31 Aug 2020

Baby Farmer: the story of Minnie Dean

From Black Sheep, 7:00 am on 31 August 2020

Minnie Dean must rank as one of New Zealand's most infamous figures. The first and only woman to be judicially executed in our history.  

For years she was portrayed as a cold-blooded killer who murdered babies for cash. More recently, attitudes towards Minnie have shifted, but she's still a controversial and complex figure.  

RNZ's Black Sheep podcast dives into the story of the Winton baby farmer.  

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Toy dolls inside miniature hatboxes were reportedly sold outside the courthouse when Minnie Dean was tried for murder

Toy dolls inside miniature hatboxes were reportedly sold outside the courthouse when Minnie Dean was tried for murder Photo: Te Ara

Minnie arrived in Invercargill on a ship from Tasmania in the early 1860s. We don’t know exactly which year or her age but she would have been in her late teens or early 20s.  

She told people she was the widow of an Australian doctor and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister back home in Scotland. That story wasn’t true.  

But as historian Barbara Brookes explained, it was pretty common for new migrants to lie about their backgrounds. “That’s one of the big attractions of migration. People could reinvent themselves.” 

And Minnie had more reasons than most to want to reinvent herself. She arrived in Invercargill with a young daughter and was pregnant with a second. 

Lynley Hood, author of Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, found Tasmanian birth records for Minnie’s eldest daughter signed with her maiden name - Williamina McCulloch.  

That suggests both Minnie’s daughters, Ellen and Isabelle, were illegitimate.  

“She was only 16 years old and she’d gone to Tasmania by herself,” Lynley Hood said. “Maybe she was pregnant and had been sent off to the colonies because she was bringing the family to shame?” 

Of course, illegitimacy wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century, but it came with a heavy social sanction. Unwed mothers struggled to find jobs, or husbands or any kind of normal social life. Minnie’s white lie about a dead husband let her dodge a lot of social baggage. 

She probably had some help in pulling off this story. Minnie had a famous aunt in New Zealand. She’s best known as Granny Kelly, a founding settler of Invercargill. 

“Her aunt would have known the truth,” said Lynley Hood. “It must have been [Granny Kelly] who really put her arms around [Minnie], and supported her, and helped spread the story that she was the widow of a doctor and the daughter of a clergyman.”  

So Minnie had a tricky start to life, but she spent the next eight years making the most of her second chance.  

A photo of Minnie Dean at the time she was married to Charles Dean in 1872

A photo of Minnie Dean at the time she was married to Charles Dean in 1872 Photo: Te Ara

She became a governess and married a local farmer called Charles Dean. They set up a pub near Riverton on the road to the Otago gold fields. The pair stood to make a pile of cash from thirsty miners off to seek their fortune.  

Minnie's daughters, Ellen and Isabelle, got married and left home. The couple adopted two more girls, Margaret and Esther. 

But then everything went wrong. 

In the 1870s a railway line was built bypassing the Dean’s pub. Customers dried up, and to make matters worse, New Zealand was in the midst of the Long Depression.  

The bank foreclosed on the mortgage Charles Dean had taken out to buy the pub and he was declared bankrupt. 

Minnie and Charles fell back on Granny Kelly, who gave them enough money to buy a house and farm at a place called the Larches, just outside Winton.  

They stocked the land with cattle and planted a small orchard. But then, disaster hit a second time 

“The Larches burned to the ground,” said Lynley Hood. “And a man … who they owed money to, came along and took away all the fruit trees” 

Minnie and Charles scraped together enough money to rebuild, but their new home wasn’t much better than a hovel.  

Then, the Deans were hit by a third tragedy.  

“[They found] one of her daughters with her two small children, I think they were about ten months and two years... They were all found drowned in a well.”  

It seems almost certain the deaths were a murder suicide, but officially they were recorded as unexplained. Lynley Hood thinks that’s probably because the community wanted to make sure Ellen got a Christian burial, which wouldn’t have been possible if her death was ruled a suicide.  

So now we have Minnie Dean in the 1880s. Recently bereaved, destitute, living in a hovel in Winton with two adopted daughters and no real source of income.  

Police dug up three bodies in Minnie Dean's garden in 1895

Police dug up three bodies in Minnie Dean's garden in 1895 Photo: Te Ara

“Charles was bankrupt which made it difficult for him to find a job of any description,” Lynley Hood said. “So, Minnie began taking unwanted babies.” 

There’s no easy description for what Minnie Dean was doing in modern terms. Maybe you’d call it a one-woman orphanage, or a long-term childcare service.  

But in Minnie’s day, people had another term for what she was doing.  

Baby Farming. 

And right at this point in history, New Zealand newspapers were full of stories from the UK and Australia about baby farmers…

"Mrs Waters, the Brixton baby farmer, has been sentenced to death, and executed,” 

 - Wellington Independent, 3 December 1870 

“A baby farmer, named Augusta Grammage, was lately sentenced to ten years' penal servitude for "feloniously slaying" a young child that had been entrusted to her care.” 

- Nelson Evening Mail, 21 January 1875 

“Hundreds of people gathered in the street, lined the fences, and crowded even the housetops to watch the police at work. The two bodies found [today] bring the total up to fifteen unearthed so far.” 

- Bay of Plenty Times, 30 November 1892 

“The bodies of three infants have been unearthed at Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne. The police believe they are on the track of an extensive system of baby farming.” 

- New Zealand Mail, 8 September 1893 

And in 1895, New Zealand had it's own baby farming headlines… 

A clipping from the Feilding Star, 16 May 1895. Accessed via PapersPast  

A clipping from the Feilding Star, 16 May 1895. Accessed via PapersPast   Photo: PapersPast

Listen to the Black Sheep podcast to hear how Minnie Dean’s baby farming business came to the attention of the authorities, the mystery over the 18 children who vanished in her care, and the trial which saw her become the first and only woman to be executed in New Zealand history.


Extra special thanks to Marlon Williams and Native Tongue Music for allowing us to use "The Ballad of Minnie Dean" as the soundtrack for this episode.