The First (and Last) Woman Hanged in South Australia

The First (and Last) Woman Hanged in South Australia

March is almost over, but before it leaves us I wanted to write something for Women’s History Month. And after much thought, I have decided to write about Elizabeth Woolcock.

The name might be known to a few, but not most.

Her name has been added to the pages of history as she was the first, the last, and the only woman to be hanged in South Australia.

Convicted and sentenced to hanging for the murder of her husband Thomas Woolcock by mercury poisoning, she was just 25 years old.

Her life was a short, tragic one.

Her Birth
Born on 20 April 1848 Elizabeth Lillian Oliver was the daughter of John and Elizabeth Oliver, who were immigrants from Cornwall. They resided in the a dugouts at Burra, South Australia (several hundred kilometres north of Adelaide).

In January 1852 John Oliver did what many men from around the country did, and that was head to the goldfields in Victoria. After a number of months at Ballarat he had some good fortune, and the family joined him later that year. However that’s when things started to go wrong. Catherine the younger daughter of John and Elizabeth, died of dysentery aged just 2, and shortly after that John’s wife, Elizabeth left him to return to Adelaide – not liking life on the goldfields, and she left 4 year old Elizabeth with him.

Elizabeth was abandoned by her mother at four,
witnessed a murder at six,
brutally raped and beaten at seven, and orphaned at nine.

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.

And the following year, 7 year old Elizabeth, who was left in the tent by herself while her father was digging, was raped and left for dead. This left her not only psychologically disturbed but also unable to have children. Her doctors gave her opium which led to a long addition to it. To make matters even worse, her father, John Oliver died in February 1857 leaving 9 year old Elizabeth an orphan, and having to fend for herself.

Elizabeth made her way to Melbourne where she was put into service with the family of a pharmacist, however by age 15 she left and moved to Ballarat where she obtained work in a guest-house, and sold opium to prostitutes.

In 1865 Elizabeth learned that her mother was still alive, so she travelled to Moonta, in South Australia and moved in with her mother and stepfather. To support herself she got work as a housekeeper, but the job didn’t last long as 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.

Their Marriage
During this time Thomas Woolcock, who had emigrated from Cornwall in 1865, had settled in Moonta with his wife and two children. His wife and one son contracted a fever and died. So with a young son to care for, he advertised for a housekeeper. Elizabeth applied, and was given the job. However as the “live-in arrangement” was considered scandalous, 19 year old Elizabeth married Thomas Woolcock in October 1867.

Sadly he turned out to be a heavy drinker, a bully and a wife-beater. Elizabeth attempted to leave him several times, and eventually attempted suicide by hanging herself in the stable but the rafter broke which spared her life. It was after this that she became addicted to morphine.

The situation improved a bit 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, even sending her stepson to the pharmacies with notes and claiming she needed it to “get ink stains out”.

A month after the dog died, Woolcock became ill with stomach pains and nausea, and 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 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”.

His Death
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.

The Inquest
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.

The Trial
Elizabeth pleaded not guilty, and 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. 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.

Her Execution
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 (you can read that here … just scroll to the bottom of the page), the Reverend James Bickford, and then walked calmly to the gallows. Alexander S. Paterson, Colonial Surgeon, declared that she ‘was hanged by the neck until her body was dead. 


As you can imagine this whole thing was the sensation of the day, and  was well reported in the newspapers, so if you wish to read more about it, CLICK HERE there’s plenty of reading.

So while she wasn’t known for anything big, or noble, the name and life of Elizabeth Woolcock deserves to be remembered, and that’s why I wanted to remember for for Women’s History month.

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One Response to “The First (and Last) Woman Hanged in South Australia”

  1. crissouli says:

    I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
    Thank you, Chris
    Such a sad and horrifying story.. it’s a miracle that Elizabeth survived as long as she did.. she must have been a very strong woman.

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