Exclusive Look: The Baby Farm Murders

Terms, £10

Evelina Marmon had made a mistake. It was not an uncommon mistake for a woman to make. Women had been making that same mistake over and over since the dawn of time, which was somewhat lucky, given that it was the kind of mistake that meant that the human race kept on existing. But Evelina was not some cavewoman who could make this sort of mistake with no consequence. The year was 1896, and the initial mistake had happened around nine months ago when she’d met a charming young man while she was waiting at a bar in Cheltenham.

All night long, every time that he bought himself and his friends a drink, he’d drop a half penny for her to get a gin for herself. It was a long shift, and there were a lot of rounds being bought, and by the end of it all she was flushed and dizzy. In just the right state to make a mistake. As she closed the place up for the night, wiping down the tables, the man lingered. They chatted as she went, with him trailing around after her like a lost puppy, all the while still flattering her and charming her. She should never have gone with him when the doors were finally shut. She should never have followed him back to his lodging house, with her fingers threaded through his and the cool morning air doing nothing to cool off the heat that was building up inside of her. She’d made a mistake that night and when he’d been gone the next morning, she’d made up her mind that it wasn’t the kind of mistake she could ever afford to make again. Imagine if she got a reputation for doing that sort of thing. She’d be out of work, tossed out of her lodging, and subsequently forced to do for money the very thing that she should never have done to start with.

It had been a hard-learned lesson that she planned to never revisit. She would exercise restraint and hold off until there was a wedding ring on her finger before she ever risked making that sort of mistake again, no matter how much she might have enjoyed it, or how natural it might have been. Animals were natural too, and you saw how they behaved, rutting in the streets. She was better than that. Better than nature. And when the next kindly smile turned her head, she would let it end with a gentle goodbye instead of facing the embarrassing and shameful possibility of waking in the cold bed of a stranger with no sign of him left behind save for a few stains on the rumpled sheets.

That should have been the end of it. She’d learned from her mistake. She’d gone to church full of sorrow over her sin. She didn’t need any punishment to remind her that she had to do better.

And then the blood hadn’t come.

Every month like clockwork she’d bled, ever since she was a girl. She was twenty-four by then, so it had been years enough for her to know when it was due, but instead of the cramps and the bleeding and rags bundled up between her legs making waiting tables even more of an awkward chore, there had been nothing at all. She’d discounted it. Maybe she’d miscounted, or maybe things were just running slow in her body that month. No cause for alarm. Something she might mention to her mother if she ever got a chance to sit down with her, but otherwise a fairly minor oddity.

Sex education was not a high priority in Victorian England. Education in general was considered to be wasted on women, and women of low breeding like Evelina weren’t likely to have even seen the inside of a classroom in most cases. Besides, sex was one of the greatest taboos that there was. Nobody spoke about it, even amongst family members or close friends, for fear that showing any knowledge of it would imply things about their character. So everything that Evelina had learned was from whispers and rumours that didn’t seem to make any sense. She certainly wouldn’t have known any of the signs of pregnancy. That sort of knowledge was held only by the esteemed and well-educated doctors and passed down orally from midwife to midwife in the slums of the city.

You could argue that cities themselves were the trouble. Nobody who had grown up on a farm would have had any doubt about what happened after beasts lay together. By Evelina’s age, a country girl had probably served as a midwife for some animals on the farm. But now that the populations of England were entirely concentrated in the cities, the people that dwelled there were entirely cut off from the natural order of things. All that they knew was what they’d been told, and nobody had told any of them a whisper about what it meant when your period stopped and you felt queasy every single morning.

It was the first time that Evelina had been pregnant in her life, and with her being so young, her body showed little signs of the pregnancy for months on end. She just assumed that she had some little stomach bug, and that was why she felt sick and bloated. It wasn’t as though she could afford to visit a doctor and ask for help for something so minor. It wasn’t as though her leg had fallen off, so she wasn’t going to squander her hard-earned money on a visit to a hospital or a clinic.

Months rolled on by without Evelina having the slightest clue about what was growing in her womb. She forgot about the blood that used to come every month. Forgot about her dalliance with a charming boy that she never saw again. Life was hard enough without daydreaming about problems that didn’t even exist, so why would she spend a moment dwelling on them when the next round had been ordered and there had been a spill in the back and the bottles needed wiped down and her boss was threatening to cut her pay if she dropped another glass.

