“BY SOME FOUL MEANS”! The Makins & the baby farming murders

SERIAL KILLERS: Sydney couple, John and Sarah Makin, were supposed to take care of babies on behalf of mothers and families who had found themselves in desperate situations. Instead, over a dozen infants died while in their care. Katya Gladiadis with this chilling historical investigation.

Baby farming was not, at its heart, a malicious operation.

For those not on the up and up with late-Victorian practice, baby farming is the practice of accepting custody of an infant or child for payment – periodic, or lump sum.

Illegitimacy drove this private and unregulated institution.

Single mothers were the primary users of the method, more often than not a part of the serving class and now pregnant without work. For some it was temporary, until work could be found, or marriage arranged, or housing established.

Britain had put laws regulating it in 1872, a good 20 years before the case of the Makins. After all, baby farming wasn’t rampant in Australia or the United States the same way it was in Britain. Why, is up for conjecture, but it made its impact. There have been plenty of other baby killers in history, mostly women acting solo, which I am sure I will get to in good time. What interests me about this case is the involvement of a husband with the wife.

Mr John Makin and his wife Sarah Makin, Sydney’s very own baby farmers murdered infants – for profit. The case shook the then colonies of Australia into the realisation that they were not taking care of the most helpless of its citizens – children. Laws had begun to take form that same year. The New South Wales Legislative Assembly was first in instigating the Children’s Protection Act, bringing the care of orphaned and destitute children under state control in March 1892.

However, I have no idea how day-to-day people would be aware of this change, only knowing private adoption or baby farms as their options. I can find little documentation on the provisions given to procuring a building for a care facility or what the plans were to enact this on a public scale. It was early days for this new legislation. This Act was brought in before the Makins were discovered, but I still feel their case highlighted the danger to the populace, to other states and territories. It signified some urgency.

While John and Sarah Makin were only convicted of one murder – that of Horace Murray – a number of other infant remains were found that were tied to the Makins – so it perhaps would provoke little controversy if I referred to it as serial murder. The number, as recalled in the courtroom, was 13 but is also cited as being 12, or more, in various newspaper reports. The highest I found while scanning the headlines was 18 victims.

The case itself has been brought up for debate in recent years in some law journals and books. The dispute is that records show heightened mortality rates in infants separated from mothers during the time period, suggesting the deaths were ‘natural causes’ Beyond that, there was criticism on the presentation of the case to the jury.

So allow me to present you with the sequence of events of an ‘allegedly’ murderous couple to the best of my ability and my sources. Including their arrest, trial, the appeal, the final petition for John Makin’s life and where they both ended up.

John, a brewery drayman born in Dapto, and Sarah, a midwife, became Mr. and Mrs Makin on August 27, 1871. It was the first marriage for John and the second for Sarah. Some sources claim they had five sons and five daughters but I can only find reference to four daughters in the newspapers, as those are the best sources I have handy almost 150 years down the track. Sarah did have at least one daughter during her first marriage. I know this because Minnie Helhi, married with children, stated in court that she was Sarah Makin’s daughter. She also testified as to having only four stepsisters; Florence, Clarice, Blanche and Daisy.

John Makin, at some point I cannot set a date to, became unemployed due to an accident that caused significant injury. Hypothetically, this was when the baby farming began. I say this because police only excavated the Makin’s residences back to 1890. Whether this practice went back further is unknown.

Amber Murray, the 18-year-old mother of illegitimate child Horace Ambrose Murray, placed an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald for a mother to care for her newborn son. The Makins, under a false name, responded. An initial price of £3 was to be paid to the Makins and then 10 shillings weekly to care for Horace. The actual hand-over of Horace was either poorly reported or there were too many versions of events. However it happened, Horace went into the care of the Makins on the June 27, 1892 as sworn by all parties.

Mr and Mrs Makin vacated their house on George Street in Redfern on the night of June 29. They moved frequently and often with debts and unpaid rent left behind. A van, Clarice said in her deposition, was parked near the house, their possessions removed leaving it empty by morning. The ten year-old daughter, Daisy, stated that only two baby girls went with them.

