Category: Victims of Society

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock.jpg

Elizabeth Woolcock was the only woman ever to be executed in South Australia. Convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with mercury, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead on the portable gallows at the old Adelaide Gaol.

A letter from Elizabeth addressed to a Reverend Bickford, who had been counselling her before her death, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. They published it in full on January 3, 1874.

THE LAST STATEMENT AND CONFESSION OF ELISABETH WOOLCOCK.

I was born in the Burra mine in the province of South Australia in the year 1847. My parents’ names were John and Elisabeth Oliver. They were Cornish. They came to this colony in 1842 but they went to Victoria in 1851. 1 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 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 two years. My mother and stepfather were members of the Wesleyan Church and I became a teacher in the Sunday School for two 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 eight months when I went to keep house for him against Stepfather’s wishes. I kept house for him for six weeks when someone 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. He called me a liar and told me he would cripple me if I went with him any more.

I, being very self-willed, told him that I had not been with the man but I would go with him now if he asked me. 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 met us both together so I was afraid to go home for 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 wilful lie. So I went to a cousin of my husband’s and stopped, and my husband asked me if I would marry him and for my word’s sake I did we were married the next Sunday morning by licence after the acquaintance of seven weeks.

I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too 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 three 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 myself in several different ways but thank the Lord I did not succeed in doing so.

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 life. 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 six pounds with me.

I came down to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister. I was here in Adelaide six 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 Bascoe. He was nothing to me nor did I give the poor dog any poison for I knew what power the poison had as I took it myself for some months.

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 quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not, but I 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 loving Saviour. I feel his presence here tonight. 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 there, and I hope that God will keep me faithful to the end so may be able to say that live is Christ but to Die will be gain. Bless the Lord he will not torn away any that come unto him for he says come onto 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, ours truly a sinner saved by grace.

Elizabeth Woolcock

 

As Brave as a Bushranger

As Brave as a Bushranger

 

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No one knew young Ada Foster when she arrived in the Forbes, New South Wales district in 1886. She was just twenty-three years old, but was attractive and hardworking, and had no trouble finding a position.

Working as a domestic at Cadow Station, she was soon showing off her talents as a horsewoman. An expert horse breaker and rough rider, she spent every spare minute at the yards, and few of the station workers could best her on a horse. A visiting stockman claimed to have seen her trick riding for a Wild West show in Sydney, and this led to questions about her past.

Ada moved on, taking on a position with the Prow family, then a butcher called Gunn. At one stage she even worked as a home helper with the town’s undertakers.

Despite whispers that she was hiding a secret, it wasn’t long before Ada was being pursued by a bunch of suitors, and she chose William ‘Bricky’ Foster, a blacksmith and horse trainer. The pair were married in November 1888, and things went well for a while.

Unwilling to be a genteel housewife, Ada spent her time breaking horses and riding. The first two children, Frederick and Gertrude, were born healthy, but three of their next four children died in infancy. It was the death of little Catherine in 1898 that sent Ada over the edge. She was diagnosed with ‘milk fever’, as post-natal-depression was called in those days, and things went bad. Bricky was away most of the time, blacksmithing or training horses in distant towns.

Ada found solace in the bottle, and the townspeople turned on her. A lost and tragic figure, she was hounded by rumours of her youth and memories of the destruction of her family.

Ada’s real name was Kate – Catherine Ada Kelly – the sister of Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly. It was she who had fought hardest to save Ned’s life, even going down on her knees to the Victorian Governor to plead that he be spared the rope.

After Ned’s death, Kate found it impossible to live, unmolested, under her real name. She took her middle name, Ada, then left home and travelled, looking for a new life. After a few months with Lance Skuthorpe’s travelling Wild West show, performing as a trick rider, Kate ended up in Forbes.

Now, the loss of three children, along with memories of her brother Dan’s burned body, and Joe Byrne’s corpse hanging from the door of the Benalla Lock-up, sent her to the edge. What happened next is folklore, not solid fact, but if there’s a grain of truth in this tale, Kate Kelly deserves far more adulation than that piled on her brother Ned.

