• History

Why That ‘Dingo’s Got My Baby’ Line Isn’t Funny

3 minute read

For years, whether or not you believed Lindy Chamberlain’s story depended on which nightmarish scenario you found more plausible: that a wild dog snatched her sleeping 9-week-old baby from a tent in the Australian outback, or that Lindy herself slashed the infant’s throat and then invented the farfetched story to cover up her crime.

Thirty-two years ago today, on Oct. 29, 1982, a jury went for the latter interpretation and convicted Chamberlain of murder. She was sentenced to a lifetime behind bars. The case gained international notoriety, inspiring the 1988 film A Cry in the Dark, in which Meryl Streep, as Chamberlain, shouts the words that would become a morbid punch line: “The dingo’s got my baby!”

The couple was exonerated after the baby’s knit jacket appeared in 1986, partly buried next to a remote dingo lair. Chamberlain was freed and the guilt was redistributed to those who had vilified her. A mere two years earlier, 77% of Australians polled had believed she was guilty, and not just because of the outrageous story.

One source of suspicion was her religion. Her husband was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, then little-known in Australia. Rumors swirled that the church was a cult that practiced infant sacrifice, and that Azaria — the name of Chamberlain’s late daughter — meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” (it means “blessed of God”). Another strike against Chamberlain was the way she carried herself. Stylish and stoic, she never erupted in hysterics in court. She was called cold and calculating. As journalist Julia Baird wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “She was, we were told, more interested in looking pretty than in the death of her child.”

Compared to Chamberlain, dingoes were viewed more warmly, at least initially. In the early 1980s, TIME reports, dingoes had never been known to attack humans — or at least, such cases hadn’t been publicized.

“On television, footage from the Chamberlains’ trial was often accompanied by images of the wild dogs looking more affable than aggressive,” TIME’s Marina Kamenev wrote. Since then, however, dozens of dingo attacks have made the news, including a 2001 mauling that killed a 9-year-old boy.

Those attacks were considered in the most recent inquest into Azaria Chamberlain’s death — the fourth in three decades — which resulted in a 2012 ruling that a dingo had indeed killed, and likely devoured, the baby. When that final report was released, Australians expressed remorse for having jumped to the wrong conclusions, according to Baird.

“Comedians issued public apologies for using Lindy Chamberlain as a punch line; TV hosts were grave and emotional,” she wrote.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, felt vindicated. “No longer will Australia be able to say that dingoes are not dangerous and will only attack if provoked,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We live in a beautiful country, but it is dangerous.”

Read about the reopened Chamberlain case, here in TIME’s archives: Did a Dingo Really Get Her Baby?

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