More than a quarter of a century after the hanging of Minnie Dean, the murder trial of Daniel and Martha Cooper in 1923 revealed that ‘baby farming’ and illegal abortion were still regarded as solutions to the problem of unwanted children. Daniel Richard Cooper was born at Otepopo (Herbert), Otago, on 18 October 1881, the son of Jessie Elizabeth Ure and her husband, George James Cooper, a farmer. Little is known of his childhood; he learnt the building trade in his youth and travelled around New Zealand. He also ran into trouble, being convicted on theft charges at Oamaru in 1902 and Palmerston North in 1905. His family moved to a farm at Awamangu, South Otago, in the early 1900s, and on 18 December 1907 at Awamangu he married Marion Burns, a neighbour whose parents’ house he had built; they were to have two daughters.
The couple ran a store for a short time before moving to New Plymouth, where Daniel became a book agent and joined the Seventh-day Adventist church. They shifted to Gore about 1916 and Daniel travelled the region canvassing a book, Practical guide to good health. He also invented an inhaler for asthmatics, which he patented in conjunction with the local chemist and hawked around the country.
Marion died at Gore on 18 July 1917; she was eight months pregnant. The coroner’s report stated that the cause of death was pericarditis, but investigations by the police in early 1923 threw doubt on the verdict. Questioning of neighbours and her family revealed that the marriage had not been happy, that there had been considerable local suspicion at the time of Marion’s death, and that she had shown no signs of ill health. The discovery of love letters from Daniel to another woman, Martha Stewart, dating from eight days after Marion’s death, added to the circumstantial evidence that he may have poisoned his wife using the mercuric iodine he claimed to have purchased for treating her goitre.
Martha Elizabeth Stewart was born at Gore on 20 December 1893, the daughter of Irish parents Annie McKinney and her husband, David Stewart, a farmer. She probably grew up in Gore and seems to have met Daniel Cooper a few months before Marion’s death when he called on the family, selling his medical book. Daniel and Martha were married at Invercargill on 2 January 1918 and moved to Dunedin, where they established a health specialist business. Before long Daniel had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who was staying with the couple while receiving treatment for an abscess on her thigh. When Seventh-day Adventist authorities – who were already concerned about rumours that Daniel was an abortionist – heard of the affair, he was disfellowshipped from the church.
In 1919 the Coopers, with Daniel’s daughters, moved to Wellington, initially living with one of his brothers while building a house in Island Bay. Daniel seems to have done carpentry work and the couple once more ran their health business. As well as specialising in ointments, hair restorers, face creams and the diagnosis of ‘complaints in women’, the business provided illegal abortions, at least one of which was carried out in the bathroom of the Coopers’ Island Bay house.
During their time at Island Bay the family was joined by Beatrice Beadle, a friend who had worked for the Coopers in Dunedin. She and Daniel began a sexual relationship in late 1919, apparently with Martha’s consent. In June the following year Beatrice gave birth in Lyttelton to a boy conceived from this liaison. The baby was to be adopted by a Christchurch woman, but when she decided she could not look after the child, Daniel and Beatrice brought him to Wellington, where the family was now living in Adelaide Road. Soon after their return Daniel claimed to have found a suitable couple who had come to collect the baby. Beatrice never saw her son again.
In March 1921 the family and Beatrice moved to a small farm at Newlands, which the Coopers had purchased. A second Beadle–Cooper baby was born there in November; Daniel also arranged for the ‘adoption’ of this child. Around this time the Coopers opened an office for their health business in Lambton Quay. Towards the end of 1922 the police became suspicious of the rest care home for women that the Coopers were running at Newlands: a watch was kept on it and the health specialist rooms in town. On 30 December that year Daniel was arrested for performing an abortion. Two days later he and Martha faced a charge of illegally detaining another child and were held in police custody.
An investigation into letters, diaries and ledgers held in the Lambton Quay office and the Coopers’ home provided evidence of three other instances of illegally detaining children, including Beadle’s two babies by Daniel, and of a further 10 abortions performed by Daniel over the previous 12 months. The discovery of a female baby’s body on the Coopers’ Newlands property on 3 January 1923 led to the couple being formally charged with four counts of illegally detaining children and one of murder.
The abortion charges against Daniel were heard in the Magistrate’s Court between 31 January and 2 February: he was committed for trial in the Supreme Court, but it was decided the murder case would take precedence. Prior to the start of the murder trial on 14 May, two more babies’ bodies were found on the Newlands property.
Space in the Supreme Court was at a premium as the public, who for the previous five months had been kept informed of every detail of the case in the national newspapers, queued outside, eager for news of any further scandals in what became known as the Newlands Baby-farming Case. Daniel faced four charges of murder and Martha three: the charges were to be dealt with separately, with the outcome of the first determining whether the others would proceed. The prosecution initially focused on proving the murder of the child of Margaret Mary McLeod and William Welsh, the only baby whose age and time of disappearance fitted any of the corpses found on the Coopers’ property.
The jury heard evidence that in February 1922 Mary McLeod had visited Daniel at the Lambton Quay office. She was one month pregnant. Several months later Cooper told her that he knew a woman from Palmerston North who would be willing to adopt her child and that it would cost £50 to make the arrangements; he suggested she get Welsh to pay. Daniel offered her the use of a cottage on the farm, where she could stay for 15 shillings per week until the child was born. Mary agreed and moved out to the farm, escorted by Martha, on 19 August. Another pregnant woman was already staying at the cottage. Mary gave birth to a girl on 12 October and for the next eight days the Coopers looked after the mother and baby. Mary last saw her child on 20 October when the Coopers told her the Palmerston North couple had come to collect it.
During the course of the trial Martha’s lawyer, T. M. Wilford, emphasised the maltreatment of his client by Daniel over the years. He claimed that since three other women had been convinced their babies were going to adoptive parents, Martha could also have believed this; he even suggested that she may have been hypnotised by Cooper as she was ‘a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own’. This impression contrasted markedly with that of Daniel given by a reporter: ‘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’s verdict cleared Martha of any guilt in the murder and the other charges against her were dropped; Daniel was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged at the Terrace Gaol, Wellington, on 16 June 1923. Shortly before his death he admitted his guilt and stated that Martha was ‘absolutely innocent of the sin of murder’.
There had been no children of the marriage, and after the trial Martha returned to Gore, where she stayed for several years. Calling herself Martha Stewart, she moved to Dunedin in the 1930s. Also under this name, and described as a spinster, she married Philip Powell McNaughton, a quarryman, in Dunedin on 21 December 1940. He died in 1943 and by the early 1970s Martha was living in Christchurch; she died there on 10 April 1975.