The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography by Karen Zelas.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb, 210pp.
Reviewed by Jeremy Roberts.
‘The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography’ by Karen Zelas, is a highly informative, fascinating book focusing on one of Aotearoa’s grisliest sagas: the first (and last) woman to be hanged in this country (for murder, in Invercargill, 1895). Minnie Dean, a Scottish immigrant, was a baby farmer who was pursued by local policemen determined to investigate multiple deaths and disappearances of her wards.
Minnie’s impoverished Scottish origins are vividly described both in verse and a layout of pasted-up facts: 470 people to the acre; consumption, typhus, cholera; a death-rate of 336 per 10,000 people. In “There’s nothing like the closeness” (p 42) we read: ‘bodies stacked like soup spoons’, and in “Fair Greenock Town” (p 40): ‘nowhere to work in peace or play / to think or hope no place to flee / the stench of bruised humanity.’
Minnie had one illegitimate child (Ellen) upon arrival in 1863 and was pregnant with another. After working as a governess and schoolteacher she married Charles Dean in 1872. It was a childless, hopeless marriage. Minnie reflects on her life in “Is there nothing?” (p 14) – ‘can slow this slide / from grace?’ – ‘doctor’s widow &/ governess…/hotelier’s wife to farmer’s wife to / bankrupt’s wife in twelve short years’. There is a failed orchard (‘I don’t shirk hard work / planted 115 fruiting trees / bought 13 cows’ she says in “The Larches”, p 63) and a burning house.
Minnie’s hanging is seen as the result of collective guilt. In “Hanlon’s summary of evidence” (p 21): ‘she buried small bodies /in her garden / because / she was engaged in a //secret business.’ Zelas gives voice to babies illegitimately born in “Song of a foundling” (p 35): ‘I never knew my mother’s sound / nor felt the warmth of her skin // I was her shame’. The women who took these babies speak in “Where would they be without me?”: ‘these uppity girls / & parents // I sweep their mistakes like dust under the rug … where would they be without me?’ At this time, up to 99% of babies in institutional care died.
Minnie also suffered the tragedy of her own daughter Ellen killing both herself and her own two infants. “A melancholy affair” (p 65) is a tour de force, a visual feast of words recounting, processing, and reflecting on the awful tragedy: ‘ding doll dell / infants in the well … who put them in? … a hole 16 ½ inches square’.
In “Constable Hans Peter Rasmussen: 1” (p 77), a policeman enters the narrative, saying: ‘I hold my own / views about evils of baby farming … if there is ought to find / I will find it out’. Later, (in “7”, p 98) he states: ‘I have found nothing which would lead me to suspect / foul play in connection with the death / of may irene dean // but I have no faith whatever in the woman’.
As the police start to follow Minnie, the tension mounts: ‘escaped us did minnie dean / for all/ her cool airs she’s a sly one / slipped unnoticed from the train …’ (“Constable Hans Peter Rasmussen: 2”, p 83)
The insertion of diagrams and documents into the layout adds a fascinating touch of authenticity. The book builds to the inevitable climax with the chapters ‘The Chase’, ‘The Final Ride’, ‘The Trial’, ‘The Appeal’ and ‘Closing’. Zelas adeptly shades in the different mentalities that inhabit Minnie’s world. You can almost read this as a script for a carefully researched documentary or play – full of characters with urgent agendas, and a gripping narrative that Zelas has cleverly designed.
Ultimately, the reader is left to ponder the woman’s guilt or innocence. It’s interesting to ponder how people in Aotearoa New Zealand today regard any adult accused of child murder and whether the book’s main thrust (the late 19th century desire to bring this woman to justice) is really any different in a contemporary setting. How would a Minnie Dean fare in today’s social media / radio talkback world?
The final poem, “There once was a woman” (p 191), reads like a Johnny Cash murder ballad:
(There once was a woman)
who lived in a shack
she had so many bairns
there was no going back
she travelled first class
to gather her charges
& when they were spent
she returned to the larches
as feeling against her
started to harden
she buried the dead
right there in her garden
some think she killed them
who is to say?
she was hanged by the neck
at breaking of day:
8am Monday 12 August 1895.
Jeremy Roberts (Napier, Aotearoa NZ) MC’s at CAN Live Poetry; has performed poems with musicians in NZ, USA, and South-East Asia, taught Primary school children, and has been widely published. His collected works, ‘Cards on the Table’ was published by IP in 2015. https://www.facebook.com/Jeremy-Roberts-Poet