Minnie the monster
A Scot whose crimes shocked New Zealand in the 1890s
The ad in New Zealand’s Southland Times on April 17, 1889 struck just the right tone: ‘WANTED, by a respectable married woman with no 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. to office of this paper.’
For the desperate unmarried mothers or overstretched families who decided to take ‘B.D.’ up on her deceptively genteel offer as a solution to their apparent plight in a nosy puritanical world, it was to be a terrible mistake.
They were about to deal with a woman (whose initials weren’t B.D.) as respectable as the only woman ever hanged in New Zealand, which she was to become. But it would take the authorities another six years to prove that the mistreatment and subsequent death of some of her young charges was not accidental.
She was doing it for money. Supposedly ‘destitute’, according to Lynley Hood in the Dictionary of New Zealand
Biography, Minnie Dean became a socalled ‘baby farmer’ at the age of 45, adopting children for ‘5 to 8 shillings a week [or] for lump sums of between £10 and £30 [£3,000 today]’. But since her farmer husband, Charles Dean, had begun raising pigs, were they really destitute or just doing it tough like everyone else? Even genuine poverty didn’t justify what happened next.
Minnie was born Williamina McCulloch on 2 September 1844 in West Greenock, Renfrewshire, the fourth of
Nothing was heard of Minnie from that moment until 1863 when, pregnant at 19 with Isabella, she knocked at the door of her mother’s sister’s house in southern New Zealand
eight daughters of Elizabeth Swan and her husband, John McCulloch, an engine-driver of 45 years’ standing with the Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock Railway. When she was 13, Minnie’s mother died of cancer. Nothing was heard of Minnie from that moment until 1863 when, pregnant at 19 with Isabella, she knocked at the door of her mother’s sister’s house in southern New Zealand, with her first daughter, Ellen, aged three.
The aunt, Granny Kelly (nee Christina Swan), from the village of Cardross – on the north side of the Firth of Clyde halfway between Dumbarton and Helensburgh – had not seen Minnie since she was three, when she herself had migrated to New Zealand with her family. Not long after joining other Scots in ‘Dunedin – dubbed locally “the Edinburgh of the South” ... [Christina’s husband, Dugald Niven] was killed by a falling tree,’ wrote Hood in Minnie Dean: Her Life & Crimes. A year or so later Christina married John Kelly and in 1856 founded the nearby Invercargill.
Apart from Minnie’s unlikely tale, given her age, that she was a widow who had arrived via Australia’s island state of Tasmania, little more is known of her movements since leaving Scotland. The one exception is the recent
discovery of a record of a female child born on January 13, 1861 in Tasmania to a Wilhelmina McCulloch, the father shown in the official record as Frederick McFae, surgeon.
With spelling often done phonetically, and the name appearing typed as McPhu on the St Andrews Presbyterian Church baptism list, unless she had invented the name, who was he? No Tasmanian doctor had such names, McLeay being the closest. If married, Minnie would have included her maiden name, as did nine of the 11 moth- ers listed. Was the baby’s father really a surgeon? Did she leave Scotland with a boyfriend or chaperone and was waylaid, at 15, on or after the voyage?
Something else is possible. Try writing the name McPhu in sloping handwriting. It could have been copied (ee being mistaken for u) from a handwritten McPhee, an even more common name (one McPhee becoming Tasmania’s premier 60 years later). Was she dumped by an influential, perhaps married, settler?
Even more oddly, Isabella’s own mar-
riage certificate would later list her father’s name as Dr John Henry Proctor.
Anyway, the respectability ruse worked and Minnie was soon working as a teacher. When Ellen and Isabella left home, Minnie adopted five-year-old Margaret Cameron. Two years later, in 1882, Ellen, her baby and her toddler were all found dead in Ellen’s well. Having a safe heavy lid when not in use, had it been a murder/suicide by a depressed mother, a terrible accident or something else?
Whatever effect this had on Min- nie’s mind, in 1884 she and her now bankrupt Charles were found covered in blood one night after an angry creditor attacked them in bed. In 1887 the destitute pair, along with Margaret, moved into an abandoned house, called ‘The Larches’, in Winton. It burnt down. Soon the ads started appearing.
Six months later one of the adopted babies died; 16 months later another one. Despite having up to nine children under the age of three in the house, she wasn’t closed down. Instead, the deaths were explained away, the medical witness at the inquest blaming only ‘inadequate premises’. The police were suspicious and had her under surveillance but the law gave them no right to enter the Deans’ house. But when, in August 1893, the owner of a boarding-house in Christchurch told them that Minnie Dean had arrived with a baby, a detective did step in, writing 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’. According to Hood, when a third child died in 1894, ‘she buried him in the garden to avoid…another inquest’.
In May 1895 she ‘was seen boarding
I believe this woman would have killed or abandoned this child before she got to Dunedin, if it had not been taken from her
a train carrying a baby and a hat-box, and disembarking carrying only the hat-box’. Taken by the police to The Larches, the baby’s mother, Jane Hornsby, who had given her granddaughter to her, ‘found clothing belonging to the child’ and Minnie was soon charged with murder. Police had found nothing along the railway line but on digging up her garden they unearthed the bodies of two recently buried babies, one dead from an overdose of the opiate laudanum (a common children’s sedative), and the skeleton of a four-yearold boy. Charles was arrested too but found not guilty of murder.
The New Zealand Supreme Court, on June 18, 1895, heard how she had disposed of another baby on the way to picking up Eva Hornsby, the hat-box providing the means of disposal.
At Minnie Dean’s trial a number of witnesses testified variously to seeing her pick Dorothy Carter up on April 30 at Bluff, return to Winton for two nights and leave with her again with an empty hat-box. By the time she arrived at Clarendon Eva, Dorothy had disappeared and Minnie Dean’s hat-box appeared noticeably heavy, Dean finally arriving back at Winton with hat-box and parcels but no Eva.
The judge said: ‘It seems to me that the real honest issue is whether the accused is guilty of intentionally killing the child or is innocent altogether,’ then suggested that a verdict of manslaughter would be ‘a weak-kneed compromise’.
Found guilty of murder, Minnie Dean was sentenced to hang at Invercargill Gaol on August 12. Minnie did not speak during her trial but, truthfully or not, wrote a 49-page account of what had supposedly happened to all the children that had been put in her care over the six years between 1889 and 1895, saying that there had been 28 children altogether.
Officially, it was known that six had died, one had been reclaimed by its fam-
While saying to the Sheriff “I am innocent,” her last words, “God, let me not suffer!” were perhaps the most telling of all about whose well-being was really closest to her heart
ily, and five were found alive at The Larches the day she was arrested. To this day nothing is known of the fate of the others. While Dean herself insisted that seven had been secretly adopted, the police by now had tired of her explanations and assumed that they had all been murdered.
One possibility no one considered at the time was that Minnie Dean may well have disposed of them after they died due to illness or her neglect. Even if this had been true, such circumstances would not have gained her the slightest public sympathy.
While saying to the Sheriff, ‘I am innocent,’ her last words, ‘God, let me not suffer!’ were perhaps the most telling of all about whose well-being was really closest to her heart.
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Image: Scot Minnie Dean was the first – and last – woman to be hung in New Zealand.
Image: When suspicious New Zealand police dug up Minnie Dean’s garden they found two recently buried children.
Right: Some of the telegrams that finally saw Minnie Dean caught, prosecuted and hung for the crime of murdering children.
Image: Minnie took the money for looking after children, only to kill them.
Image: The laudanum MInnie used to kill babies was a widely-used sedative.