Women at the gaol

Saint Mary MacKillop, who founded the Order of the Sisters of St Joseph in 1867 shortly after her arrival in South Australia, was a regular visitor at Adelaide Gaol. Mary and the sisters cared for prisoners and encouraged both male and female inmates to change their ways and keep away from crime on their release.

The most dramatic events that took place at the Gaol concerned Elizabeth Woolcock - the only woman executed in South Australia.

Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock was born in Burra in 1847. In her short and tragic life she was abandoned by her mother at the age of four, at six years old she witnessed the death of a family friend and at seven she was brutally assaulted by a miner. Her attacker, George Shaughshaw, was sentenced to death but the sentence was changed to 15 years, the first three to be served in irons.

After marrying a miner, Thomas Woolcock, at the age of 20, Elizabeth was convicted of murdering him by mercury poising in 1873.

At the trial, damning medical evidence was presented to show how Elizabeth could have poisoned her husband over a period of time. The court also heard testimonies from townspeople about the symptoms of the illness that killed Thomas, Elizabeth's reputation for unruly behaviour and their unfortunate marriage.

Defiant but inarticulate, Elizabeth had little chance of winning the case. The jury took less than half an hour to find her guilty of murder, but recommended mercy because of her youth. The recommendation was ignored and Elizabeth was hanged to death in the Adelaide Gaol at the age of 25.

Her body was buried between the inner and outer walls of the Gaol and is marked 31EW 30.12.1873.

There is movement putting forward a proposal that Elizabeth Woolcock be pardoned.

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