Saturday, September 17, 2011

Margaret Waters, Child Care Provider Who Murdered Five Babies - 1870

Waters drugged and starved the infants in her care and is believed to have killed at least 19 children. Charged with five counts of wilful murder as well as neglect and conspiracy, Waters was convicted of murdering an infant named John Walter Cowen. Waters was hanged by executioner William Calcraft on 11 October 1870 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol (also known as Surrey County Gaol) in London. Her sister, Sarah Ellis, was convicted in the same case for obtaining money under false pretences and sentenced to eighteen months' hard labour. [Wikipedia]


EXCERPT (Article 1 of 4: from: 1870)

The child Cowen, such a fine, healthy child three weeks before, had scarcely a bit of flesh on its bones, could not cry, could hardly be wakened when it was asleep, and looked more like a shriveled-up monkey than a human being.

[“Trade Of Murder – Review of the Case of Margaret Waters, the Murderess, Hanged on Oct. 11.” (from the London Spectator, Oct. 1), The New York Times (N.Y.), Oct. 15, 1870, p. ?] 


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4: from: 1870)

Margaret Waters, the baby-farmer, was executed yesterday morning at nine o’clock, within the walls of Horsemonger-lane Prison. Reporters say –

The prisoner appears to have conducted herself remarkably well since her conviction. On Monday night she requested to be allowed to write a statement of her case, which she desired to be published after her death. She said she pleaded guilty to obtaining money by false pretences, and admitted that she had laid down “the dead bodies of five infants,” but she declared that they all died of convulsions or diarrhoea. She said she perfectly understood why this case had been “got up,” and she considered the parents of illegitimate children who wanted to get rid of them by any moans wore more to blame than persons like herself. If there were no parents of this class, there would be no baby farmers.”

She did not betray any emotion while being pinioned, and appeared to have recovered all the firmness that characterised her during the trial. After the rope had been adjusted, she, in a calm and composed tone, uttered what was described by those who hoard it as a beautiful extempore prayer. Though most of the spectators wore more or less inured to scenes of horror, several were visibly affected, one kneeling on the bare ground, and another leaning, overcome with emotion, against the prison wall. At last she said to the chaplain, “Mr. Jossopp, do you think I am saved?” A whispered reply from the clergyman conveyed his answer to that momentous question. All left the scaffold, except the convict. The bolt was withdrawn, and, almost without a struggle, Margaret Waters ceased to exist. Nothing could exceed the calmness and propriety of her demeanour, and this, the chaplain informed us, had been the case throughout since her condemnation. She had been visited on one occasion by a Baptist minister, to whose persuasion she belonged; but he had, at her own request, forborne to repeat his visit.

The prisoner said he was evidently unused to cases like hers, and his ministrations rather distracted than comforted her. The chaplain of the gaol has been unremitting in his attentions, and seemingly with happy effect. Though she constantly persisted in saying she was not a murderess in intent, she was yet brought to see her past conduct in its true light; and on Saturday last received the Holy Communion in her cell with one of her brothers.

On Thursday Dr. Edmunds, of Fitzroy-square, communicated to the “Dialectical Society” a voluminous statement of the woman, who said that her husband left her with £300, and that she had done her best to earn an honest living by means of it, but that she had gradually sunk into a state of chronic impecuniosity and debt. At first she had received women to be confined, and had then undertaken the care of their children:—

She thus had at one time four children in her care. She never advertised at this time; but finding herself going steadily down hill, she began baby-farming as a business. She advertised for children, and she had answers from persons in all stations. She drifted along in this course, getting from bad to worse; but she protested that she had no idea of injuring the children, though she did some things she was very sorry for, owing to the difficulties of her position.

At length she entered upon another branch of the profession: —

She took the Clerkenwell News, and there she used to find a whole string of advertisements from women who wanted children to nurse. She advertised herself for children to adopt, and she generally got £10 with one. When she got the child and the money she went to one of the other advertisers, and arranged to put the baby out to nurse. Upon paying two weeks in advance she was hardly ever asked even for her address, and when she went away, of course she never heard anything more of the child. She gained the difference between the £10 given her for adopting the child and the fortnight’s payment for nursing it. This was, after all, only a very precarious resource, and she fell into great distress. She went to a money-lender (whose name she does not conceal), and borrowed £28 from him on her furniture. He deducted £14 of the £28 for “expenses,” and made her pay £2 10s. a month until the whole £28 was paid him. Whenever she was a few days behindhand in paying one of the instalments, he threatened to seize all her things, and he only desisted upon being paid 10s. by way of fine. When the £28 was paid back in this way, she was so reduced that she was obliged to get another loan from the money-lender on the same terms. All this took place while she was at Bournemouth-terrace. At this time the children were as well attended to as she could manage it; and a medical man was always called in when they fell sick. When they died they were buried properly, and she had the undertaker’s receipts.

