The notorious ‘baby murderer’ from New Zealand

One of the most high profile cases of infanticide was committed by Minnie Dean in the late 19th century, also gaining infamy as the only woman in New Zealand to receive the death penalty for her crimes. During my childhood I heard many different stories of her hideous acts, made even more pertinent given that I grew up in the same small Southland town that these crimes were committed 100 years earlier. The stories revolved around how she murdered infants by piercing their fontanelles (‘soft-spots’ on the top of their heads) with hairpins, concealed them in hat boxes, and disposed of them in rivers. Kids in the playground at our local school used to taunt others by saying, “watch out or Minnie Dean will get you!”

Minnie Dean (1844-1895) was a ‘baby-farmer’ who cared for infants and children in an informal adoption relationship in exchange for money. This type of work was attractive to lower income women in New Zealand at the time, and in other parts of the British Empire. Those she took into care were largely illegitimate children.

Minnie and her husband Charles had financial issues, with records of filing for bankruptcy. After a fire destroyed their home they lived in a very small twenty-two foot by twelve foot house. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care.

In 1889 a six-month-old infant died in her care, and two years later a six-week-old baby died. The inquest from the six-week-old-baby concluded that the death was from natural causes and the other children at her house at the time were well cared for but that their living conditions were inadequate. In an era of high infant mortality (about 100 per 1000 births in NZ), it isn’t surprising that that some of the children would die from illness.

Minnie started to gain even more police interest when it was found that she had been looking for more children to care, as well as attempting, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the babies.

In 1892 the police took into their care a three-week-old who Dean had adopted from a single mother for £25. The baby was reported to be in a malnourished state.

Then in 1895 Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. However, on the return trip she was reported to only have the hatbox. She was subsequently arrested and police searched her property and found the bodies of two babies, later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest found that Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm babies at the time.

Before her death by hanging in August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. In total, apart from her adopted children, she claimed to have cared for twenty-six children. Of these, five were found in good health after her arrest (figure below, and Esther Wallis, one of her adopted children), six had died in her care, and one had been given back to her parents. This leaves 14 children unaccounted for.

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There was, understandably, intense public interest around Minnie Dean’s case. Around the time of her convictions macabre dolls in miniature hat boxes were said to have been sold as souvenirs outside the Invercargill courtroom where Dean was tried.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.30.47 PM‘Minnie Dean dolls’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/minnie-dean-dolls, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Oct-2014

Later, Minnie Dean’s own defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon wrote:

Sober, home-loving folk from end to end of the country shuddered … when the grim and ghastly story of Minnie Dean’s infamy was narrated by the prosecution. Imagine a being with the name and appearance of a woman boldly using a public railway train for the destruction of her helpless victims, sitting serene and unperturbed in a carriage with one tiny corpse in a tin box at her feet and another enshrouded in a shawl and secured by travelling straps in the luggage rack at her head.

 

After her conviction the New Zealand government made the process of foster parenting more regulated to stop tragedies like this happening again.

In 1994 Historian Lynley Hood published a book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which raises some questions surrounding the fairness of her trial and the facts in the case. Was she a victim of hypocrisy of Victorian society doing the dirty work of caring for unwanted and illegitimate children? One will never truly know, but her name remains part of New Zealand history and grisly folklore today.

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Why were so many babies murdered in the past?

Hundreds of babies of prostitutes getting thrown down a water well in ancient Roman times in Israel; whole cemeteries of unwanted ‘brothel babies’ in Roman period Britain; thousands of Carthaginian babies sacrificed; and purported sacrificial Mayan child victims with ‘supernatural’ obsidian stones. These are just some of the kinds of sensational research stories on infant burials from archaeological collections that are frequently reported. The preoccupation of archaeological research with the subject of infant murder and sacrifice may conjure up images of babies being uncared for in the past, and that infanticide was a common or even accepted practice. However, as with any research, it is important to ask how we can check the validity of these interpretations. Using multi-faceted anthropological studies, we can get closer to disentangling the truth on infant murder in the past.

