The sensational 1923 murder trial of Daniel and Martha Cooper revealed that the difficulties facing single mothers and unwanted children continued well into the 20th century.
The Coopers had moved to Wellington in 1919, a year after their marriage and two years after the suspicious death of Daniel's first wife. Describing himself as a health specialist, Cooper sold ointments, hair restorers and face creams – and also performed illegal abortions. A sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl under his care led to his ejection from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
In 1921 the Coopers moved to a farm at Newlands, north of Wellington, where they ran a 'rest care home' for women and children. They also opened an office for their health care business in Lambton Quay. The police became suspicious and kept both properties under surveillance.
On 30 December 1922 Daniel Cooper was arrested for performing an abortion. Two days later he and Martha were charged with illegally detaining a child. Following the discovery of a female baby's body at the Coopers' Newlands property on 3 January 1923, the couple were formally charged with four counts of illegally detaining children and one of murder. Before the start of the murder trial on 14 May, two more babies' bodies were unearthed at Newlands.
After months of feverish press coverage, the Wellington Supreme Court was jam-packed for the trial. Daniel faced four murder charges and Martha three. The charges were to be dealt with separately, with the outcome of the first determining whether the others would proceed. Martha's lawyer, T.M. Wilford, portrayed his client as a victim of Daniel's mistreatment, describing her as 'a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own'. This impression contrasted sharply 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 any guilt in the murder, and the other charges against her were dropped. She later remarried and lived until 1975. Daniel was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged at the Terrace Gaol, Wellington, on 16 June 1923.