Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Knorr, Frances Lydia Alice (Minnie) (1867–1894)

by Kathy Laster

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Frances Lydia Alice (Minnie) Knorr (1867-1894), baby-farmer, was born on 6 November 1867 at Hoxton New Town, Middlesex, England, second daughter of William Sutton Thwaites, tailor, and his wife Frances Janet, née Robin. William became a respectable hat-maker at Chelsea, London. After at least one affair with a military man, young Frances (known as 'Minnie') migrated to Australia, reaching Sydney in the Abyssinia in 1887. Initially in domestic service, she became a waitress and on 2 November 1889 at St Philip's Church of England married Rudolph Knorr, a German-born waiter (and swindler). They moved to Melbourne. After the birth of their daughter in 1892, during the financial depression, Rudi was sentenced to a gaol term in Adelaide for selling off the family's partially paid-for furniture.

Left to fend for herself and her child, Frances tried her hand at dressmaking but when this venture failed she stole money and went back to Melbourne. There she took up with Edward Thompson, a fishmonger's assistant. When he left her, she turned to 'baby farming'—taking care of usually illegitimate children. Many such children died in circumstances that led to the belief that they had been murdered or neglected. Mrs Knorr moved around Melbourne frequently and when Rudi was released the couple returned to Sydney. Following the discovery of the corpses of three infants in premises at Brunswick, Melbourne, that she had occupied, she was arrested and, after giving birth to a second child on 4 September 1893, brought back to Melbourne, where she was tried for murder.

The circumstantial case against Knorr maintained that she was not only promiscuous and deceitful but also a ruthless racketeer. A more sympathetic reading of the evidence was that she was an unstable young woman eking out a precarious existence in difficult times. She had cared for some infants, and returned one to its mother. In other cases she passed on children to other women, paying them a lower fee. She made no great profit from any of these enterprises.

The Crown used against her a letter she wrote to Thompson, attempting to persuade him to obtain false evidence on her behalf, and she was convicted on 1 December 1893 of the wilful murder of a female child. Rudi's plea for clemency to the governor claimed that his wife was an epileptic, given to severe fits that sometimes led to irrational impulses and long bouts of staring blankly into space. Despite a petition from the 'Women of Victoria', who prayed that 'the killing of any woman by any body of men does not accord with the moral sense of the community', Frances Knorr was hanged at Pentridge gaol on 15 January 1894. She went to her death singing 'Abide with Me'. Her final words were said to have been, 'The Lord is with me, I do not fear what man can do unto me, for I have peace, perfect peace'. In her own hand, but not her idiom, she left a letter advising the premier how better to regulate baby-farming so as to protect infant life. She was one of only five women hanged in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Allen, Sex & Secrets (Melb, 1990)
  • K. Greenwood (ed), The Thing She Loves (Syd, 1996)
  • K. Laster, ‘Frances Knorr: ‘‘She Killed Babies, Didn’t She?”’, in M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time (Melb, 1985)
  • K. Laster, ‘Arbitrary Chivalry: Women and Capital Punishment in Victoria, 1842-1967’, in D. Philips and S. Davies (eds), A Nation of Rogues? (Melb, 1994)
  • K. Laster, ‘Infanticide: A Litmus Test for Feminist Criminological Theory’, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol 22, no 3, Sept 1989, p 151
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Nov 1893, p 5, 29 Nov 1893, p 4, 30 Nov 1893, p 4, 1 Dec 1893, p 5, 2 Dec 1893, p 9, 8 Jan 1894, p 5, 15 Jan 1894, p 5, 16 Jan 1894, p 5
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 20 Jan 1894, p 21
  • People (Sydney), 24 Feb 1954, p 20
  • series 264, unit 22, series 30, unit 953, file 583/1893 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • .

Citation details

Kathy Laster, 'Knorr, Frances Lydia Alice (Minnie) (1867–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knorr-frances-lydia-alice-minnie-13030/text23559, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Thwaites, Frances
Birth

6 November 1867
London, England

Death

15 January 1894
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation