WINTON, SOUTHLAND. On August the 12th 1895 ‘Southland baby farmer’ Williamina Dean became the first and only woman to be sentenced to death in New Zealand. The name of Minnie Dean lives on, and around that name has grown a legend. Southland children who misbehave are threatened, not with boogeymen, but with being sent to Minnie Dean.
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Written and edited by Sirius Rust
“Darkest Child”, “Day of Chaos”, “Leaving Home”, “Mesmerize”, “Oppressive Gloom”, “Unseen Horrors”, “Virtutes Instrumenti”
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On August the 12th 1895 ‘Southland baby farmer’ Williamina Dean became the first and only woman to be sentenced to death in New Zealand. The name of Minnie Dean lives on, and around that name has grown a legend. Southland children who misbehave are threatened, not with boogeymen, but with being sent to Minnie Dean.
HISTORY OF ‘THE MINNIE DEAN LEGEND’
The mythology of ‘Southland baby farmer’ Minnie Dean is extensive. She has been entered into New Zealand folklore, with her black bonnet hat and tatty victorian dress, she has become New Zealand’s boogeyman. According to legend, Minnie was an evil old woman who would scoop up the naughty children, stab them with her hatpin and take them away on a train in her tin hat box, never to be seen from again. She is buried 40ft under the ground. And no grass will grow on her grave. As with most legends a seed of truth is buried deep within. From that seed, folklore proceeded to blossom around it. We will be digging through the lore to unearth that seed.
Minnie Dean was born Williamina McCulloch on the 2nd of September 1844 in West Greenock, Scotland. She was the 4th daughter of John McCulloch and Elizabeth Swan. Minnie was raised in a strict Christian home where corporal punishment was a regular occurance. The family was working class. John McCulloch was the local train conductor. All six members of the family lived in a one bedroom tenement. Minnie was a kind young girl. She got along well with her mother. However, seemed to struggle to connect emotionally with her father.
Minnie was close with her Aunt Christina as she would treat the young Minnie with gentleness and understanding which she didn’t receive from her father. Although when Minnie was only four years old, her Aunt Christina made the 5 month journey to New Zealand with her family, leaving Minnie behind. It was around this time that Minnie’s mother Elizabeth had another daughter, Christina. Before shortly after falling pregnant again.
Disease was a feature of life in 19th century Victorian Scotland with children being particularly susceptible. Deaths of children under ten accounted for more than half the deaths in Scotland in the early 19th century, the highest proportion of deaths occurred in the age group under five years. The infant mortality rate at the time is estimated at about 40%.
While Minnie’s mother was heavily pregnant, two of her middle children Isabella and Janet got infected with an unknown disease. A couple of days later, they had perished. It is guessed that they died of Cholera which was common in the 1800s, before modern water and sewage treatment systems eliminated its spread. Unfortunately tragedy was going to be a fairly common occurrence in Minnie Dean’s life. Four days later, during nightfall her mother gave birth to another daughter, Ellen-Ann. Sadly, by daybreak she was dead as well.
Minnie was a bright kid but didn’t do well in school. She did not want to do the female assigned program of learning to sew and knit. She wanted to learn to write, read and do math like the boys were. This created conflict with the disciplinarians at the school that saw this as insolence. Minnie’s Mother Elizabeth introduced two new sisters to the household in the coming years, Isabella and Janet, named after her two departed daughters.
In 1857, when Minnie was 13 years old. Her mother passed away of cancer. According to Minnie who was in the room when her mother died. Her mother’s last moments were not peaceful. She was twisting and writhing in pain, calling out for the lord to take her. Quickly followed by silence.
