for infants for a weekly fee, usually five shillings. They also offered a full adoption for a one-off payment. In the cities, it was very common in the late 19th century for married women working in factories to place their children each day with a baby farmer. For single mothers, it was an opportunity to relieve themselves of the burden of an unwanted baby. Sadly, many of the baby farmers neglected the infants in their care; they drugged them with laudanum to keep them quiet, and slowly starved them to death.
How did Victorian law and morals force women to give up their babies?
In the Victorian era, illegitimacy carried a deep social stigma, and single women who fell pregnant were often thrown out of their homes and family and lost their jobs. Many were domestic servants, who lost everything – most of the mothers who gave their babies to Amelia Dyer were in service. There was no social security and no state-run orphanages or no legal adoption system, so single mothers were faced with the prospect of giving up their child in order to survive. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act made the situation even worse, as outdoor parish relief was replaced by the workhouse, in which parents were separated from their children. Some unmarried mothers were so desperate that they even killed their own babies. Others handed them to a baby farmer.
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act absolved fathers from financial responsibility for children born outside of wedlock. The legislature felt that penalizing men for the children they sired would force them to marry against their will and financial support for unwed mothers would discourage chastity and encourage extortion and perjury. Children became the unintended victims of this law.
Did any parents ever try to reclaim their babies?
Some parents returned to a baby farmer’s each day, after work, to take their children home for the night but for many, it was understood that once they placed their child with a baby farmer for adoption, they would not expect to see them again. I think it was probably quite rare that parents tried to reclaim their child after such an agreement had been made, although it did happen in Amelia Dyer’s case – the parents never found their child, who was likely to have died.
The coroner gave the police two weeks following the discovery of the first body to tie up ends and solve the cases. Were murder cases of the period usually solved so quickly?
In my experience of Victorian criminal cases, it seems quite usual for murders to be investigated and processed quickly through the courts to the final trial. However, most crimes went unsolved and the most common coroner’s verdict was ‘murder by person or persons unknown’. Early 19th-century police records reveal that conviction rates, in general, could be low as 5%. Around the time of the Dyer case, there were several coroner’s inquests into infants found in the Thames, but most were inconclusive and therefore not used as evidence against her.
The more the case is unraveled, the more revolting do the details appear. – Bershire Chronicle, April 18, 1896
Why was it so hard to find enough evidence in the baby farm murders?
Although infant bodies were found in rivers near the places Amelia Dyer lived in the south of England, it was impossible to link them to Dyer without modern forensic techniques and DNA testing. The Victorian police had to rely on circumstantial evidence. Although Amelia Dyer was investigated several times for neglect, after babies died in her care, it was extremely difficult to prove that she had been responsible for their deaths. In Reading, the police found letters in her home, which provided them the links to the victims’ parents so that they could construct a compelling case against her.
This case was huge. The baby farm murders led to the creation of modern child protection laws in Britain. How?
Prior to the 1870s, there were no laws in Britain regulating those who cared for other people’s children. Towards the end of the 1860s, baby farms began to come to the police’s attention and, in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first baby farmer to be hanged for infanticide, after a child in her care died from neglect. This shocking case led to the 1872 Infant Protection Act, which required any person taking in more than one nurse child for more than 24 hours to be registered with the police. However, there were still more infant deaths at the hands of unscrupulous baby farmers, which reached a climax with the conviction of Amelia Dyer in 1896. The 1908 Children’s Act established the framework for modern child protection policies.
Thank you, Angela Buckley!
Sometimes legislation is like a barge working its way upstream on the Thames. It takes society a while to recognize negative effects of its old laws and to navigate a new legal course. Hundreds of infants paid the price for Britain’s misguided attempt to stigmatize single mothers. Amelia Dyer and the baby farm murders led to new legislation to protect children. That is the legacy of this case.
Literature on point:
Angela Buckley, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders (Victorian Supersleuth Investigates) (Manor Vale Associates, 2016).