In a string of houses in the inner west lies a dark secret that left 13 tiny babies dead and revealed the ‘hellish’ black market that plagued colonial Sydney.
In a string of houses in the inner west lies a dark secret that left 13 tiny babies dead and revealed the ‘hellish’ black market that plagued colonial Sydney.

Foul smell unmasked Australia's ‘hellish’ baby farmers

It was the plumbing in a Sydney terrace that gave John and Sarah Makin away.

On October 11, 1892, workers laying drains in the backyard of a house in Burren St, Macdonaldtown, found two bundles of foul-smelling clothing.

The first was dismissed as a dead cat but when they unfurled the second, they saw the remains of a tiny infant.

Police were called and officers spent days digging up the yard.

As neighbours crowded in, almost crashing down the fences, seven tiny bodies were exhumed, buried in two straight lines.

Macdonaldtown’s ‘baby farmers’ Sarah Makin, left, and John Makin, right, ran a grim trade.
Macdonaldtown’s ‘baby farmers’ Sarah Makin, left, and John Makin, right, ran a grim trade.

A GRISLY TRAIL

Senior Constable James Joyce of Newtown Police led the investigation, and traced the former tenants John and Sarah Makin to 109 George St, Redfern.

Four more infant corpses were unearthed, the smell so bad, onlookers had to retire.

John and Sarah, however, were nowhere to be found.

Eventually tracked to a house in Levy St, Chippendale, where two more tiny bodies were dug up, a crowd of angry spectators rattled the boundaries of the cottage as Sarah, John and their daughters Florence and Blanche were taken into custody.

The backyard of Burren St where the seven bodies were exhumed. Picture: Illustrated Sydney News 1892.
The backyard of Burren St where the seven bodies were exhumed. Picture: Illustrated Sydney News 1892.

A DARK BLACK MARKET

Just a short stroll from what is now King St Newtown, Australia's most heinous baby-farming case would shock the nation as it lifted the lid on a shadowy world of desperate mothers and unwanted children.

Months before the Makins' arrest, the Children's Protection Act of 1892 had been enacted to bring the care of orphaned and destitute children under state control.

But the practice of baby farming remained rife in colonial Australia.

With no contraception or foundling homes, and a society that viewed unmarried pregnant women with callous indifference, many saw baby farmers as their only option.

A newspaper report from April 14, 1893, on the notorious Makin baby farmers.
A newspaper report from April 14, 1893, on the notorious Makin baby farmers.

Women openly advertised for someone to adopt or temporarily take in their babies for cash, and countless babies left in the hands of unscrupulous operators died of neglect, starvation and opioid-laced elixirs. Others were farmed out to workhouses or simply abandoned.

For years, the Makins had responded to newspaper ads from vulnerable mothers, using various aliases to run their heartless system in Sydney's inner west.

They took in infants, let them die, then continued to collect stipends, moving from house to house to hide their tracks.

Senior Constable Joyce, left, and right, the Municipality of Macdonaldtown 1872.
Senior Constable Joyce, left, and right, the Municipality of Macdonaldtown 1872.

DOGGED INVESTIGATOR

Const. Joyce suspected the couple's diabolic trade from the start, and pursued them with ferocity.

He scoured 11 houses the couple had rented over a handful of years, finding a grisly tally of 13 babies.

Joyce told a Sydney newspaper that bloodstains on the clothing suggested they infants had been stabbed in the heart or head with a needle.

But the state of decomposition meant most couldn't be identified, nor could their cause of death. Inquests ended with an open finding.

John and Sarah Makin were ultimately charged with the murder of just one child - Horace Murray, after his mother identified his clothing.

Horace was placed in the Makin's care by his 18-year-old mother Amber when he was one month old. She paid them £3 and agreed to a weekly stipend for his care.

She attempted to visit but the Makins made excuses then vanished.

She never saw him again.

Newtown Police Station pictured 1912. John Makin confessed he was “done for” to a cellmate while locked up awaiting trial. Credit: City of Sydney Archive
Newtown Police Station pictured 1912. John Makin confessed he was “done for” to a cellmate while locked up awaiting trial. Credit: City of Sydney Archive

SENSATIONAL TRIAL

The Makin daughters were released before the trial of John and Sarah began at Central Criminal Court on March 6, 1892, before Justice Stephen.