Afterwards her poverty suggested to her that she might dispense with this charge when they died, and even that she might get rid of them living:

She took them one at a time into the streets, and when she saw little boys and girls at play, she called one of them and said, “Oh, I am so tired! Here, hold my baby, and here is sixpence for you to go into the sweets tuff shop and got something nice.” While the boy or girl went into the shop she made off. The babies, she believes, were generally taken to the workhouse. On one occasion the boy to whom she gave one was served so quick that he came out again before she had time to get away. She therefore stepped into an oyster shop, and ordered some oysters. She saw the boy looking up and down with. the baby in his arms, and when he did not see her he began to cry. Some people gathered, and a policeman came up, to whom the boy showed the baby. The policeman then walked away with the boy, and she left the oyster-shop. and got off safe. Some of the persons who gave her the children for adoption were evidently well off. The babies were very well dressed. She used to have appointments often to meet parties at the railway stations, and a gentleman, accompanied by a nurse, would give her the child. Sometimes the children were given her within an hour after they were born – in less time, in fact, and before they were even dressed. One of the children found by the police at Brixton had been given to her only two days before. She got £20 with it, and the people that gave it promised her any sum if she only took good care of it.

[Untitled, The Guardian (London, England), Oct. 12, 1870, p. 1191 (p. 7 of issue)]


EXCERPT (Article 3 of 4) A sergeant of police painted a picture of what he found at the [Margaret Waters] baby farm.  Here “some half-dozen little infants lay together on a sofa, filthy, starving, and stupefied by laudanum.”

In the Coroner's court, a fourteen-year old housemaid testified that children at the house had been “taken away at night and not brought back.”  She had been told that the children were being taken home.


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4): The case made out at the Central Criminal Court against Margaret Waters, one of the two women charged with the “wholesale murder of children in a baby-farming house at Brixton, is so complete and clear that there can be no doubt of the justice of her sentence. Whatever may have been thought before as to the possibility of the death of some of the children being caused by such neglect as would amount to manslaughter, it is evident now that there was an organized system in that house, that children were “adopted “ with a view of being slowly murdered by starvation and narcotics, and that the child Cowen fell a victim to that treatment. The merciful forms of our criminal procedure, which restrict prosecutions to one thing at a time, made it impossible to give legal evidence of facts that add infinitely to moral certainty. We cannot but connect the children which were taken away from the house at night having a cape, or a hood, or a shawl on, which were ill and silent when they were taken away, and which never reappeared, though the clothing sometimes came back, with the bodies found under railway-arches wrapped in rags or brown-paper or in things that had belonged to Waters or her sister. We cannot but remember that the accused women had received at least forty children in four years, that there were eleven children in the house when it was searched, and that of the nine taken to the workhouse four died from the effects of starvation. As a matter of law, the Lord Chief Baron was quite right in telling the jury that these circumstances must not influence their verdict. If it appeared that the child Cowen died from natural causes, or from neglect which fell short of being intentional, the fact that other children had been murdered at the same time would not make the accused guilty of his murder. But the jury were also told that in estimating the likelihood of the child Cowen having died from natural causes, or of the neglect falling short of being intentional, they might properly take into account the treatment of those other children. It was only by this means that cumulative evidence could be introduced at all, and even then its effect was carefully restricted. But there was enough to satisfy the jury that the woman Waters was guilty of murder, and we are not at all sure that her sister Ellis would have escaped if the case against her had not been stopped by the Lord Chief Baron.

