This talk was presented in December 2015 |
You might want to think she’d look sad. Or tired. When you imagine her, you might imagine a face that looks wrinkled and worn from half a century of poverty. As she sits listening to the rhythmic sounds of the metal wheels on the metals tracks, travelling like it is any other day. Going about her chores like we all go about our chores. The gentle rumbling and swaying enough to put even a baby to sleep if it weren’t for the loud intermittent call of the horn and the release of the steam that kept the engine, and that kept her propelling forward.
You can imagine the creases on her face getting deeper as she doses off in the afternoon sun strobing through the trees as she travels on the Dunedin Express.
What they will remember about that day, the people that spoke of it later, would be easy for any of us to miss. The railway guard who saw a woman board a train with the hatbox and baby and later leave carrying the hatbox only. Or the person who sold the woman flower cuttings, not bulbs like it was later claimed.
What we do know about that day is that the return trip that was quieter. Her hand luggage was heavier. And children would no longer sleep quietly in their beds again when Minnie Dean’s name was whispered.
We imagine these scenes in black and white. The way we process the past and make sense of history is to imagine it like an old film, shot on now decaying stock, remastered for a modern audience. But I want you to imagine this in colour. I want you to think about the sights and sounds and the smells like you are in the room. Like it is this room.
But is isn’t easy. Is it?
Because the problem the Minnie Dean solved for women isn’t one we can easily imagine now.
Babies, given to a stranger with a payment by well-to-do and concerned grandmothers. No paperwork. No records. Only shame.
And the phrase ‘baby farming’ sounds distasteful. With our modern understanding of farming even this doesn’t translate well. But in 1881 baby farming wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t illegal. For some it was an income, and for some it was a solution.
But when Minnie Dean’s enterprise, after nearly a decade of taking in unwanted babies, came under scrutiny after the death six-month-old, and again two years later when a six-week old baby died in her care, it makes sense that Dean would become more secretive. And although both deaths were ruled as natural causes it makes sense that she would begin advertising using false names.
So think back to that day at the train station. That day in 1895, when a railway guard reported he had seen a woman, Minnie Dean, board the train with a baby and a hat box, and later disembarking carrying only the hatbox.
Police would later searched the flowerbeds of the house that Minnie Dean shared with her husband, and found two babies bodies buried. A third body would be found later.
And the police would present a picture of a woman who travelled on trains with the bodies of the babies she’d killed neatly packed away in hat boxes.
The verdict would be recorded as “wilful murder by Mrs Dean”.
Later, Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon, who represented Dean in what was his first – and most famous – defence case would recall what he thought was the most remarkable feature of the trial – not that collectable merchandise of dolls in hat-boxes were sold outside that court – but of Minnie Dean’s composure. Her complete lack of concern.
And while we might want to imagine someone scared, someone sad, someone broken, we should instead picture this. Someone who only displayed emotion once. Just a nervous plucking of the sides of her apron when she was told they had discovered other bodies in the garden.
Newspapers reported that ‘She walked firmly to the scaffold, and said in answer to the Sheriff − “I have nothing to say except that I am innocent.” There was no hitch in the arrangements, and the prisoner’s death was instantaneous.’
On 12 August 1895, she was hanged by the official executioner Tom Long at the Invercargill gaol, at the intersection of Spey and Leven streets, in what is now the Noel Leeming carpark.