That’s the funny thing about life: it goes on. It doesn’t matter how terrible a mistake you’ve made or what is happening beyond the limits of your perception and understanding, every day the sun rises, and the bills need paying. So she got up and went to work and the weight inside of her grew heavier and heavier without her even noticing it. The sickness passed and faded from her memory much as the bleeding had. Even the night that she’d done the one thing she was never meant to do faded away. Almost six months had gone by before one of the other girls in the bar pulled her aside and asked about her baby.

Evelina didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t have a baby, she wasn’t even married, what was the girl trying to say? Even when the other waitress placed her hand on Evelina’s stomach and the protruding curve that had appeared over the last few months, she still didn’t put it together.

It was only as she lay in her bed that night, nestled in the dark listening to the snores and sobs of everyone else trying to make it through the night, that she finally understood the question. It wasn’t because she’d worked out what the other girl was talking about or that she’d made the connection with her sordid encounter in another equally miserable boarding house. It was because the baby kicked.

She had felt movement before, of course she had, but there had always been more important things to focus on, real problems to deal with. A crate needing brought up from the basement. A few extra pennies she needed to scrabble for in tips so that she could make her rent. A hole in her shoe that needed to be cobbled. But now, as she lay entirely alone in the midst of the dark night, she was struck by an awful certainty, the astounding realisation that she was not alone at all. There was another person there, inside of her. A baby, a child that she was going to have out of wedlock.

Her life was over. Everything she’d worked for, everything she’d strived for, all the months and years of clawing herself up from the gutters, it was over. She was ruined. Nobody would hire her once she was sacked from the Cheltenham bar. Not once they knew she was a fallen woman. No respectable doss-house would give her a bed for fear that she might spread her harlot ways to their other residents or bring johns home with her and thereby transform the once-reputable establishment into nothing more than a common whorehouse. That baby would be like the mark of Cain on her, visible to all, damning her for eternity. There could be no coming back from this. She was ruined.

Her voice joined the others sobbing in the dark of the night, echoing back and forth between the paper-thin walls. Everything was ruined, and she had nobody to blame but herself. She hadn’t been forced, she hadn’t been tricked, she’d gone with that man and laid herself down and reveled in unbridled hedonism. This was the price that she had to pay. Complete destruction.

Evelina didn’t sleep that night, her head spinning and aching with the awful realisation of what had happened to her, but with the coming of dawn came a new hope, too. She was not the only girl in the world who’d run into a problem like this. Victorian England was hardly deprived of women who had made mistakes, quite the opposite in fact. As the inevitable result of the complete lack of any reliable and medically safe means for terminating an unwanted pregnancy was available to the lower classes, a somewhat clandestine type of business emerged to provide an alternative. Such places that would take a baby and raise it so that nobody ever had to know who its parents were. Wealthy couples unable to have children of their own could then adopt such waifs born of ill fortune. There were so many whispered stories about such things that, surely, some part of the rumours had to be true.

She confided in the other waitress that day, confessing her sins and seeking absolution. As it happened, she never even needed to ask for it. The other girl was not so puritanical as everyone around them seemed to be, she didn’t even question who the father of the child was or why they weren’t wed. Instead, she offered up practical advice, woman to woman. The way that women have done since before history was recorded. Through her, Evelina found a midwife who could answer all her questions and point her in the right direction.

She would have the child because there was no subtle way of being rid of it now that things were so far along. No special tea that she could drink to make the problem disappear. No procedure that midwives weren’t meant to know, but nonetheless did. She was assured that this was not the end of her life as she’d assumed. Most folks never even knew just how many babies were out there being born every day. Half the women that Evelina knew might have had one and she’d never have been any the wiser. It was all a matter of dressing right, timing things and keeping your mouth shut. So long as nobody knew with certainty that she was pregnant, so long as she wasn’t carting a baby around with her, they’d never need to know. So long as the baby had somewhere to go, she might even be able to get it back in a few years once she had found some man to settle down with. Folks didn’t pay all that much attention, especially in a big city like this. You could get away with far more than she’d ever realised if you kept to yourself and dealt with your problems in a sensible manner. But first thing was first, she had to have this baby.