A review of the facts connected with the child Cowen shows us, no doubt, that Waters took the active part in procuring him from his grandfather, and that she had the chief management of the house at Brixton. We first hear of her in connection with an advertisement offering to adopt a child on payment of a small premium. A musician named Cowen, living at Brixton, wrote to the address given in this advertisement, and made an appointment at some railway-station with a person calling herself Willis. This person turned out to be Waters, and to her care Mr. Cowen confided the illegitimate child of his daughter. The child, which was then a very fine, healthy child, was taken away on the 17th of May. A premium of £2 was paid with it, Waters at first refusing to take the money and having to be pressed to take it. She said at the same time that £-1 was only mentioned in the advertisement to prevent numbers of applicants, and she gave an account of herself and her husband to show that she was not in want of money. The next thing Mr. Cowen heard about the child was from a police-serjeant who had also answered an advertisement about adoption, and had heard from a Mrs. Oliver. Going to a railway-station with the Serjeant, he saw Mrs. Oliver, who turned out to be Ellis, and who was wearing the same dress ho had seen upon Waters at a similar interview. Ellis was followed home, and next day the house was searched. Eleven children were found there, five supported by a weekly allowance, and these five in fair condition; the rest adopted children, lying huddled on a sofa, dressed in foul and wet clothes, looking thin and wasted, all of them in a sort of stupor, and two of them as if they were dying. The child Cowen, such a fine, healthy child three weeks before, had scarcely a bit of flesh on its bones, could only be recognized by its hair, could not cry, could hardly be wakened when it was asleep, and looked more like a shrivelled-up monkey than a human being. Waters, being taxed with its murder, told Mr. Cowen that he had only given her £2 for its keep. While the house was being searched, the children on the sofa were hastily cleaned, and bottles of milk were placed beside them. The child Cowen was at once taken to a wet-nurse, and for a time it seemed to rally; but it soon relapsed into a stupor, and that gave place to death. Want of food while it was young, the administration of laudanum, a bottle smelling of which was found in the house, and which the doctor called for the defence said “killed children like a shot,” extreme wasting, the natural result of such treatment, and congestion of the brain, were the operating causes. It is needless to go through the medical theories started by the defence, or to hint at the “charitable presumptions” which are suggested. The woman Waters’s own statement is conclusive. “You only gave me £2, Mr. Cowen.” It was clear that a child must starve upon that, and the narcotics enabled it to starve noiselessly. The woman’s after-thought that the child was intended for a wealthy couple, and that its death was a great loss to her in a pecuniary point of view, is contradicted by her own words as well as by the whole of her conduct. If it had been her interest to keep the child alive, she would have carefully separated it from those whom it was her interest to murder. It is not as if she was so much accustomed to the one branch of her terrible trade that her skill failed her when she wished to make an exception. The children for whom she had a weekly allowance tell a different story. They were running about in the open air, were properly fed, in fair health, and have since been given up to their friends. It is true that they were older children, and the danger of bringing up young babies by hand is so great that the deaths are said to be thirty per cent, on an average. But here we have the keynote of the system. All the adopted children were young babies. “I wish for one as young as possible, that it may know none but ourselves as its parents,” wrote Mrs. Oliver, in her decoy letter. We may be sure that if an older child was offered there was some reason for declining it. The shipbuilder or house decorator did not like its looks. It was too old to accustom itself to a new family. It would not put up so readily with starvation and narcotics, and its body could not be disposed of so safely as if it was five or six weeks old.

