DEAN, Williamina or “Minnie”
The Winton baby farmer.
A new biography of Dean, Williamina appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Very little is known of Minnie Dean's origin and antecedents and she herself gives little or no clue in the manuscript she wrote in the condemned cell in Invercargill Gaol. “Who my parents were or what they were concerns no one,” she wrote, “although I have no doubt that problem has already been solved by the public to their own satisfaction.” In spite of this, however, there is sufficient material available for a brief sketch of her early life.
Minnie Dean was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. She was one of the two daughters of a clergyman of the First Church of Scotland and her maiden name was probably McKellar. Her mother, “a devout christian woman”, died of cancer when Minnie was 11 years of age. Minnie received a very good formal education and married at an early age. Her married name was McCulloch and she had two daughters by this marriage, one of whom survived her. About 1868 she and her daughters came out to Invercargill to join her aunt, “Granny” Kelly, who had been the first white woman to settle in the district. She lived in South Invercargill with her aunt for several years. On 19 June 1872, at Etal Creek, near Riverton, she married Charles Dean, an accommodation-house keeper and well known settler in the district. There were no children by this marriage. About 1881 the Deans adopted Margaret Cameron and this action evidently suggested to Minnie the idea of the baby farm. In 1886 or 1887 they left Etal Creek and bought “The Larches” at East Winton. This comprised 22 acres with an orchard, a good garden, and a large two-storey house, which was burnt down shortly after they moved in. From the wreckage Dean built a small three-roomed house, and it was here that the baby-farm project began. Although, as a result of the trial, many legends have grown up about conditions at the baby farm, it must be remembered that this was a bona fide business venture, and that, from the beginning, the people living in the district were aware of Minnie's activities.
The number of children at “The Larches” varied, but there were normally about six or eight and, during the years, a hundred or so must have passed through Minnie's hands. There was never any question of the children being undernourished or badly cared for. Her business consisted in taking in illegitimate children, always with otherwise respectable backgrounds, boarding them for a while, and then finding them permanent foster homes. Her husband disapproved of the venture and took no part in the business side. Minnie never kept written records of her transactions, a fact which weighed heavily against her at her trial.
The baby that Minnie Dean was tried for murdering was not the only child to die at “The Larches”. As early as 29 October 1889 May Irene Dean, a six-months-old baby, which the Deans had legally adopted, died of “convulsions after three days' illness”. This was duly certified by the doctor who attended. Eighteen months later a second baby, Bertha Currie, died of “inflammation of the lungs”. In this case the Coroner's jury returned a verdict of death through natural causes, but “The Larches” received much unwelcome publicity in colonial and English newspapers. As a result Minnie enveloped her activities with even greater secrecy. Early in May 1895 the bodies of two babies and the skeleton of a third were discovered in Minnie's flower garden. She was arrested, tried on a charge of murdering one of these, found guilty, and executed on 12 August 1895.
At the time the Minnie Dean case was a cause célbre. The Coroner's jury, which sat to determine the cause of the babies' deaths, returned the almost unprecedented verdict of “wilful murder by Mrs Dean”. She was tried for murdering one of the children, Dorothy Edith Carter. The evidence was full but circumstantial and, as the defence counsel, A. C. Hanlon, pointed out, was open to two vastly different interpretations. The Crown was unable to establish that the deaths were premeditated. Minnie Dean did not appear in the witness box.
During her weeks in the condemned cell in Invercargill Gaol, Minnie wrote down her version of the evidence of the trial. This runs to 49 closely written foolscap pages and is a remarkable document. She went to the gallows calmly, protesting her innocence to the end. She was buried in Winton Cemetery.
Minnie Dean was the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand, though she was the third woman to receive a death sentence. Her two predecessors, Caroline Whitting (1872) and Phoebe Veitch (1883), both had their sentences commuted to penal servitude for life.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Random Recollections, Hanlon A. C. (1939)
- Southland Times, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 29 May, 8, 11, 21 Jun 1895.