Ravaged by alcohol and depression, one day Kate was walking by the Forbes Lagoon, opposite the racecourse, when she saw a local Aboriginal child out of his depth and in trouble. Despite being burdened by the heavy dresses of the day, she did not hesitate, charging through the water to save him.

After delivering the child safely to the bank, Kate was not seen alive again. Eight days later, they found her body floating face down in the water. Her brother Jim Kelly hitched up his wagon and drove all the way from Victoria to fetch Kate’s three children and take them home to live with their Grandmother, Ellen. Bricky wanted to raise them, but the Kellies insisted. And another page turned in the history of the troubled, wild, but undoubtedly talented Kelly family.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Click here to view the sources page.

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

If you’ve read Whistler’s Bones you’ll know that Charlie Gaunt died at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on January 29, 1938 of myocarditis and a rodent ulcer. His was just one of ten or more thousand, mainly unmarked, graves that lie beneath the sands of North Stradbroke Island.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum first opened in 1865 and operated until 1946. It usually held from a few hundred to a thousand inmates, mostly alcoholics, sick people with no family, and the unwanted elderly.

Inmates were housed in a number of dormitories, each for a different category. One housed women, another Asiatics, another was for drunks and another for Indigenous people. There was a tent village for the more independently minded men, a laundry, bakery and kitchen, and even a farm. Only a lucky few ever left the island alive.

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

Charlie was not the only drover on that island, bushmen had a habit of losing track of their families and had nowhere to go in old age. Almost all professions, however, were represented, with former lawyers, timber cutters and schoolteachers all lining up together at the dining hall.

Photo credit: Dunwich museum

Interestingly, details about the asylum, including admission forms, can only be accessed by expensive Freedom of Information requests, and these are rarely granted. These records have been “frozen’ by the Queensland Department of Health until 2038.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

 

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Alma McGee

Alma McGee

 

 

Back in the 1920s, mental illness was seen as shameful. Sufferers were locked away, and subjected to “treatments” based on barely tested theories. The story of Alma McGee is a case in point.

Alma’s mother, Frances, came from a Protestant family – landed gentry in Cork, Ireland.  Frances fell in love with the Catholic stable boy, Bartholomew Murphy. Disgraced and disowned, Frances was 6 months pregnant when the young couple boarded the SS Whampoa, bound for Sydney. Their first child, Bartholomew was born as they settled into their new country. More followed.

Thirteen years later, Alma was born in James Street, Newtown. Tragedy seemed to dog her life right from the start. When she was 10 her older sister Florence died of a heart infection. One year later her father, the stable boy turned hansom cab driver, also died, at the age of 48. His death certificate stated that he died of stomach cancer and dementia, but a Murphy family story tells that he simply fell off his cab one day, drunk.

Just 12 years old, Alma left school to work as a fabric machinist, and eventually married boot-maker Robert McGee. By the end of the First World War, however, Alma was troubled by nerves, exhaustion and stomach complaints. The death of her nephew Maxwell, aged 8 months, didn’t help her state of mind.

Alma’s first two daughters, Ivy and Maude, were born during this time, but then, five days before the birth of her third child, Joyce, her husband Robert McGee was taken by the influenza plague that was raking the country. For the next twelve months Alma battled the same flu that had killed her husband, along with “shock” and “nervous turns” while her mother, Frances, helped care for the girls.

At times, however, she was capable of lending a hand in her brother’s produce store, particularly putting her sewing-machine skills to work, making aprons and shopping bags. She also served at the counter when needed.

Despite a succession of tragedies, including her brother dying from pueripheral neuritis, in Rockwood Asylum, Alma was again, in 1923, engaged to be married. Yet, on the cusp of her wedding it was revealed that her husband-to-be was already married. The union could not proceed.

This must have seemed like a last straw. Alma, now the recipient of an invalid pension, was bedridden with ulcers, eating disorders, and anxiety.

At the age of 35 Alma was admitted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, then Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic, and Gladesville Mental Hospital. She was an inmate of these institutions, on and off, for years. The diagnosis given was “Hysteria”, “Melancholia Delusiona”, and later as “Manic Depressive Psychosis”.

Well-meaning but brutal treatments were the order of the day. Under the teachings of an American psychiatrist, Dr Cotton, teeth were seen as a source of bacteria and thus a cause of insanity. All of Alma’s teeth were removed and she was fed via a nasal tube while the stumps healed.

