20 April 1848|
Burra, South Australia
|Died||30 December 1873
Adelaide Gaol, Thebarton, South Australia
|Poisoning of spouse|
|Execution by hanging|
|Children||Thomas John Woolcock (stepson)|
Elizabeth Woolcock (20 April 1848 – 30 December 1873) was born Elizabeth Lillian Oliver in Burra Burra and was hanged in Adelaide Gaol for the murder of her husband Thomas Woolcock by mercury poisoning. She remains the only woman ever executed in South Australia and is buried between the outer and inner prison walls. It has been argued that she may have been a victim of domestic violence and suffered from battered spouse syndrome.
Born 20 April 1848, Elizabeth and her family lived in the Kooringa creek dugouts (rooms cut into the high banks of the Kooringa creek) of Burra Burra in South Australia until a flash flood washed their home away in January 1852. With no home and having lost all their possessions, Elizabeth's father joined the Victorian gold rush and moved to Ballarat, the rest of family, along with their babysitter, joined him in October taking residence in a tent on the goldfields. Her mother disliked Ballarat and described it as "this horrid, sin stained colony of scoundrels and villains" and, following the death from dysentery of Elizabeth's younger sister not long after their arrival, moved to Adelaide with another man leaving Elizabeth to be raised by her father with help from his neighbours.
Following the Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854, Elizabeth was traumatised after witnessing the death of her father's friend Henry Powell at the hands of police in an act of retaliation for the rebellion. A policeman slashed Powell across the head with his sabre while several more policemen then shot him as he lay on the ground. The policemen then trampled the body for some time with their horses. The following year seven year old Elizabeth was raped and left for dead by an itinerant Indian in an attack that left her both psychologically disturbed and unable to have children due to gynaecological damage. Her doctors gave her Opium for the pain to which she subsequently became addicted.
On 2 February 1857 her father died of consumption and Elizabeth was put into service with the family of a pharmacist in Melbourne which gave her easy access to the Opium she needed to feed her drug habit. At the age of 15 she left the household and moved into the Ballarat township, along with a large quantity of Opium she had accumulated, after obtaining work in a guest-house. According to a journal written by her friend Hannah Blight, during this time Elizabeth supplied Opium to prostitutes for use as revenge on their more abusive clients in order to punish or rob them.
In 1865 after receiving news that her mother was alive and looking for her, Elizabeth travelled to Moonta-Moontera (Aboriginal for dense scrub) in South Australia and moved in with her mother and stepfather. To support herself she got work as a housekeeper, on weekends taught Sunday school and there is evidence she even managed to kick her addiction as, unlike the eastern states where they were freely available, opiates required a prescription in South Australia. In 1866 a relative of the family she worked for arrived from England and after moving into the household took over her job which led to Elizabeth's dismissal.
Thomas Woolcock emigrated from Cornwall and settled in Moonta with his wife and two children in 1865. His wife and one son contracted a fever and died the following year, and with a young son also named Thomas, to care for he advertised for a live in housekeeper for which Elizabeth applied. Elizabeth's stepfather disliked Woolcock and considered the live in arrangement scandalous, Woolcock, to avoid gossip married her in the cottage's front parlour.
Woolcock turned out to be a heavy drinker, a bully and a wife-beater. Elizabeth attempted to leave him several times but failed and eventually attempted suicide by hanging herself in the stable but the rafter broke sparing her life. She became addicted again, this time to Morphine. The situation improved somewhat when Woolcock took in a boarder whose presence lessened the abuse she suffered but eventually the two men had a dispute and the boarder left. Not long after he left the family dog died after being poisoned and the boarder was suspected. Around this time Elizabeth ran out of Morphine and began suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms, the chemist refused to prescribe any more and she resorted to sending her stepson to pharmacies with notes and claiming she needed it to "get ink stains out". Her desperation to acquire drugs became common knowledge in the community.
A month after the dog died, Woolcock became ill with stomach pains and nausea, Elizabeth called in three doctors over the following weeks who each diagnosed different illnesses and prescribed different medications. Dr Bull prescribed syrup and pills laced with a third of a grain of Mercury each (21 mg), for a sore throat but Woolcock became considerably worse and Elizabeth then called in Dr Dickie who diagnosed a gastric disorder and prescribed Rhubarb tablets and cream of tartar which had no effect. Finally Dr Herbert treated him for a sore throat with excessive salivation. Dr Herbert's treatment worked and Woolcock was improving but two weeks later he decided Herbert's treatment was too expensive and went back to Dr Dickie who resumed the treatment for a gastric problem. When his condition failed to improve Elizabeth suggested returning to Dr Bull but, according to neighbors and friends who were present and later testified at her trial, Woolcock replied: "I certainly don't want Dr Bull again, as it was his medicine that made me bad in the first place".
