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Elizabeth WOOLCOCK





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Domestic violence - Battered spouse syndrome
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: September 4, 1873
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: April 20, 1848
Victim profile: Her husband Thomas Woolcock
Method of murder: Poisoning (mercury)
Location: Moonta-Moontera, South Australia, Australia
Status: Executed by hanging in Adelaide Gaol on December 30, 1873. She remains the only woman ever executed in South Australia

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) 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, 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 and 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

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

Woolcock's death

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 to gether 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 marride the next Sunday morning by lience after the acquantance of 7 weeks i was not married long before i fownd out what sort of a man i had got and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good but 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 any thing else and god onley knows how he illtreated me i put up with it for 3 years during that time my parents went to melbourn 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 severl different ways but thank the Lord i did not succied 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 doun to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister i was hear in Adelaide 6 weeks when he came an 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 illtreated that i was quite out of my minde and in a eviel hour i yealded 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 illtreated that i was quite out of my minde and in a eviel hour i yealded 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 preapre 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 sutch as the world can never give. Dear friend if i may call you so i am mutch 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 faithfull to the End o may be abl to say that 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

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.


Haunted - Laying a ghost to rest

By Samela Harris -

February 13, 2009

ELIZABETH Woolcock is the only woman to be hanged in South Australia. Now a historian has uncovered evidence that could clear her name.

"Serenity" reads the nameplate on the bullnose veranda, and the sturdy whitewashed walls of this Moonta miner's cottage give no hint of disagreement. Inside, though, is another story. A mystery still lurks in these old rooms. What really happened in the late winter of 1873?

Some say they can sense it: a restless spirit that still roams the house, with footfalls firm and busy in the night. One man swears he's seen a woman standing by the bed. Others are too frightened to sleep in the front room.

Police historian Allan Peters does not believe in ghosts. It is ironic, then, that Elizabeth Woolcock has been haunting him nigh these 60 years. It was here that miner Thomas Woolcock died from the agonising effects of mercury. Elizabeth, his wife, was accused of poisoning him. In 1873, aged just 25, she was executed for his murder, the only woman hanged for a crime in South Australia.

Now, more than a century later, Elizabeth has a champion, a man who has felt compelled to plough through dusty archives researching her case. The story first gripped Peters as a boy when his grandmother told the tale on visits to Moonta.

Even before he retired he fossicked through Moonta archives and police records. So diligent were his excavations that he was made an historian for the SA Police Historical Society.

Last year he found new evidence, and a bombshell. "I am now quite certain that Elizabeth Woolcock was denied access to justice," he says. "To set the record straight, in the light of new evidence, I thought it was imperative to write a book outlining the facts."

The result is his self-published Dead Woman Walking, which delves deep into Elizabeth's story. But it's the subtitle that jumps out: Was an innocent woman hanged? The answer, says Peters, is yes. Now he's appealed to the SA Attorney General's Department for that rarest of things – a posthumous pardon.

Today, another Elizabeth – Elizabeth Crane – lives in the Moonta cottage and she is glad about Peters' news. Not that she has felt the pull of Woolcock upon her world. She is the one person who sleeps there peacefully night after night. She has not heard footsteps or seen presences. Instead, it's she who gave the cottage its name.

It is one of the few changes that have been made, although most of the neighbouring miners' cottages in the shadow of the vast ochre-red mesa of copper mine tailings are gone. The Woolcock cottage stands, as it would have in Elizabeth's day, behind the ordered asymmetry of a classic "Cornish stick fence".

The low front door opens straight into the main parlour. It is cool inside on a summer's day and, no matter what today's Elizabeth says, that room, now containing a small organ and some assertively kitsch American Indian prints, has a sombre feel.

It is clear that the room is little used, except for the odd truckle bed brought out when family stays. This is the room in which people say their sleep is interrupted by footsteps in the night.

To the left, a small door leads to the master bedroom. Straight ahead there is another dark room, small and cosy. Perhaps in Elizabeth's time it was the dining room. The kitchen is in what was a stone outhouse, quite apart from the main cottage.

