Taking the life of a child is one of the most chilling and unthinkable of crimes. So what makes a woman – even sometimes a mother – kill an innocent?
1. Mary Eleanor Percey
Not much of Mary Wheeler’s early life is known, apart from the fact that she was born in 1866 and, when she was 14, her father Thomas was hanged for the murder of a local farmer. In 1890, Mary Pearcey was living in North London, and hoping to marry for money and status. She began an affair with a married man – furniture dealer Frank Hogg. He’d wed his girlfriend Phoebe when he found she was pregnant with his child.
Later that year, the body of a woman was found in a park with her head practically severed and a blood-spattered pram nearby. When it was discovered to be Frank’s wife Phoebe, Mary’s strange hysterics brought her under suspicion. The next day, Phoebe’s 18-month-old baby was found a mile from the murder site, apparently suffocated.
Frank and Mary hadn’t bothered to be discreet with their affair, and Mary’s house was immediately searched. Obvious signs of violence and bloodstains were found. Mary claimed the blood was from some mice she’d killed, but investigators found it to be human. This, along with eyewitness accounts, soon suggested Mary had killed Phoebe in the house and put the body on top of the baby in the pram, suffocating it. Although she pleaded insanity, she was hanged in 1890.
2. Constance Kent
Four-year-old Francis ‘Saville‘ Kent went missing from his home in Road, Wiltshire, one night in June 1860. His body was later found in an outhouse, his throat slashed.
At first, the child’s nursemaid was suspected, but then his 16-year-old half-sister Constance Kent was arrested. She didn’t go to trial, however, and was released. The family moved away and Constance was sent to school in France.
Five years later, Constance owned up to the murder during confession with a priest. She surrendered to the authorities and pleaded guilty to killing her little stepbrother. Her original death sentence was commuted to life in prison, because she was so young at the time of the crime.
But was she really guilty or covering up for someone? There was speculation that the father Samuel Kent had killed the child for reasons linked to his well-known adulterous liaisons.
Some believed Constance’s brother William Saville-Kent was the killer. Others thought the two teenagers killed the little boy together out of jealousy. Their stepmother – the child’s mother – had once been their governess.
Constance Kent was released from prison after 20 years in 1885, and died aged 100. The dramatic murder investigation was covered extensively by the Press at the time, and inspired stories by Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And the case still holds a fascination for many – Kate Summerscale’s book, The Supicions of Mr Whicher, was published in 2008 and made into a series of films for TV.
3. Martha Bacon
Young housewife Martha Bacon lived in Lambeth and had already spent time in a South London asylum due to her erratic and sometimes violent behaviour. Considered ‘cured’, she’d been released and returned to her family.
Then, on 29 December 1856, she killed her two children – aged just two-and-a-half and 11 months – by cutting their throats with a kitchen knife. They’d been attacked so savagely that their heads were almost severed.
After being questioned by police, 26-year-old Martha claimed that the murders were committed by a crazed intruder. However, the evidence didn’t back up her claims, and she was found guilty of murder by reason of insanity.
Martha was one of the first patients to arrive in Broadmoor – a new, secure psychiatric hospital in Crowthorne, Berks, only three days after it had opened in 1863.
She spent much of her time there knitting children’s clothes and doing needlework. She remained in Broadmoor for rest of her life and died of stomach cancer in 1899.
4. Belle Gunness
Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth was born in Norway and went to the US in 1881. Later known as Belle Gunness, she married Mads Sorenson in 1884. The couple had four children, two of whom died as babies – but, strangely, were covered by life insurance.
During their marriage, the couples’ house and their business premises burned down and they got the insurance payout. Sorenson died on 30 July 1900 – on the day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped.
Belle married Peter Gunness in 1902. He already had two daughters – one a baby who died while under his new wife’s care. Gunness himself died in December 1902 when a heavy machine fell on him. Gunness’ death was investigated, but Belle was not charged – possibly because she was pregnant.
Soon after, her adopted daughter Jennie, who was questioned over remarks she’d made about her father Peter Gunness’ death, disappeared completely.
Now Belle, through a lonely-hearts club, began inviting men to visit her – and bring money. Three who visited to help the poor widow with her mortgage were never seen again. Worried that her hired hand Ray Lamphere would tell police of her activities, Belle fired him and reported that he’d threatened her.
In 1908, the Gunness home burned down. Four bodies were found under the piano – three of Gunness’ children and the headless body of a woman who did not appear to be her.
However, dentures found in the ashes were hers, and the coroner pronounced Belle dead. As the property was cleared, digging revealed the body of Jennie, those of six suitors and two children. Many other possible victims were reported to the police by concerned relatives.
