Because Mondays are MURDER...

Monday, 30 April 2012

Murderous Monday - Women who Kill - Williamina (Minnie) Dean, The Only Woman Executed In New Zealand

"Minnie Dean is part of Winton's history.  Where she now lies is now no mystery"

Williamina Dean nee McCulloch was the first and only woman to be hung in New Zealand.

Williamina was born in West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland on 2nd September 1844.  The second of four daughters to John and Elizabeth McCulloch nee Swan.  The 1851 Census shows Williamina living with her parents and siblings at 65 Ann Street, West Greenock.  At some point after the death of her mother in 1857, Minnie travelled to New Zealand.  She turns up in Invercargill in 1860 with two daughters Ellen and Isabella, purporting to be a widow of a physician from Tasmania.  However no records of such a marriage or the birth of her two daughters can be found.

On the 19th June 1872 Minnie married innkeeper Charles Dean at Etal Creek, a flourishing waggon stop in the 1860s, yet by the end of the gold rush in 1872 it had become a backwater.  In 1878 the Deans took up farming only for the collapse of the land boom in 1884 to leave them facing financial difficulties.  In 1887 the couple adopted a daughter Margaret, before moving to Winton to raise pigs.  Around this time Minnie started taking in unwanted babies for payment.  Babies were taken in for 5s - 8s or 'adopted' for a lump sum of £10 - £30.  At any one time Minnie had up to nine children and infants in her care.  With the high infant mortality rate in New Zealand at the time some deaths were expected.

Williamina at the time of her marriage in 1872

In 1889 a six month old infant died of convulsions after an illness and in 1891 a six week old infant died of heart and respiratory problems.  An inquest was held into the deaths but it was decided that the remaining children were well nourished and cared for even though the house was deemed to be inadequate.  Minnie was advised to reduce the number of children she cared for but she carried on as before.  In 1894 another child was to die from drowning while under her care, to avoid another inquest Minnie decided to bury the child in her backyard.  Earlier in 1893 Minnie had had a three week old baby removed from her care. 

The detective 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.' 

Frustratingly for the police there was little they could do with the inadequate child welfare laws of the time.

Police digging in Minnie's garden

May of 1895 saw Minnie boarding a train with a young baby and a hat box, only to disembark leave the train with just the hat box.  After a search of the railway line turned up nothing the police began to excavate Minnie's garden where they unearthed the bodies of three children, one year old Dorothy Edith Carter,  one month old Eva Hornsby (the baby from the train) and the skeletal remains of a four year old boy.  Dorothy was found to have died from a overdose of laudanum, an opiate used to quieten babies and suppress their appetite.  Poor Eva died from asphyxiation.  Minnie was arrested and charged with infanticide.  During Minnie's trial dolls in miniature hatboxes were sold to the public outside the courthouse.

Dolls in miniature hatboxes sold at Minnie's trial

On 12th August 1895, three months after her arrest Minnie was hanged at Invercargill gaol.  Five healthy and well cared for children were found to be living at Minnie's house at the time of her arrest.  It is thought some 26 children passed through the hands of Minnie between 1889 and 1895, the fate of seven of those children was never known.

Remaining children at under Minnie's care

Due to public concern over Minnie activities New Zealand passed the Infant Life Protection Act 1893 and the Infant Protection Act 1896

Minnie Dean's headstone

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