In 1883 Phoebe Veitch made New Zealand history by “pleading her belly” - something no one had done before or since.
Phoebe Veitch’s life was one tragedy after another.
Disfigured, abandoned, hard of hearing and with three children and a blind mother to care for by the time she was 20, she seems to have snapped.
It’s only now, looking back at the horror she endured and the desperate lengths she went to to survive, can the terrible decision she made be seen in context.
She came to New Zealand at 14, then Phoebe Harper, to work as a cook in a Nelson hotel run by her uncle. But within the year she was pregnant with her first child, Albert.
After his birth she moved to Feilding where she met Robert Veitch and had a second child, a daughter. They married and she had a third child, named Phoebe and called Flossy. But Robert was not the father.
Instead, a man she called Darky Sam was. He had met Phoebe in Nelson and followed her to Feilding where he gave her £5, a huge sum back then.
For a short while Phoebe’s life was normal but when Robert was declared bankrupt, he got up one morning and left, never to return.
She worked as a domestic servant to support herself, her children and now her blind mother living with her.
She was ill, with what later turned out to be sexually transmitted syphilis which ate away at part of her face and nose - leaving her disfigured, struggling to talk and by now she was hard of hearing.
Outcast in her community and now 23, Phoebe moved to Whanganui in 1883 - hoping to start over.
Work however was hard to come by and she brought in money by working as a prostitute.
Within a couple of weeks, the body of a four-year-old girl was found on the beach near the river mouth. It was Flossy. She had drowned. Phoebe gave different accounts: that the child had fallen into the water; or that the man who was her father had thrown her in. She also told a woman she knew that Flossy was going to stay with a woman she called "the dark lady”.
A hunt started for the man known as Sam Timaru - however it was unclear what his real name was or even if Phoebe knew. He was never found and Phoebe was charged with the murder of her daughter.
She was found guilty and sentenced to death but, in a twist never used before or since, she claimed she was pregnant again, with her fourth child leading to the judge forming a ‘jury of matrons’.
Twelve respectable married women were gathered to determine if she was pregnant. The jury determined she was and here death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Sure enough, months later she gave birth to her son Robert who was taken from her to be placed with another family.
Then, at the age of only 30, she died in Wellington’s Terrace Gaol in 1891.
Phoebe is buried in the Bolton Street cemetery in the Church of England section, but like many convicted murderers, it is not known exactly where.