has the dubious honor of being the only woman to be legally hanged in
Christened Williamina Dean,
was born in Edinmburg, Scotland, in 1847. She was married and she have
two daughters. What happened about the girls is unknown.
In 1868 she emigrated to New Zealand
and lived in Southland with an old woman she called Granny Kelly. In
1872, she married Charles Dean, an old Southland settler. In 1886 the
Deans moved to a 22-acre estate known as The Larches, at East Winton.
Winton is situated 19 miles from Invercargill on the railway that then
ran from the Southland capital to Kingston.
A fire destroyed their home when
they first moved in and a small twenty-two feet by twelve feet
dwelling was built. Minnie Dean set up a baby-farming business,
advertising children for adoption. The babies she took into care were
illegitimate children brought from their mother's, provided no more
questions were asked.
In October 1889, Minne Irene Dean,
came to the attention of the authorities after a six-month-old baby
died three days after being taken ill whilst in Dean's care but the
death certificate showed natural causes due to convulsions.
Two years later, in May 1891, a six
week old baby died, again in Dean's care. An inquest was held but it
found that death was from natural causes.
Dean became more secretive with her
dealings and began advertising using false names. In May 1895, a
railway guard reported he had seen a woman board the train with a baby
but disembark without it. This happened within the train range of East
Winton and police began their enquiries. This led police to a Mrs
Hornsby who resided in Dunedin. She told police she had handed over
her one-month-old grand-daughter with money to Dean at Milburn, four
miles north of Milton.
Police brought Mrs Hornsby to The
Larches, Dean's residence. There she recognised not only Dean but a
piece of baby's clothing belonging to her grand-daughter. Dean was
arrested and sent to Dunedin to await trial. Police searched the
flowerbeds and found two babies bodies buried.
Charles Dean was also arrested and
the six children in their care were taken away by police. The two
bodies were identified as Eva Hornsby (Mrs Hornsby's grand-daughter)
and Dorothy Edith Carter (handed over to Minnie by her grandmother).
The search continued and another baby's body was found. Dean was
charged with the murder of two infants. After further examination of
the case, the charges against Charles Dean were dropped.
The police theory was that she had
taken the Carter infant on the train from Winton and changed trains to
get to Lumsden. During the trip to Lumsden she had killed the child
and concealed it's body in a hat box she was carrying. Staying
overnight in Lumsden, she boarded the Waimea Plains train to Gore,
where she then boarded the Dunedin Express. At Milburn, she met Mrs
Hornsby, leaving the hatbox and it's contents in a waiting room.
She was accompanied by Mrs Hornsby
on another train to Clarendon, the next station on the way to Dunedin.
She alighted with Eva Hornsby in her arms and waved goodbye to Mrs
Hornsby who continued on to Dunedin. It is here, where Eva Hornsby was
smothered. Dean wrapped her body into a parcel and boarded the train
back to Clinton. On the way she picked up the hatbox from Milburn. Now
carrying two dead babies, she went back to Winton.
The case was heard at Invercargill.
Many witnesses stepped forward to deliver their testimony. The jury
Oilcloth found wrapped around
Dorothy Edith Carter's body was from the Dean's home.
The railway guard who saw Dean get
on the train with the hatbox and baby and leave carrying a hatbox
A friend who lived with the Deans
for fourteen years identified Minnie's handwriting as the signature
'M.Gray' in the Bluff poison register.
Dean claimed she had carried flower
bulbs in the hatbox - but the woman who Dean said she had got them off
said she had only given her flower cuttings.
The clothing found in Dean's
possession was identified as that of Dorothy Edith Carter.
Several bottles of laudanum and
chlorodyne were found in Dean's bedroom.
Even though Dean was identified by
both grandmothers as the woman they gave their grand-daughters to, she
denied it, but finally admitting it under duress and with the evidence
of the clothes.
Dean was found guilty of Dorothy
Edith Carter murder and was sentenced to death.
On August 12, 1895, Minnie Dean,
at Invercargill prison , was marched to the gallows. Her final words
were "No, I have nothing to say, except that I am innocent".
Born in Edimburg, Scotland, in 1847,
Williamina emigrated to New Zeland in 1865 and soon she married with
Living in East Winton, near of
Invercargill, and Minnie's flower garden soon became the talk of the
neighborhood, renowned for its dahlias and chrysanthemums. Despite the
pretensions that led them to call their home "The Larches", times were
hard for Charles and Minnie Dean.