Alma was not allowed to see her children, at first, adding to the “hysteria” that she was being treated for. Frances visited her daughter regularly for a few years and then in 1928/29 only twice each year. Later, both Ivy and Maud visited their mother in Gladesville from 1926 to 1933.

The three girls lived with their grandmother, Frances, until she passed away in 1930, then with their Uncle William until he too died, in 1932. Ivy, the eldest of the three teenage girls, now took over as head of the family, supporting her two younger sisters both financially and emotionally. They lived in a tiny but spotless house in Canterbury, Sydney.

After six years in mental institutions, Alma was allowed to return home to live with her daughters. Ivy was by then a capable young woman of 20 years. But still Alma was periodically forced to return to the asylums where she had spent so much of her adult life, despite Ivy’s pleas to keep her at home.

The final chapter in Alma’s life was both happy and tragic. At the age of 49 she married Jim Parks, at St George’s Church, Earlwood. They moved into a flat at the back of a family home in the same suburb.

Unfortunately, some 15 months later, Alma suffered a serious bout of flu. A doctor was called but he could not come. She died the next day in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. She was 50 years old.

*******

Postscript: Alma was my great-grandmother. My mother, Faye, oldest child of Alma’s youngest daughter Joyce, remembered her as kind and loving. She also had fond memories of “Poppa Jim”, Alma’s husband for those few short months.

Greg Barron

 

Buckley’s Chance

William Buckley was an English bricklayer, and ex-soldier, transported to Australia in 1803 for being caught in possession of stolen goods. He was a huge man, standing six foot six in his socks. Resuming his trade at Port Phillip, he laid the first brick of the town that would eventually become Melbourne.

Escaping with five mates from a work party, one man was shot dead and another recaptured. Two others elected to return to Port Phillip after a week of starving in the bush. Only William Buckley stayed in the wilderness, eating anything he could find to sustain him. Finding a spear protruding from an Indigenous grave site, he put it to good use, much to the amazement of local Aborigines who figured he had to be the reincarnation of the man who had once owned it.

For thirty-two years Buckley lived with the Port Phillip tribes, and when he finally wandered back into the settlement, he’d forgotten how to speak English. Pardoned, but forced to live and work with the whites, he was sickened by their treatment of his Indigenous “families” and he eventually moved to Hobart. Crowds gathered to get a look at the “Wild White Man.”

Buckley married at age sixty, and died ten years later after a wagon accident.

The Australian slang term “Buckley’s Chance” came about when he first escaped into the bush as a young man, because no one expected him to survive.

It seems likely that the later addition to this saying, “Buckley’s and None,” came about after the department store, Buckley and Nunn, opened its doors in Melbourne in 1851.

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

   

The Ballad of Tom Coolon

The Ballad of Tom Coolon

Thomas Cuthbert Coolon was born in Richmond, New South Wales, on the tenth of April 1859. His mother, Sarah Douglass, died when he was seven years old. His father remarried and moved out west of the Darling River where Tom was abducted by a group of Aborigines.

For the next decade Tom was raised by wild blacks, learning and honing bush skills that would become legendary. He also learned harsh laws of retribution and payback that would lead, later in life, to a shocking tragedy.

As squatters and their stock pushed further out into the scrub Tom found himself once more part of white society. With his lean frame and general toughness he quickly fell into station work. Some cattle stealing on the side saw a policeman ride out with an arrest warrant in Tom’s name.

Tom, however, had the “trap” in his sights long before he arrived, and shot the horse out from under him.

This, it seemed to Tom, was a good time to take a change of scenery up in Queensland where he worked as a ringer, dog-baiter, and roo-shooter. In his spare time he developed an interest in prospecting.

Tom was a striking looking man; tall with blue eyes and a blazing red beard. In 1890 he married Catherine Mongovan. The couple had two daughters and a son, living in the Clermont district, Queensland.

The turn of the century saw Tom droving with Ted Drewer up to the Territory, taking a mob of brood mares to one of the vast Fisher and Lyons properties. When the mares had been delivered he headed for Darwin, intending to take a ship home to Queensland. The wet season had struck early, rivers were flooded and impassable all the way down the Top End and across the Gulf country. Riding home would have been impossible.

