The Timaru Herald
Death of a baby killer
Today marks the anniversary of the death of Minnie Dean, the only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Past Times page looks at some of the coverage in the Timaru Herald of the story that shocked New Zealand.
In 1895 Southland’s Williamina (Minnie) Dean became the only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Her story exposed the stark realities of paid childcare and the lack of choice that many women faced in this period.
Dean had looked after children, for a fee, since the late 1880s at her rural Winton home, The Larches. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care. In an era of high infant mortality, it was perhaps inevitable that some of the children would fall ill and die, especially if they were disadvantaged to begin with and lived in cramped conditions.
A six-month-old infant died in 1889, and two years later a sixweek-old baby died of inflammation of the heart valves and congestion of the lungs. The inquest concluded that the dead infant and other children at The Larches were well cared for but that the premises were inadequate. Dean was already under police investigation by then. Police had found that she had been looking for more children to take into her care and that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the infants.
The death of the baby brought closer surveillance. In 1892 Christchurch police took charge of a three-week-old child that Dean had adopted from its single mother for £25. Police traced Dean to a boarding house and found the child in very dirty clothes and being fed from a bottle containing sour and curdled milk. The baby’s mother said she could scarcely recognise her child as it had ‘so altered for the worse’ in the two days that Dean had looked after it. The police thought that they had probably saved the baby’s life. They remained suspicious and kept Dean under surveillance; in 1893, the commissioner of police wrote to the Minister of Justice with renewed concerns about Dean’s activities.
Events moved quickly in 1895. On May 2, a railway guard saw Dean board a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. On the return trip he noticed she only had the hatbox, which, as railway porters later testified, was suspiciously heavy. After a fruitless search along the tracks, police unearthed from Dean’s garden the recently buried bodies of two babies – identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter – and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest determined that Dorothy Carter had died of an overdose of the opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm irritable infants.
Despite Alfred Hanlon’s defence that the baby’s death was accidental, on 21 June Dean was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. She was hanged at Invercargill gaol on 12 August 1895, earning the dubious honour of being the only woman ever executed in New Zealand. Source: NZ History Online The Timaru Herald May 22, 1895 The Winton Murder Case Invercargill The inquest on the skeleton found in the garden at The Larches, East Winton, subsequent to the discovery of the two infant bodies, in connection with which Charles and Minnie Dean are charged with murder, was opened this afternoon. Sergeant McDonnell, said that a number of mothers of children given to Mrs Dean about the time she received the one on whose body the inquest was being held, would require to be present and he asked for an adjournment. He had reason to believe that the mother of the deceased was now m Dunedin, and she would have to appear. Evidence would be adduced concerning the disappearance of other children. The inquest was adjourned to June 5th. May 30, 1895 The inquest on the body of the infant found buried at Dean’s residence at Winton, was continued this morning. Detective Herbert deposed that when Charles Dean was shown the bodies of the two infants just after they were dug up he said ‘‘My God I suppose I’ll be brought into this I know nothing about it.’’ Witness found in Minnie Dean’s bedroom, under the mirror, a bottle containing about half a teaspoonful of liquid labelled chlorodyne and another ‘‘Neil’s Cholera.’’ These had been handed to Professor Black. The head of the infant when dug up was bent forward on the breast, the feet lying forward and. the back, curved. The body straightened out soon after it was dug up. No one tried to fit the body into the box, which in his opinion would hold both bodies. Mr McDonald, Crown Prosecutor, stated that Professor Black, a most material witness, was now engaged on a grave matter in Dunedin, and an adjournment was granted till Tuesday afternoon, by which time it is expected that the inquest on the other child Eva Hornsby will be completed. June 5, 1895 At the inquest on Eva Hornsby to-day, the medical evidence was to the effect that death was caused by asphyxiation by mechanical means. There were two marks on either side of the skull, which might have been caused by the pressure of a finger and thumb. The organs were those of a healthy child, and the appearances were not inconsistent with suffocation by external means. The Crown Prosecutor stated that the organs had been sent to Professor Black, but no indication of poison had been found. The jury after half an hour’s retirement returned a verdict that in their opinion the child had been wilfully murdered. At the inquest on Dorothy Edith Carter, this afternoon, Professor Black deposed that he found sufficient morphia in the infant’s stomach to cause death. The medical evidence was to the effect that the post mortem conditions were consistent with death from opium poisoning. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Minnie Dean. June 10, 1895 At the Magistrates Court Mr Poynton, S.M., committed Minnie Dean for trial, for the murder of Dorothy Edith Carter, and discharged her husband Charles Dean. He said there was no evidence at all against Dean, and that he left the court without a stain on his character. The police, however, were justified m arresting him as they did not know what evidence might crop up. He thought that where the husband and wife lived together, and where bodies were found buried m their garden, it was quite within reason that the police should suspect the husband of being connected, and had there been any evidence against him at all he would certainly have committed him. Mr Hanlon, solicitor for accused, admitted that the police acted fairly, and were entitled to credit for the way in which they had worked up the case. Dean shook hands with the solicitor and left the court. Mrs Dean will be tried at the sitting of the Supreme Court which opens on Tuesday next. The execution of Minnie Dean By Telegraph Invercargill, August 12, 1895 Minnie Dean was executed this morning. She slept from 11.30 till 3 this morning. She took no breakfast, and only ‘‘a sip from a glass of spirits given her by the gaol surgeon. At three minutes to eight the sheriff demanded the body, and at two minutes past eight Minnie Dean was dead. ‘‘Don’t let them keep me in agony, doctor,’’ were her parting words to the surgeon. She marched from the cells, her arms pinioned behind her, and up the steps of the scaffold on to the trap door, apparently the most self-possessed of the dismal procession. She stood hatless and erect, facing west, a black board marking the grave of Walsh (the Waikawa murderer) directly in front of her.
The hangman adjusted the rope and placed the white cap on her. Then her legs were pinioned, and for the first time the marvellous will power of the woman to a certain extent gave way. She swayed backwards and forwards, holding firmly to the warder’s hand.
In reply to the question of the Sheriff, ‘‘Do you wish to say anything before you leave this world,’’ she said, ‘‘No, except that I am innocent.’’ After her legs were pinioned she said ‘‘Oh God, let me not suffer.’’ The hangman then drew the lever and all was over, death being instantaneous. The drop allowed was 7 feet 9 inches, and the scaffold used was the one built for the execution of Captain Jarvey, of Dunedin, who poisoned his wife about a quarter of century ago. To the Rev. Mr Lindsay, she stated that as far as the evidence was concerned the sentence was justified) but she protested her innocence as regards intention and forethought. The only persons present besides the gaol officials were the sheriff, doctor, magistrate, and press reporters. The body has been claimed by her husband, and will be buried in the Winton cemetery. During the execution a boy fell from the roof of a building to the ground, a distance of 30 feet and fractured his skull.
It is understood that Minnie Dean left a written statement which will be forwarded to the Government, placing a different aspect on the case from that inferred from her trial.