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The Innocent and not so Innocent Second Wife

In collaboration with Hannah Boller, Research Assistant

In her last post, Mélanie hinted that we might be a little shocked by who society and the courts identified as the victims of bigamists. Today, we are discussing the Frederick Knight bigamy case in which both the court and the press clearly pointed to the second "wife" as the natural victim.

Frederick Knight: The chivalrous gentleman

With his piercing blue eyes, elegant brown hair and fair complexion, naval man Frederick Knight seemed to have no problem attracting members of the fairer sex. By 1932, he had married an impressive four times! While the case of this serial bigamist enthrals, the details are for another time. Suffice to know for now that at his 1927 bigamy trial, according to The Truth (the famed sensationalist Australian paper which often published thought-provoking and in-depth articles), “a friend” of our man revealed: “I was a man who had been taught from childhood to hate, above all sins, the sin of immorality…Knight had committed an unpardonable sin. He had deceived a lovable and beautiful woman.”

Beside wondering if less than “lovable” and ugly women also deserved the sympathy of the courts, one understands, just as the friend stated, that bigamy laws then aimed “to protect virtuous women against marriages that are not marriages, and society against the abuse of the marriage law, which is the cornerstone of civilization itself.” It is worth noting the friend's insistence on the virtue of wives. Clearly some women did merit protection. The same friend shared that Knight himself would have recognized the error of his way repentantly exclaiming: “My God, that I should have brought this upon her!”

Ergo, Knight’s victim was not the legitimate wife he abandoned, but his second "wife", who ended up as an illegitimate spouse and the mother of an illegitimate child. But just how innocent was Miss Day?

Counsel's Trump Card

After Knight entered a guilty plea, his counsel, Mr. Brennen, quickly asked the judge if he could say a few things “which would reduce the offence [sic] in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the general public.” Brennen first mentioned how Knight and his wife had been lovers prior to their marriage, hence subtly implying that the legitimate wife was no angel. It was only after Miss Jessie Maud Pratt threatened a “breach of promise action” that Knight decided to do the honorable thing. In 1909, after a few years of sporadic cohabitation Knight married Jessie Maud, the mother of his two children. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the union was not a happy one. Knight's position in the Navy allowed him to spend a limited amount of time with his Mrs., which might have helped the relative longevity of their doomed relationship. As soon as the war broke out in August 1914, the gentleman soldier was ordered to the front. “He only got as far as Samoa… when he was attacked by hemorrhage with threatened tuberculosis.” It was while recuperating at the Melbourne sanitarium that the dashing naval man fell in love with his night nurse Miss Day, “a lady passed her girlhood”. We will come back in a moment to the significance of that expression.

Brennen astutely stressed that Miss Day was well aware Knight was already married. The Judge interjected: "She says she was not." That Miss Day really knew or not Knight had a wife is beside the point. The mere mention of knowing of Knight’s status changed the degree of her victimhood. Indeed, after Brennen's exposé, the Judge exclaimed: "This is a most important matter."

Bigamy law, as the Truth reported, was intended to protect the innocent and vulnerable, and we should add gullible. Brennan posited: Was Miss Day wronged if she married him “with her eyes open”? As the learned counsel put it: “She was not a girl who did not know the ways of the world. She was 27 years of age and had been a nurse who knew something of the world.” Hence, she was not "a girl" in need of protection. Brennen carefully let it be known that the couple's child was born “seven months into their marriage”, once again, pointing the finger away from his client and at the less than virtuous victim. Judge Cussen instructed the press not to share the possibility that Miss Day may have known of Knight’s first marriage when they went through a form of marriage ceremony. The press obliged. Nothing of the sort appears on the next day reports.

The press did mention the other point Knight’s counsel made. Brennen underscored that neither Mrs. Knight, nor the unfortunate Miss Day had initiated the bigamy proceedings. Even the Tasmanian police, who had known of the offense for ten years, did nothing until a zealous minister “whose sense of propriety appeared to be shocked after many years” contacted them. In Brennen’s mind, the inaction of the police showed that the community had not suffered any harm.

Brennen evidently succeeded in impressing the judge, since Knight received a prison sentence of only six months. Judge Cussen took into consideration that the offender had not caused serious harm to his wife, nor to Miss Day. After all, the man had provided for his offspring. He paid some sort of alimony to his wife for 17 years, and nearly 12 years to Miss Day.

Chivalry again on display

On the day of the sentencing, Judge Cussen lifted the publication ban. Melbourne’s The Age confirmed its support for Knight in reporting that, under oath, the bigamist had refused to testify that at the time of their marriage ceremony, Miss Day was aware of his previous marriage. The gesture would be seen as another chivalrous act from Knight as Miss Day, under the Australian bigamy law, could have been prosecuted for having knowingly married someone she knew already had a wife. Judge Cussen took pity on Miss Day by not calling her to the bar, probably afraid that she would open the door to her own prosecution.

Now, you may ask: If bigamy law existed to protect women and children, who did bigamist women harm?


Public Record of Victoria, 30-PO-106, “The King v Frederick Knight”, 1927.

Public Record of Victoria, Goal Registry, 1927, #38503.

“Life Story of Fred. Knight - The Man Who Married and Supported More Than One Wife -

Remarkable Career in Life And Love - The Skeleton Comes Forth From the Cupboard.” Truth, March 13, 1927.

“Bogus Marriage.” The Age, March 1, 1927.

“Bogus Marriage.” The Age, March 4, 1927.

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Michael Robinson
Michael Robinson

Have you done any research on bigamy that does not reach the courts or remains undiscovered? Only recently I found out that my paternal grandfather, who disappeared and was presumed dead, had actually gone to Australia where he married again. My grandmother died without any knowledge of what happened to him. There were two victims here, my grandmother and the second wife, both of whom had been duped and had no knowledge of the other. You could also argue that both families were victims too - my father never knew what had happened to his father and the second wife's family will be surprised and disappointed to discover that their beloved uncle and son-in-law was a bigamist.

Michael Robinson
Michael Robinson

Thanks Melanie that looks like an interesting piece. I was also unaware of the journal so I will be reading it with great interest. This is such a rich area for research and I am so pleased to see it being covered so well. As an anthropologist I have a special interest in cross-cultural rules about marriage and I also imagine that same-sex marriages will introduce some intriguing complexities into the legal dimension. Best wishes for your research and thanks for your reply. Best, Michael.


Shauna Wilton
Shauna Wilton

Interesting case! The "virtuous" female victim mentality continues to influence our courts to this day...


"once again, pointing the finger away from his client and at the less than virtuous victim" ... did they not know it took two people to make the baby! :) Thanks for another interesting post!


Women have been the guardians of virtue nearly for ever. They were (or like Shauna points out, they are still) responsible to keep men chaste.

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