The Baby Farmers

Alice Mitchell

Perth, Western Australia: 1900-1906

Map of Western Australia
Map of Western Australia
It was the illegitimate birth of a baby girl Ethel in 1906 to Elizabeth Booth at the House of Mercy, a refuge for unmarried mothers run by Catholic nuns at Highgate Hill in Perth, that ultimately led to the exposure of Alice Mitchell. Mitchell was a serial killer who took babies into her care and, once she had taken the mother's money, left the infants to wallow in squalor.

Eventually 37 babies left in her charge died, either due to Alice Mitchell's negligence or from outright murder.

The rules of the House of Mercy were strict, and three months to the day after Elizabeth Booth had given birth to the bouncing healthy little Ethel she was bid farewell by the kindly nuns and sent out into the world to fare for herself and her infant.

As she had no intention of adopting Ethel out and the father had fled, Elizabeth Booth had no alternative but to work to provide for them both. But seeing as she had little education and the only work she had ever really done was as a house servant to wealthy families — and they would have no part of a mother and child on the payroll — Elizabeth had no choice but to find alternative accommodation for her baby and try and visit her as often as her working hours would allow.

The baby lodgings that were recommended to her were just around the corner from the House of Mercy at 24 Edward Street, East Perth and were run by a friendly, plumpish, middle-aged nursing sister named Alice Mitchell who showed the new mother and her baby around some of the premises.

Feeling safe to leave her baby with Mitchell, Booth agreed on a price of five shillings a week, five shillings for vaccinations and an additional five shillings for every doctor's visit with "Dr. Officer," who examined Booth's baby on admission.

Three days later the mother called in to see her baby and was told that Dr. Officer had examined the infant and found her in excellent health. The accounts were settled, and Booth left for her new job as a housemaid content in the knowledge that her daughter was in the best possible hands and that she could drop in and see her whenever time allowed.

Less than month and a half later her baby was dead. The infant became another victim of what would become the most infamous case of baby farming in the country. If it hadn't been for Alice Mitchell's greed, and then Elizabeth Booth's determination to find out what had happened to her child, many more babies might have died.

When Booth fell behind in her payments, not for the baby's board but for the mysterious fees that were continually demanded for Dr. Officer, Alice Mitchell summoned the police to call in the debt.

The police constable, who was not sure what to do in such a civil matter, he called in his boss, Sergeant Patrick O'Halloran, who visited Alice Mitchell at her boardinghouse and demanded to be shown around.

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