In legal terms “infanticide” refers to the deliberate act of killing any infant under the age of 12 months. The act of killing unwanted babies is often carried out at the time of birth (the neonatal period), so the term “infanticide” is often used as a synonym for “neonaticide”. It has been stated that babies have been killed in many cultures and in all times in history. Anthropologist Laila Williamson (1978: 61) has gone as far to argue that:

“Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.”

 

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Figure 1. Anti-infanticide tract depiction of infanticide by drowning, Qing Dynasty, circa 1800.

Non-human primates, including our nearest living relatives, the chimpanzee, have been observed carrying out infanticide. In chimpanzees, this is typically undertaken by an unrelated adult male, the reasoning often hypothesised to be a type of sexual selection to confer reproductive advantage to the male. More recently female-led infanticide has been observed in chimpanzees, the perpetrators also being unrelated to the infants.

The motives for human infanticide are varied. Unique to humans is gender-based infanticide, and it is a parent who often carries out the infant killing. A striking example of gender-based practice is modern female feticide and infanticide, with around half a million female fetuses purposely aborted in India each year alone, as well as the thousands of female babies that are killed soon after birth. Other causative factors for human infanticide relate to poverty, social pressure, and the birth of infants with severe physical deformities. The interplay of poverty and domestic violence towards mothers are argued to have played an integral role in the famous ethnographic research by Scheper-Hughes in which she argued selective neglect or “passive infanticide” occurred in shantytown Brazil.

The actual acts of infanticide in humans are usually non-violent or ‘passive’, including exposure and smothering. The most common method for killing babies in non-Christian societies was drowning. For example, historical texts from the Qing Dynasty often use the term ni nü (to drown girls). There is also documentary evidence for drowning in the Roman Empire, classical Greece, and in Viking Scandinavia. The practice of infanticide is also often carried out covertly and without normative burial ritual.

Although there is documentary evidence for the practice of infanticide in many places and times in the world, most cultures actually condemn its practice, and some would argue that instances of infanticide are generally isolated.

Why, then, is there such a research focus on the practice of infanticide in our past? Do these simply appeal to researchers for publishing a high impact publication, or to news agencies publishing sensational click-bait stories that tug at our heartstrings?

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Figure 2. Early 19th century engraving by an artist associated with William Carey, purporting to show infanticide by drowning in the Ganges River.

Although anthropologists are generally very careful to recognise their own cultural biases in their research, there is undoubtedly a hangover from the 19th century interest of “others” and “dark” practices. Or do anthropologists in recognising their subjective biases on the importance placed on children in Western society today overcompensate and inadvertently dismiss the value placed on infants in the past?

While infanticide did happen in the past, whole cemeteries devoted to murdered infants seem fictitious when we consider a more contextually nuanced approach. A case in point of an unsupported interpretation of infanticide comes from the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, England. The main argument for infanticide at this site (and other purported infanticide sites) is a high peak of deaths at around the time of birth. While the site was reported as a “mass grave,” the 97 infants were buried over a period of 300 years. Of the 35 infants that have been analysed these range in age from 32-43 gestational weeks (around 7 months gestation to into the newborn period). A researcher from the project has been reported in media arguing that this was a burial site connected with a brothel and a curator of the local county museum has been reported saying it was some type of birthing centre, perhaps connected to a shrine for a mother goddess.

There is no contextual evidence that links this burial site to a brothel, and 97 infant deaths over a few hundred years is not an excessively high mortality rate. The assumption that a high rate of infant mortality around the time of birth equals infanticide is problematic as there are many archaeological samples that have high mortality peaks around the world, including sites in North America, Serbia, Greece, Egypt and Southeast Asia. Historical medical mortality records also show a high peak of death occurring around birth and it is acknowledged as the most critical time in a baby’s life. The birth of pre-term babies (younger than 37 weeks gestation) at this site would have also likely had impacts on their chance of survival. A study by Mays and colleagues of an infant from the site with cuts to the femur (thigh) bone that occurred around the time of death suggests obstetric problems causing death. The cuts are consistent with the practice of embryotomy, which were undertaken in cases of fetal death during obstructed labour.