News hit Darwin of a droving camp near Newcastle Waters facing starvation and fever, cut off from the world. A desperate call went out for a volunteer to ride five hundred miles south with supplies for the stricken men.

Tom Coolon stepped forward, and with three riding horses and two packs he set out on a mission few men would have attempted.

Swimming the horses across flooded rivers he managed to cover an astonishing fifty miles each day. Sadly that perilous rescue mission came too late, for the last of the drovers died on the day Tom arrived.

Tom was now a legend in the Territory, but back in Queensland things went bad. First, the Coolons’ twelve-year-old daughter Mary died. Then Tom took up a partnership on a station called Prairie Run, near Clermont, but the business arrangement degenerated into a bitter feud that included the odd gunfight.

Tom and Catherine took up the adjoining property, Spoonbill Farm, but Tom’s former partners, the Kirkups, were out to get him, framing him for the possession of stolen livestock, a “crime” that saw him imprisoned for two years at hard labour.

After his release Tom Coolon was a changed man.

 

It was race day in Clermont when Tom came up against the law again. He was drinking at the pub when a stranger tried to pick a fight. The two men were shaping up when a huge policeman called Ormes banged their heads together and threw them against a wall.

Legend has it that Tom Coolon slowly stood up, then fixed his eyes on Constable Ormes. “I won’t forget this. It will be evened up.”

When, a few months later, the policeman’s corpse was found at a place called Camp Oven Hole on the Charters Towers Road, Tom was naturally a suspect.

From a recollection in the Townsville Bulletin:

It was in that country later that Constable Ormes was shot at the 33 Mile, better known as Camp Oven Waterhole, on the Clermont-Charters Towers Road. The head of Ormes’s horse was still hanging on a limb of a tree when I was along that road in 1938. It seems whoever did it, shot the horse behind the shoulder and then killed poor Ormes with either a stick or a rifle barrel.

Australian folklore has had Coolon pinned as the murderer ever since, but an eyewitness report by an old man called “T.C.W.” fifty years later clears his name.

Coolon (was) an outstanding bushman and a deadly rifle shot; he could hit anything as far as he could see. I knew Coolon very well, and he could be a good friend. I also knew Mrs Coolon, a fine Irishwoman, their eldest daughter Violet, and son Hector, the latter only a baby then. Regarding Constable Ormes’s death on the Charters Towers-Clermont road, there was no foul play; he was not murdered nor was his horse shot.

I was coming into Clermont from the Suttor River about 1903, when, at the 60 Mile on the Charters Towers road, I found a dead man, perished from thirst, about three miles on the Clermont side of Lanark Station on Mistake Creek, then deserted. I pushed on to the Black Ridge Hotel. It was a gold mining place that was in full swing at the time, twelve miles from Clermont.

I reported finding the dead man to the police. Constable Ormes was sent out to bury the dead man. It was about three days to Christmas and very hot weather. So he rode out and stayed at the hotel that night and left next morning for the 60 Mile to bury the man. He said he could do it and be back that night, a round trip of 96 miles, no water anywhere, and only one horse to do the journey. He reached and buried the man and was no doubt trying to make the journey back in the night, was very thirsty and his horse galloped off the road and ran into a fallen tree. This killed the horse, and the policeman was found dead some distance away from the horse; the limbs of the tree were responsible for his death also.

Either way, Tom Coolon went about his business, kangaroo shooting in the Belyando River country, prospecting and working as a stockman. As one of his old comrades wrote:

(Tom) was also a marvellous bushman, and as a buckjump rider he was above average, although not in the Lance Skuthorpe class. Coolon was never guilty of riding a poor or weak horse, and if a buckjumper ran loose he would ride him, but not in a yard. He was one of the cleverest scrub riders that ever steered a horse through the mulga.

Though he loved horses, Tom had a mortal fear of dogs, and would not suffer them anywhere near him. He would never refuse a bet, one night riding seven miles with no moon to locate a tomahawk he had left in the scrub, winning twenty pounds in the process. He also spent much more time away from his wife and children than near them. This last fact must have occurred to him, and he decided that it was time to settle.

