Ghost Stories

Minnie Dean Is a Victim of Old New Zealand's Puritanical Views on Reproductive Rights

Vilified in the press as a child murder, Minnie Dean was a woman who took care of kids no one else wanted.
Minnie Dean illustration

On the morning of August 12, 1895, as a watery dawn washed over the southern New Zealand town of Invercargill, Minnie Dean was hanged, falling through the scaffolding and into the nightmares of the country’s children. The first and only woman to be executed by the state in New Zealand’s history—with her black bonnet and dumpy Victorian dress, the hatbox in which she transported her infant victims hanging at her side—became a myth to compel children to go sleep, to eat, to brush their teeth, to generally behave. For those who didn't, Minnie Dean's hatbox was waiting.

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Dean, it is thought, was born in Scotland, but migrated to the bottom of the world, to Southland, New Zealand. Stricken by poverty, Dean became what we would now call a foster parent; back then, the term was "baby farmer." The options—among the stodgy Protestantism of the early Scottish migrants to the South Island—for women who got pregnant out of wedlock were grim. For a fee, someone like Dean could take care of the problem, and in the end, some 27 parentless children passed through Dean’s home.

Except for those who never left. After several children in her care died—one was officially deemed to have died of inflammation of the heart valves and congestion of the lungs—police took a keen interest in Dean’s operation. On May 2, 1895, a newsagent saw Dean boarding a train with a baby on one arm and a hatbox on the other. On the return journey, the baby was missing and the hatbox appeared unnaturally heavy. Dean blamed the death on an accidental overdose of laudanum. A subsequent police search of her garden found the buried corpses of that and another infant, plus the skeletal remains of an older boy who Dean said had drowned.

Dean went to the gallows proclaiming that she had been wrongly convicted. When asked if she had any final words, she replied, “No, except that I am innocent.” Newspapers of the time reported that she cried, “Oh; God, let me not suffer,” as the trapdoor fell from beneath her.

And with that, the mythology of Minnie Dean—fueled by the emerging sensationalist press of the time—entered the New Zealand psyche. But was she the monster of popular imagination? Subsequent research has cast doubt upon those claims, painting Dean as a victim of circumstance, a figure of desperation entrapped in a desperately hard existence—and that the mythology (no plants would grow on her gravesite, it was said) that grew around her was entwined with a colonial uneasiness around the role she performed: of helping unwed mothers in a time when that to be such was an irredeemable stain upon that woman and her family. “Whether the real Minnie Dean deserves her terrible place in New Zealand’s folklore,” wrote historian Lynley Hood, “is far from certain.”

And, perhaps, that the legend of Minnie Dean endures is evidence of contemporary New Zealand’s still-far-from-ideal attitude towards reproductive rights: abortion is still technically illegal, a hangover from the Protestant attitudes so prevalent when Minnie Dean was condemned to die.