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 11.23.59 AMFigure 3: A newborn infant from Hambleden site (Credit: BBC)

The infant graves at the site adhere to Roman burial custom, where infants are normally placed in and around buildings and villa yards and afforded a simple burial. These burials are inconsistent with those of individuals who are killed in instances of infanticide from exposure or drowning, as this is often done covertly and without this type of burial ritual. Ancient DNA evidence from this site also provides no evidence for a sex bias in infant death.

Unwanted infants who were not cared for seems to be the default assumption in many archaeological interpretations in the past. Indeed some were unwanted, as some are also unwanted today. However, using sources of information drawn from the mortuary record, modern and archaeological mortality data, maternal health and obstetric factors, and historical information on the practice of infanticide and care for the young, we can turn our attention to engage with multiple facets of infants lives, albeit cut short.

Infanticide in the archaeological record: sense or sensationalism? (Or: No, I’m not an ‘over-emotional’ mother and archaeologist)

A cursory look through the bioarchaeological literature for explanations of infant death in the past may leave you with a view that infants were being purposefully killed and buried in community cemeteries or simply tossed away in high numbers (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).

 

But what is the likelihood that these accounts are accurate? Here I want to take an analytical look at the bioarchaeological evidence and arguments for infanticide. Some of my views on childhood in the past have been criticised for being clouded by my status as a mother within a ‘Western’ culture. Sometimes I feel that my interpretations are dismissed and put down to my ‘personal’, ‘irrational’, ‘hyper-emotional’, ‘ethnocentric’ thoughts on infancy. One example of this type of experience was at a conference when a senior academic after viewing my poster ‘mansplained’, “you must realise that childhood wasn’t a rosy experience like it is now where you come from. They weren’t wrapped up in cotton wool!”. I wonder if he would have said that if my infant wasn’t attending the conference, the result of no childcare options for participants (dockristy touches on this issue of inclusive conferences for caregivers in her recent blog post).

 

Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants. Legally, “infanticide” can refer to the deliberate killing of any infant under the age of 12 months (Kellet, 1992). Here I use the term for intentional infant killing around the time of birth, as this is the time in which it usually occurs. Infanticide has been practised in a wide range of cultures through time, and has been argued in some anthropological texts to be an adaptive strategy to environmental, economic, and social circumstances since the Pleistocene era (Hausfater and Hrdy, 1984:xxix).

 

Common methods for disposing of unwanted children in non-Christian cultures were exposure or drowning without subsequent burial or with covert burial (reviewed in Gilmore and Halcrow, 2014). Some of the motives documented for infanticide include poverty, and if a baby was born with a physical deformity or was “weak”. The sex of infants was also an important factor in infanticide practice for many cultures.

 

What evidence are these bioarchaeological studies using to inform their interpretations of infanticide? For most papers their main evidence cited for infanticide is a peak rate of mortality around the age of full-term gestation (the perinatal period of about 38-41 weeks gestation) (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).*

 

However, we know from modern age-at-death information that it is normal to see a high rate of infant death at around full-term gestation (see Halcrow et al. 2008 for a review of this evidence). Birth is the most crucial time in a baby’s and mother’s life. Birth and the first few days of life are a dangerous time for a baby with the risk of mortality being extremely high (Kelnar et al., 1995:1). Birth complications, maternal health factors and the risk of disease are likely to have increased the incidence of perinatal deaths and stillbirths in the past. Postpartum dangers include trauma, pneumonia due to infection of the amniotic cavity (Redfern, 2007:185), and respiratory distress syndrome, particularly for pre-term or low birth-weight perinates, owing to the immaturity of the lungs. Environmental hazards for the newborn include infections, bathing in contaminated water, and tetanus due to the use of dirty instruments (Kelnar et al., 1995:6-8, Redfern, 2007:185).

