Minnie Dean

Minnie Dean

Williamina "Minnie" Dean (2 September 1844 – 12 August 1895) was a New Zealander who was found guilty of infanticide and hanged. She was the only woman to receive the death penalty in New Zealand.

Minnie Dean was born in Greenock, in western Scotland. Her father, John McCulloch, was a railway engineer. Her mother, Elizabeth Swan, died of cancer in 1857. It is unknown when she arrived in New Zealand, but by the early 1860s, she was living in Invercargill with two young children. She claimed she was the widow of a Tasmanian doctor, although no evidence of a marriage has been found. She was still using her birth name, McCulloch.

In 1872, she married an inkeeper named Charles Dean. The two lived in Etal Creek, then an important stop on the route from Riverton to the Otago goldfields. When the goldrush died down, the couple turned to farming, but were soon in dire financial straits. The family moved to Winton, where Charles Dean took up pig farming. Minnie Dean, meanwhile, began to earn money by taking in unwanted children in exchange for payment. In an era when there were few methods of contraception, and when childbirth outside marriage was frowned upon, there were many women wishing to discreetly send their children away for adoption — as such, Minnie Dean was not short on customers. It is believed that she was responsible for as many as nine young children at any one time. She received payment either weekly or in a lump sum.

Infant mortality was a significant problem in New Zealand at this time. As such, a number of children under Dean's care died of various illnesses. A coroner's inquest was held, and Dean was not held responsible for the deaths. Nevertheless, Dean came to be distrusted by the community, and rumours of mistreatment circulated. Additionally, children under Dean's care allegedly went missing without explanation. In the public's mind, this linked Dean to cases in the United Kingdom and Australia of women killing children under their care to avoid having to support them. Laws at the time meant that Dean did not have to keep records of the children she agreed to take in, and so proving that the children had disappeared was difficult.

In 1895, Dean was observed boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox, but observed leaving the same train without the baby and only the hatbox, which, as railway porters later testified, was suspiciously heavy. A woman came forward claiming to have given her granddaughter to Dean, and clothes identified as belonging to this child were found at Dean's residence, but Dean could not produce the child herself. A search along the railway line found no sign of the child. Dean was arrested and charged with murder. Her garden was dug up, and three bodies (two of babies, and one of a boy estimated to be three years old) were uncovered. An inquest found that one child had died of suffocation and one had died from an overdose of laudanum (used on children to sedate them). The cause of death for the third child was not determined. Dean was charged with their murder.

Hatboxes containing baby dolls, such as this one, were sold outside the courthouse during Minnie Dean's 1895 trial.

In her trial, Dean's lawyer Alfred Hanlon argued that all deaths were accidental, and that they had been covered up to prevent adverse publicity of the sort that Dean had previously been subjected to. On 21 June 1895, however, Dean was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death. On 12 August, she was hanged by the official executioner Tom Long in Invercargill, at the intersection of Spey and Leven streets, in what is now the Noel Leeming carpark. She is the only woman to have been executed in New Zealand, and as capital punishment in New Zealand has been abolished, it is likely that she will retain that distinction. She is buried in Winton, alongside her husband.

Minnie Dean is referenced in Dudley Benson's 2006 song "It's Akaroa's Fault" ("I don't want to meet Minnie Dean at the end of my life/If I were to meet her I'd keep her hatbox in sight").

On Friday 30 January 2009 the Otago Daily Times reported that a headstone had appeared mysteriously on Dean's grave. The headstone reads "Minnie Dean is part of Winton's history Where she now lies is now no mystery". It is unknown who placed the headstone there. Her family had been considering it but claim that this was not their doing.

The Southland Times reported on 23 February 2009 that the family laid a headstone to honour Dean and her husband's grave.



  • Lynley Hood: Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes: Auckland: Penguin: 1994: ISBN 0-14-016763-3
  • John Rawle: Minnie Dean: One Hundred Years of Memory: Christchurch: Orca Publishing: 1997: ISBN 1-877162-03-5

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