This consideration throws some light on the practice of the Brixton house. But there is another feature of the system which deserves attention. Were those children which were taken away at night between 10 and 12 adopted children, or children supported by a weekly allowance? If they were the former, and it is true that they went to their friends, how came their friends to take them back? They would hardly pay the premium for adoption, whether it was really £5, or £4, or £2, and then let Mrs. Willis or Mrs. Oliver repudiate the transaction. Of course, these children may have belonged to the other class, the class which lived; but as they were generally young, generally ill, generally silent, and were taken away at about the same time of night as fresh children were brought back to the house, we should form a different conclusion. The railway-stations where children were received cannot be far from the railway arches where bodies were deposited, and the shawl in which Cowen was wrapped had perhaps just before discharged another duty. These, of course, are suspicions merely, but there is good ground for them. The way in which the most odious features of the system were concealed from those brought casually in contact with it, show the care with which the trade was carried on. We do not know what the servant-girl thought of the amount of food given to the children in the house, or of the mysterious disappearances of those which were ill and silent and slept a good deal. A doctor was called in to see the child Cowen, and found it suffering from diarrheal and sickness; but it does not then seem to have been drugged in an obtrusive manner, and though he called again twice before the child was taken away, while it was gradually wasting to a skeleton, it was not shown him, and he was told that it was better. We should have thought the doctor’s suspicious ought to have been excited by the appearance of the house, but we know from the servant that the children were always put out of the way when anyone was coming. Mr. Cowen, too, seems to have been easily blinded, but the reluctance shown by Waters to receive the sum of the smallness of which Bhe afterwards complained, was well calculated to persuade him of her sincerity. Why she should only take £2 when she might have got more is almost the only mystery in the case, but it makes very little in her favour. Mr. Cowen said he would willingly have given more, but if more had been taken ho would hardly have believed the story about the shipbuilder. He might give £2 without inquiries, when he thought it was to be spent on the child’s clothes; if he had known that he was paying a premium for adoption, he would have seen that the money was an object, and he must have asked himself where was the profit. The women who advertised for children and showed them a mother’s love and care by starving and drugging them, knew that ill was necessary to act with caution. The parents of illegitimate offspring might be willing to relieve themselves of a burden, but would hardly be accomplices in murder. Some disguise was essential, stories had to be invented, scruples to be lulled in advance, grand hopes to be instilled. It was thought that people would be ready enough to part with their children, but they would be slower in parting with their money, and thus an element of false pretences was introduced against which the accused found i vain to struggle. We do not ask whether eighteen months’ imprisonment is a fit punishment for falsely pretending that you will take care of a child when it is really your intention to murder it, nor is that the technical charge to which Ellis pleaded guilty. But substantially she is in the same position as her sister. The house was kept by the two women. They both took care of the children, and what that phrase means is obvious. They went out indifferently in search of fresh victims, and carried away the old ones indiscriminately. At the time when the doctor was called in to see Cowen, that child was under the charge of Ellis. There can be little doubt that the two women were partners and confederates in the trade carried on at that house, and it is an elementary proposition of law that if two people are together when a crime is committed, acting in concert, and participating in the crime, though one does the act and the other merely looks on, both are equally guilty. Indeed, the Lord Chief Baron told Ellis when he passed sentence upon her for the offence to which she pleaded guilty, that “she must have known at the time she held out solicitations to the public, and pretended to take children into her keeping, it was the intention so to deal with them that the unhappy circumstances should follow that had led to the sentence of death which had just been passed upon her sister.” If this be so, nothing can be clearer than that Ellis was an accessory before the fact to the murder of all the children whom she enticed into the house at Brixton, even if she was not a principal in the murder of the child Cowen.

But while it seems to us wrong that Ellis should have been allowed to escape so easily, we must not forget that justice has overtaken the other delinquent. It was time that the wholesale massacre of children, of which we hear so often under one form or another, should be suppressed. There may always be some doubt of the expediency of inflicting the most terrible of all punishments, on the wretched mothers who, at the very moment of birth, or shortly after, get rid of their own offspring. The law itself has provided a compromise ia these cases, and where that is out of the question, judges, juries, prosecuting counsel, witnesses, do their best to find some other loophole. Where the verdict is inevitable, the Home Secretary is sure to be moved by a strong recommendation to mercy, and though sentence is passed, it is never meant to be executed. But when a woman coolly and deliberately takes children into her keeping, using such devices as serve to blind eyes which are not over-suspicious, and calling in doctors to prescribe for slight attacks, while leaving laudanum and the want of food to do their work; when fine healthy children are so emaciated in three weeks that their bones almost protrude through their skin, and are in such a profound stupor that they cannot even cry or. give one sign of natural life; and when all this is done for a gain that seems small indeed for the risk run, but has to be kept low both for the sake of increasing the business and avoiding detection, only one course is possible. Unless we are prepared to say that children are not human beings, and are not entitled to the protection of the law, the full penalty must be inflicted. We must show by a rigid exercise of severity that baby-farmers are not to be allowed to traffic with infant life, and that murder, which is fearful enough when it springs from passion, is infinitely more loathsome and more criminal when it is reduced to a business.

[“The Trade of Murder.” The Spectator (London, England), Oct. 1, 1870, p. 1171]






For more cases of “Baby Farmers,” professional child care providers who murdered children see The Forgotten Serial Killers.


More cases: Female Serial Killers Executed


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