Three months later, John McColloch introduced his four daughters to his new wife, their new mother Elizabeth Ferguson. By all accounts Minnie and her new mother did not get along. Already feeling distant from her father and now feeling no affection for her new mother, Minnie sort out attention from others. Namely her friend from school Freddie McPhee and over time they developed a relationship. This is something she had to hide from her conservative family, especially the prying eyes of her new mother. This lead to an occasion when Minnie and Freddie were out drinking alcohol watching the stars. Later that night Minnie had sex for the first time. Months had passed when Minnie asked a family friend about her ‘monthlies’. She asked ‘what does it mean if the bleedings stop?’.
Having an illegitimate child in Victorian Scotland was the road to social ostracisation. Few employers would take on a woman with an illegitimate child as a worker, partly because childcare distracts a mother, and partly because of the shame of illegitimacy. If these women were employed, they were often singled out by having to wear a special uniform which drew attention to their status as unmarried mothers. Some women became institutionalised and ended up as pauper nurses. While others might leave their child in the institution, to try to make a new life outside.
Minnie recalled growing up in church, women carrying illegitimate children were forced to stand at the front of the congregation while the parishioners would stomp their feet and yell ‘whore, bitch, slut, harlot and wench’. The ‘wicked’ woman was then required to ask for repentance and punishment for committing the sin of fornication. As such, it was common to obtain an abortion in an attempt to bypass this judgement. Amongst working class women violent purgatives were popular. Pennyroyal tea, aloes and turpentine were all used. Other methods to induce miscarriage were very hot baths and gin or a controlled fall down a flight of stairs. Minnie nor Freddie wanted this. They wanted to have the child but knew that they would have to do something drastic to not bring shame to their families.
Minnie hid her pregnancy for as long as she could. Her morning sickness being the giveaway. Her new mother picked up on this, promptly telling Minnie’s father. The next time Minnie saw her father, he would not speak to her. It was her new mother who motioned to Minnie’s possessions containing a blanket, a loaf of bread and some cheese. They were banishing her. When Minnie prompted her father for a reaction, he snapped back saying he was disgusted by her and renounced her as his daughter.
Minnie and Freddie facing total segregation from society seemingly faced no other choice but to leave Scotland. They chose to go to Australia. The thinking being that no one in Australia wouldn’t know they weren’t married. Freddie found out about something called a ‘bounty boat’. As the teenagers didn’t have any money, a bounty boat would let them sail to Australia with passage paid and when work was found in the new land. They would pay it back. With this opportunity, they set sail to Tasmania, Australia.
EMIGRATING TO AUSTRALIA
Many months past, eventually Minnie and Freddie landed in the Tasmanian city of Launceston. Little is known about this time in Minnie’s life. We do know she gave birth to a daughter, Ellen Ann, named after her infant sister who perished. Minnie registered the birth in Launceston. She listed the father as Fredrick McPhee, a surgeon. Based on what we know about McPhee this is most likely a falsity.
What happened in the remaining dates before Minnie arrived in New Zealand is more troublesome to deduce. The most likely scenario is as follows based on the evidence we do know. When Minnie and Freddie arrived in Launceston. Minnie found work as a governess in exchange for lodgings. During this time, the man of the house began using Minnie for sex. This inevitably lead to her falling pregnant once more. At this point the man needed to do away with Minnie. He offered her a boat to wherever she desired. Thinking of her Aunt Christina, her aunt she was close to and hasn’t seen since she was four years old, She picked New Zealand. With one illegitimate child, and another on the way. Williamina McColloch set sail for New Zealand. What happened to Freddie McPhee is unknown. We don’t know what happened in the final years of his relationship to Minnie and we do not know what happened to him after she left Australia. Frederick McPhee’s story is lost to history.
MINNIE DEAN ARRIVES IN SOUTHLAND
Minnie McColloch arrived in New Zealand sometime in 1863. She arrived at the Bluff harbour. Carrying her two year old daughter Ellen Ann and with another child on the way. She stayed with her Aunt Christina in Invercargill, known locally as ‘Granny’ Kelly. She was called this because she was the first european woman settler in Invercargill. Minnie soon gave birth to her new daughter Isabella, named after Minnie’s deceased sister.