By 1890, to supplement her husband's
meager income, Minnie had begun to dabble in "BABY FARMING". Two
infants died in her care over the next year, and while both deaths
were ascribed to natural causes, official censure for unsanitary
conditions at the home led Minnie Dean to advertise her services under
a variety of seudonims.
On April 1875, Minnie ran a new ad
for her service in the Timaru Herald. A Mrs. Hornsby responded, paying
Dean four pounds to care for her one-month-old child, but the infant
soon vanished without a trace. Witnesses recalled seeing Minnie with a
baby in her arms at a local railway station, but she denied
everything... until the missing infant's clothes were found at her
home. Both Deans were arrested, and a search of The Larches revealed
three babies buried in the famous flower garden. One of them was the
Hornsby infant, and postmortem tests blamed its death on a morphine
overdose. Murder charges were inevitable after homicide detectives
found a quantity of morphine in the house.
Further inquiry revealed that
Charles Dean had been strictly forbidden to work in his wife's garden,
barred even from plucking stray weeds, and he was ultimately freed
without charges in the case. Williamina's trial before the
Invercargill Supreme Court opened on June 18, 1895, and she was
swiftly convicted of murder.
On August 12, Williamina Dean was
the first woman hanging in New Zeland.
Despite the nature of her crimes,
some journalists appeared to be infatuated with the homicidal baby
farmer, one article in The Times of London noting that she went to the
gallows "without a flinch or falter; she died a brave, wonderful
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial
Killers - Hunting Humans
"Minnie" Dean (2
September 1844 - 12 August 1895) was a New Zealander who was found
guilty of infanticide and hanged. She was the only woman to receive
the death penalty in New Zealand.
Minnie Dean was born
in Greenock, in western Scotland. Her father, John McCulloch, was a
railway engineer. Her mother, Elizabeth Swan, died of cancer in 1857.
It is unknown when she arrived in New Zealand, but by the early 1860s,
she was living in Invercargill with two young children. She claimed
she was the widow of a Tasmanian doctor, although no evidence of a
marriage has been found. She was still using her birth name,
In 1872, she married
an inkeeper named Charles Dean. The two lived in Etal Creek, then an
important stop on the route from Riverton to the Otago goldfields.
When the goldrush died down, the couple turned to farming, but were
soon in dire financial straits.
The family moved to
Winton, where Charles Dean took up pig farming. Minnie Dean,
meanwhile, began to earn money by taking in unwanted children in
exchange for payment.
In an era when there
were few methods of contraception, and when childbirth outside
marriage was frowned upon, there were many women wishing to discreetly
send their children away for adoption — as such, Minnie Dean was not
short on customers. It is believed that she was responsible for as
many as nine young children at any one time. She received payment
either weekly or in a lump sum.
Infant mortality was
a significant problem in New Zealand at this time. As such, a number
of children under Dean's care died of various illnesses. A coroner's
inquest was held, and Dean was not held responsible for the deaths.
Nevertheless, Dean came to be distrusted by the community, and rumours
of mistreatment circulated. Additionally, children under Dean's care
alledgedly went missing without explanation.
In the public's
mind, this linked Dean to cases in the United Kingdom and Australia of
women killing children under their care to avoid having to support
them. Laws at the time meant that Dean did not have to keep records of
the children she agreed to take in, and so proving that the children
had disappeared was difficult.
In 1895, Dean was
observed boarding a train carrying a young baby, but observed leaving
the same train without the baby. A woman came forward claiming to have
given her grand-daughter to Dean, and clothes identified as belonging
to this child were found at Dean's residence, but Dean could not
produce the child herself. A search along the railway line found no
sign of the child.
Dean was arrested
and charged with murder. Her garden was dug up, and three bodies (two
of babies, and one of a boy estimated to be three years old) were
uncovered. An inquest found that one child had died of suffocation and
one had died from an overdose of laudanum (used on children to sedate
them). The cause of death for the third child was not determined. Dean
was charged with their murder.
In her trial, Dean's
lawyer argued that all deaths were accidental, and that they had been
covered up to prevent adverse publicity of the sort that Dean had
previously been subjected to. On 21 June 1895, however, Dean was found
guilty of murder, and sentenced to death.
On 12 August, she
was hanged in Invercargill. She is the only woman to be executed in
New Zealand, and as capital punishment in New Zealand has been
discontinued, it is possible that she will retain that distinction.
