03 February 2009

Murderess Minnie Dean's mystery gravestone

Minnie Dean is the only woman to have ever been hanged in New Zealand. She had been a baby farmer, who looked after unwanted or illegitimate children for money - though not much. Not really enough. She was convicted of murder after the bodies of children were found in her garden. She claimed the deaths were accidental. Maybe they were, but she hung for it anyway, and her body was buried in an unmarked grave in Winton cemetary.

Or at least it was unmarked until last week, when a plaque was laid over her grave. It says: ‘Minnie Dean is part of Winton’s history. Where she now lies is now no mystery.’ No one has admitted to putting the headstone there.

You can read more about it in my blog post on my day-job blog: http://blog.teara.govt.nz/2009/02/02/mystery-gravestone/. Or, for a less factual account of Minnie Dean, you can read my poem below.

I got interested in Minnie Dean after an acquaintance was writing a screenplay about her. I read some of the outline stuff and had a big chat with him about his plans. One inspiring moment was him sitting in our lounge, with a window at his back, saying how he sometimes felt a bit creeped out, like she was watching him, and then turning around to check what was behind him. On the whole, his screenplay was sympathetic-ish.

He in turn had been inspired by seeing a play that emphasised the myths the had grown up around her after her death - she became a bogeywoman, especially in Southland. Parents threatened children with her if they didn't behave, she poked children through their heads with her knitting needle fingers, and so forth.

So anyway, here's my poem about her, which appears in My Iron Spine:

Handicrafts with Minnie Dean

I have never before
been in the presence
of a murderess
The very word
ices my spine
a word
to be whispered, hissed

She has knitting needles instead of fingers
the little girls sing

Her fingers click click click
They cast nightmare-shadows, but
she can knit five booties
at once, five baby vests
five bonnets
It’s just as well, I think
looking down at my own empty needles
and judging
by the noise from the nursery
there are a lot of feet to warm
heads to cover
‘I love babies,’ she says
‘little cherubs’

You’d better be good or you’ll be sent to Minnie Dean’s farm
and you’ll never be seen again

I have tangled my wool again
She patiently showed me how to cast on
and it is all coming back slowly
but I’m not sure if I’m knitting
or purling When I look up
she is wearing a hat
that she wasn’t before
It is black, with a white rose
curled around the crown
‘My travelling hat,’ she winks
pokes a jewelled pin
where her fontanel would be
if she had one, but no
it’s just a trick
of the light
and the blood
dripping from the hat box
in the corner
is just a shadow

She runs them through with hatpins
She throws them out of trains

The draught is whisping
lisping under the uneven floorboards, skittering
through the walls and
around my feet
I feel her eyes on me
but when I look she is busy
sewing the seams on the bonnets
‘Now the little darlings
won’t get cold’
The babies that no one else
loves are calling for her
would die without her

She is not a woman on whom
I would turn my back

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