On the 12th August 1895, Minnie Dean was the only woman to be executed in New Zealand.



In 1862, young Williamina McCulloch left the squalor and depredation of her Scottish hometown of West Greenock searching for a better life.  Pregnant and also with Ellen, her young daughter, she arrived in New Zealand to live with an aunt who was one of the original Scottish settlers living in Otago. After her arrival in the rough colony, she chose to be known as Minnie.

dean554Greenock 1880s

In 1873Minnie married Charles Dean, a Southland farmer.  Straight after their marriage, Charles and Minnie moved into a very modest two bedroom cottage named ‘The Larches’ in the settlement of Winton. Life in the southern province proved hard for the Dean family and in 1884, Charles was declared bankrupt. To add to Minnie’s misery, her daughter Ellen drowned herself and the two infants she had produced, in their farm’s well. It was a desperate time for poor Minnie.


To make ends meet, Minnie set herself up as a baby farmer which was quite common in Victorian times where a woman would look after unwanted, illegitimate children in return for a payment.

In 1889, misfortune struck when a baby died in Minnie’s care. A second infant  died in her care in 1891. An inquest decided these infants had been well cared for and had died of natural causes partly due to the damp and insanitary conditions at ‘The Larches’.

dean883Children at ‘The Larches’


The two deaths raised suspicions and the authorities began to keep an eye on Minnie Dean’s activities. At this time, police suspicions were further raised when they were told she had tried to take out life insurance policies on some of the children. Minnie knew she was under police surveillance and advertised her services under false names because the inquiry had been widely reported and her name was well known in the area. When a third child in her care died, again of natural causes, she buried him in her garden, taking care to cover the makeshift grave by planting Orange Montbrelia over the graves to conceal her illegal deed. (when she was convicted of murder, this Irish wildflower, popular at the time, was shunned by all Southlanders)

dean44Orange Montbrelia


When Minnie boarded a train at Winton on May 2nd 1895, a guard noticed her carrying a hatbox as well as clutching Dorothy Carter, a baby who had been placed in Minnie’s care by the baby’s grandmother. When Minnie left the train at the next stop, the guard wondered why she no longer carried the baby. She managed to hurry from the station before he could stop her. He immediately reported the baby’s disappearance to the police and they began to investigate.

dean882Winton Railway Station 1900s

A few weeks later, Minnie arrived in Dunedin with her hatbox. She met up with a Mrs Hornsby who handed Eva, her month old granddaughter, to Minnie to look after. That same day, Minnie boarded the train for the trip back to Winton with her trusty hatbox but there was no sign of Eva. A train guard later said he found the hatbox suspiciously heavy when he placed it on a carriage rack.

When word got out that a baby had gone missing on the train from Dunedin, Mrs Hornsby went to the police and told them about Eva. After she described Minnie to them, they headed to ‘The Larches’ with a search warrant. After they found some clothing that Mrs Hornsby confirmed had belonged to Eva, the police arrested Charles and Minnie.


The police began a search of the garden and were stunned to find the corpses of both Eva Hornsby and Dorothy as well as the remains of a three-year-old boy with an undetermined cause of death. Medical authorities declared the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. Laudanum was an opium based drug used in Victorian times for various ailments. Its lethal if used on young children. Minnie was charged with murder. Charles who had been forbidden from working in the garden, was released without charge.

dean54Police Dig the Garden at ‘The Larches’


 Word spread fast around New Zealand and the trial became a national sensation. The fact Minnie Dean had dead babies in her hatbox added to the macabre fascination in this historic murder case. Things became even more bizarre when miniature replicas of the hatbox graves were on sale outside the courthouse. It’s interesting to realize that even back then, commercial considerations were in evidence. Making money from murder would be frowned on today but back then, people were used to death all around them and this souvenir didn’t have the repulsive reaction it would face today.

dean3kBaby in Hatbox Souvenir

The jury took just 30 minutes to find Minnie guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. Over the following month, she wrote her own account of what happened to the children who died in her care and was adamant they had all passed away from natural causes.


Her death sentence was not universally approved of. Many people thought it was wrong to execute a woman but the Supreme Court stood by its decision to hang Minnie Dean. Three other women had been convicted of murder in New Zealand prior to Minnie’s case, but they each had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. For some reason, Minnie Dean wasn’t so lucky and in her case, the original sentence was upheld.

Tom Long was chosen as her executioner. He was a man with a dubious background and was also an alcoholic. On the day he was to dispatch Minnie at the Invercargill jail, he refused to undertake his job. “No whisky, no hanging!” he declared an hour before the designated time. A prison guard found a bottle of brandy and gave it to Tom. He consumed most of the bottle then turned to the guard, “Now if you like, I will hang twenty women!”

Minnie was led to the scaffold and stepped onto the trapdoor. She shook hands with the officiating clergyman and some prison officials. Tom stepped up to her, “Won’t ya shake hands with me ma’am? I am the hangman, ma’am. I’m only doin my duty.” Minnie lightly took his hand. She looked into his eyes, “O, God, let me not suffer,” she pleaded. Moments later, Minnie Dean became a part of New Zealand’s history as the only woman to ever have been executed. Her body was unceremoniously placed in an unmarked grave in the Winton cemetery.


Tom Long was quickly put onto a northbound train. He was soon drunk and when the train stopped at Dunedin he tried to sell a pair of female shoes claiming they were a souvenir of  Minnie Dean.

dean55aTom Long


As a result of Minnie Dean’s crimes, the Infant Protection Act passed through parliament the following year. Parents would scare their misbehaving children by saying Minnie would come for them with her hatbox and take them to her farm where they would never be heard from again.

Over the years, several songs and books were written about Minnie Dean. Her story has also been the subject of a TV programme and there was also a low budget horror film made inspired by Minnie’s life.

dean51Film Poster

In 2009, before Minnie Dean’s descendants could place a tombstone on her unmarked grave, someone had already placed an unofficial tombstone over it. The inscription read: Minnie Dean is part of Winton’s history/Where she now lies is now no mystery. It is still unknown who was responsible. A month later, the mysteriously placed memorial was shifted to another part of the cemetery.  The official tombstone was placed over Minnie’s grave with a traditional Maori ceremony.  It features Minnie’s original Scottish name as is that country’s tradition.  The dedication brought together many people involved in Minnie’s story including relatives of the children she cared for, her own descendents and locals from Winton.

dean93Official Headstonedean1Minnie Dean

The story is given a recap in this short video:

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  1. Angela Stevenson says

    Absolutely loved it, extremely well written and very interesting indeed.

  2. Kere Menzies says

    The Riverton Museum’s most famous item it displayed for years was Minnie Deans hatbox.

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