BBC news bulletins of the 18th of August 2023 named nurse Lucy Letby as “the UK’s most prolific child serial killer in modern times.” That is simply not true, or is it? The answer depends on the definitions of the terms used. A serial killer, as defined by the encyclopaedia Britannica, is a person who murders two or more people. Accordingly, Ian Huntly’s murder of two girls in Soham in 2002 is classified as a serial killing. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady killed five children in the 1960s, Robert Black murdered four children in the 1980s, Beverley Allitt, also a nurse murdered four babies in the 1990s. Rosemary and Fred West murdered many teenagers over two decades. However, the serial murder of babies and children carried out by women is not a new phenomenon and not confined to ancient history.
The second issue is the meaning of the phrase “modern times”. History is divided into three broad eras: antiquity, medieval and modern, meaning old, middle, and present. The old period ends with the fall of the western Roman Empire, while the middle period is generally agreed, by historians, to have ended around AD1500. Accordingly, the phrase “modern times” refers to the period starting about AD1500 to the present day.
The BBC’s use of the phrase “in modern times” is misleading, leaving viewers and readers with the impression that the number of children killed by Lucy Letby was one of the highest since AD1500. That is simply not true. Britain has a long sordid history of female serial killers. Many were executed for the crime, including Mary Ann Cotton (hung in 1873) who murdered twelve children, and three adults. Ada Chard-Williams, hung on 6th March 1900, was convicted of one child murder but suspected of killing many more. However, Amelia Dyer, hung four years previous in 1896, was probably the most prolific serial killer, male or female in history. She was convicted of a handful of child murders, but it is certain that she murdered at least 400 infants.
You might have the phrase applied to women, even today, of “nursing a baby”. At that time, most of these women were called nurses. The word nurse is derived from the same source as nourishment and continues to mean a woman who provides nourishment for an infant. A “wet nurse” is the term for a woman who breastfeeds infants who are not biologically related to her. However, the word nurse today is most understood to be the title of a person providing medical care, mostly in a hospital setting.
Nurse women, who offered to care for other women’s infants for a fee, were known as baby farmers. Despite being outlawed, the practice continued right up to the 1940s in the UK. It was outlawed because many women baby farmers, took the clients’ money but neglected the child, often causing its death. Others such as Amelia Dyer took the money and maximised their profit by swiftly and deliberately killing the child, then secretly dumping its body, mostly in rivers.
Their clients were mostly women who bore children they did not want to keep. Sometimes these were children born out of wedlock, others were born to women too impoverished to raise them, while others were an embarrassment to the mother and/or her family. Many chose to pay a baby farmer to raise the child, either in a lump sum or by making regular payments, to take a problem off their hands. Most women never wanted to see their child again, while a small few held out hope of reclaiming their child, should their situation improve in the future. On rare occasions, a mother would ask to visit her child, so the baby farmers often took the precaution of keeping one or two healthy babies for show. Mothers would be shown an infant and be told that it was theirs. Occasionally a mother would not be convinced and that led to the prosecution of a few baby farmers.
Again, terminology can be misleading, as these women advertised themselves and were known as nurse women. Not all nurse women murdered or abused children in their care, but as always, every profession has its rogues. Their motivation to murder was mostly financial gain. However, the press can find no explanation for what motivated Lucy Letby’s to kill and attempt to kill so many infants.
It would appear to me that Lucy Letby has a mental disorder that used to be named Munchausen syndrome by proxy but is now known as Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA), or Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers (FII). According to the American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) The behaviour occurs without a specific benefit to the caregiver.