 

Unsurprisingly, this high rate of infant death around the time of birth has also been found in the archaeological record throughout the world and during different time periods. In the majority of the prehistoric Southeast Asian sites I have worked on we find a high peak of mortality occurring around the time of birth. Other sites with this type of age distribution include Argolid in the Aegean (Angel, 1971), Roman period Britain (Mays, 1993), Southeast Europe (Boric and Stefanovic, 2004), mediaeval and post-mediaeval England (Lewis and Gowland, 2007), post-contact indigenous populations in North America (Owsley and Jantz, 1985), Roman period Egypt (Tocheri et al., 2005), and many more. Were all these cultures at these different time periods killing their infants and then burying them overtly within community cemeteries? I think not. I am not arguing that infanticide never existed in the past. However, these were often discrete events with the dead babies disposed of covertly.

 

IMG_0879Probable mother and newborn death from the ‘Neolithic’ site of Khok Phanom Di, Southeast Thailand. This site had a infant death representation of over 40% of the cemetery sample.

P1010598A ‘foetal’ (preterm) birth from the site of Ban Non Wat, Bronze Age, Northeast Thailand. If a live birth, this baby wouldn’t have lived for long after birth because of its immaturity.

 

One of these bioarchaeological papers that has interpreted the practice of infanticide is based on the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, England, which became somewhat of an archaeological “celebrity”, showcased by the BBC in 2010 (Mays and Eyers, 2011). The Hambleden site has been identified as a sophisticated “two corridor” Roman villa (Percival, 1990:531). It was first excavated in 1912 by Alfred Heneage Cocks, who reported the discovery of 103 burials, 97 of which were small infants, buried under courtyards or walls on the north side of the site (Cocks, 1921). The infant bones were recently rediscovered in a museum archive after almost a century.

 

Mays and Eyers (2011) have compared the perinatal age-at-death distribution pattern to other sites that have been interpreted to have an ‘infanticide’ type mortality profile. Other than that there is nothing in the mortuary or archaeological information to suggest that infanticide was probable. The burials at Hambleden are inconsistent with what is known about Roman infanticide practices. As discussed, exposure or drowning were the most usual methods employed, in which case we might expect to find infant bones as haphazard scatters in middens, remote areas of the landscape, or in wells or waterways as has been the case in Scandinavia (Wicker, 1998:215).

 

An understanding of the historical and ethnographic information on infanticide practices and burial, the historical or other contextual information associated with the site, infant burial practices, and mortality pattern data information is essential for assessing the likelihood for infanticide. It remains that the most parsimonious explanation for cemeteries with a peak of infant death around full-term are the result of a normal age-at-death pattern.

 

Why then is there a preoccupation or fascination with this idea of infanticide in the past? Were people in the past seen to be of lower moral status and therefore more likely to kill their babies? Could this continued focus on arguments of infanticide stem from an anthropological legacy of the 19th century of exploring ‘dark’, ‘primitive’ cultures, who were seen to lack intelligence and emotion?

 

Certainly more critical engagement with the literature on infanticide motives, practices, contextual burial information, and medical literature on the causes and timing of normal infant death offers a good approach to review evidence of infant death in the past. Even a mother with a mind ‘clouded’ by breastfeeding hormones and a ‘rosy’ view of childhood can look at the empirical evidence.

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*Smith and Kahila (1992) also include preterm and post-perinatal infants in their “perinate” age category. The preterm infants probably died a natural death, as is likely without modern medical intervention. In historical and modern accounts, infanticide often occurs soon after birth, so the individuals who died in the post-perinatal period were also less likely to be the victims of infanticide.

 

NOTE: Part of this blog post has been taken from our work in the following papers (all references cited can be found within these publications):

Gilmore, H. and S. E. Halcrow (2014). Interpretations of infanticide in the past. J. Thompson, M.P. Alfonso-Durruty and John Crandell (eds). Tracing Childhood: Bioarchaeological investigations of early lives in antiquity. Florida: University of Florida Press. 123-138.

Halcrow, S. E., N. Tayles and V. Livingstone (2008). “Infant death in prehistoric Southeast Asia” Asian Perspectives. 48 (2): 371-404.

See also Gowland et al. (2014) who offer an excellent re-evaluation of evidence for infanticide in Roman Britain.

Gowland, R. L., A. Chamberlain, & R. C. Redfern (2014). “On the brink of being: re-evaluating infanticide and infant burial in Roman Britain” Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 96: 69-88.