At 3 am on 4 September 1873, Thomas Woolcock died. Dr Dickie initially stated his patient had died from "pure exhaustion from excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging". Woolcock's cousin, Elizabeth Snell, suggested to the doctor that as everyone knew Woolcock's wife had been getting "Morphia" she could have poisoned him with it and rumours of foul play began spreading. Dr Dickie ordered an inquest largely to quash the rumours as he still believed his original diagnosis was correct.
Inquest and Trial
The inquest was opened in the front parlour of Woolcock's cottage with 14 jurors. Dr Dickie testified on the drugs taken by the deceased and the chemist, Mr Opie, testified regarding Elizabeth's attempts to get Morphine. Elizabeth also testified. An autopsy was ordered and performed in the cottage that night while Elizabeth waited outside.
The next day the inquest resumed at the Moonta courthouse where Dr Dickie described the state of the body and suggested that Mercury poisoning was a strong probability, Dr Herbert concurred. Dr Bull admitted prescribing pills with Mercury but insisted Woolcock only took one. Police told the inquest that they had found a Mercury rich powder used to treat the Woolcock's dogs Ringworm. The jury decided that Woolcock was poisoned by his wife and Elizabeth was arrested.
Elizabeth pled not guilty and the trial in Adelaide was a sensation with crowds filling Gouger Street outside the Supreme Court. The Crown Solicitor argued that Elizabeth had poisoned the dog as an experiment, the ringworm powder was the means and that motive was an affair with the boarder. Defendants at this time were barred from testifying on their own behalf so Elizabeth was unable to answer the accusations. Following a three day trial the jury, after deliberating for 20 minutes, found her guilty with a recommendation for mercy but she was sentenced to death.
Execution and Confession
On 30 December 1873, dressed in a white frock and carrying a posie of fresh flowers, Elizabeth gave a letter to be opened after her death to her minister, the Reverend James Bickford, and then walked calmly to the gallows.
The letter, describing her life, was badly written with poor spelling and inaccuracies including even getting her own age wrong:
The last Statement and confession of Elizabeth Woolcock to Mr. Bickford.
Sir i was Born in the Burra mine in Provence of South Australia in the year 1847 my parents names were John and Elisabeth Oliver they were Cornish they came to this Couleney in 1842 but they went to Victoria in 1851. I was left without the care of a Mother at the age of 4 years and i never saw her again until i was 18 my father died when i was 9 years old and i had to get my living until i was 18 and then i heard that my Mother was alive and Residing at moonta mine she wrote me a letter asking me to come to her as she had been very unhappy about me and she was very sorry for what she had done i thought i should like to see my Mother and have a home like other young girls so i gave up my Situation and came to Adelaide my mother and my stepfather received me very kindly and i had a good home for 2 years my Mother and Stepfather were members of the Wesleyan Church and i became a Teacher in the Sunday school for 2 years at the End of that time I first saw my late husband Thomas Woolcock i believe my stepfather was a good man but he was very passionate and determined my late husband was a widower with two Children his Wife had been dead about 8 months when i went to keep house for him against stepfathers wishes I kept house for him for 6 Weeks when some one told my stepfather that i was keeping Company with Thomas Woolcock he asked me if it was true and i told him it was not but he would not believe me but called me a liar and told me he would Cripple me if i went with him any had not been with the man but i would go with him now if he asked me if the Divel said i should not this took place on the Thursday morning I saw my husband in the evening and he asked me what was the matter and i told him what had taken place the following Sunday he asked me to go with him for a walk instead of going to Chapel i went and my stepfather missed me from the Chapel and came to look for me and found us both together so i was afraid to go home for has he had said he would break both of my legs i was afraid he would keep his word ,as i never knew him to tell a willful lie so i went to a cousins of my husbands and stopped and my husband asked me if i would marry him and for my words sake i did. We were married the next Sunday morning by license after the acquaintance of 7 weeks i was not married long before i found out what sort of a man i had got and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my own good but it was to late then, so i had to make the best of it, i tried to do my duty to him and the children,but the more i tried the worse he was, he was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and god only knows how he ill treated me i put up with it for 3 years during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever i thought i would rather die than live so i tried to put an end to my self in several different ways ,but thank the Lord i did not succeed in doing so as he did not treat me any better and I could not live like that. I thought I would leave him and get my own liven so I left him but he would not leave me alone he came and fetched me home and then I stopped with him twelve months and I left him again with the intention of going to my Mother I only took 6 pounds with me i came down to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister i was here in Adelaide 6 weeks when he came and fetched me back again but he did not behave no better to me i tried my best to please him but i could not there is no foundation at all for the story about the young man called Pascoe he was nothing to me nor i did not give the poor dog any poison for i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker and i hope I shall meet him in heaven for i feel that god has pardoned all my sins he has forgiven me and washed me white in the precious blood of Jesus i feel this evening that i can rejoice in a loven Saviour i feel his presence hear to night he sustains me and gives me comfort under this heavy trial such as the world can never give. Dear friend if i may call you so i am much obliged to you for your kindness to a poor guilty sinner but great will be your reward in heaven i hope i shall meet you their and i hope that god will keep me faithful to the End o may i be able to say that i live is Christ but to Die will be gain Bless the Lord he will not turn away any that come unto him for he says come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest I feel i have that rest i hope to die singing Victory through the Blood of the lamb I remain sir Yours truly a sinner saved by grace Elizabeth Woolcock.