There would be no hospital visit for young Evelina, just boiled water, fresh towels and the reassuring presence of the midwife by her side, talking her through everything as it happened.

The labour was not easy, because no labour is easy. A woman might forget afterwards just how awful things were, but that did not mean that the pain was not immense, that the exhaustion was not bone deep or that the fear was not overwhelming. It is in our nature to forget, otherwise we would only ever have a single child, but for most parents, there is something that helps with the forgetting. The baby itself. The bond that is formed, the love that develops, even the absolute adoration and pure wonder that most parents feel the first moment that they look at their child is part of the deep-abiding love that is hard-wired into our brains to ensure that the species goes on existing despite the fact that we spend our most vulnerable early years as little more than screaming meat lumps. But poor Evelina knew, even as she bled and tore and wept, that the baby would not be hers to keep. She would not have a lifetime with it. She would not be allowed to cradle it in her arms and rock it to sleep every night. All the things that make going through the awful trauma of giving birth worthwhile were going to be taken from her, and she had to come to terms with that in exactly the same moment that she was straining to bring new life into the world.

This was her baby. But it would not remain her baby. She would not be the one to raise it. To teach it to speak. To encourage its first steps. It would not know her face. In all likelihood, it would not even know her name. For all that she might have had dreams of that promised future when they would be reunited again under one roof, with some faceless father roped in so that the whole world would not turn against them, the truth was that more likely than not, her child was never going to know her.

The tears streamed down her face mingled with the sweat. If this had been her second or third child, it would have been long done by now. But this was her firstborn. Her first and only.

When the babe finally slipped free of her into the midwife’s arms, she had lost track of how many hours had passed them by. It was all just one long horrible blur of motion and blood and pain. But now that the journey was done, the destination was so much sweeter. Wrapped up in the last clean towel in the whole boarding house, the midwife brought the tiny baby up to where Evelina lay, still too weak to move. She laid its head upon the mother’s chest and let Evelina’s heartbeat soothe the little one. It was a girl, she told Evelina in what seemed like a distant whisper. A girl.

She called her Doris.

The first day after the baby was born, Evelina was basically left alone to get on with things. The midwife had given instructions on how to nurse the babe, how to fold a nappy, all the vital things to get through the first little while. Beyond that, she had been told to rest up for the time being. She’d thought that she would have spent the whole day with nobody for company but the baby. That the stigma around her would already have descended. To her amazement, every one of the girls that she worked with showed up with gifts and kind words, even the boss’s wife who had made sure to keep her husband right the last few months when he started getting ideas about notions like sin and reputation. As much as she had wept over the baby coming to ruin her life, over the pain that she was suffering through, and the sorrow at the impending separation from her baby, nothing had made her sob and snivel like that kindness did.

All of them had known from the start, and none of them had said a word. None of them had looked down on her or cursed her name or cast her out, because but for a bit of bad luck, she could have been any one of them.

Society at large might have loathed single mothers, but when you broke that society down to individuals who actually knew the single mothers as people instead of an abstract concept, that level of contempt was impossible. In the big picture, tiny details could be missed but Evelina was never going to forget this kindness and she would never fail to pay it forward for the rest of her life. The modern Protestant mantra of hate the sin, love the sinner, may not have been circulated so much in Victorian England, but there were still kind and goodhearted people intent on doing the right thing regardless of what the baying masses thought.

They didn’t coddle her, much as she might have appreciated it, but they did show her that the sky had not fallen, and the world had not ended. So long as she was able to deal with her little problem promptly and succinctly there would be a life still waiting for her on the other side.

And so, the very next morning she rose from the bed where she’d spent much of the last few days, and with her baby cradled in her arms she made her way over to the little table that served as both her dressing table and her writing desk. There she carefully jotted down her advertisement. ‘Wanted, respectable woman to take a young child.’ It would appear in the newspaper the next day in the miscellaneous section of the Bristol Times & Mirror. She received a copy of the paper to make sure that it had been printed correctly and was amazed to discover what looked like the answer to all her prayers just one column over.

