Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Winton Baby-Farmer

On 12 August 1895 Minnie Dean was hanged; the only woman ever executed in New Zealand.

Dean was a "baby-farmer", a role that grew out of Victorian attitudes to illegitimacy. Having a child out of wedlock was seen as ruining the life of a respectable girl, blighting any chance of a good marriage. A baby-farmer could make the problem discreetly disappear, by taking the child off its mother's hands.

For a fee, of course. Sometimes the arrangement would be an ongoing payment of a few shillings a week; one imagines that this might have happened when the mother had some wistful hope of retrieving her child later. At other times a lump sum of several pounds was paid for the baby-farmer to adopt the child; such adoptions were fairly informal matters, with little in the way of records kept.

Minnie Dean would place discreetly-worded advertisements in newspapers, along the lines of "Respectable Married Woman (comfortable home, country) Wants to Adopt an infant - Address, Childless, Times Office". By 1895 she needed to be especially discreet, as she had come to the notice of the authorities. Two babies had died in her care: a six-month-old in 1889, and a six-week-old in 1891. The inquests in both cases found that the babies had been properly fed and cared for, but that Dean's premises were inadequate for the number of children (up to nine at a time in the Deans' small cottage).

The harsh fact is that infant mortality was high in those days. With little in the way of sanitation, rearing tiny babies without breast-feeding increased the risk. But Dean, already viewed with disapproval by many, as baby-farmers were sometimes seen as encouraging immorality, was more unpopular than ever in the community. Now she was being watched.

The events leading up to Dean's arrest are complex, with multiple train journeys over several days, and two babies handed over by their grandmothers. On 2 May 1895 a railway guard noticed Dean boarding a train while carrying a baby and a hat box. On her return trip there was no sign of the baby, but railway porters reported that the hat box was suspiciously heavy. Police dug up Minnie Dean's garden, and found the bodies of two recently-buried infants.

The coroner found that one-year-old Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of laudanum. One-month-old Eva Hornsby's cause of death could not be determined, but was thought to be asphyxiation (Dean was not charged with her killing). Dean claimed that the deaths were accidental; that she had inadvertently overdosed Dorothy while trying to keep her quiet in a train carriage full of disapproving fellow-passengers, and had found Eva dead during the train journey, for no apparent cause. She said she panicked, and buried the bodies rather than notifying the authorities.

Unlikely though it sounds, it's possible that she was telling the truth. Laudanum, an opiate, was commonly used to quieten children (just look at those tiny houses and large families), and the strengths sold varied. It was all too easy to overdose a baby. Eva Hornsby was only a few weeks old, and her short life may have been lived in unhealthy circumstances. Perhaps she died of what we'd now call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or cot/crib death.

Dean was charged with the murder of Dorothy Carter. Her lawyer argued for a verdict of manslaughter, on the grounds that the death was accidental, but any hope Dean might have had on that score must have collapsed when the trial judge said in his summing up that a verdict of manslaughter would be "a weak-kneed compromise." The twelve men (all jurors in New Zealand were male then) of the jury would not have wished to be seen as "weak-kneed".

Dean maintained her innocence to the end. "I have nothing to say except that I am innocent," were her last words.

During the trial, miniature hatboxes with baby dolls in them were sold outside the courthouse. Bad taste is not a modern phenomenon.

Public concern after this case led to advances in child welfare legislation, including the passing of the Infant Protection Act, regulating the activities of those who were paid for looking after infants.

Those of you who have read Mud and Gold may recall that the Minnie Dean case plays a small role in that book. It was, of course, a sensational news story at the time. But within my fictional world it has a particularly profound effect on one character.


  1. What an extraordinary story. And a wonderful basis for a book

  2. Yes, it's the sort of story I wouldn't dare make up - who would believe it? It tells us so much about the mores of the time, especially the place of women.

    I should clarify that Minnie Dean's story only plays a small role in my writing, and only as a sensational news story of the day. I wouldn't feel comfortable fictionalising such a tragedy. But given how much of a sensation it was at the time, and the circumstances of one of my characters, Dean's story forced its way into mine!