Min­nie the mon­ster

A Scot whose crimes shocked New Zealand in the 1890s

SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Contents - Words John Wright

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.


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.

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