One more, small inner room completes the original cottage. It was doubtless the bedroom of the one child who lived there, Thomas John Woolcock.

For all his investigative skills, 74-year-old Peters has been unable to find a record of the boy. He slipped between the cracks of history.

His father Thomas arrived with wife and two sons from Cornwall in 1865 and worked on a mining company tribute contract. Tragedy soon struck, though, with the death of his wife and one son to fevers. Elizabeth came into his life and into that cottage when she applied for a job as housekeeper in 1866.

She'd had her own troubles. "She was Elizabeth Oliver then," Peters says. "A hardworking and strong-willed young woman whose life had been nothing less than blighted – stalked at every stage by personal tragedies and hardships."

He has reconstructed that hapless life with the patience and determination of a cold case detective. Thanks to family connections in Moonta, he was given boxes of old documents, some of them treasures in the paper-chase of Elizabeth's case.

"I was even lucky enough to find the one and only photograph of her," he says.

He can't begin to count the hours spent in libraries, poring over old newspaper reports from which he gleaned the minutiae of the inquest and court case.

"Every time I think there is nothing out there I have not found, something new bobs up," he says.

The historian's family has grown used to his fascination with Elizabeth Woolcock. Artist daughter Leeza has been inspired to write a play based on Elizabeth's sorry saga. "Elizabeth is part of our family after all these years," says Peters's wife, Pauline.

Elizabeth Oliver was born in 1848 in Burra Burra. She was about four when her miner father joined the exodus to the Victorian goldfields and she soon followed with her mother and baby sister.

Her mother described Ballarat as "this horrid, sin-stained colony of scoundrels and villains". In the heat, dust, flies and disease Elizabeth's young sister died and her grief-stricken mother fled back to SA with another man.

Elizabeth was raised by her father and the comfort of neighbours. According to Peters, this was the most serene and contented time of her life.

Then the Eureka Stockade erupted.

Australia's one great rebellion, when miners protested a list of grievances including the expense of goldfield mining licences, was met by brutal military and police retaliation. Elizabeth saw her father's close friend, Henry Powell, being brutalised – one mounted policeman raked his head open with a sabre, others shot his fallen body and rode their horses over him until he was a tangle of bloodied and broken limbs.

"The emotional scars of this appalling sight were to be with Elizabeth for the rest of her life," Peters says.

Less than a year later, when seven, Elizabeth was raped by an itinerant Indian. "I think she was left for dead," Peters says.

Along with psychological trauma and gynaecological damage that would leave her infertile, the legacy was Elizabeth's drug addiction. The doctor prescribed potent medicinal draughts for her pain and she never broke free from opium. Or hardship.

In 1857 her father died, aged just 44. Elizabeth went into service, rather handily for a girl with a drug habit, with a pharmacist's family. She was 15 before she left, and with a stash of opiates headed for Ballarat.

Discovering this part of her life was a coup for Peters. In a dusty box of old papers from Moonta he found a just-legible journal written by Elizabeth's friend and neighbour, Hannah Blight. It recounted Elizabeth's stories about how, working in a guest house, she established a double life, helping prostitutes get revenge on some brutal clients by using her opium to knock them out for easy fleecing.

This life of crime was interrupted by news that her mother was alive and looking for her, so in 1865 she headed for Moonta. She moved in with her mother and stepfather, worked week days as a housekeeper and taught Sunday School on weekends. She even had a young man and seemed to have stopped using her "special medicine".

The calm of that phase was disrupted when an English relative turned up to help the family for whom she was working – and she was out of a job. Enter Thomas Woolcock, needy widower hunting for a housekeeper. Elizabeth applied for the job and was quickly employed.

Her stepfather, however, disliked Woolcock and found the situation scandalous. To stem gossip about his 19-year-old housekeeper, Woolcock married her – right there in the front parlour of that miner's cottage now called Serenity.

Peters says his research shows life in the cottage turned out to be anything but serene. Elizabeth's husband turned out to be a drinker, a bully and wife-beater. She tried to leave him several times. Back on the drugs, she attempted suicide by hanging herself from a rafter in the stable. The rafter broke.