—Adelaide Observer, 3 January 1874 Source
Since her execution, flowers have been placed by her grave regularly, a tradition that has continued despite the closure of the Gaol.
Evidence of Innocence
Experts agree that that Elizabeth's "confession" was religiously inspired and prompted by a desire for salvation with an exaggeration of her sins. Police historian Allan Peters says she was "more interested in impressing the Reverend than setting the record straight".
It is unlikely that Elizabeth was having an affair and she had nothing to gain from Woolcock's death. That she cared for him while he was ill was evidenced by his lack of bed sores and witnesses testified that Elizabeth showed no ill will towards her husband.
The dog was treated for Ringworm with Mercury laced powder and could have died from Mercury poisoning after licking the powder on its body.
Woolcock's symptoms were consistent with Tuberculosis and Dysentery, both of which were found at autopsy, and Typhoid, although this was not found. Woolcock's organs, removed at autopsy, had been left unattended and exposed to the air for 24 hours before they were examined which could have compromised the diagnosis.
It was never proven at trial that Woolcock had died of Mercury poisoning or that Elizabeth had administered it.
Dr Bull prescribed Mercury laced syrup and tablets which would have killed Woolcock if he had taken more than Bull testified to. Bull had been a drug addict himself for 30 years and consumed Atropine, Sulphuric Ether, Chloroform and Opium in large and frequent doses. He was reportedly in a "drug be-fuddled state" when treating Woolcock and several witnesses testified that Thomas has told them that it was Bull's medicine that had made him so sick. Dr Bull was committed to a psychiatric hospital after the trial and committed suicide several months later.
Two recently discovered letters sent by Samuel Way to relatives in England shortly before he was appointed Chief Justice of South Australia were commentary on the now lost report into the hanging commissioned by the government of the day and headed by his brother Dr Edward Way. Edward he wrote, concurred with the analytical chemist that the evidence on administration of the poison was "unreliable" and that the "medical evidence mistaken". The implication is that she did not poison Woolcock and that even if she had been guilty she did not receive justice based on the available evidence.
Application for Posthumous Pardon
Following years of research, Police historian Allan Peters in January 2009 applied for a Posthumous Pardon which is being considered by the State Attorney general Michael Atkinson. In 2010, Peters distributed petitions throughout the Copper Coast requesting a posthumous pardon with the Moonta and District Progress Association urging people to sign.
- The information in this article comes from the book "Dead Woman Walking" detailing the research of Alan Peters, the South Australian Police Historical Societies historian.
- Peters, Allan L (2008). Dead Woman Walking. Was an innocent woman hanged?. Bas Publishing ISBN 978-1-920910-94-5.
- Since the trial, the area surrounding Thomas Woolcock's cottage has been known locally as "Poison Flats". The cottage has been restored by its current owner and occupant and apart from minor changes the cottage has remained much as it was in the 1870s. The cottage has had a reputation for being haunted since Woolcock's death, however the current owner has never experienced anything out of the ordinary and has named the cottage "Serenity".
- Although suffering from domestic violence and possibly battered spouse syndrome the mores of the day, no income and a stepson to care for would have meant her enduring a more difficult life as a widow.
- Petition for Posthumous Pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock What's On Moonta Moonta and District Progress Association 26 October 2010
- Petition for posthumous pardon Yorke Peninsula Country Times 28 September 2010
- Not guilty verdict 131 years later South Australia Police Online Journal August 2004.
- Haunted - Laying a ghost to rest The Advertiser 14 February 2009