Adelaide Gaol Ghosts – Is this Prison Haunted?
Adelaide Gaol ghosts have long been rumoured, even back when it was a working prison. But what of its history? Why would the Old Adelaide Gaol be haunted?
South Australia was different to other States in Australia as it was a free colony, it was to be a new start for middle-class England. There were to be no convicts sent out to South Australia so the crime rate was expected to be low. For this reason, no provision had been made for a Gaol, and the few criminals that raised their heads were originally kept on the HMS Buffalo before it was recalled for duty. Prisoners were then kept in a tent or chained to a log which also proved undesirable, especially as friends would bring alcohol to them or they would escape easily. Soon a small hut was erected which they named the Stone Jug. This was built at the rear of Government House, still with the expectation that there would be no need for anything bigger. It wasn’t long before this small gaol became overcrowded, was easy to escape from and by 1838, the State was seeing its first execution. Wherever people go, the worst of human nature will closely follow. Not only were there opportunist criminals in our own state, but convicts who were given their ticket of leave or, who managed to escape, often made their way to South Australia too. The Stone Jug had served its purpose, and now there was a growing need for something larger and more secure.
Governor Gawler decided to invest in the building of a new Gaol, and tenders went out. Designed by George Strickland Kingston, and at the cost of 17-19,000 pounds, the Gaol opened its doors in 1841 ready to receive the influx of prisoners that at first didn’t come. It was said in the early days that it was attracting 2 prisoners a month. It also helped towards nearly bankrupting South Australia and Governor Gawler’s presence was requested back in England to ‘please explain’ why public money had been used in such a frivolous way. In fact, for many years the locals described it as an eyesore and a blemish on the landscape. By 1847/8 Governor Gawler’s vision came to fruition and the second half of this prison was needing to be built as the gaol started to fill. During its 147 years of working life, it eventually saw 300,000 prisoners walk through her doors. Forty-Five of them still remain there to this day!
Executions & Tragedies
The first person to be hanged in South Australia, on 2nd May 1838 was Michael Magee, the last was Glen Sabre Valance (real name Graham Fraser) in Nov 1964. During this period, there were 66 prisoners hanged in South Australia for the crime of murder. Forty-Five of these were executed at the Adelaide Gaol and still remain within the precinct of the Gaol in one of the two cemeteries there. All forty-five were hanged (not hung which, is the term for meat).
The first public hanging at the Gaol was Joseph Stagg in 1840 who had been accused of killing his friend after helping him escape the Stone Jug. As Stagg stood on the gallows, he reaffirmed his innocence but said that the person who was truly responsible, stood before him in the crowd. He never said the name before he plummeted to his death on the end of the rope. Public hangings were going well in what is now the car park of the Gaol, that was until a couple of thousand people started turning up for them. In fact, it was said that the onlookers behaved so badly that a law was passed to make it a more private affair inside the Adelaide Gaol.
The next execution area was the walkway between the two outer walls in an area we now call Section 5. This is where our most famous hanging took place, Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman to be executed in South Australia. Hers is a sad story full of abuse and tragedy. Elizabeth was born in Burra, but after her family home was wiped out by a flood, her father decided to try his luck on the Goldfields in Victoria. It was here that Elizabeth was attacked as a young child and left for dead. Many years later, after her father had passed away, she returned to South Australia to live with her mother. Her mother had left the family when she was young and now lived in Moonta. It was here that Elizabeth met Thomas Woolcock and became housekeeper/nanny to him and his young son. Thomas’s wife and a child had died from disease and he was trying to raise his remaining son on his own. However, rumours were rife and, a young unaccompanied girl under the roof of an older man in the 1800s was very much frowned upon. So Thomas proposed to her and they married. He too was abusive to the point that Elizabeth tried, but failed, to take her own life. Soon after Thomas became sick, finally passing away. The autopsy showed that he had died from Mercury poisoning and the finger pointed at Elizabeth. She was brought to Adelaide and found guilty of murdering her husband. She was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead and, on 30th Dec 1873, she climbed the steps to the gallows with a bunch of white flowers in her hands, to meet her fate. Hers is an intriguing and sad story and if you can get the book ‘Dead Woman Walking’ by Allan Peters, it is most definitely worth the read. One of the Adelaide Gaol Ghosts which is reported is a lady in a white dress. Could this be Elizabeth? More on this later.