They took in a boarder to defuse domestic tension. For a while even Thomas John, the child, seemed happy. But disputes between the men arose and the boarder left. Then the dog was poisoned. The boarder was suspected. Woolcock was recorded saying that anyone who disliked a man enough to poison his dog could well poison him, too.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, was having trouble finding morphine. She tried to get drugs by sending her stepson out to the pharmacy with notes. She tried pleading that she needed morphia to remove ink stains. The word soon spread about her desperate quest.

Then, a month after the dog's death,

Thomas Woolcock became ill.

"Over ensuing weeks, Elizabeth called in three doctors to treat him for the debilitating stomach pains and nausea – Dr Bull, Dr Dickie and Dr Herbert – and they each diagnosed

different a illness and prescribed different medications," Peters says.

"Dr Bull gave a throat syrup laced with mercury. Dr Dickie interpreted bilious disorder and gave rhubarb tablets and cream of tartar. Dr Herbert treated him for sore throat and excessive salivation – and he seemed to improve. But Dr Herbert was too expensive and Thomas reverted to Dr Dickie who resumed treatment for gastric disorder."

Within weeks of becoming ill, Thomas Woolcock was dead.

Dr Dickie at first said that his patient died "from pure exhaustion, from excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging", but changed his mind after Woolcock's cousin, Elizabeth Snell, asked if he could possibly have been poisoned since, after all, everyone knew his wife had been seen at the chemist inveigling for morphia.

Dickie ordered an inquest.

The Coroner and a jury of 14 sped to the cottage and the inquest was opened right there in the front parlour.

Dickie the doctor and Opie the chemist gave evidence, listing the drugs consumed by the deceased: laxative pills, sweet nitre and morphine. The chemist described Elizabeth's attempts to secure morphia. Elizabeth also testified, but the die had been cast.

A post mortem was ordered, and it took place in the cottage that night while Elizabeth sat out back.

The inquest resumed at the Moonta Court House. Dr Dickie described in detail the state of the deceased's body, noting that the bowel was gangrenous. He said mercury poisoning was a strong probability for the state of his organs. Dr Herbert concurred.

However, both insisted they had never prescribed any medication containing mercury.

Dr Bull admitted that pills he had prescribed contained mercury but insisted that the patient had taken only one.

Soon the focus was on Elizabeth's drugs. The police said they had found bottles labelled as "poison" in the house – laudanum prescribed by Dr Opie and a mercury-rich precipitate powder which was used to treat the dog's ringworms.

Peters thinks this was the cause of the dog's death, not a disgruntled boarder. "It now is thought the dog licked it off thus, killing himself through mercury poisoning," he says.

The jury decided that Woolcock was poisoned by his wife. Elizabeth was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Elizabeth pleaded not guilty. Outside the Supreme Court, Gouger St teemed with curious onlookers.

The defence argued Elizabeth had been a model wife, citing her loyal bedside vigil beside the dying husband. But the Crown Solicitor's allegations that she poisoned the dog as an experiment before poisoning her husband – and

that she was having an affair with the lodger – carried the day.

Elizabeth was found guilty and condemned to death. There were protests. Some claimed the medical and scientific evidence was flawed and others argued the death sentence was wrong.

But, on December 30, 1873, clad in a white frock and carrying a posy of fragrant garden flowers, Elizabeth Woolcock took that last walk to the gallows.

She gave her Methodist Minister, the Rev James Bickford, a letter to be opened after her death. Written painstakingly with clumsy spelling and grammar, and inaccuracies about even her own age, she described her life, adding "satan tempted me and i gave him what I ought not but thought at the time that if I gave him time to preapre to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now (sic) ... "

Peters is unmoved by this quaint "confession". He agrees with experts who see the highly religious desire for salvation and forgiveness as commensurate with a tendency to overstate sins. "She was religiously inspired, more interested in impressing the Reverend than in setting the record straight," he says.

