Hangings

A total of 66 people were hanged in South Australia and 45 of these hangings took place at the Adelaide Gaol:

  • 7 outside the front  door
  • 13 in the north-west lane area
  • 21 in the New Building
  • 4 in the Hanging Tower.

Once a death sentence was passed, the prisoner was segregated and placed under 24 hour suicide surveillance. They had 28 days to appeal against the death penalty. In earlier days the period between the death sentence and execution was 21 days. Elizabeth Woolcock was found guilty on 4 December 1873 but in order to avoid an execution on Christmas Day the judge set the date to 30 December.

On the day of execution, the prisoner was woken at 6am and taken to a holding cell where they ate their final meal. Here they waited while preparations for the execution took place. The beam wasn't erected until the prisoner was secure in the holding cell. The rope was tied to the beam and officials would arrive.

The hangman escorted the prisoner to the trap just before 8am. The hangman's assistant tied their ankles and hands and, if they desired, a religious leader would attend them.

A hood was placed over the prisoner's head and face and the hanging rope was secured around their neck with the knot placed under the left ear.

The prisoner stood facing the window and a sheet was hung below to obscure the body as it dropped. If it was suspected that a prisoner might faint, two boards were placed across the trap and two officers would hold the prisoner upright.

The hangman would receive the signal, the trap would fall and the body would be left to hang for one hour.

After this time an inquest would be held to determine the cause of death. While this may seem unnecessary, death may have occurred from strangulation, heart attack or snapping of the spinal cord.

Executed prisoners were buried between the inner and outer walls of the Gaol, with only their initials and the execution date painted on the wall to mark their grave. A plain pine coffin was filled with quick lime to speed up the decomposition process. A body would only be released to family if a pardon was granted.

The last person hanged at the Adelaide Gaol was Glen Sabre Valance on 24 November 1964 before capital punishment was finally abolished in South Australia in December 1976.

Read about Ben Ellis, the hangman whose restless spirit still visits the Gaol today.

Stay Informed with DENRContact UsMedia CentreFire News