Frances Lydia Alice Knorr
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10 November 1868|
|Died||15 January 1894(aged 25)|
|Other names||Frances Knorr|
|Criminal status||Executed by hanging|
Frances Lydia Alice Knorr (10 December 1868 - 15 January 1894) was known as the Baby Farming Murderess. She was found guilty of strangling two infants and hanged on Monday 15 January 1894.
Frances Knorr was born as Minnie Thwaites in London, England in 1868 and emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1887. Initially she worked as a domestic servant and married Randolph Knorr, a German immigrant. She later had an affair with one Edward Thompson and soon afterwards moved to Melbourne. The short lived affair was not successful and Minnie had to find a means to support herself and her daughter.
In February 1892, Australia was in the midst of a depression and jobs were scarce when Randolph Knorr was sent to prison for selling furniture he had bought on hire purchase. Pregnant and penniless, Frances decided to set up business as a child minder, and moved around Melbourne frequently using both her maiden and married names.
Frances Knorr strangled some of the babies she could not place elsewhere or sell to childless couples. While she was living on Moreland Road in Melbourne, she buried two of her victims in the garden. Knorr then moved back to Sydney and returned to her husband.
The new tenant at the Moreland Road residence discovered the body of a baby girl while preparing a garden bed. Police dug up the rest of the garden and discovered a boy's body as well. The police soon traced them to Knorr. When they arrested her, she was about to give birth to her second child. She told the arresting officer, Detective Keating, "I know what you have come for". While awaiting trial she wrote a letter to her former lover, Edward Thompson, asking him to manufacture some evidence for her defence. Thompson's mother surrendered the letter to the police.
Knorr came to trial on 11 April 1893, charged only with the murder of the girl. The letter to Thompson was presented by the Crown as evidence. The letter was worded to implicate Thompson in the murders, but was deemed pure fabrication.
Knorr gave a statement herself from the witness box and admitted that she had buried the babies in Moreland Road but claiming that they had died of natural causes. The Crown however demonstrated that they had been strangled with a tape and that the neck of the little boy had been compressed to less than half its normal size. The trial lasted five days and resulted in a guilty verdict. As the death sentence was mandatory and as Judge Holroyd passed it, Knorr sobbed, "God help my poor mother! God help my poor babies!". She was taken back to the Old Melbourne Gaol to await execution.
Although Frances found little support among the newspapers of the day, the public was deeply divided on her sentence. Thomas Jones, the state's hangman, committed suicide two days before the execution after his wife threatened to leave him if he hanged Frances.
She was a model and penitent prisoner in the condemned cell and spent her time singing hymns and praying. She also made a written confession on her last day. "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 fall will not only be a warning to others, but also act as a deterrent to those who are perhaps carrying on the same practice. I now desire to state that upon the charges known in evidence as Number 1 & 2 babies, I confess to be guilty".
Her execution was at 10:00am on Monday 15 January 1894. Her last words were recorded as: "Yes, the Lord is with me! I do not fear what men may do to me, for I have peace, perfect peace!" When the trap door was released, she dropped seven feet, six inches. Death was recorded as "instantaneous". Her death mask is on display at the Old Melbourne Gaol.
1893 Welfare Commission
Australia was in severe depression from 1873 to 1896; with no state welfare, women in particular faced a hard life. The diaries of John Castieau, governor of Old Melbourne Gaol from 1869 to 1884 indicate that as children were permitted to stay with their mothers, it was a common practice for a pregnant woman to commit a crime so that she could have her delivery in the gaol and be cared for.
During the 1893 Commission, Melbourne's public health officer testified that the post-mortems he had performed on over 500 children showed that more than half had been murdered.
- Felon families: Stories of women prisoners and their families National Trust of Australia (Victoria)