The trial was littered with inconsistencies and oversights. What was the possible motive? Peters argues Elizabeth had nothing to gain by poisoning her husband and that his lack of bed sores showed she had tended him carefully while he lay dying.

"So, if Elizabeth did not kill him, who did?" he asks.

The new evidence the historian has uncovered points to Dr Bull – the doctor who gave the medication which made Woolcock sick.

Dr Bull died only months after Elizabeth's execution. His demise was brought on by 30 years of drug addiction, consuming atropine, sulphuric ether, chloroform and opium "in large and frequent doses". When treating Thomas, says Peters, he was in a "drug-befuddled" state.

Excitingly, Peters also encountered two letters written by Samuel Way, later the Chief Justice, to friends and family in England commenting on the report commissioned from his brother, Edward Way, for the government of the day. Edward, he wrote, had concurred with the analytical chemist that the evidence on administration of poison was "unreliable" and the "medical evidence mistaken", albeit that the victim died from mercury poisoning.

Peters has been unable to track down the original report but feels Sir Samuel's comment is a powerful indictment of the case. "Even if her confession was true and she did it, which I strongly doubt, Elizabeth Woolcock did not receive justice," he insists.

That is why Peters is pushing for a posthumous pardon. He patiently awaits the machinations of modern-day justice. A pardon will not help Elizabeth all these years after her death, he acknowledges, but it will serve justice and put history right.


Not guilty verdict – 131 years later

By Katarina Urban -

August 2004

Abandoned by her mother at four, brutally raped and beaten at seven and orphaned at nine – Elizabeth Woolcock might also have gone to her hanging death an innocent woman.

The execution platform loomed atop 13 heavy, wooden steps. Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock – barely 25 and shivering in a flimsy, white government-issue gown – waited below.

Then came the order to climb the steps. Woolcock complied and, at exactly 8am on December 30, 1873, a masked executioner slipped a dense, black hood over her head, and a noose around her neck. Before she could finish a prayer, the floor beneath her suddenly snapped open.

Woolcock – sentenced to death for the wilful murder of her husband, Thomas – hung by the rope convulsing violently for several minutes until she finally died. As custom required, authorities left her dead body suspended for one hour. She was the only woman ever hanged in the Adelaide Gaol.

Debate has raged over Woolcock’s sentence for 131 years. For her conviction - which arose out of circumstantial evidence - did she deserve to hang?

From her very beginnings, Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock (née Oliver), lived a harsh life. She and her family fell victims to a flash-flood, which left them with nothing.

Another tragedy followed when her mother abandoned her as a four-year-old. Woolcock remained with her father.

At the age of seven, she witnessed the horrific death of a family friend, just months before she was brutally raped and beaten in her own bed. Her injuries were treated with massive doses of opiates, which left her drug-addicted until her death.

Then, at the age of nine, Woolcock’s father died suddenly, leaving her to fend for herself.

Elizabeth, as a 19-year-old, took on a job as a house-keeper to the recently widowed Thomas Woolcock and his young son. Malicious gossip about the live-in arrangement soon forced Thomas to propose marriage. Woolcock accepted.

She approached her marriage with optimism, but her outlook would soon change. Thomas revealed a domineering character and, after excessive drinking, often beat his young wife.

Her only comfort lay in the morphine-laced medicine to which she had been addicted for so many years. Woolcock took the medicine every night, before she lay down in the bed she shared with Thomas. Only under the influence of her medicine could she endure his touch.

She was determined to leave him but, before she could summon the courage, Thomas fell ill.

He one day came home early from his work in an ore mine and complained of severe stomach pain, a sore throat and salivation. Soon after, he began to vomit. So severe was his pain that Woolcock immediately called their doctor.

Over the next four weeks, Thomas would be treated by three doctors. The first, Dr Bull, administered a solution for Thomas’s throat and other medication containing a third of a grain of mercury.

In just a few days under Dr Bull’s treatment, Thomas became considerably worse.

So Woolcock called in Dr Dickie, who diagnosed Thomas as suffering from gastric fever. The doctor prescribed some Rhubarb tablets, which had virtually no effect.

