The 'dark doings' of a Wellington baby-killer

by Redmer Yska / 03 February, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

A Wellington couple who befriended unwed mothers in the 1920s became as notorious as the executed “baby farmer” Minnie Dean. 

In the winter of 2015, two tiny skeletons were quietly reburied in a children’s cemetery near ­Wellington, almost a century after police first found them. The bones had been key exhibits in a high-profile 1923 murder trial involving a string of sinister crimes on a remote property at Newlands in the craggy, misty hills above the capital.

The accused, married couple Daniel and Martha Cooper, faced charges linked to “baby farming” or ­deliberately – in their case, fatally – ­mistreating newborns left in paid care by unmarried mothers. The remains were central to the Crown case.

What became known as the Newlands Horror shone a spotlight on the fate of children born out of wedlock, at a time when single motherhood carried the most savage social stigma. Our most notorious “baby farmer”, Minnie Dean of Winton, was hanged in 1895, the first – and only – woman executed in this country.

As the sad and gruesome details of this case emerged during the trial in May 1923, the Coopers were vilified in ­biblical terms. The weekly Truth memorably accused them of “Out Heroding Herod”.

The reputation of Newlands suffered, too: some even believed the case hindered the suburb’s growth. Locals proposed a name change in the mid 20th century, and some were still touchy about the topic 50 years later.

Daniel Cooper.

Newlands, located on exposed hills beside the arterial Ngauranga Gorge, east of Johnsonville, was not initially a ­residential location. For most of the 19th century, it was home to dairy farms, ­supplying the nearby city with milk.

Its population was ­growing, however, at the time the Coopers arrived in 1921. Born in Otago in 1881, Daniel was a quack, an untrained “health ­specialist” who sold face creams and claimed to be able to diagnose ­“complaints in women”.

He was also a twice-­convicted thief, suspected but never charged with fatally poisoning his first wife, Marion, in 1917. He married Martha a year later after having met her in South Otago when he was hawking from door to door.

In 1919, the ­itinerant couple arrived in ­Wellington, where Daniel began ­performing abortions, in the bathroom of their Island Bay home and in specialist “rooms” in Lambton Quay.

Some of the young unmarried ­mothers rightly feared that amateur abortion ­carried grave health risks. So the Coopers offered a second service at their smallholding above the main Newlands Rd. At what they called a “rest care” home, they rented cottages to single women who were about to give birth and did not want to terminate the pregnancy. The Coopers promised a home would be found for the baby, but they weren’t keeping their word.

The discovery of an infant’s body in a sandhill at Lyall Bay was the start of their downfall. Police received an anonymous letter in 1923 stating, “It looks like Cooper has been up to his tricks.”

Cooper was found to have nothing to do with that death, but the letter spurred police to search his Newlands Rd farm, where three tiny bodies were found. In the first weeks of 1923, police laid charges of murder and of illegally detaining ­children. Ledgers also showed Cooper had ­performed multiple abortions.

Martha Cooper.

Daniel Cooper had two children from his first marriage, and appeared to have an open relationship with Martha. He ­continued to get various women ­pregnant. Two children from a liaison with one woman, a “family friend” named Beatrice Beadle, were said to have been “adopted” but police suspected he’d quietly disposed of them.

The dreadful circumstances of the case shook the country. Even polite, family-friendly metropolitan dailies such as the Evening Post called it “the Newlands Sensation”. Not surprisingly, the more colourful weekly Truth went to town: “Of the private life of the ‘polygamist’ Cooper and of his accused wife, and of dark doings at Newlands in the house of death, well back from the road and concealed by trees, among which three dead bodies were buried, the public heard much in preliminary hearings.”

By the time the couple appeared at the Wellington Supreme Court in May 1923, more bodies had been found at the property. Daniel Cooper faced four murder charges; Martha three.

Truth’s coverage of the Coopers’ ­appearance in the crowded court inflamed the intense level of interest. Under headlines such as “Foul Deeds Will Rise” and “The Massacre of the Innocents”, the weekly reported the succession of victims giving evidence, each reinforcing the plight of single mothers in an era before abortion or state benefits.

“An intense interest was aroused and at 9 o’clock in the morning a queue formed outside the Court waiting for the commencement of the trial at 10.30am. When the doors were opened to the public, the ladies’ gallery filled and the body of the Court was crowded to the doors. Among the exhibits to be produced in the trial are two tiny skeletons, the mortal remains of infants which the Crown declares went into Cooper’s tender care for adoption.”

The prosecution opened its case with witness Mary Margaret McLeod. The prosecution said one of the bodies found at the property was her missing baby. The jury heard she’d approached Cooper the previous year on finding herself pregnant. He told her that if she kept the child, he knew a Palmerston North woman willing to adopt it for the equivalent of $4500 in today’s money. He suggested she get the father to pay.

The 1923 murder trial sparked breathless headlines.

McLeod went to live in a cottage on the Coopers’ farm, paying the equivalent of $70 a week. Another pregnant woman was in residence. After her baby was born, the couple briefly provided care. The ­Coopers then told her a couple had come from Palmerston North to collect the baby. It was the last time McLeod saw the baby alive.

As the trial continued over a week, Martha Cooper was painted as a victim, “a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own”. Truth, on the other hand, progressively demonised Daniel Cooper, describing him as “a small man … with dark piercing eyes set far back in his head and a mouth like the seam in a saddle bag”.

In the end, the jury acquitted Martha Cooper of murder and the other charges were dropped; Daniel was found guilty and ­sentenced to death. On June 16, 1923, he was hanged at the Terrace Gaol, ­Wellington. Before his death, he admitted his guilt and stated Martha was ­“absolutely innocent of the sin of murder”.

Newlands struggled to free itself of the association with these events. In 1953, the Newlands-Paparangi Times unsuccessfully called for a name change. After large-scale subdivision, the area meanwhile became known as the “first-home owners’ suburb”.

Historian Michael Kelly knew Newlands from an early age, having spent his first five years there from the early 1960s. In 1998, while working on heritage trails for Wellington City Council, he returned to consult locals over the content of a trail mapping the city’s northern suburbs and telling its notable stories. And it was then that the 1923 “sensation”, a story he’d been dimly aware of and only mentioned in brief, became contentious.

A plaque commemorates the 2015 reinterment in a mass grave at Karori Cemetery.

“The first edition took some in the local community – a local historian and community leader – by surprise and they were unhappy with the reference to the baby farm and my assertion that it was a significant handbrake on the suburb’s development. Their main beef was that it painted Newlands in a poor light, which is true,” Kelly said.

When the council moved to reprint the popular local guides in 2003, and Kelly was asked to revisit what he’d written about this contested aspect of Newlands history, he took a deeper look. “So I poured quite a bit of time into making sure I had that right, and everything that I read – newspapers, contemporary accounts, recaps from a decade or two afterwards – indicated that I did.”

What Kelly discovered convinced him the case warranted even more elaboration. But the revised material still rankled with a few locals.

“The baby farm was a massive scandal at the time and it hung over Newlands for decades because people had strong memories. The revised content of the trail reflected that, but it simply caused more trouble. The aforementioned individuals were still very unhappy. And I understand that. Who wants their suburb sullied by events of the past? On the other hand, is it right to downplay or ignore history simply because it’s unsavoury?”

Closure of sorts to these events came in 2015, when police reinterred the ­skeletons in a mass grave at Karori Cemetery. They were part of a collection of human remains used for investigative training by detectives in the 1920s and 1930s that had been kept at the New Zealand Police Museum at Porirua.

Museum director Rowan Carroll said at the time it was unethical to keep the body parts any longer. “Once they have been laid to rest, it will be a very big relief for me because I’ve felt that they haven’t been shown the respect they should have been decades ago.”

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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