A Woman Hanged

First published

15 January 1894

At 10 a.m. precisely, Mrs Frances Knorr was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol today. Her crime? She was a baby murderer.

Mothers who did not want their babies took them to her, paid her money as a foster mother, then she put them to death. It's a common enough crime these days. Two years ago there was a case in Sydney. John Makin and his wife Sara were convicted of murdering 12 babies. They hanged him. His wife got 12 years.

There has been a big fuss about this one with some very emotional stories in the press. We haven't hanged a woman in Victoria since 1863.

There have been demonstrations by anti­ hanging groups and a particularly strong peti­tion to the Premier, Mr James Patterson, signed by ten women. They called the hanging an 'abo­minable, fiendish injustice'. The evidence was circumstantial and the crime due to poverty and the struggle for existence. They claimed men had the entire management of the law and it was the acts of men that caused starvation.

Through nearly all yesterday, Frances Knorr lay huddled in her cell in a state of collapse, hardly speaking a word. However she regained her composure in the evening.

A Herald reporter witnessed the execution this morning. He described it as a fearful and horrifying spectacle. First he heard sobs coming from the condemned cell where she was attended by the Reverends Scott and Wilson. Voices rose softly then impressively. She was singing her favourite hymn, 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus'.

There was silence. It was thought Mrs Knorr had collapsed or would refuse to move. But she emerged with a firm confident step, the attend­ ing doctor, Dr Shields on one side, matron on the other. She looked very pale, but was quite composed. It was thought her hair might have been shaved. This was the custom with the men, but her hair was just pulled back.

One of the warders murmured 'Surely there will be reprieve any minute'. He could not believe Mr Patterson would allow a woman to be hanged. But no reprieve came.

The sheriff asked her 'Have you anything to say?'.

'Yes. The Lord is with me. I do not fear what men may do to me. I have peace, perfect peace.'

The hangmen put a noose around her neck and a drawstring was fastened to the bottom of her dress to prevent ballooning when she drop­ ped. Immediately after the bolt was shot, there was a sob, a moan, then a shriek and a series of hysterical groans.

The matron who had attended Mrs Knorr and tried to comfort her was so shocked at the dump of the body she fainted and, according to the Herald reporter, moaned pitifully for several minutes.

The body hung at the end of the rope for the prescribed time, at the expiration of which the rope was cut. Then the body was removed to the mortuary to await the formal inquest.

From a retrospective series Keith Dunstan wrote for the The Age Newspaper to mark the 1988 Australian bicentenary

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Frances KnorrMelbourne GaolJohn MakinJames Patterson

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