For two days Mr and Mrs Makin had Horace Murray before the move and, as Daisy stated, he never went to Macdonaldtown.

Amber Murray received an address and a request asking for some allowance for the family to settle before she visited Horace. During this time Mr Makin showed up to Amber Murray’s lodgings to collect the weekly sum, all the while delivering more excuses as to why Horace could not be seen. When Amber arrived at the address she had been given, an unfamiliar face greeted her.

The address was false and with no information other than a (likely) fake name, there was little to console her.

The next time she would see the Makins, would be in the docks at court.

It was on October 11, 1892 that police were alerted and sent to Burren Street, Macdonaldtown. The decaying remains of two infants had been a grim discovery by James Hanoney while unclogging an underground drain. The Makins were long gone, having removed themselves to Chippendale. They were located via tenancy records and members of the police proceeded to exhume the backyards of the all homes the Makin family had resided in since 1890.

At least 13 sets of remains were found buried in the 11 plots.

The whole family was arrested, though only Mr and Mrs Makin were charged.

Wilful murder”: How local newspapers reported the case at the time (Image: Supplied)

Given that the police only searched back two years, I personally wonder whether they would have found more children – a reasonable speculation but a speculation nonetheless.

On that same day of October, Joseph Lopez swore to Daisy Makin coming into Leonard’s Pawn Shop in Waterloo. She offered a selection of baby clothes and linen, which was purchased by Joseph and turned over to police as evidence.

There were several inquests in order to cover all the victims, but as I only have so much space and Horace is the only case they were convicted of, I’ll only cover the one that concerns him.

The inquest regarding Horace was held in December 1892. Daisy, Blanche and Clarice were deposed in their involvement with the crimes of their parents. According to Daisy – Blanche and Clarice were rarely at home and all were exonerated in the end.

Horace was identified via his clothing. Amber Murray swore she recognised several items that had been pawned by Daisy Makin, as well as the clothing on the corpse that was believed to be her son. Doctors had examined the skull, determined it to be male. The hair that was found with the corpse was stated by Amber to be similar to Horace. He had been one of the last bodies found, buried in George Street, Redfern.

But where was the evidence of murder? After all, the mortality rate was higher for babies separated from their mothers and Horace was only three weeks old. Couldn’t it be natural causes?

William Hamlet, a government analyst testified that “… no metallic poison or vegetable alkaloids…” were detected in the viscera of the infant. Dr. Milford who had also examined the remains said the remain belonged to a child that was two to nine weeks old and had been buried from 12 to 20 weeks. He could state no cause of death. Dr Marano, who assisted, said much the same.

A jury of 12 men were asked to determine the crime, and in the case of Horace Ambrose Murray, they determined the crime to be Wilful Murder. The following exchange was reported in the Evening News on December 22, 1892:

Coroner: But one of the things you have to find is how the child came by its death. By what means? Do you say by starvation and neglect?

Jury: No, certainly not.

Coroner: What will you say then, gentlemen?

A juror: That is what we cannot find.

Coroner: Do you say “by some foul means?”

Jury: Yes, that will do.

The above is a testament to why the case is questionable now, and at the time had two appeals and a petition. As I read this exchange some of my certainty about Mr and Mrs Makin’s guilt did falter. To not have any idea how Horace died and to determine wilful murder, which means death for the defendants, is disturbing. Today you can convict without a body if you can prove via forensic means that the person is likely dead. But here we have a corpse with no determinable indication of death.

If you’re not a lawyer and are wondering about the difference between ‘wilful murder’ and straight up ‘murder’ the answer is – drum roll, please – intention. Wilful murder is a higher crime, where the intent was always death of the victim. Whereas, murder is seen as intending to do harm or grievous injury which then results in death. So, basically, it’s pre-meditation.

John Makin was always described as a quiet, stoic individual throughout. Sarah Makin was seemingly hysterical right the way through the inquest, trial and any appearance following. She cursed Clarice, asking God to bless her daughter, to forgive her for all the lies she’d told. At the inquest she tearfully reached out to Blanche and Daisy as she was taken away, saying, “Be good, my darlings. Goodbye. You all know that Amber Murray’s child was taken to Macdonaldtown”. An odd way to farewell one’s children.

The Criminal Court trial took place over March 1893. Several mothers came forward saying that the Makins had taken in their children too, never to be seen again. One couple, whose baby was left temporarily with the Makins stated that their child died within days also. The couple gave the Makins £2 for a funeral that was not even attended by them. Much of evidence given at the inquest was given again with further character witnesses. No means of murder was even supposed of by the jury as far as I can find digging through the 100+ newspaper articles in circulation.

One rumour that prevailed enough to make it the means of murder in The Hatpina 2008 musical regarding this case – suggested a hatpin pushed into the ear had been the means. Certainly, that could kill an infant with little effort and leave little evidence. After all, most of the bodies were decomposing when discovered. I am yet to see one Australian newspaper state this theory. It is odd that I first find this theory presented at the time only in a long-gone American newspaper, Cleveland World. In an edition from November 1892, the paper stated that some long needles were found with one of the victims wrapped in blood-stained calico.

“Simply atrocious” A US newspaper posits the theory of a “long needle” that was used to kill the babies (Image: Supplied)

So, I trawl the papers again and again. The more I dig, the more I find, the more information I have to question. And the constant misreporting of the number of victims is driving me absolutely batty. Finally, I find them.

Yes, there are a handful of Australian articles, parroted and paraphrased in many other papers that state the puncturing of the heart, brain or spine by needles was the means of murder.

The theory was perpetuated by police and public conjecture it would seem. Whether it came up during the trial, I have not been able to find.

John and Sarah were brought before the judge for sentencing. They were both given the death penalty, though Sarah was shown mercy – I will get to that soon – and it was commuted to life imprisonment. Sarah immediately collapsed in tears moaning about how it was her daughter Clarice (often misspelled as ‘Clarence’) who had murdered the children, cursing her for her evil, and not for the first time. John was quiet.

When asked if there was anything they wished to say, John stated their innocence and mercy for the sake of their children, only to be cut off by Justice Stephen in a scathing and lengthy rejoinder, a portion of which follows:

“[…]You therefore stand before me convicted of the crime of murder – a murder committed, and one must say, accompanied by almost every incident that could possibly add to its wickedness. You took money from the mother of this child: you beguiled her with promises which you never meant to perform, having already determined the death of the child: you misled her by false statements as to your name; you deceived her as to your address, and in that way made it utterly fruitless that any search should be made.

Finally, in order to render detection impossible, as you thought, you buried the child in the yard, having bereft it of its life. You buried it, I say, as you would the carcase [sic] of a dog. […] And what for? What for? For a paltry sum of £5, or £3, or £2, that you might appropriate these sums to your own benefit—sums which you count as nothing against the lives and sufferings, and God knows the sufferings, of these poor babies. […]”

Justice Stephen also mentioned four of the mothers that had been traced – Ward, Risby, Stacey and Todd – before condemning the Makins’ for their silence throughout the trial and even now that they were sentenced, were unwilling to give these women and other mothers closure.

The appeals were based on a few items. Firstly, that if this case was to discuss the murder of the Murray boy only, why were all 13 bodies presented to the jury? Secondly, that there was no proof of murder, which leads me to believe the jury was never certain on how the infant died. Thirdly, that many of the character witnesses related to the other bodies should not have been allowed, and lastly that any other offences, such as profiting off of the mothers, were not directly related to the case and created bias among the jurors. Both appeals failed.

Just before John Makin’s execution, set for middle of August in 1893, two of his brothers and a sister-in-law approached the Premier on the Friday previous with a petition of reprieve. It was signed by over 250 people from the Wollongong district. The family claimed that the name ‘Makin’ was a respectable family and if anyone was to blame for this crime, it was Sarah.

“It was stated that she had been a barmaid, and was a “terrible woman, with the temper of a fiend,” that she had terrorized Makin, and forced him to do whatever she pleased … that generally his conduct was good, and that he had been led into crimes by his wife, who, it was considered, has been the arch offender in this matter,” one contemporary report of the petition summarised.

