Winton baby-farmer Minnie Dean hanged

12 August 1895

Dolls in miniature hat boxes were reputedly sold as souvenirs during Minnie Dean's trial (Lynley Hood)

In 1895 Southland’s Williamina (Minnie) Dean became the first – and only – woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Her story exposed the stark realities of paid childcare and the lack of choice for many women in this period.

Since the late 1880s Dean had looked after children for a fee at her Winton home, The Larches. In 1889 a six-month-old infant in her care 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.

Concerned about Dean’s activities, police began watching her closely. On 2 May 1895, after she arrived home with a heavy hatbox but 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. Her defence claimed the baby’s death had been an accident, but she was found guilty of murder and hanged at Invercargill gaol a few months later.