One day, working around Yaccamunda Station, Tom came across a recently-pegged gold mine. The owner was nowhere to be seen. A few washes with the pan, however, told Tom that it was a rich claim, and he decided then and there that he wanted it.

The gold mine that Tom Coolon found on Yaccamunda Station was in a remote area, far from other diggings. With his knowledge of prospecting Tom suspected that it would be the start of something big. He cunningly learned everything he could about the man who had pegged the claim.

The words on a claim notice fixed to a stake meant nothing to the illiterate Tom. He instead used his tracking skills to learn of the claimant’s movements. Footprints led to a nearby campsite, a small waterhole, and finally, horse tracks heading north towards Charters Towers.

Tom must have grinned to himself when he realised that the claimant was heading in the wrong direction. Mineral rights in this area, he knew, were under the jurisdiction of the mining warden in Clermont, to the south. Without wasting any time Tom saddled up and galloped off to find the warden, registering the claim in his own name. He was in full, legal possession of the claim when the man who originally pegged it, Luke Reynolds, arrived.

Reynolds had ridden all the way to Charters Towers, only to be told that he needed to go to Clermont, and was calling in to check on his claim on the way through. Tom was ready and waiting, his trusty lever-action Winchester close at hand.

‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ Reynolds asked.

‘I’m the legal owner of this claim,’ Tom replied. ‘So if you value your life you’ll turn around and keep riding.’

Reynolds was too smart to take Coolon head on, instead talking him into a partnership. This arrangement lasted only a few weeks before it fell apart. Reynolds decided that discretion was the better part of valour and pegged a new claim just along the ridge.

By this time Tom had built a sturdy hut and brought Catherine out to live with him. His mine had a thick seam of gold-bearing quartz, and hundreds of diggers flocked to the area, now named Mount Coolon. Within months the first stamper mill was on site, crushing piles of rich ore for the miners.

Finally, in his fifties, things seemed to have come together for Tom Coolon. He lived at home with Catherine. They had a garden and a flock of goats. The mine was making good money without too much hard work.

Yet, with no employees, Tom was obliged to travel away at times for supplies. Greedy eyes were watching when he rode off to Clermont with Catherine in late October, 1918. Under the law at the time a claim became void if it was left unattended by the owners.

Mount Coolon in 1932. John Oxley Library

A mining entrepreneur called Bernard Thompson waited until Coolon had been away for a few days then went to the local mining warden, filing for forfeiture of the mine because of Tom’s absence. The warden backed him up, and Thompson now had title to the mine, obtained in a similar tricky way to how Tom had stolen the mine in the first place.

Thompson took on three partners to help work the claim: Harold Smith, Robert Wells and William Brown. When Tom returned from Clermont he found four armed strangers in legal possession of his mine. He flew into a terrible rage, demanding that the men leave immediately. They stood their ground. Thompson had decided to take Tom on in full knowledge of his reputation. He too was a hard man, and not easily cowed. Tom filed an appeal against the warden’s decision but the District Court confirmed the forfeiture.

Tom was forced to watch from his hut as Thompson and Company brought gold ore up from the depths of a mine he had dug with his own hands.

On the morning of Wednesday November 13, 1918, Tom walked to the camp of a man called Charles Woodland, a JP, and asked him to take down his last will and testament. Once this was done, signed and witnessed, Tom walked back to his hut, fetching his Winchester and horse.

Riding up to his old claim he saw Bernard Thompson working up top. ‘You’ve got five minutes to get off my claim,’ Tom said.

Thompson shook his head. ‘I’m not going.’

Tom raised the butt of his rifle to his shoulder and fired into the ground between them. Thompson went for the revolver on his belt. He fired but missed, and Tom’s second shot took him under the arm, the third ploughed into his chest, killing him.

People had heard the shots, and news of Tom Coolon taking vengeance with a rifle spread like a grass fire. Men dived down mineshafts and hid. One of Tom’s targets, Robert Wells, reckoned he owed his survival to sheer laziness, for he was having a smoke down the mine and couldn’t be bothered going up when he heard someone yelling for him at the top.