To conceal her sordid history, she told the locals that she was the daughter of a minister back in Scotland and that her husband was a surgeon that tragically passed away in Tasmania. So she emigrated to New Zealand to be close to her Aunt.
Throughout these years, Minnie found work as a governess. In 1872 Minnie married Charles Dean, an innkeeper at Etal Creek, Southland. The newly bestowed Minnie Dean joined Charles in Etal Creek, a small place that had flourished during the 1860s as a wagon stop on the four day journey from Riverton to the Central Otago goldfields. When the gold dried up in 1872, so did the business.
In 1878, Charles Dean turned to farming. At this point both of Minnie’s children had grown, married and left home. Unfortunately more misfortune for Minnie was impending. Minnie’s eldest daughter, Ellen Ann, now 22 with two children of her own. Suffering from an episode of postnatal depression drowned both her children by throwing them into a well. She then jumped in herself, commiting suicide.
In 1882 Charles’ farm on which he ran 150 sheep, was valued at £1,200, the equivalent of $210,000 in 2019. In the 1880s, New Zealand entered a depression, migration slowed, then people started to leave. The Depression, in combination with the farm not carrying enough stock per acre of farmland and being infested with rabbits, led to Charles becoming financially ruined by 1884.
Charles’ destitution lead to him borrowing money off anyone who would lend to him, without any means to pay it back. This culminated in an incident where Charles owed an equally destitute ploughman £37, corresponding to about $7000 in 2019. The ploughman in a drunken rampage broke into the Dean’s bedroom. Demolishing everything in the room. Reportedly, Minnie lost teeth in this attack.
In 1887, desperate. The Dean’s borrowed £200 off Minnie’s Aunt Christina, proportional to around $42,000 in 2019. Together they moved to Winton, a small rural town some 30km outside of Invercargill. There they purchased ‘The Larches’, a two storeyed, seven roomed house on 22 acres a mile out of town that had been abandoned by a mortgagee two years earlier due to the depression. Here the Dean’s lived with their adopted daughter, Margaret. Although in April of 1888, soon after moving in, the house burnt to the ground.
MINNIE DEAN, THE SOUTHLAND BABY FARMER
On the site, Charles built a small two roomed cottage and started raising pigs. Desperate for money, Minnie started taking in unwanted children for payment, a practice known as ‘baby farming’. Baby farming is the historical practice of accepting custody of an infant or child in exchange for payment . If the infant was young, this would include wet nursing. Some baby farmers ‘adopted’ children for lump-sum payments of usually around £10, while others cared for infants for periodic payments of around five shillings a week.
On the 13th of May 1889, Minnie Dean placed this ad in the Southland Times. “WANTED, by a respectable married woman with no young children, a baby to nurse, or one or two young children to bring up, or a baby to adopt. Thoroughly comfortable home in the country. Terms very moderate. Apply by letter addressed “B.D.”, office of this paper”. This worked, with reports of up to nine children under the age of three living in the two roomed cottage at any one time. But even with the payments from the biological families, Minnie did not have the means to adequately look after so many children.
In October 1889, a six month old baby, in the care of Minnie Dean died of convulsions after a three day illness. In March 1891 a six week old infant died of inflammation of the heart valves and congestion of the lungs. The medical witness at the ensuing inquest reported that the dead infant and the other children at ‘The Larches’ were well cared for and well nourished, but that the premises were inadequate. The coroner exonerated Minnie Dean but advised her to reduce the number of children living at ‘The Larches’ and improve conditions. Apart from a small reduction in numbers she continued as before. Another infant death six weeks later started to provoke outrage from the community.
In the mind of the public Minnie was linked to notorious British baby farmer Amelia Dyer dubbed the ‘Ogress of Reading’. After being widowed, Dyer took to ‘adopting’ children for money. She would then murder the children, strangling them before disposing of their corpses to avoid unwanted attention. This link providing the building blocks for the myth of Minnie Dean. Rumours began circulating about children and babies going missing from ‘The Larches’.
