In 1895 Southland’s Williamina (Minnie) Dean became the first – and only – woman hanged in New Zealand. Her story exposed the stark realities of paid childcare and the lack of choice that many women faced in this period.
Dean had looked after children, for a fee, since the late 1880s at her home, The Larches. In 1889 a six-month-old infant died, and two years later, a six-week-old baby. An inquest concluded that children at The Larches were well cared for, but that the premises were inadequate.
Police, concerned about Dean’s activities, began watching her closely. On 2 May 1895, after she arrived home with only a heavy hatbox and without the child who had earlier been seen in her care, police searched her garden and unearthed the bodies of babies Dorothy Carter and Eva Hornsby and the skeleton of a four-year-old boy.
Minnie Dean went on trial for Carter’s murder in Invercargill on 18 June. Although her defence claimed the baby’s death was accidental, she was found guilty of murder and hanged at Invercargill gaol a few months later.