She is buried in Winton, alongside her husband.
Williamina "Minnie" Dean (2 September 1844 –
12 August 1895) was a New Zealander who was found guilty of
infanticide and hanged. She was the only woman to receive the death
penalty in New Zealand.
Minnie Dean (also known as The Southland Witch)
was born in Greenock, in western Scotland. Her father, John McCulloch,
was a railway engineer. Her mother, Elizabeth Swan, died of cancer in
1857. It is unknown when she arrived in New Zealand, but by the early
1860s, she was living in Invercargill with two young children. She
claimed she was the widow of a Tasmanian doctor, although no evidence
of a marriage has been found. She was still using her birth name,
In 1872, she married an inkeeper named Charles
Dean. The two lived in Etal Creek, then an important stop on the route
from Riverton to the Otago goldfields. When the goldrush died down,
the couple turned to farming, but were soon in dire financial straits.
The family moved to Winton, where Charles Dean took up pig farming.
Minnie Dean, meanwhile, began to earn money by taking in unwanted
children in exchange for payment. In an era when there were few
methods of contraception, and when childbirth outside marriage was
frowned upon, there were many women wishing to discreetly send their
children away for adoption — as such, Minnie Dean was not short on
customers. It is believed that she was responsible for as many as nine
young children at any one time. She received payment either weekly or
in a lump sum.
Infant mortality was a significant problem in New
Zealand at this time (as it was estimated to run to about eighty to
one hundred infants out of one thousand colonial births). As such, a
number of children under Dean's care died of various illnesses.
In March 1889, a six-month old child had died of
convulsions, while in October 1891, a six-week old baby had perished
from cardiovascular and respiratory ailments, while a boy allegedly
drowned under her care during 1894. She hid the body in her garden,
arousing further suspicions. A coroner's inquest was held, and Dean
was not held responsible for the deaths, due to universally poor
standards of hygiene, even at childbirth itself.
Nevertheless, Dean came to be distrusted by the
community, and rumours of mistreatment circulated. Additionally,
children under Dean's care allegedly went missing without explanation.
In the public's mind, this linked Dean to cases of infanticide or baby
farming in the United Kingdom and Australia, where women killed
children under their care to avoid having to support them. At the
time, lax childcare legislation meant that Dean did not have to keep
records of the children she agreed to take in, and so proving that the
children had disappeared was difficult.
Before Dean's trial and execution, three other
women had been tried and sentenced to death- Caroline Whitting (1872),
Phoebe Veitch (1883: d.1891) and Sarah-Jane and Anna Flannagan (1891).
In each case, those sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. In
each case, child murder was the culpable offence. Thirty years later,
in 1926, Daniel Cooper was also convicted of baby farming and also
executed for the offence, although Martha, his second wife was
Murder case and execution
In 1895, Dean was observed boarding a train
carrying a young baby and a hatbox, but observed leaving the same
train without the baby and only the hatbox. As railway porters later
testified, the object was suspiciously heavy. A woman, Jane Hornsby,
came forward claiming to have given her granddaughter, Eva, to Dean,
and clothes identified as belonging to this child were found at Dean's
residence, but Dean could not produce the child herself. A search
along the railway line found no sign of the child. Dean was arrested
and charged with murder. Her garden was dug up, and three bodies (two
of babies, and one of a boy estimated to be three years old) were
uncovered. An inquest found that one child (Eva) had died of
suffocation and one, later identified as one year-old Dorothy Edith
Carter, had died from an overdose of laudanum (used on children to
sedate them). The cause of death for the third child was not
determined. Dean was charged with their murder
In her trial, Dean's lawyer Alfred Hanlon argued
that all deaths were accidental, and that they had been covered up to
prevent adverse publicity of the sort that Dean had previously been
subjected to. On 21 June 1895, however, Dean was found guilty of
Dorothy Carter's murder, and sentenced to death. Between June and
August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. Altogether, she
claimed to have cared for twenty eight children. Of these, five were
in good health when her establishment was raided, six had died whilst
under her care, and one had been reclaimed by her parents. Apart from
her two adopted daughters, that left fourteen or so children
unaccounted for, according to her own record.