The public’s outrage intensified. Police had been actively investigating Minnie since the coroner’s inquest. They kept her under surveillance, but their investigations were frustrated by inadequate child welfare laws as they had no right to enter or inspect the Dean property, and Minnie was not required to keep records or answer questions. In an attempt to mitigate some of the investigators frustrations, the state began to regulate baby farming. Under the ‘Infant Life Protection Act’, passed in 1893, all homes that received payment for looking after infants under the age of two for more than three consecutive days had to be licensed as foster homes and were subject to police inspection. In Otago and Southland 83 women registered for a license. Minnie Dean was not one of them, yet she continued her operations as normal.
In August 1893, the proprietor of a Christchurch boarding house called police when he noted that Minnie Dean had acquired a three week old baby during her stay. The detective had no hesitation in removing the baby. He wrote in his report “I believe this woman would have killed or abandoned this child before she got to Dunedin, if it had not been taken from her”. Under surveillance, Minnie began to operate under pseudonyms.
In 1884, a four year old boy, Willie Phelan died by drowning in Minnie’s care. Minnie buried his body in her backyard to avoid any further police scrutiny.
On the 2nd of May 1895, Minnie Dean was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hat box. Returning later carrying only the hat box. Jane Hornsby, who was found to have handed over her one month old granddaughter Eva to Minnie, was taken by the police to ‘The Larches’. There Minnie denied ever meeting Mrs Hornsby. When Minnie tried to hide an article of clothing, the police confiscated it. Jane Hornsby identified it as belonging to the baby, Eva.
After searching along the railway line to no avail, the police turned their attention to ‘The Larches’ garden. There they unearthed the freshly buried bodies of two babies later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Edith Carter, the police also found the skeleton of the four year old Willie Phelan that drowned in 1884. Minnie Dean was arrested and charged with infanticide.
THE TRIAL OF MINNIE DEAN
The Supreme Court trial of Minnie Dean for the murder of Dorothy Edith Carter began in Invercargill on 18 June 1895. An all male jury was assembled. Before a series of witnesses described how they had observed Minnie collecting Dorothy Carter on the 30th of April in Bluff and had returned to ‘The Larches’ in Winton for two nights. Before leaving the morning of the 2nd of May with the child Dorothy and an empty hat box. Minnie arrived in Lumsdon, with no child in sight but still carrying the hat box. Four people in Lumsdon helped Minnie with the hat box. All later testifying how heavy it felt. Minnie then travelled to Clarendon to collect one month old Eva Hornsby. On Minnies return journey, a railway clerk, that had previously assissted police to keep an eye on Minnie, took note of Minnie with the one month infant. The clerk noticed that at some point on the trip back to Winton, Eva disappeared. When Minnie returned to Winton she had with her only some parcels and a suspiciously heavy hat box.
In an impassioned closing address Minnie’s defence counsel, argued that the death of Dorothy Carter was accidental, but in his summing up the judge observed, “It seems to me that the real honest issue is whether the accused is guilty of intentionally killing the child or is innocent altogether. A verdict of manslaughter, would be a weak-kneed compromise”. The newspapers claimed Minnie was silent during the whole trial and “Mrs. Dean seemed to take matters as coolly as ever”.
The jury retired, thirty minutes passed before the jury reappeared. Returning a guilty verdict. On 21 June 1895, Minnie Dean was sentenced to death. Minnie preserved that same calmness she had exhibited throughout the trial. Before standing and addressing the court “I have only to thank Detective McGrath for the fairness and great kindness I have received from him”.
