Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Death penalty: was Elizabeth innocent?

Here's an article I wrote recently with a Yorke Peninsula connection.

The only woman hanged in South Australia: Elizabeth Woolcock.

Was this a case of wrongful conviction? Even by the harsh standards of the time, the verdict of "murder by poisoning" was doubtful. The man who died was her often-drunk husband, Thomas Woolcock, who was almost certainly fatally ill from industrial poisoning, acquired in the lethally toxic environment where he worked as a miner in South Australia's "Copper Triangle".

Worked by men recruited from Cornwall, England – famous for their long mining traditions – these mines produced mainly copper but also tin and lead.

Elizabeth was 26 years old when she was hanged soon after dawn on December 30th 1873 in the Adelaide Gaol. Born in 1847 in the mining town of Burra, South Australia, Elizabeth Oliver was therefore only four years old when her Cornish immigrant parents took her east to the State of Victoria in 1851 where Australia's gold rush was under way.

Her mother went off with another man leaving her miner father to raise the young girl the best he could, but fate dealt a further cruel blow when the father died. Elizabeth was just nine. Little is known of her next nine years. But at the age of 18 she re-connected with her mother – not seen since Elizabeth was four – and the new family settled in Moonta, one of those three South Australian Copper Triangle towns, heartland of the Cornish immigrant community. Mother and daughter appear to have been on good enough terms after the long separation, and the stepfather was a decent fellow. Elizabeth at 18 was teaching in the Sunday School of the Wesleyan Church when she met and married Thomas Woolcock. What went wrong?

We will never know full details of the eight years between that time and her being accused of Woolcock's supposed murder, and Elizabeth's subsequent execution. Today we would probably call her marriage to Thomas Woolcock one of domestic abuse, going by witness statements during the trial. But did she poison him? Was he perhaps already dying from industrial poisoning?

This was a sad page in the history of the young colony, a mere 37 years from its founding in 1836. Visitors today can reflect as they read a memorial to Elizabeth Woolcock at the Old Adelaide Gaol which is now, ironically, a rather cheerful environment as a popular convention centre.

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