The Winton baby farmer - roadside stories

The peaceful town of Winton was the centre of a national scandal in 1895. Local woman Minnie Dean, a 'baby farmer' who looked after infants in her home, was convicted of murdering one of her young charges, and the bodies of several children were found buried in her garden. Dean is the only woman to ever be hanged in New Zealand.


Narrator: The quiet farming centre of Winton is linked to one of New Zealand's most infamous women. The Winton Baby Farmer case of 1895 was a major scandal, which horrified and intrigued the nation.

Newspaper voice: The trial of one of the most remarkable criminals that has ever lived in New Zealand was concluded here at 1 o'clock to-day.

Narrator: The woman at the centre of the case was Winton resident Minnie Dean. Born in Scotland, Minnie Dean first appeared in Invercargill in the 1860s under her maiden name Willamina McCulloch. She was a widow with two daughters.

Minnie married an innkeeper, Charles Dean, who turned to farming. However, an infestation of rabbits and the end of the land boom brought about bankruptcy. So Minnie placed discreet advertisements in the local paper:

Minnie Dean: Respectable married woman (comfortable home, country) wants to adopt an infant.

Narrator: It was not long before she had responses. At the time, contraception was not widely available. Unmarried mothers were ostracised, so desperate women were keen to get rid of unwanted babies. Minnie would take in the babies for between 5 and 8 shillings a week or a lump sum of between 10 and 30 pounds. Then she would supposedly adopt the babies out. Up to 9 infants were usually in her care at any time, and given the mortality rates of the time, it was inevitable that some died.

But before long, police began to suspect Minnie of foul play. Minnie was seen boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox, only to disembark later carrying a heavier looking hatbox and no baby. Later, police made the grisly discovery of the bodies of several young children in her garden.

Minnie maintained her innocence and explained the deaths as accidental, but the community was convinced that Minnie had taken the babies and the money, and then killed the babies. There were rumours that up to 20 children could have died at her hands. There was a macabre fascination with the court case. Souvenir baby-dolls stuffed inside miniature hatboxes were even sold outside the courthouse.

Minnie Dean was only tried for one murder, but the jury took just half an hour to find her guilty. They sentenced her to death by hanging.

Newspaper voice: Minnie Dean, the now notorious baby-farmer, being found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Dorothy Edith Carter, an infant which she received for adoption on the 2nd of last month. The announcement of the verdict was received by the prisoner with remarkable composure, and she was asked the usual question as to whether she had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon her.

Minnie Dean: No, I have only to thank Detective McGrath for the kindness I have received from him.

Newspaper voice: Then his Honor assumed the black cap and pronounced-the fatal words which sealed the doom of the murderess whose systematic and heartless cruelty had sent so many helpless and innocent little victims to their last sleep.

Narrator: Dean was hanged at Invercargill, the first and only woman in New Zealand to be hanged.

Newspaper voice: She walked erect and dignified to the foot of the broad sloping steps up which she had to ascend to the scaffold. The sheriff then asked her if she had anything to say.

Minnie Dean: I have nothing to say, except that I am innocent. Thank you.

Narrator: Minnie Dean was buried in an unmarked grave in Winton cemetery.

Songwriter Helen Henderson was brought up in Invercargill and remembers that naughty children would be warned by their parents to be careful, or else they would be sent to Minnie Dean’s farm and never heard of again.

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