The Native Bear Mine: John Oxley Library

Tom stopped at the Native Bear mine where he found an employee of Thompson’s called William Bloom, who turned and ran. But to the old roo hunter a running man was easy prey. He brought him down with one shot.

Another man that Tom had intended to kill – Alexander Smith – fell to his knees and declared that he was Tom’s friend, and that they had no quarrel. They shook hands and Tom declared that his plan was to kill a few more men and then “do himself in.”

Tom rode fast, ahead of the rumours, to the stamp mill two miles away. There he found two more of Thompson’s associates: Harold Smith and William Brown. He shot them both dead.

Finally, having killed four men all up, Tom rode off into the bush, leaving Catherine at home in the hut. Police from all over the district, led by an Inspector Quinn, scrambled to collect bodies and come to terms with what had happened.

A manhunt of epic proportions followed, but Tom, with his bush skills, had no trouble evading the police. Every man who had ever had reason to argue with Tom Coolon now believed himself a possible target. There was a sudden exodus from Mt Coolon and also Clermont of men who believed themselves to be on his hit list. On horseback and motor vehicle they fled, vowing to stay away until the murderer was caught.

Three days after the murders, however, Tom slipped through the police cordon and rode home to the hut he shared with Catherine. He kissed her for the last time, then turned the gun on himself. They found him there, in a pool of blood, with his wife of almost thirty years crying over him.

 

Greg Barron 2019

Elizabeth Woolcock

By Greg Barron

The Old Adelaide Gaol stands on the south bank of the River Torrens, massive and silent. The thick stone walls, guard towers and block-like cells leave visitors in no doubt that from 1841 to 1988, this was a prison designed to dehumanise and isolate its inhabitants; those that the justice system had decided, for their crimes, to remove from society.

It was here, in the year 1873, that Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock was given just twenty-six days to live. Twenty-six days to ponder her sins. Twenty-six days to imagine how the rope would feel around her neck, and to reflect on the life and eventual crime that had made her a household name – the talk of every household in the state.

Elizabeth was born in Burra, South Australia, in April, 1848, to Cornish parents, John and Elizabeth Oliver. Like many of his countrymen, John had mining in his blood, and the family enjoyed the camaraderie of a strong community, tapping rich copper reefs in the dry hills around the town.

Like many others, the Olivers lived in a home burrowed into the banks of Kooringa Creek. In June 1851, a major flood swept down the waterway, sending a churning wave of destructive water through these underground abodes. At least one man was drowned trying to retrieve his belongings, and it’s likely that the Oliver family lost everything they owned. These were tough times, and neither of Elizabeth’s younger siblings, John and Catherine, survived early childhood.

When Elizabeth was five years old, her mother left home. John, living at least temporarily at Tynte Street, North Adelaide, placed the following advertisement in the South Australian Register: This is to certify that my wife, Elizabeth Oliver, has left her home without any just cause or provocation. I will not be accountable for any debts she may incur or contract after this date.

Unable to stay away from the mining way of life for long, John followed thousands of other gold seekers across the border to Ballarat, hunting the yellow metal while trying to care for his little girl. He staked a claim at Creswick Creek, and Elizabeth was often left in the tent alone when he went out to work, though she was likely to have attended the local school after it opened in 1854.

It was a difficult time. Elizabeth was still a child when the Eureka Rebellion swept through the area. John Oliver played at least a minor role. It seems likely that his daughter was a witness to at least some of the violence that erupted between the diggers and police.

When Elizabeth was seven, she was alone in the tent when an itinerant by the name of George Shawshaw came to the flap and asked for a smoke. Elizabeth gave him her father’s pipe, and when he had finished smoking he seized her by the throat, half suffocating her. He then raped her, a crime so vicious that the judge called it “one of the most atrocious cases” he had ever presided over.  Shawshaw was sentenced to death by hanging, though this was commuted to a long jail term.  

Elizabeth’s injuries were so severe they left her unable to bear children. A local doctor gave her opium for the pain, the beginning of a lifelong addiction, and more changes were on the way. While still a girl she was engaged as a servant to a Mr Lees, a Creswick chemist. Through her early teens Elizabeth had a steady supply of the drug she craved. At fifteen she left her employment and moved to Ballarat, living in a boarding house that may have doubled as a brothel. She was using opium and supplying it to prostitutes, a trade in which she may have been employed herself.

