On This Day – January 15, 1894

THE hanging of Frances Lydia Alice Knorr not only split the community, but also had a dreadful impact on the executioner. Knorr, born Minnie Thwaites, was known as the “Baby Farming Murderess” and her arrest and trial made national headlines. She’d been found guilty of strangling two infants she’d taken into her paid care. The executioner, Thomas Jones (William Walk), had an impressive record as a hangman. He’d sent 15 men to their deaths. But Knorr would be the first woman he’d hang. Jones not only had problems with alcohol, he was under immense pressure at home, namely from his wife who strongly believed Knorr should be saved. Two days before the execution, the hangman killed himself. Jones cut his own throat while drunk. Nevertheless, the execution proceeded, creating much public opposition, particularly from women’s and church groups. On being walked to the gallows Knorr was asked ‘Have you anything to say?’ prior to the drawing of the bolt. “He received in answer the words: ‘Yes, the Lord is with me. I do not fear what man can do unto me, for I have peace, perfect peace.’ “The first sentence was spoken almost inaudibly, but the last words were delivered in a full, clear voice. “The next instant the bolt was drawn, and death was instantaneous.” Her entry in the hangman’s manual, called the Particulars of Executions, states she had a one-pound lead weight sewn into the shirt to stop it billowing out. In a matter-of-fact way, it was stated that the 5ft 2in Knorr was hanged with a rope with a drop of 7ft 6in. Soon after her execution, prison authorities found a confession back in her cell, penned a few hours before she left it for the last time. She wrote: “I express a strong desire that this statement be made public, with the hope that my fate will not only be a warning to others, but also act as a deterrent to those who are perhaps carrying on the same practice.” Although Knorr was convicted of the murders of two babies, police inquiries later revealed she could have been responsible for the deaths of a dozen, and even more, infants.



ON THIS DAY – January 14, 1891

Shortly after 7pm, a ghastly tragedy was perpetrated in a narrow lane off Chapel-street, Prahran, known as St. James’s-place. In one of the small wooden house lived three women and two or three men, one being a labourer named Monteith. One of the women, Ada Hatton, was constantly visited by a John Thomas Phelan, a railway engine driver, a single man, who was at one time had living with Hatton. Although no longer living with her he was still very fond of the woman, and was jealous of Monteith, about whom he had had several quarrels with Hatton, about. On the night of the 14th of January, Phelan had been drinking, and about 7 pm made his way to the house in St. James’s-pIace, where he found Hatton alone. They had a few short, sharp words, and then terrible screams were heard. Some neighbours rushed in and found the woman lying on the floor in a pool of blood with her throat cut, and Phelan leaning heavily against a portion of the room with a knife in his hand, and gashes in his throat from which the blood flowed freely. He was seized before he was able to dispatch himself. When the police arrived they found the woman’s head half severed from the body and a dreadful gash in the cheek. The woman was dead before medical assistance could arrive. Phelan’s wounds were stitched, and he was taken to the Alfred Hospital in a precarious, though not hopeless, state. Phelan stated to the police that he wished the knife had been keener and he would have been dead, adding—”Now I suppose I shall be hanged. Oh! My mother will break her heart.” Phelan was executed in Old Melbourne Gaol on the 16th of March 1891. At 10am he was led from his cell to the gallows. When asked if he had anything to say, Phelan replayed with a smile “no”. The lever was pulled and death was immediate.