A generation after the hanging of the infamous Minnie Dean, the murder trial of Daniel and Martha Cooper revealed that ‘baby farming’ and illegal abortion were still considered solutions to the problem of unwanted children in 1920s New Zealand.
After being under police surveillance for some time, Daniel Cooper was arrested on 30 December 1922 for performing an abortion. Following the discovery of a female baby’s body at the Coopers’ Newlands property on 3 January 1923, he and his wife Martha were charged on four counts of illegally detaining children and one of murder. By the time the trial began on 14 May, two more babies’ bodies had been unearthed at Newlands.
After months of feverish press coverage, the Wellington Supreme Court was jam-packed for the trial. Martha’s lawyer, the distinguished barrister and Liberal politician T.M. Wilford, portrayed his client as a victim of mistreatment by Daniel, describing her as ‘a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own’. This was a sharp contrast with a reporter’s depiction of Daniel: ‘a small man … with dark piercing eyes set far back in his head and a mouth like the seam in a saddle bag’.
The jury cleared Martha of murder and the other charges against her were then dropped. Daniel was found guilty and sentenced to death. His appeal against the verdict was dismissed and he was hanged at the Terrace Gaol, Wellington, on 16 June.