Crime Scene: JUDITH RODRIGUEZ The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites. Reviewed by Paula Grunseit
I am Minnie Thwaites. I am under Melbourne.
Wherever lime goes, where it seeps, where the sour juices
of the city are carried down, under bluestone.
I am under the paved yard, under the walls.
Some of the walls are down now. I am under streets,
and people walk the walled yards and the slab pavings.
They feed on me.
Told in a combination of traditional ballad form, lyrics and narrative non-fiction, this is the story of the tragic unravelling of a young woman’s life. Frances Knorr, also known by her maiden name as Minnie Thwaites or more notoriously as the Brunswick Baby Farmer, was hanged at the Melbourne Jail on 15 January 1894 after confessing to killing two of the three babies whose bodies were found buried in the back yards of houses she had lived in. At her death she left behind her husband Rudolph and two daughters – Gladys aged 18 months and four-month-old Reita Daisy. There were no witness accounts of her having maltreated a child.
She was twenty-six. She wasn’t a beauty – a thickset, heavy-boned, big-jawed young woman. She had given birth twice in the previous eighteen months. She was pallid from confinement between bluestone walls.
She behaved herself in court. In respectable black, she sat still, all of a lump, twisting a handkerchief in her fingers.
How had she got there? The courtroom was filled with the righteous, the appalled, the curious, the charitable, the professional. Most of them were intent that she should admit to being an example of flagrant immorality – to having committed an unthinkable crime.
So, who was Minnie Thwaites and how did this happen? Born in London, into a family described as ‘highly respectable and God-fearing’, Minnie was a ‘domestic’, had had some education and could read and write. Why then did her parents send her, an unaccompanied young woman, all the way to Australia on the SS Abyssinia in 1887 when she was only 19 years old? Was it to get her out of trouble she was already in or to give her better opportunities or a mixture of both?
Is she a criminal, is she a sister?
Did women scorn her or take her part?
Raised by the state, did her daughters miss her?
We can measure her head, but what of her heart?
Ten years, fifty, sixty, a hundred,
Tourists pay to peer at her face.
Those were hard times and she offended
And that was the hanging of Minnie Thwaites.
In the book Rodriguez refers to Minnie’s tragedy as ‘a snowballing self-destruction’, and said in a radio interview that she was drawn to the story after visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol and viewing ‘the horrible yellow death casts of the heads of those who were executed for murder’.
Having researched Minnie’s life through public archival records (there were 40 witness accounts), Rodriguez goes beyond the sensationalism and scandal to trace the real events of Minnie’s life, from marriage through motherhood to her time in the baby trade and her eventual execution.
Part of the story is written in modern colloquial verse (with some archaisms) and Rodriguez says she chose this form because it is the ‘ideal, informal storytelling form’. We have to imagine that it would have been shouted in performance on the street and would have incorporated replies. When reading the Lyrics section, which brings to life a whole cast of characters, one can certainly imagine a stage version. Reproductions of original source documents, evocative images including etchings by Michael Brady and original 19th-century lithographs all help to transport the reader to Minnie’s world.
Where’s Ted, that called me pretty
and danced me such a jig,
and Rudy, that stuck with me
and now we’re both in print –
and Mother, that would welcome me in
and love my helpless children
now I’m hiding and a lone
Factual and moving, without being bogged down in sentimentality, the story takes place during the Depression of the 1880s, which hit a previously booming Melbourne. It reflects the desperate situation of many of Minnie’s female contemporaries and asks the reader to think about the choices (or absence of) available to women in those times.
During the flourishing of the so-called baby trade, there was a social crisis in childcare. In fact there was no official childcare system as we know it today although legislation was being revised at the time and the sad irony is that Minnie’s case ended up being a catalyst for reform of the system. With no birth control, there were many unwanted children, illegitimate children, infanticides, illegal and often fatal abortions. If women were to work, they needed a baby-minder, sometimes a wet nurse, and even though registers of all such arrangements were supposed to be kept, much of it was ‘women’s business, conducted over the back fence’.
There was only one hanging of a woman in Victoria before Minnie’s in !894 (Elizabeth Scott, 31 years earlier in 1863) and Minnie was the first of three to be hanged in a relatively short time. Emma Williams, widowed at 27 and prostituting herself to survive, and who ‘stood on the crumbling edge of the precipice, at society’s breaking point’, was executed in November 1895 for infanticide. Martha Needle, an arsenic poisoner who used ‘Rough on Rats’ seemingly to rid herself of several family members standing between her and life insurance payments, was hanged in October 1894. There would be only one more woman executed in Australia – Jean Lee in 1951.
There was a public movement against capital punishment and another gruesome casualty of this story was Jones the Hangman. The official ‘Executioner and Flagellator’, whose job it was to hang Minnie, was being badgered by his wife and friends about hanging a woman. Jones ended up not doing the job because he got very drunk one night and slit his own throat with a razor.
There is no doubt that Minnie lied, fabricated stories, was manipulative, accrued debts she could never pay and fell afoul of the law, but many details of what actually happened remain murky because only she knew the truth. Rodriguez says Minnie seemed like ‘a naughty girl whose life was a mess and who then encountered the Great Depression’ and was hanged as an example. The men in her life, who may have been complicit, lived on, unpunished.
As reported in the Argus after her execution, along with her written confession, Minnie left ‘a letter for Mr. Patterson, the Premier, on baby-farming, and suggestions for its better regulation, a letter for her mother, and a Bible with an inscription for her husband, Rudolph Knorr’.
Her last words at the gallows were: ‘Yes, the Lord is with me, I do not fear what man can do unto me, for I have peace, perfect peace.’
This might look like a little book, but don’t be deceived by its size, as it packs quite a punch. In The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites, Rodriguez has successfully captured an important time in Australia’s history. While it’s not a cheerful read, there are moments of wicked humour in the verse, and I was completely drawn into Minnie’s world and felt very emotionally invested in her story. It’s a book for anyone interested in true crime, Australian history and women’s history.
(Judith Rodriguez has had ten books of poetry published and has received several awards including an Order of Australia, the FAW Christopher Brennan Award for Poetry and the Sydney PEN Golden Jubilee Award for Poetry. In 2002 her opera Lindy (about Lindy Chamberlain) was staged at the Sydney Opera House and she has also collaborated on a play with Robyn Archer.)
Judith Rodriguez The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites Arcade Publications* 2011 PB 112pp $20.00
(*Arcade Publications [small books big stories] publishes comprehensive, unconventional histories of Melbourne.)
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.