Children beware. You had better be good or Minnie Dean will get you.

Or rather "she's gonna ge' cha", to use the words of the ballad written about the notorious Southland "baby farmer" who was sent to the gallows for murder.

On August 12 in 1895, Dean became the only woman ever to be executed under New Zealand law.

Tom Long, government hangman, operated the gallows on which Minnie Dean was executed at Invercargill in 1895 for murdering a baby.
Tom Long, government hangman, operated the gallows on which Minnie Dean was executed at Invercargill in 1895 for murdering a baby.

In the 123 years since, a legend has grown around her infamy, immortalised in books, poetry, theatre and in Helen Henderson's folk song.

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The song codifies the threat said to have been made to Southland children that if they played up, Dean would take them away, "and you'll never, ever be heard of again".

Dean, aged 50 at her death, had set up a kind of child-care or foster-parenting business at Winton in Southland in the small house she shared with husband Charles. She also adopted some children and had two of her own.

Charles Dean's farm had failed and the couple were poor.

For a fee Minnie would take in the children of unmarried mothers, or others who had too many.

At a time when unmarried motherhood was scorned, the term "baby farming" expressed the public distaste for Dean's socially necessary line of business. There was a belief that children were being mistreated, although in Dean's case the evidence was mixed.

She had been under police surveillance since her appearance before a coroner in 1891 had sparked public outrage. A baby had aged six weeks had died from heart and lung problems. Dean was cleared over the death, but the coroner was concerned about conditions at the family home, and the number of children house there, which could be up to nine under age 3.

Minnie Dean, the only woman to be executed under New Zealand law, was hanged on August 12, 1895, for murdering a baby.
Minnie Dean, the only woman to be executed under New Zealand law, was hanged on August 12, 1895, for murdering a baby.

"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," writes Dean biographer Lynley Hood.

After some Minnie Dean train trips, a suspiciously heavy hat box and a police dig in the couple's garden, Minnie was arrested for the murder of Dorothy Edith Carter, aged 1.

It was alleged that in a series of train journeys across Southland and South Otago she had killed one child and stuffed it in the hat box, disposed of it, received another, put that body in the box, and spent the night at Clinton, before returning home to Winton. Searching along the railway line found no bodies.

"At Winton this morning [May 11, 1895] the police ..." according to a Herald report six days later, "commenced to dig up the garden. They found the bodies of two baby girls, which answer to the description of those left in charge of Mrs Dean. As the bodies were quite fresh, it is assumed the burial was quite recent."

The skeleton of a boy aged about 4 was found too.

Dorothy had died from an overdose of laudanum, an opium-based medicine that was commonly used to calm children in the 19th century. The other baby was thought to have died of asphyxiation.

Dean's lawyer argued the laudanum overdose was a mistake and that Eva Hornsby had inhaled vomit.

Dean was convicted and sentenced to hang but, to the last, denied murder.

Asked, when standing at the gallows trapdoor, if she wished to speak one last time, she replied: "No, except that I am innocent."

In 2009 a headstone commissioned by a Scottish great-great-nephew of Williamina
In 2009 a headstone commissioned by a Scottish great-great-nephew of Williamina "Minnie" Dean (nee McCulloch) was placed on she and husband Charles' Winton grave. Photo / NZPA

Hood says that, in addition to those adopted, 26 children passed through Dean's hands between 1889 and 1895. Six were known to have died, one was reclaimed by its family, and five "healthy, well-cared-for children" were living at the Deans' home 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."

The government made major improvements to child welfare laws in response to Minnie Dean's activities.

In 2009 a headstone, commissioned by a great-great-nephew of Dean's, who lives in Scotland, was placed on Minnie and Charles' grave in Winton.