On 12 August, she was hanged by the official
executioner Tom Long in Invercargill, at the intersection of Spey and
Leven streets, in what is now the Noel Leeming carpark. She is the
only woman to have been executed in New Zealand, and as capital
punishment in New Zealand has been abolished, it is likely that she
will retain that distinction. She is buried in Winton, alongside her
husband, who died in a house fire in 1908. Her crimes led to the
belated passage of child welfare legislation in New Zealand- the
Infant Life Protection Act 1893 and the Infant Protection Act 1896.
In popular culture
In 1985, Dean's trial was the subject of In
Defence of Minnie Dean, the first episode of the Emmy-nominated
Hanlon New Zealand television drama series about the career of
Dean's lawyer. The episode won the Best Director, Best Drama
Programme, Drama Script, and Performance, Female, in a Dramatic Role
categories at the 1986 Listener Television Awards (also called the
GOFTA Awards), and "contributed to a re-evaluation of Dean's
Minnie Dean is referenced in Dudley Benson's 2006
song "It's Akaroa's Fault" ("I don't want to meet Minnie Dean at the
end of my life/If I were to meet her I'd keep her hatbox in sight").
Authors Lynley Hood and John Rawle wrote posthumous accounts and
reconstructions of the case as the centenary of her apprehension and
execution occurred, in 1995.
On Friday 30 January 2009 the Otago Daily Times
reported that a headstone had appeared mysteriously on Dean's grave.
The headstone reads "Minnie Dean is part of Winton's history Where she
now lies is now no mystery". It is unknown who placed the headstone
there. Her family had been considering it but claim that this was not
The Southland Times reported on 23 February
2009 that the family laid a headstone to honour Dean and her husband's
By Lynley Hood
Minnie Dean was born Williamina McCulloch on 2
September 1844, at West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the fourth
in a family of eight girls of Elizabeth Swan and her husband, John
McCulloch, an engine driver with the Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock
Railway. Of her life between the death of her mother of cancer in 1857
and her arrival in New Zealand nothing is known. She appeared in
Invercargill in the early 1860s as Mrs McCulloch, a widow with two
small daughters. Her neighbours believed that she had come from
Tasmania where her physician husband had died. No evidence of her
marriage, the births of her children or the death of her husband has
On 19 June 1872 Williamina McCulloch married
Charles Dean, an innkeeper, formerly of Tasmania, at his home in Etal
Creek, Southland. During the 1860s Etal Creek had flourished as a
wagon stop on the four-day journey from Riverton to the Central Otago
goldfields, but by 1872 the goldrush was over – Etal Creek had become
a backwater. In 1878 Charles Dean turned to farming. In 1882 his
rabbit-infested 300 acres, on which he ran 150 sheep, were valued at
£1,200. In 1884 the land boom collapsed and Charles went bankrupt. He
was discharged six months later, but by then the Deans were destitute.
Both Williamina's daughters had married and left
home by this time, but in 1880 the childless Deans had adopted a
five-year-old girl, Margaret Cameron. About 1887 Minnie, Charles and
Margaret moved to Winton where they took possession of The Larches, a
two-storeyed, seven- or eight-roomed house on 22 acres a mile out of
town that had been abandoned to the mortgagee two years earlier. The
house burned down soon after they moved in. On the site Charles built
a two-roomed cottage with a lean-to. He then began raising pigs, and
his wife began taking in unwanted babies for payment.
The practice of 'baby farming', as it was known,
was a necessary evil in Western countries at this time. Effective
contraception was not widely available, abortion was dangerous,
unmarried mothers were ostracised and little provision was made for
the care of their offspring. Many desperate women replied to Minnie
Dean's discreet newspaper advertisements: 'respectable Married Woman
(comfortable home, country) Wants to Adopt an infant – Address,
Childless, Times Office'. A legal agreement was signed for most of the
babies she took in; some were taken for 5s. to 8s. a week, others were
adopted for lump sums of between £10 and £30.
