In late 1893 Frances Knorr was convicted of the murder of an infant in her care. She was sentenced to hang. The sentence followed a public outcry after the bodies of several infants were found buried in the back yards of houses she had rented. Two had obviously been murdered. There was widespread outrage that many so-called ‘baby farmers’ continued to ply their trade, despite attempts at regulation. But official refusal to establish a foundling hospital meant that poor women had few alternatives.
Frances Knorr’s story
Frances Lydia Alice (Minnie) Knorr was born on 6 November 1867 at Hoxton New Town, County of Middlesex, England. She was the second daughter (of seven children) of William Sutton Thwaites and his wife Frances. William was a respectable hat-maker at Chelsea, London.
When she was 18 Frances had an affair with a soldier from the local barracks – she disappeared from home for several days, returning in a ‘very dirty and neglected state’. Her parents, ‘fearing the effects of her evil example on the younger children’, sent her to Australia.
Frances arrived in Sydney on the Abyssinia in 1887, having broken all ties with her parents. Initially in domestic service, then a waitress, she fell in with ‘a fast crowd’ and in 1889 married German-born waiter and petty criminal Rudolph (Rudi) Knorr. They moved to Melbourne.
When Rudi was gaoled in 1892 (for selling off the family’s partially paid-for furniture), Frances was left destitute with a toddler to support. It was the height of the 1890s depression. She took up with Edward Thompson, a fishmonger’s assistant; but, when he left her, she did what many poor women did at this time - agreed to care for other babies while their mothers found work.
In nineteenth century Melbourne poor women who had to work had few childcare options. There were licensed nursing homes for babies, but they could only meet a small fraction of the demand. Unmarried women were especially badly off.
The alternative was baby farming, where women cared for other babies in their homes, for a weekly, or sometimes a lump sum payment.
Baby farming compensated for the lack of childcare, but the industry had its seamier side. Baby farmers were characterised, often justly, as profit-seekers who neglected infants, or killed them outright. Many of the babies died in their care. There were rumours of neglect, insanitary conditions and slow starvation, while periodic exposés in the press contributed to public anxiety.
The State attempted regulation, requiring farms to be registered with deaths subject to inquest. This was seldom enforced and many women, including Frances Knorr, evaded regulations.
Mrs. Grundy, an icon of Victorian respectability, throws a naked infant to a crocodile in this cartoon, Baby Farming – the real assassin, Bulletin, 1890
Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia
In September 1893 the body of three-week-old Gladys Crighton was discovered in the back yard of a house formerly rented by Knorr. Police immediately investigated another property she had rented and found the bodies of two more infants. Although a cause of death was never established for Gladys, there were clear indications of murder by strangulation and suffocation of the other infants. Knorr was immediately arrested. She had given birth to her second child only days before.
The case against Knorr
Frances Knorr was charged with murdering Gladys Crighton. The other two infants were never identified.
The prosecution painted a poor picture: a stream of babies, apparently interchangeable, with Knorr barely aware of the transactions. Knorr’s character was put on trial: she married and consorted with petty crooks. She was of ‘loose habits, immoral character and hardened nature’, and held rowdy parties, attended by ‘fast young men and women’.
The evidence against Knorr, however, was far from conclusive. Knorr herself insisted that Gladys had died of convulsions and that she had buried the body in the garden because she ‘got frightened’.
It died from convulsions and not from any ill treatment on my part. I swear that I did everything in my power to resuscitate it… thought of going to the police first but got frightened. Then I thought "I will bury it”.
The prosecution maintained that Knorr was promiscuous and deceitful, and a ruthless racketeer. (Historian Kathy Laster points out a more sympathetic reading of the evidence was that she was an unstable young woman eking out a precarious existence in difficult times.) The Crown used against her a letter she wrote to Thompson, attempting to persuade him to manufacture false evidence on her behalf. (Thompson alerted the prosecution, infuriating Knorr, who then tried to implicate him in the murders.)
Justice Holroyd acknowledged in his summary that there was ‘no direct proof of killing’, but the jury convicted her anyway. Public opinion was running high against Knorr at the time, with public parades demanding the death penalty. Crowds chanted ‘Hang Mrs Knorr’ and ‘Death to the baby killer!’ Newspaper headlines described her as a ‘female Herod’ and a ‘wholesale butcher’.