Hired man Lamphere was convicted of arson and died in prison, but not before he revealed to a clergyman how Belle would kill her victims with strychnine or a meat cleaver, then dismember their bodies before Lamphere buried them. The fate of Gunness – who had withdrawn her money from the bank before the fire – was never positively determined, nor was the identity of the headless woman.
5. Dagmar Overbye
From 1916 to 1920, Dagmar Overbye ran a centre in Copenhagen where unmarried mothers could take their babies to be adopted – for a fee. It is unclear how well records of the babies she took in were kept, if at all. The mothers who paid Overbye to take the babies didn’t speak of it, much less go back to check on their babies – until, finally, one woman did.
Karoline Aagesen had placed her baby with Overbye in 1920 and at once regretted it. She went back to get the child the next day, but Overbye told her the baby had already been adopted. The mother went to the police, who investigated Overbye and her ‘adoption agency’.
They found baby clothes and charred bones in the stove. Overbye was arrested and confessed to killing either 16 or 20 babies However, from the evidence found, she was convicted of only nine murders. The babies had been strangled or drowned and burned, with some bodies also found in her loft or buried.
More parents came forward after Overbye’s arrest, and estimates of the number of infants she may have killed range from 29 to 180. It is believed that the first child Overbye killed was her own, born a few years before she opened her baby business. She was sentenced to death in 1921, which was commuted to life, and she died in prison in 1929.
6. Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton murdered as many as 21 people before being sent to the gallows in 1873. She’s believed to have killed three of her four husbands for their money, plus one lover, along with 11 of her 13 children and her own mother.
As a young woman, Mary Ann worked as a nurse. In 1852 she married William Mowbry. Shortly after, many of Mary Ann’s loved ones began dying under mysterious circumstances.
She and William had five children—four died of gastric fever. The couple then moved to the North East where they had, and lost, three more children. Later, Mary Ann would struggle to remember just how many children she had during this stage of her life.
In early 1865, William died of an intestinal disorder like his children. The newly widowed Mary Ann was left with one child and a large insurance payout.
Mary Ann married George Ward later that year. He died within thirteen months of intestinal problems. Again, Mary Ann collected insurance money.
Her next husband was James Robinson, whose former wife had died and left him with a baby. He hired Mary Ann as a housekeeper in November 1866, but his child died shortly after. The bereaved man turned to Mary Ann for comfort and the pair became a couple.
Then Mary Ann’s mother became ill, so she went to look after her. But, within nine days of her arrival, her mother died, despite the fact that the elderly woman had seemed to be getting better.
Mary Ann returned to James with her daughter who’d been living with Mary Ann’s mother. By the end of April 1867, this daughter, as well as two of James’ other children, were all dead.
Despite the deaths, James married Mary Ann that summer. Their first child was born in November but had died by March. Their second child, George, was born in June 1869. By now, James was wary of his wife. When he found out that she had been forcing her stepchildren to pawn household items for cash, he kicked her out but kept custody of young George – probably saving the boy’s life, as well as his own.
The last person to fall victim to Mary Ann was Frederick Cotton. With this family, Mary Ann managed to kill not only Frederick, but Frederick’s sister, the child Mary Ann had with Frederick, and his young son from a previous marriage. A lover also died of stomach-related illness during this period.
It was only after the death of young Charles that suspicion finally fell upon Mary Ann after a 20-year span of mysterious deaths.
In March 1873 Mary Ann Cotton was put on trial and officially convicted of the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. She was sentenced to death by hanging.
7. Amelia Dyer
Bristol-born Amelia Dyer’s crimes saw one of the most sensational trials of the Victorian era. She operated a ‘baby farm’ where unmarried mothers placed their babies with her for a fee – supposedly for adoption. Dyer also fostered infants for a weekly fee, and slowly starved her little charges, keeping them quiet with daily doses of the opiate laudanum. Police were alerted to her evil trade and she was arrested. She was sentenced to six months for infant neglect.
Ten years later, and Dyer had moved on to offering adoption in exchange for a large one-off payment. But she killed the infants within hours, strangling them with a length of white tape, and dumped their bodies in the river or buried them in her garden.
Police were alerted by neighbours to a stench of rotting flesh coming from her kitchen pantry and from a trunk under her bed. What they discovered inside Dyer’s two-up-two-down, rented terraced house on Kensington Road was chilling.
The police were in little doubt that they had uncovered a baby farm. They ordered the nearby river to be dragged and, when the body count rose to 50, Amelia told police, ‘You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks’.
It soon became clear that Dyer had made a living from her trade for almost 30 years, travelling as far as Liverpool and Plymouth. Eyewitnesses reported seeing as many as six babies a day taken into her home and police found evidence of at least 20 children who’d been put in her care in the two months before her arrest.
Even a conservative estimate of 10 deaths a year would mean that Dyer killed an unthinkable and staggering 300 infants over a 30-year period.