The New Zealand infant mortality rate at this time
for children of European descent has been estimated at between 80 and
100 for every 1,000 live births. With up to nine children under the
age of three living at The Larches at any one time, that there would
be some deaths – whether through illness, accident, neglect or
maltreatment – was perhaps inevitable. In October 1889 a six-month-old
baby 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
The inquest provoked community outrage, which was
inflamed by another death six weeks later. In the public imagination
Minnie Dean became linked to baby farmers in Britain and Australia who
had been convicted of murdering infants for financial gain. No more
deaths were reported, but rumours abounded of children mysteriously
disappearing. Minnie Dean became increasingly furtive. Most of her
dealings with parents were carried on under assumed names, and when a
boy died in her care in 1894 (according to her own account, by
drowning) she buried him in the garden to avoid the scandal of another
The police were deeply suspicious. They kept her
under surveillance, but their investigations were frustrated by
inadequate child welfare laws: they had no right to enter or inspect
the Dean property, and Minnie Dean was not required to keep records or
answer questions. In August 1893 the proprietor of a Christchurch
boarding-house called the police when he noted that a woman, later
identified as Minnie Dean, had acquired a three-week-old baby during
her stay. The detective concerned had no hesitation in removing the
baby: 'I believe this woman would have killed or abandoned this child
before she got to Dunedin, if it had not been taken from her,' he
wrote in his report.
On 2 May 1895 Minnie Dean was seen boarding a train
carrying a young baby and a hat-box, and disembarking later carrying
only the hat-box. Jane Hornsby, who was found to have handed over her
one-month-old grand-daughter, Eva, to Minnie Dean at Clarendon
station, was taken by the police to The Larches. There she found
clothing belonging to the missing child. Minnie Dean was arrested and
charged with infanticide.
After a fruitless search along the railway line the
police turned over Minnie Dean's garden. They unearthed the freshly
buried bodies of two babies and the skeleton of a boy thought to be
about four years of age. At the inquest the older baby, a one-year-old
girl later identified as Dorothy Edith Carter, was found to have died
from an overdose of laudanum (an opiate commonly used to sooth
fractious children). The younger baby, Eva Hornsby, was thought to
have died of asphyxiation. The cause of death of the third child was
not established. Minnie Dean was publicly branded a murderer by the
coroner, and community feeling against her ran high. Charles Dean was
also arrested, but at a lower court hearing the charges against him
The Supreme Court trial of Minnie Dean for the
murder of Dorothy Edith Carter began in Invercargill on 18 June 1895.
A succession of witnesses described how she had collected Dorothy on
30 April at Bluff and had returned to Winton for two nights, before
leaving again with the child and an empty hat-box. By the time she
collected Eva Hornsby at Clarendon, Dorothy had disappeared and Minnie
Dean's hat-box had become suspiciously heavy. When she returned to
Winton she had with her only the heavy hat-box and some parcels. Under
cross-examination the woman who had handed Dorothy over revealed that,
although a financial agreement had been made, Minnie Dean had received
no money for the child.
In an impassioned closing address the defence
counsel, A. C. Hanlon, 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, he said, would be 'a weak-kneed compromise'. On 21
June 1895 Minnie Dean was found guilty of murder and sentenced to
death. Hanlon's appeal, on the grounds of the inadmissibility of
evidence of other infant deaths, was unsuccessful. On 12 August 1895,
three months after her arrest, Minnie Dean was hanged at Invercargill
gaol. She is buried in Winton cemetery, alongside her husband, who
died in a house fire at Winton in 1908, aged 73.
Minnie Dean never took the witness box at her
trial, but while awaiting execution she wrote a 49-page account of her
activities. She stated that in addition to Margaret Cameron and Esther
Wallis (a 10-year-old girl whom the Deans had adopted in 1890), 26
children, including Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, had passed through
her hands between 1889 and 1895. Six are known to have died, and one
to have been reclaimed by its family; five healthy, well-cared-for
children were living at The Larches at the time of her arrest. The
fate of the others is unknown. Dean claimed that seven children were
adopted by families who wished to keep the adoptions secret. The
police and the public believed that the missing children were
murdered. The possibility that some may have been secretly disposed of
after dying of illness or accident was not considered. In response to
public concern aroused by Minnie Dean's activities and trial, major
advances were enacted in New Zealand child welfare legislation, with
the passing of the Infant Life Protection Act 1893 and Infant
Protection Act 1896.
Minnie Dean became the only woman to be hanged for
murder in New Zealand. Many convicted murderers have passed from
notoriety to obscurity since then, but her name lives on, and around
that name has grown a legend. Southland children who misbehave are
threatened, not with bogeymen, but with being sent to Minnie Dean.
There is a wild-flower in Southland known as a Minnie Dean, which, it
is said, should be torn out and burnt if it appears in any domestic
garden. It is claimed that nothing will grow on Minnie Dean's grave.
Whether the real Minnie Dean deserves her terrible place in New
Zealand's folklore is far from certain.