MINNIE’S ACCOUNT OF THE EVENTS
What does Minnie say happened? While Minnie did not take the stand during the trial, she did write a 53 page final statement. In which she claims to be a victim of tragic circumstance. After the inquest into the death of the six month old child in October of 1889 Minnie grew bitter from all the bad publicity she was receiving. This lead to Minnie becoming untrusting of the press and the police. She wrote in her final statement “that inquest made me a social outcast, a pariah. The press painted me in as black colours as it was possible for them to paint me” and in reference to the police “If they had kept faith with me, I would have kept faith with them”. This distrust led to Minnie becoming dishonest and evasive with police.
Minnie wrote about an incident where because of the police persecution, Minnie believed she was publicly shunned. Minnie was penniless in Dunedin, it was raining heavily. She visited an acquaintance who had recently offered her a place to stay. The woman told Minnie there were no rooms available. She visited another friend, but to no avail. The friend merely pulled the curtains closed “as if I was an unclean thing”.
This all led Minnie to becoming more secretive. Therefor, leading the police and the public to become more suspicious. Culminating in the events on the train in May 1895. Minnie Dean had obtained a child from Bluff, Dorothy Carter. On the trip home to ‘The Larches’, the child would not stop crying bitterly. To remedy this Minnie gave the child, six drops of laudanum. Laudanum is extract of opium. Principally used as a pain medication, although commonly used also to quiet a restless baby.
On the 2nd of May 1895, Minnie was on her way to Gore to meet a lady who was interested in adopting Dorothy. She was then to travel to Milburn the next morning, to meet with Jane Hornsby, about taking in another child. Before she left that morning, Dorothy was still crying and restless, so Minnie gave her more drops of laudanum. Minnie then boarded the train carrying Dorothy in one hand and her tin hat box in the other. Having read the train timetable incorrectly, she discovered there was no train going to Gore this day. Minnie decided to stay the night in Lumsden, there she could telegram Jane Hornsby and tell her she would be arriving on the afternoon train, instead of the morning which was previously decided upon.
Upon entering the train, Minnie was relieved to hear quiet from Dorothy. Minnie placed Dorothy next to her. She was the only passenger in the first class cabin. Some time later, Minnie noticed Dorothy was stiff and not moving. She was dead. It was determined at the inquest that Dorothy died of an overdose of laudanum. Panicked, Minnie placed Dorothy in her tin hat box. When the train arrived in Lumsden. Minnie departed carrying her hat box. Hurrying to the hotel, where she spent a sleepless night.
In the morning, Minnie travelled to Milburn. Minnie met Jane Hornsby, they completed the transaction for one month old Eva for £10 and Minnie handed Mrs. Hornsby a receipt. While waiting for the next train home, Minnie placed Eva on the bench, while she was handling the parcel of baby clothing that Mrs. Hornsby had also handed over. Minnie was knelt, when baby Eva suddenly fell off the bench. Minnie sprang to catch her but it was too late. Eva hit the hard ground. Dying instantly.
Minnie’s account of what happened to Eva is inconsistent with the injuries she suffered from. The coroner ruled Eva died of asphyxiation. This was determined by small abrasions on Eva’s skull. It was theorised that, more likely Minnie placed her hand over the baby’s mouth causing asphyxia hence the abrasions. Perhaps to quieten a crying Eva. Whether this was intentional asphyxiation or an accident was for the jury to decide.
Minnie hid the dead baby in the, at this point, very heavy tin hat box. Minnie then headed home, although she did stop in Clinton to do some shopping for flowers and gifts for the children remaining at home. Minnie claims that she did this to not raise any suspicion from her husband or any of the adopted children. Minnie eventually arrived back to Winton. Esther, one of Minnie’s adopted children helped carry the heavy hat box back home. When Esther asked what was in the box. Minnie claimed it was bulbs for the garden. Minnie buried the two bodies in a shallow grave in her garden that evening. Marking the graves with a bundle of flowers.
Minnie Dean was moved to Invercargill gaol to await her execution. This is where she spent seven weeks while preparations were made for her hanging. Her cell consisted of a wooden bedstead, a table, two wooden stools, a strip of carpet, a Bible, a fire in a grate and some flowers in a vase. The gaoler and his wife apparently tried to make Minnie as comfortable as possible. In Minnie’s last statement, she thanked them for their care, attention and kindness.
On 7th of August 1895, Walter Martin, the sheriff of Invercargill, set the execution at 8am Monday the 12th of August. On Saturday the 10th of August Charles Dean visited his wife for the last time. After this she occupied herself with praying, reading the Bible and writing her final statement.
On Sunday, she asked to see the five small children she had been bringing up but this was denied. She finished her final statement at about 11.30pm before sleeping until around 3am. She declined any breakfast but drank some tea. Then at 7.30am, the day of her execution, Reverend Lindsay, who had spent much time with Minnie in her final weeks, arrived to pray with her.
At three minutes to eight. The gaoler and the hangman arrived at Minnie’s cell. The hangman strapped Minnie’s arms to her sides then added a strap around her waist. The bell began to toll as the procession made their way to the gallows. Minnie ascended the fourteen steps up the scaffold. The Sheriff asked Minnie if she would like to say anything to which Minnie replied “No, except that I am innocent”. The hangman adjusted the rope around Minnie’s neck and placed a white cap over her head. Minnie was heard whispering to herself “Oh God, let me not suffer”. The lever was drawn and Minnie dropped almost eight feet. Breaking her neck, she died ‘almost instantly’.
Minnie Dean hung for the legally mandated one hour before being taken down. Her body was handed over to her husband Charles. Charles buried Minnie Dean’s body in Winton to forever become a part of New Zealand’s folklore and legends. Around 20km away, an unmarked grave in Winton Cemetery is where Minnie Dean remained for over a century. Over these years, rumours swelled around the ‘evil’ of Minnie Dean. Throughout the next century her story became twisted and distorted, over time details were lost and the tale shed considerable truth, eventually evolving into, and becoming the ‘Legend of Minnie Dean’.
In 2009, a mysterious headstone was discovered on Minnie Dean’s unmarked resting site. This ‘unofficial’ epitaph reads “Minnie Dean is part of Winton’s history. Where she now lies is now no mystery”. The victims of Minnie Dean are more forgotten, in regards to history. As a reminder of a time, not too long ago, when people cared seldom about illegitimate or unwanted children. Along the Tay Street boundary of the Eastern Cemetery in Invercargill. The remains of Dorothy Edith Carter and Eva Hornsby are found, along with 2,132 others in an unmarked mass grave known as ‘Free Ground’.
Little did my mother think,
The day she cradled me,
What land I was to travel in,
Or what death I should die.
Oh that my father never on me smiled;
Oh that my mother had never to me sung’
Oh that my cradle had never been rocked,
But that I had died when I was young.
Oh that my grave it were my bed;
My blankets were my winding sheet;
The clocks and the worms my bedfellows,
And oh sae sound as I should sleep.
Little did my mother think
The day she cradled me
That I would travel so far far from home,
To hang on a gallows tree.
A poem by Minnie Dean.
This was part two of a three part look back on the death penalty in NZ. In part three, we will be jumping forward in time, to 1957. Discussing the events surrounding the last man to be executed in NZ, Wanganui man, Walter James Bolton.
NZ History, Baby Farmers, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/baby-farmers/minnie-dean
Te Ara, Dean, Williamina, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2d7/dean-williamina
Atlas Obscura, Was Minnie Dean Really the Wickedest Woman in New Zealand History?, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/minnie-dean-baby-farmer-murder-new-zealand
Papers Past, MINNIE DEAN, CHILD MURDERESS, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTR19221209.2.12
Sacha De Bazin, The Day She Cradled Me, 2012
John Rawle, Minnie Dean: A Hundred Years of Memory, 1997
Sherwood Young, Guilty on the Gallows, 1998