At this time the sentence for murder was execution, although it was possible to petition the Governor for mercy. This was done successfully in other cases – like that of Maggie Heffernan. But Knorr was not a sympathetic character. The more lenient moral and criminal judgements attached to ‘pitiful and destitute’ women charged with killing newborns were not easily transferable to Knorr – she was the ‘wicked’ baby farmer who had no biological relationship to the infants in her care but appeared to be making money out of the misery of others. Like Emma Williams she was said to be a woman of ’loose habits, immoral character and hardened nature’. Her crimes seemed especially repellent - In the climate of anxiety around baby farming, her execution may have been intended as a lesson to others. Few came to her defence.
A representative of Melbourne’s Age newspaper in London visited Frances’ parents in November 1893 and sent the following report:
The father Wm. Sutton Thwaites of 347 Kings Road Chelsea, London, is a tailor, who has been in business at the same address for many years. The family is highly respected in the neighbourhood. Both Mr and Mrs Thwaites are advanced in years and the news from Melbourne has almost broken their hearts. Mr Thwaites expresses himself as anxious to do anything in his power to ameliorate his daughter’s unhappy position, but both he and his wife refuse to believe in her guilt. The girl who is the second eldest in the family, has been a thorn in their flesh for a good many years; but although she had been headstrong and self-willed, they had no occasion to cause themselves grave uneasiness until she first absented herself from home, about seven years ago. At that time she was between 18 and 19 years old.
Whilst the media howled for blood, some were disturbed by the severity of Knorr’s sentence – they petitioned against the sentence – claiming her crime was motivated by poverty rather than immorality. Rudi’s plea for clemency to the Governor claimed that his wife was an epileptic, given to sever fits that sometimes led to irrational impulses and long bouts of staring blankly into space. The strongest protest was made by the hangman, William Perrins. The night before Knorr’s execution was scheduled ‘Jones the Hangman’ committed suicide by cutting his own throat. All because of his
unwillingness to execute Mrs Knorr, the baby farmer… shrinking from the contemptuous jeers and the persecutions of his neighbours, who, he believed, would be still more hostile if he hanged a woman.
Despite all this Frances Knorr was hanged on 15 January 1894. It is important to note that on the eve of her execution she confessed to killing two of the babies discovered:
… upon the two charges known in evidence as No. 1 and 2 babies I confess to be guilty.
Placed as I am now, within a few hours of my death, I express a strong desire that this statement be made public, with the hope that my fate will not only be a warning for others, but also act as a deterrent…
Death mask of Frances Lydia Alice Knorr, 1894
Courtesy National Trust of Australia (Vic)
Death masks were common in Australia from the early 1800s. They were mostly made from criminals and were used for exhibition purposes and for phrenological analysis. Phrenologists believed that the structure and morphology of the skull revealed certain characteristics – notably the existence of a ‘criminal type’.
Postscript: What happened to Knorr’s children?
Knorr eldest child, Gladys, saw her mother two days before the execution. The January 20 Weekly Times described the scene: “[T]he sight of the mother clinging to the baby was particularly painful. . . . She heaped kisses on the poor little mite, and prayed that she “should never know” her mother was hanged. We presume Gladys was then cared for by her father Rudolph.
As for Frances’ youngest child (both Rudolph and Ted Thompson denied paternity), the following paragraph appeared in the Argus newspaper, eleven days before Knorr was hanged:
The Case of Mrs Knorr
The Infant Before the City Court
The infant Reita Daisy Knorr, which had been frequently before the City Police Court as a neglected child, was formally handed over to the custody of the department for neglected children. The child was born shortly before Mrs. Knorr was arrested on the charge of child murder (for which she is now under sentence of death)… The child has been in the custody of the police. An order was made by the Bench at the City Police Court for its commitment to the department for neglected children.
Lucy Sussex, ‘Portrait of a Murderer in Mixed Media: cultural attitudes, infanticide and the representation of Frances Knorr, in The Australian Feminist Law Journal, 1994, volume 4
- Laster, ‘Frances Knorr: ‘‘She Killed Babies, Didn’t She?”’, in M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time (Melb, 1985)
- Laster, ‘Infanticide: A Litmus Test for Feminist Criminological Theory’, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol 22, no 3, Sept 1989