Two lovely ladies, or the death masks of, from Old Melbourne Gaol

Frances Knorr (left)

People like Frances and Rudolph Knorr found life desperately hard in Melbourne during the 1890s Depression. Jobs were scarce, there was no state welfare and it was difficult to avoid becoming involved in petty crime.

When Rudolph Knorr was sent to prison in February 1892 for selling furniture being bought on hire purchase, his wife was left pregnant and penniless. She managed by ‘baby farming’ – looking after children whose mothers could not care for them.

In September the bodies of three babies were discovered in Brunswick. They were buried in the gardens of two houses Frances Knorr had rented. She was arrested and sent for trial in December. The Weekly Times described the 23 year-old woman as “white and careworn”.

The public was deeply divided when Knorr was sentenced to be executed. The hangman, Thomas Jones, committed suicide two days before the event. His wife had threatened to leave him if he hanged Mrs Knorr.

Australian Dictionary of Biography
Newspaper accounts, via Trove

Martha Needle (right)

Martha Needle was an attractive woman with a kindly disposition. Her friends were shocked when it was discovered she had poisoned her husband, daughters and prospective brother-in-law.

Needle was bornin Port Adelaiode in 1864 and grew up in a violent and abusive household. She showed signs of mental instability as an adolescent, but grew into a beautiful young woman and married Henry Needle when she was seventeen.

The Needles and their first child Mabel moved to Melbourne in 1885. They settled in Cubitt Street, Richmond where May and Elsie were born. By 1891 Henry Needle and the girls were dead.

Newspaper accounts, via Trove

(Text in italics is from information panels at Melbourne Gaol.)

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