Archive for August 12th, 2015

1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Women

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