Elizabeth’s mother, during this period, had remarried. A few years later, despite facing bankruptcy in 1862, the elder Elizabeth started looking for the daughter she had abandoned so many years earlier.

After receiving a message from a travelling minister, in 1864 Elizabeth moved in with her mother and stepfather at another Cornish mining stronghold in South Australia, Moonta. At this point, for a while at least, the young woman had something of a normal life. Her mother and stepfather were active in the Wesleyan Church, and Elizabeth became a Sunday school teacher. She also took up employment as a servant to a local widower, Thomas Woolcock.

When Elizabeth’s stepfather heard rumours that Woolcock was enjoying sexual favours from her, he threatened to break her legs. Undeterred by the threat, she married her employer, despite warnings from her stepfather that he was a bad type of man. During this time her drug addiction continued, using morphine obtained legally from local chemists.

Woolcock, however, was strict, violent and unpredictable. He found fault with her housekeeping, and accused her of having an affair with a boarder called Tom Pascoe. Then, when his dog died suddenly, he suspected that Pascoe might have poisoned the animal. The canine’s rotting body was later exhumed and tested, with high levels of mercury found in its internal organs.

Pascoe was certainly Elizabeth’s co-conspirator in obtaining opium, along with a powder that was most likely precipitate of mercury. He sometimes acted as her representative, using handwritten notes in false names. Her stepson, Thomas John, was also enlisted for this purpose.

As Elizabeth later wrote: “I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too 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 three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.”

Periodic attempts to leave home and run for Adelaide did not help, for Woolcock tracked her down and dragged her back. Addicted to opium, and trapped in an abusive marriage, Elizabeth tried to hang herself. The plan would have succeeded but for the weakness of the beam she tied her rope to – it broke when she kicked away her chair.

When Woolcock fell ill, Elizabeth consulted a series of doctors, giving at least the appearance of trying to save her husband. Nothing seemed to work.  Thomas slid towards death, and on the 4th of September 1873 the undertaker called to collect his body.

The local rumour mill went into overdrive. After all, Elizabeth’s desperate need for opiates was well known, and rumours of an affair with Tom Pascoe had kept tongues wagging for months. An inquest was convened and the finger was pointed at Elizabeth. She was charged with murdering her husband by mixing toxic mercury powder into his food, and sent to trial.

The jury had no trouble finding her guilty, and she was sentenced to be hung by the neck until she was dead. It is ironic that Elizabeth’s rapist was granted clemency, and spared the rope, but she herself was not, despite a recommendation for leniency from the jury. 

Most death sentences were carried out after twenty-one days, but Elizabeth had twenty-six because they did not want to hang her on Christmas Day. On December the 30th, Elizabeth was led from her cell in the company of her last confidant, Reverend Bickford. The hangman placed a noose around her neck, allowing the regulation amount of slack, then finally released the trigger that caused the trap door to fall away. After hanging for the prescribed period of one hour, she was pronounced as deceased, then buried between the inner and outer gaol walls.

Over the years, some researchers and historians have argued that Elizabeth was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. A petition was circulated to have her conviction posthumously quashed. The suggestion received short thrift from the attorney general, but some doubt does remain.

The physical evidence that Thomas Woolcock (and his dog) died from mercury poisoning was not conclusive by modern standards. The cause of death was initially given as “pure exhaustion from excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging.” Mercury was found, however, in dangerous levels in his organs, particularly his stomach, much more than could be attributed to the small amount in some of the medicines he was prescribed.

A letter from Elizabeth, addressed to Reverend Bickford, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. The newspaper published it in full, with this damning confession only adding to the public’s interest in the case: “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 quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not.” Believers in her innocence assert that she only made the confession to impress her penitence on Reverend Bickford, who had been the minister at Moonta and whom she admired.

Whatever happened, Elizabeth was a tragic figure: the victim of careless parenthood, a savage crime and a violent marriage. Years of substance abuse may have been her way of coping with the demons of the past. She remains the only woman to be executed by the South Australian government, and a figure of mystery, sadness, and intrigue.

©2020 Greg Barron

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