‘Married couple with no family would adopt a healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10’

All the money she’d spent placing her advert, and the answer to all her problems was right there all along. She sent a letter along to ‘Mrs Harding’ the very same day, and by the end of the week, she had her reply.

“I should be glad to have a dear baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own. We are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances. I don’t want a child for money’s sake, but the company and home comfort. I and my husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother’s love.”

It seemed like the perfect solution. A couple that wanted a child of their own and couldn’t have one. A baby that needed a home. The only concern that dogged Evelina was that when she had her life together and came back for her daughter, she wasn’t sure that this couple would be willing to give her up.

At the same time, she had no idea how to inform Mrs Harding that this was going to be a temporary situation without putting her off entirely. If this woman wanted a child of her own, to have and to hold, to love as if she’d given birth to it herself, then she was hardly going to want to give Doris back when all was said and done. They wrote back and forth a little more, discussing terms. £10 was not a ridiculous amount of money to give someone for taking care of your baby, but it was a massive amount for Evelina to secure in one lump sum. She’d heard from the other girls and the midwife that arrangements could usually be made where a weekly sum was paid over, which felt like a good way to keep her existence present in Mrs Harding’s mind and to ensure that when the time came, she’d have some small degree of leverage to get her daughter back.

Unfortunately, Mrs Harding had no interest in a weekly payment, she wanted her full 10 pounds upfront. It seemed to be the only issue that was preventing them from coming to an arrangement. Yet presented with no better options for the care of her baby, eventually, Evelina was forced to concede and pay the full sum in advance.

The situation at home had gone from bad to worse. Her job was now being threatened, not due to the initial indiscretion or the subsequent shame of having a baby out of wedlock, but due to her absence.

With no one to care for the baby, she could hardly wait tables and the longer that the situation persisted the more that her meagre savings were depleted. Paying the 10 pounds would deplete them entirely of course, but at least it would allow her to return to work and make an attempt to make ends meet.

About a week after her concession, Mrs Harding arrived in Cheltenham. Evelina was immediately surprised by the woman’s appearance. She had been expecting someone in her 30s, not the stocky old woman that presented herself. Yet despite Mrs Harding’s stoutness and grim demeanour, Evelina found herself relaxing after seeing the obvious affection that the old woman displayed towards her daughter. In a way, perhaps this would be better. Little Doris would grow up thinking that she was staying with a grandmother or elderly relative so when the time came for Evelina to reclaim her, there would be less confusion. For a time, they sat in that tiny room of her boarding house, tears pricking at Evelina’s eyes all the while as they discussed the home that her daughter would be raised in. The husband who provided for everything that the old woman needed and more. The garden in which little Doris would be able to spend the summer months playing, chasing butterflies and gazing at the kind of pastoral beauty that Evelina herself had only seen glimpses of in old paintings.

The city was no place for a child to grow up. Far from nature and sunshine and joy. Doris would have the kind of life that Evelina had never had the chance to experience. The kind of life that she wished with all her heart that she could have lived. There was no greater gift that she could give to Doris than to get her away from all this. Away from whispers of her parentage, and the dismal state of affairs that had led to her creation. Far away from the crowds pressed in on all sides reeking of sweat and sorrow.

She deserved better.

With a breaking heart, Evelina handed over a cardboard box of clothes and the 10 pounds in cash. Yet even when she had done that, she discovered that when the time came to part from her baby, she could not untangle her arms from where they were wrapped around it.

Little baby Doris stared up at her with bright blue eyes looking like the very image of innocence. How anyone could look at this little life and think it a sin entirely escaped Evelina in that moment. This precious little creature was a miracle, and she would not let herself forget this moment. She would not forget the warmth of the baby in her arms or the demanding whistle of the train ready to depart, and to part them.

Try as she might, she could not let the baby go. She could not make herself want to let the baby go. This was her daughter. She was not a burden, she was not a curse and whatever shame might have rained down on her, surely Doris was worth that price.

Despite her stern expression, it was clear that Mrs Harding was not entirely without sympathy, so once they had arrived at the station and the moment came for them to separate with finality, she took Evelina by the arm and dragged her on board.

