Judith Knelman, who died on Oct. 9, at 81, was a journalist, teacher and academic who artfully combined these disciplines. Her 1998 book, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press, set a new standard in Canada for interdisciplinary work.
“Her book was groundbreaking in many ways,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, who taught with Ms. Knelman at the University of Western Ontario. Toward the end of Ms. Knelman’s time at Western, the journalism department merged with library sciences to become the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. “The new direction of the faculty was to be interdisciplinary. Judith was already ahead of that curve.”
Ms. Knelman researched her book by mining newspaper archives during summer trips to Britain. She discovered that a surprisingly high number of women committed murder in 19th-century England and analyzed their treatment by the press. “She was doing work that no one had done in that area, no one talked about,” Ms. Smith Fullerton said. Subsequently, academics frequently cited the book in their own work on women, crime and media portrayals.
Her work in academic journals covered class and gender bias in Victorian newspapers, the amendment to the Sale of Arsenic Bill of 1851 in England (which related to female murderers, who often used poison), the Victorian marriage market and the Victorian invention of the diagnosis of “nervous debility” in women.
Ms. Knelman also maintained a freelance journalism career, contributing to Chatelaine, the Toronto Star and other publications. In 1997, she wrote a heartfelt piece about her mother and Eaton’s for The Globe and Mail. For the University of Toronto Quarterly, in 1999, she criticized Margaret Atwood’s understanding of murder and servant women in Alias Grace.
“She had an incredible intellect, and a real flexibility. She was able to change from an academic style of writing to a more journalistic one,” Ms. Smith Fullerton said.
Judith Knelman was born on April 30, 1939, in Winnipeg to parents John and Marion. The family had a cottage in Gimli and a day camp organized by the parents launched a newspaper, written by the kids, called the Gimli Amateur. By the age of 10 or so, Judy – as she was known by her Winnipeg friends and relatives – was writing movie reviews and news stories, as did her younger brother, Martin, who also became a writer. She edited the yearbook in high school, and later got a summer job on the copy desk at the Winnipeg Free Press. There she met editor Joe Gelmon.
Ms. Knelman studied education at the University of Manitoba. She and Mr. Gelmon married in 1958 and she graduated the following year. In 1960, they moved to Toronto, where he had a job at The Globe and Mail.
After the birth of their two sons, Tom and John, Ms. Knelman did some teaching, and took literature courses at the University of Toronto, receiving an honours BA in 1967. “I found I was actually pretty good at literature. My education wasn’t done,” she told her nephew, Joshua Knelman, during a long conversation they had before her death.
She and Mr. Gelmon divorced in 1973 and she embarked in a PhD, which she finished in 1978, juggling parenting and school and work at the writing centres at U of T and York University. After she finished her degree, Ms. Knelman taught for a year at Bishop’s University in Quebec. Then she returned to Toronto to work for The Globe’s newly launched real estate and food section.
That job led to working for the University of Toronto Bulletin during the 1980s. In 1989, Western was looking for a journalism professor, ideally one with a PhD. Ms. Knelman, with her unusual career path, was a perfect fit.
Ms. Knelman flourished at Western, where she was known for her journalism expertise and teaching skill. Former student Holly Lake recalls writing her first feature for her. “I can’t recall how many times she sent it to back to me asking for details to bring the story to life,” said Ms. Lake, who recalls Ms. Knelman’s patience. “To this day, no matter what I’m writing about, I’m always looking for the part of the story that will make it resonate with people, to get the colour around the characters.”
When Ms. Knelman retired in 1999, she returned to Toronto and continued to do freelance writing. She loved theatre and movies, and was known for her excellent cooking.
“She was sharp and tough, and plain in terms of her ability to tell you exactly what she was thinking. She was so honest,” Joshua Knelman said. She also had a wicked sense of humour. Ms. Smith Fullerton recalls her friend leaving her book on murderesses open to particularly salacious passages when she would bring a new date home. “She’d go in the kitchen to make a cup of tea and see how they’d react. If [her date was] afraid of her, she’d figure there were more fish in the sea.”
Ms. Knelman, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March, leaves her brother, Martin; son John; nephew, Joshua; niece, Sara; and grand-nephew, Leonard Weeden. She was predeceased by her son Tom.