While it was a trial over the death of one infant, proceedings revealed that 37 babies had died in the care of one woman, Alice Mitchell, over a six-year period, leading to headlines suggesting she might be Australia’s worst serial killer.
This extraordinary, but now largely forgotten, case is explored in the book The Edward Street Baby Farm by Perth author Stella Budrikis, who stumbled upon the term while researching another book.
“I’d never heard of baby farming until I was writing a book about my great-great-grandmother who became a single mother in Adelaide in the 1860s,” Dr Budrikis told Geoff Hutchison on ABC Radio Perth.
“She married a soldier and went back to England and left the child behind, so I was trying to find out what happened to the children of single mothers.”
Searching through court records, state archives and newspaper reports from the time, Dr Budrikis discovered the practice of baby farming — private, for-profit foster care arrangements, some of which benefitted children while others did not.
“It was pretty much a foster care arrangement, until perhaps the mother or the parents could take them [back] or they went into an orphanage,” she said.
“There were several women in Perth licensed to take in babies and they weren’t baby farmers because, although they were paid to take in the children, they looked after them well.
“A baby farmer is someone who was purely interested in making money out of taking in these children.”
The case that brought down Alice Mitchell began with a young, single woman named Elizabeth Booth, who gave birth to a daughter, Ethel, at the House of Mercy, a home for so-called fallen women in Highgate in inner Perth in 1906.
“Elizabeth Booth took Ethel to Alice Mitchell at the age of three months when she had to leave the fallen women’s home,” Dr Budrikis said.
“It seems like Mitchell probably had three or four children at a time and the mothers would pay about 10 shillings a week which, when you consider that a serving girl like Elizabeth Booth earned 15 shillings a week, was quite a large proportion of her income.”
Booth continued to pay for her daughter’s care, but in the following months encountered difficulties every time she tried to see her baby.
“Alice Mitchell always made excuses that the baby was asleep or she was doing a delivery, because she also did midwifery, and so by the time Elizabeth did see her at the beginning of February 1907, the baby was extremely unwell,” Dr Budrikis said.
Ethel was under the care of children’s specialist Ned Officer, who by 1907 had written death certificates for 25 of the babies cared for by Mitchell without raising any alarm.
The reason Ethel’s death resulted in criminal charges was because police had already begun to investigate Mitchell and had visited her house, where they found several emaciated babies and ordered they be taken to hospital.
When Ethel died a week after being taken to hospital, aged seven months, an inquest was ordered.
“In those days, they had to have an inquest before a murder trial and that was when all the information came out about the number of babies who Alice Mitchell had had in the previous six years and how many of them had died,” Dr Budrikis said.
“The police … decided there had been 43 children in her care in the previous six years and 37 of them had died, of which 25 were certified by Dr Officer.”
The resulting trial, reported in newspapers across the country, was a sensation as it laid bare the dark world of baby farming and the plight of the children’s single mothers, who had no alternative way of caring for their babies.
Dr Budrikis said while the death rate was high among children in Western Australia at the time — one in six died before their fifth birthday — the public was shocked to learn the deaths of 37 babies had gone unnoticed.
“I think each individual death was probably sort of overlooked because the babies were going to a number of different undertakers, so the undertakers didn’t realise how many were dying,” she said.
“[Mitchell] couldn’t be tried for those because they’d all been handed over to the undertakers and buried. The coroner had never been notified and so there was no way of knowing what the reason was.”
In the trial over Ethel Booth’s death, Mitchell was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
The doctor who had failed to raise the alarm continued his career.
“[Dr Officer] said at the trial that one year when 14 died, he had wondered about it and talked to Alice Mitchell about it,” Dr Budrikis said.
“He got a rap on the knuckles from the judge for not having said anything, but then he went back to his practice, became the vice president of the British Medical Association in WA within six months and went from strength to strength.”
The trial, however, prompted greater regulation of child care in the state.
There was a public meeting almost as soon as the trial was completed and, although that did not come to any firm conclusions, the government had set in train new legislation for child protection in WA.
While it would be decades before the stigma of unmarried motherhood disappeared, Dr Budrikis said the case focused attention on the plight of single mothers.
“It did have an influence on people’s attitudes because, during the trial, they were reading these women’s accounts of what had happened to them, which people hadn’t thought about before,” she said.
The Edward Street Baby Farm is published by Fremantle Press.
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