Evelina had followed Mrs Harding from her lodgings to Cheltenham station, and now on to Gloucester in a state of racked dismay. Only barely containing her sobs, she realised that she could not tear her eyes away from Doris’ face.

This was her baby. The only thing in all the world that was truly hers. The only thing in all the world that she had ever truly loved. She had not even known that love was real until she held that baby in her arms. She had not even known that there was this entire hidden world of human experience behind the mean-spirited cruelty that characterised every moment of her own life.

More time. She would have paid ten pounds more for just another day with Doris. She had been so desperate to send her away, so desperate to be free of the burden and the fear of discovery, that it had not even crossed her mind that this moment when it came, would be so agonizing.

She needed those extra precious moments with her daughter on the train to make peace with what had to be done. To convince her grasping arms that they could release the baby into Mrs Harding’s care. Rationally, she might have known what the best course was, but there was nothing rational about the tearing feeling in her chest. She had never known pain like this, not even when she had been laid up in her bed trying to push Doris out into the world.

It was the hardest thing that she had ever had to do, but for her baby, she was willing to do it. She forced her vice-like grip on the baby to loosen. She pressed a final kiss to the tip of Doris’ button nose, and at Gloucester she climbed off the train, tears streaming down her face and her baby now gone.

Mrs Harding would carry on to Reading. To her husband and her home where little Doris would be raised.

But Evelina had no such comforts awaiting her. Her heart was broken. Her home was empty. The promised return to normalcy had lost all of its appeal.

In spite of herself and all good sense, Evelina had fallen in love. Not with the spectre of the man that she had barely crossed paths with, but with her own daughter.

She could feel her sorrow like a tight knot in her chest. She was possessed by the desperate need to rush back to the train station, to rescue her daughter from the clutches of the kindly old woman who had promised to care for her. To drag her back here, £10 or not, and live out all their days together no matter how miserable those days might become.

The only thought that let her overcome that urge was the knowledge that it would not just be herself that she was consigning to hell, but poor little Doris as well. Doris would grow up a whore’s daughter with no better prospects for her own future. She would be shunned by all that looked upon her as the product of monstrous sin. With Mrs Harding, Doris had the chance at a real life, she could grow up far away from all this, she could grow up to be anything that she dreamed of being, supported by someone so desperate for a child to love that she would accept a stranger’s child without any questions asked.

That day stretched out into the cold of night, and still Evelina sat on the end of her bed, staring at the empty basket where her daughter had slept. All the blankets had gone away with the baby girl, all her clothes, the little toys people had gifted, and every trace that Evelina ever had a daughter was now wiped away.

She was alone. Alone in a way that she had never been before. Like a sprouting seedling that had finally broken the surface of the earth and felt the warm touch of the sun, only for night to fall.

Before Doris, Evelina had been alone, lonely, unaware of life’s possibilities. Now she knew better. Now she knew how life was meant to be, filled to bursting with love, and the absence of it was an agony she could not have comprehended.

All night she sat there, unmoving, feeling the pain. Distracting herself now and then with an imaginary future in which she was reunited with her daughter, and they somehow made up for this lost time. It was a wonderful dream, but it had always been merely a dream. She knew that now.

In her mind, she might have been able to conjure up these joyful scenarios in which she was reunited with Doris and they were able to go on and live a happy life. She could imagine finding a husband so understanding that he treated the girl as his own flesh and blood. She could imagine making so much money she could retire to the country and pretend to be a widow. The whole world might flip on its head, and a daughter born out of wedlock would cease to be a source of shame, and they could get a little room just like this one and spend all their days together. But her current state of mind was far less pragmatic than her heart, and in her heart of hearts, she knew the truth was that she would never see her daughter again.

This wasn’t just the terrible depression that she was sinking into speaking to her. It wasn’t just the dread of being parted from Doris for the first time in their lives. She felt it with an awful certainty. The time would never come that they could be together again. She would never find a husband, or make a fortune, or anything else. Nothing good had ever happened to her before Doris, and nothing good was going to happen now that she’d taken the one good thing in her whole life and thrown it away. Her heart ached, but her gut told her that they’d never be together again. And she was right. Doris was already dead.

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