The prisoners were charged with having on June 29, 1892, at Redfern, feloniously and maliciously murdered Horace Murray.

Hundreds of spectators surrounded the court to hear of the baby-farming horrors with runners transmitting every gory detail.

Burren St, which became part of Erskineville, was a working class suburb. Picture: City of Sydney Archive
Burren St, which became part of Erskineville, was a working class suburb. Picture: City of Sydney Archive

John and Sarah Makin denied murdering the babies, claiming they were professional child minders who cared for babies for a fee.

But as mothers of missing children testified they'd promised to adopt their child and "give it a mother's love", their manipulative tactics became clear.

The court heard the couple had eked a miserable living from their trade.

One neighbour claimed they had borrowed a shovel at Macdonaldtown. Another said he heard John Makin using 'beastly' language to the babies. In Redfern, residents complained of constant bad smells, with John putting it down to burying a small dog

Their youngest children disliked them so much, they lived with an aunt, and in court, their older daughters testified against them.

Both John and Sarah came from poor backgrounds, John convicted of petty crimes, and Sarah suffering from syphilis. They never accounted for the infants' causes of death.

It's likely some were drugged with various elixirs, others suffocated, but speculation became so rampant, by mid November, they had to enter court via tunnels due to death threats.

Macdonaldtown was a short walk from King St Newtown, pictured in the 1890s. Credit: City of Sydney archives
Macdonaldtown was a short walk from King St Newtown, pictured in the 1890s. Credit: City of Sydney archives

FATE SEALED

The prosecution's case was the Makins took in babies for payment and found it easier to kill the children and deceive the parents to keep making money.

The jury agreed, and after a night locked up deliberating, handed down a guilty verdict on March 9, 1893, for the murder of Horace Murray.

On sentencing, Justice Stephens said the couple had cruelly eluded Amber Murray as she sought out her child, burying him "as you would the carcass of a dog"

"Three yards of houses in which you lived testify, with that ghastly evidence of these bodies, that you were carrying on this nefarious, this hellish business, of destroying the lives of these infants for the sake of gain," he said.

John Makin mumbled: "We are innocent of the whole charge" before both he and his wife were condemned to death.

"You two people standing here before me must have hearts as hard as adamant, utterly indifferent to human suffering," Justice Stephens pronounced.

"Your own consciences must be utterly dead."

The old Darlinghurst gaol in 1898 where John Makin met his dread end
The old Darlinghurst gaol in 1898 where John Makin met his dread end

 

DREAD END

John Makin was hanged at Darlinghurst Jail on 15 August 1893 and approached his death as indifferently as his life.

Pale-faced, and murmuring a prayer, he died almost instantly when the drop fell and his body hung for seven minutes before being removed to the morgue.

On April 13, 1893, his wife Sarah's sentence was commuted to life and after a petitioning by her daughters, she was paroled in April 1911 from the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay. She died in September 1918 and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery.

A report on the execution of John Makin in the Evening News in 1893.
A report on the execution of John Makin in the Evening News in 1893.

AFTERMATH

Baby farming was one of the major drivers for reform of child protection and adoption laws in the early part of the 20th century.

The abandonment of babies by those unable or unwilling to care for them was a huge concern for authorities, as the stigma of single motherhood left many women desperate.

The Children's Protection Act and numerous later amendments were passed in an attempt to address abandonment and baby farming and reflected a growing concern for the safety of children and the potential for them to be used as slave labour or for immoral purposes.

The Act required homes and operators caring for children to be registered and supervised, and adopted children liable to be checked until age 19.

Yet despite the new laws, baby farming continued and was openly advertised in newspapers.

The State Children's Relief Board had no power to control the advertisements or the ensuing 'adoptions' despite repeated requests from the Board to amend the law. It was not until the introduction of the 1939 Act that baby farming became illegal.

 

 

 

Originally published as Foul smell unmasked Sydney's 'hellish' baby farmers


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