Minnie's Friend

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

There was whispering in the village about the short Scottish woman.

Submitted: December 13, 2017

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Submitted: December 13, 2017



They hanged Minnie Dean back in August 1895. She was the only woman ever to be hanged in New Zealand after being found guilty of murdering as many as thirteen infants over what was thought to have been a three year period. Minnie accepted unwanted babies, usually babies born out of wedlock, perhaps to teenage mothers; babies that might have caused embarrassment to its mother’s parents. Most often she disposed of the babies by using them to fertilize newly created flower beds! She charged a fee of ten or fifteen pounds to take the babies away, promising she would adopt them in her own name and rear them as her own child. She even gave the birth mothers a signed document stating her promise. The police found a bottle of the Victorian ‘tonic’, laudanum in her house, which might have been used as a poison, or perhaps she had some sort of addiction.

A headstone mysteriously appeared on Minnie’s grave in 2009, a mystery as yet unsolved, and probably the mystery is best left unsolved. But there is a local mystery connected to the baby farming activities of Minnie Dean, that also remains unresolved and again, there is no apparent need to find a resolution. Anyway perhaps it’s just myth, a flight of someone’s fancy, but because it’s a bit of local history, so worthy of the telling.

On a sunny hill above the tinkling Glenburnie, there stood a tiny, twin-roomed, pioneer cottage made of rough-hewn boards with a corrugated iron roof. In the kitchen there was an open fireplace, with a chimney also fashioned out of corrugated iron. History is unclear as to the name of the squatters, the first settlers on that piece of land, but it is known they came from Scotland. The woman became widowed because the mushrooms found by her husband on the edge of the forest turned out to be toxic. It took him three agony-filled days to die! It isn’t know why she took no part in the meal, but then not everybody is partial fungal delights… Are they?

The village was five miles distant but the village gossip was that the widow had some kind of an association, perhaps even a friendship with the notorious Minnie Dean. There was logic in the supposition because they shared the same Scottish heritage and there was a train stop less than an hour’s walk from that sunny hill. It was proved Minnie had travelled by train between Invercargill and Christchurch on a regular basis for her baby collections, so she could easily have stopped off. Maybe even to deliver a baby?

Before the turn of the century, there were whispers that Minnie Dean had been seen getting off the train and being met by the tiny widow. Minnie Dean’s story was well reported in the local newspaper and the macabre Victorians even sold hat boxes with baby dolls inside them; a sort of  sick joke about Minnie’s baby farming activities. So there were whispers; this one seeing this… or that, whispers not necessarily connected to anyone in particular, founded or unfounded suspicions. The police were too far distant for the rumours to be carried in their direction.

Some seventy years later, Henry came to know yet another widow who lived on that same sunny hill. The rough-hewn boarded house was still there, derelict and now used to store her deceased husband’s farming chattels. Between times it had been used as a shearing shed, and still smelt of wool. Mrs Thorpe was his distant neighbour, but she was not a true old timer of the district, so didn’t know anything about Minnie Dean. But Johnny did! He was her gardener, a man well into his seventies, who was born and bred in the district. Henry often sought him out for little historical titbits he needed to relocate pegs from original boundary surveys.

Very often the wooden survey peg had long rotted away, but by being careful they might find a brass or copper tack that had been nailed on top of it. One day, Johnny was sure there was a peg on the side of the road, where the gorse fence ended, which was why they had spent a couple of hours sifting soil. When Johnny spotted the tack, he exclaimed, ‘Pigmy’s eyeballs!’ in delight! Now Henry had never heard anyone say such an odd thing as that, so he asked him what he meant. Johnny flushed.

‘Afore I was born,’ Johnny replied coyly, ‘there was a woman lived here abouts. She was a real short, Scottish woman and everyone called her, “th’ pygmy lady”. Even ’till I was about ten or twelve, kids who needed their bums whacked, would be warned that th’ pigmy lady’d catch ‘em, and bury ‘em! At that time she was sort of a legend in the district. All sorts of sayings were made up ‘cos of her. For good luck we said, “Pigmy’s eyeballs!” and bad luck we said “pigmy’s arse”!’ Henry knew who he was talking about.  

Henry asked him if he thought the whispers of the pigmy lady being associated with Minnie Dean might have been true and his answer was evasive, and he avoided eye contact.

‘Where ’ere’s smoke ’ere’s fire!’ He muttered, but barely audible.

Henry noticed sweat on above Johnny’s lip, and had the feeling he wanted to say something more. So in silence he waited, and waited, but nothing was forthcoming. So Henry asked him if he’d ever found anything strange while he was working around the garden. He gave the slightest of nods, hesitated and took a breath. He said that five or six years ago, Mrs. Thorpe wanted him to plant an apple tree. About a foot down, he struck bones! He thought it could have been the bones of a dead lamb, or even a dog, but they were small and old-looking. He got a bad dose of the heebie-jeebies and quickly reburied them without looking at them closely. He kept mum about them. Henry was the first person he’d told, he said he wanted to tell someone about it before he met his maker! He then asked Henry what he reckoned. Henry reckoned it was best to leave resting bones resting and to keep mum!

Johnny was happy with that!

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