Woolcock, fast losing hope, called upon Dr Herbert, who quickly diagnosed and treated Thomas’s condition. The patient improved rapidly.

Two weeks later, Thomas thanked Dr Herbert for his service, and explained that, owing to hard times, he could not afford any more consultations.

So Dr Dickie resumed care of Thomas over the ensuing weeks. But Thomas’s gastric and intestinal irritation persisted, despite his prescribed medication. Although not overwhelmed by pain, he could hold nothing in his stomach except small doses of the medication.

Thomas’s condition deteriorated, as did his body. Woolcock became desperate. She faced not only the premature death of her husband, but also severe withdrawal symptoms from her medicine, which had completely run out. She had tried urgently to secure more of the ingredients she needed, but a chemist refused to supply her.

Neighbours and friends, who had gathered around the dying Thomas, suggested Woolcock call Dr Bull again. Thomas, in his weakened state, objected vehemently, saying: “I certainly don’t want Dr Bull again, as it was his medicine that made me bad in the first place.” Then, resigned to his death, he added: “I fear he has killed me.”

At 3am on September 4, 1873, Thomas Woolcock was pronounced dead. Dr Dickie declared the cause of death to be pure exhaustion, and excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging.

Later that same morning, the doctor prepared to fill out a death certificate, which he had intended to endorse as “died from natural causes”.

But before he could put pen to paper, Thomas’s cousin, Mrs Snell, called. She asked the doctor if he thought it possible that her cousin’s illness was caused by something he had eaten – or been given to eat.

Mrs Snell went on to bring the doctor in on the latest town gossip. It was that Woolcock had many times tried to buy poison from Opie’s Chemist Shop. And she had, but the gossipmongers did not realize that that poison was morphia – the key ingredient for Woolcock’s own medication. Nonetheless, just about every one in town accused her of the murder of her husband.

Dr Dickie, to spare the young widow from the malicious rumours, requested an inquest into Thomas’s death, which he was sure gastric fever had caused. But his charitable gesture went horribly wrong. The Coroner’s jury found the cause of death to be mercury poisoning.

Woolcock was charged with her husband’s murder and committed for trial.

A jury found her guilty after a three-day trial and a 20-minute deliberation in December, 1873. The court sentenced her to death by hanging in the Adelaide Gaol.

Fast-forward 131 years to May 22, 2004. Elizabeth is given another chance at justice – a posthumous retrial.

Old Adelaide Gaol staff, volunteer actors and Flinders University law students arranged a mock trial, as part of Law Week, to see what verdict a jury might deliver today.

Held annually, Law Week aims to promote greater understanding of the law, and the legal profession and system.

To testify, in front of about 300 spectators, witnesses– including Drs Bull and Dickie – took the stand. These medicos, it was found, had possibly misdiagnosed the late Thomas Woolcock’s condition. And inconsistencies in the case became abundantly clear.

Woolcock was not permitted to testify.

After the re-enacted trial, the jurors were dismissed and 12 new members were picked out of the audience. The 10 men and two women were seated in the jury box, while the law students divided into two teams – one each for the defence and prosecution – and prepared for a debate.

The defence team highlighted obvious holes in the prosecution’s case. Most audience members were left horrified by the sentence. The defence team found that:

  • Thomas’s symptoms were consistent with tuberculosis, dysentery and typhoid (only typhoid was ruled out in the autopsy).

  • The mercury found in Thomas’s body could indeed have come from the medication prescribed by Dr Bull (himself a known drug addict who, after the trial, was committed to a psychiatric hospital where he committed suicide).

  • The jar in which Thomas’s organs were placed during the autopsy had been left unsealed for 24 hours before the examination.

  • It could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt that Thomas had even died from mercury poisoning, let alone that his wife had poisoned him.

The jury was left to consider the findings and, within no time, had reached its verdict. For the wilful and premeditated murder of Thomas Woolcock, Elizabeth Woolcock was found not guilty.



Elizabeth Woolcock


Elizabeth Woolcock and family.




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