The petition fell on deaf ears.  

John Makin met the gallows on August 15, 1893.

In the reports of his final hours, both his wife and children came to see him, not together of course. Sarah’s visit was claimed as tearful and passionate with little said between them by one paper, and another claiming that there was no love lost, that both were cold and unfeeling. I suppose, by this point, any bias on either party is likely to show through. After Sarah’s visit she was removed from Darlinghurst prison and sent to Bathurst to serve her sentence. She claimed in one report that there was “another woman in the business”; as to whether she meant that in reference to the murders or a possible affair is not made certain by the article.

John Makin wrote a statement as his last words, declaring himself and his wife innocent of the murder of Horace Murray. He claimed it was another child of which he would not give a name. There are a number of opinion pieces regarding his claims of innocence – most were angry and shocked. To paraphrase, they asked the question: ‘so, you’re saying you did bury the child but it was not Horace Murray and therefore you should be free?’ There was also a grievance from the public about the mercy that was shown to Sarah Makin, which I did promise to talk about because to me, this gets interesting.

“The body found was buried in the yard weeks before we got her child”: John Makin denies being responsible for the murder of one child but admits to having earlier buried another dead child in his backyard (Image: Supplied)

Unfortunately, it falls under gender politics, a complex animal at the best of times so I will keep this to the point. In 1828, Britain repealed a law referred to as Petite Treason, or Petty Treason – a move which meant it was also repealed in Australia, being under the Crown at the time.

Petty Treason is the act of murdering or doing harm to your betters. Servant kills a master, a wife murders her husband, an employee takes out the boss – all are examples of petty treason.

Certainly, the law was repealed but the misguided notion that women were submissive and subservient of men persisted. Husbands were considered responsible for the actions of their wives, whether or not they were. Any action a married woman took was considered to be under the guidance of the man. If a husband claimed he had no control over his wife, well… it was all the more his fault, wasn’t it? God, I can see how violence against women became so ingrained. John Makin was viewed to be responsible and he failed. At least 13 lives were lost because of it. So he bore the brunt of the crime.

And so that was likely the case for mercy for Sarah Makin, who did not die in prison. She was paroled in 1911 after a petition by her daughters on the grounds of ill health. She died six years later, in 1917.

I certainly don’t feel that she deserved release. Despite those who might question this case as murder now, how 13 or more babies died in the care of an experienced midwife, is a little beyond me. I don’t know how many survived care under the Makins, but I doubt it would greatly alter the odds of infant death in that household. The fact that they continued to profit from the deaths, taking advantage of those already at a disadvantage was, and is, reprehensible.

To be buried without ceremony, without notifying anyone, with none of those who might have loved you present – is a sad end to any life. To take the perspective of the killer for a moment, whether it was John and Sarah Makin or someone else, it was an easy gain. Babies are so small and delicate, they have no means of defending themselves and they are hard to feel compassion for because it is difficult to see them as people. They cannot talk and are yet to develop a personality as we could recognise it as strangers. The effort would be nothing compared to the murder of an adult. And all this at a time when illegitimate children were rife and money needed to be made. I can see the justification they may have given themselves – not that it justifies them in reality.

After laying a few dozen articles on top of each other in an effort to find the consistencies of this case, I still don’t have the full picture and surety in the course of events but I have laid it out for you the best that I can. It was a different time with different – yet subtly pervasive values.

As I think of drowning my mind in gin to wash it clean, the coroner and jury at the inquest floats to the top of my mind. I pull the bottle to me now, disgusted by the exchange, my brow furrows and I shake my head. Those children deserved justice, but on so flimsy a line of…

“…By some foul means?

…That’ll do.”

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About Katya Gladiadis 1 Article
Katya Gladiadis is a proud Bachelor of Arts holder, majoring in writing and history – with every opportunity taken to study behavioural and abnormal psychology. Serial killers have been a constant source of curiosity for her, wanting to understand their unique perspectives and what shaped them.

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