The problem with using portable gallows is that it costs money each time it is erected and then taken back down, so a more permanent solution was needed and the New Building was chosen. This building is certainly not new as it was built in 1879, but it was the last of the main buildings to be completed at the Adelaide Gaol. It received the nickname the New Building back then and that nickname continues to this day. There were 21 hangings done in A-Wing (upper right side of the photo), some are buried in the second cemetery situated outside the end of A-Wing and others are over in ‘Murderers Row’. Hangings here proved to be inconvenient though as, the night before, all prisoners had to be removed from this section and placed elsewhere in the building. As the Gaol became over-crowded it became more difficult to do this so, finally, the gallows were moved to the second Guards Tower where it remains on show to this day.
But executions weren’t the only deaths in the Old Adelaide Gaol. There were numerous deaths by disease, natural causes and of course by inmate’s own hands. It is said over 300 people died at the Adelaide Gaol, some tragically such as Grace Williams on 10th Jan 1861. Grace had broken down after the death of her husband and was finally arrested as a lunatic. She was held at the Kapunda police station where she tried to take her own life by drinking boiling water. All she received for her efforts was blisters through her mouth, throat and nose. She was finally sent down to Adelaide in a weakened state and the trooper, who was worried about her deteriorating condition, tried to take her to the Adelaide Asylum as he knew she would get treated there. They refused to take her as the paperwork stated that she must be taken to the Adelaide Gaol. She was put in a cell without treatment and passed away during the night. She never got to see her children again which had been her greatest wish.
Adelaide Gaol Ghost Stories
The Adelaide Gaol ghosts first came to our attention back in 2002, when our research team, Paranormal Field Investigators were informed by volunteers and staff, that the Gaol was haunted. Ghost stories told included a lady dressed in white. The only lady to have worn a white dress was Elizabeth Woolcock on the day of her execution. The most memorable story regarding this was of a school group who had stayed the night. The students were allowed to wander the yards and in the morning approached one of the volunteers, Sue, and asked where the mannequin in the white dress which stood in yard 3, had gone. Sue explained there was no mannequin in Yard 3 and never had been. They were adamant that in the archway of the cell block there had been a figure of a lady dressed in white. She didn’t move or look at them so they assumed it had been a mannequin. There have also been reports of a lady in grey in the New Building, who is a mystery as no ladies were ever incarcerated in there. Could she be a settler from a time before the Gaol was built?
Strange happenings have also been reported in the Governors Quarters on the upper floor of the main building. Footsteps were often reported along with the sound of furniture being moved when the rooms were empty. Governor William Baker Ashton who was the first Governor of the Adelaide Gaol did indeed pass away in his bedroom upstairs. It would also appear his good nature attracts animals too. The Gaol manager at the time, Deanne, told how one day her cocker spaniel started to growl and ran to the foot of the old stairs leading up to the Governor’s quarters. Thinking maybe she had an intruder, she let the dog go up to tackle whoever might be there and, followed close behind. The dog ran into one of the rooms and stopped. Suddenly he jumped up excitedly at something unseen and then rolled onto his back as if expecting a tummy tickle. Deanne could see nobody there, but Governor Ashton was a dog lover, so maybe the dog saw him as a friend. Governor Ashton had a tragic time at the Gaol as he was accused of taking rations from prisoners, something he would never do as he was a kind but fair man. It was thought weight complications and stress were the cause of his death. Sadly, not long after he passed, his name was cleared but he never lived to see that happen.
The story that really captured our attention, was the one of the ghostly guard being seen and heard in the New Building. Nobody knows who he is, as no guard died in the Adelaide Gaol. Could a guard who died elsewhere have decided to return to a place he felt empowered and important? Described as being in the late 1800s/early 1900s uniform, he has not only been seen and heard by visitors and staff but, by a few living guards who were there when it was a working Gaol. For more on this go to an interview, I did with a guard who worked there which is linked at the end of this blog. He talks about all the paranormal occurrences he knew of while working there, including being called to Section 5 when it was reported that a prisoner was out and trying to escape, only to find nobody there. Strange, as the people monitoring the cameras could still see the figure!
Our Paranormal Research
In 2002 we were invited to check out the claims that the Old Adelaide Gaol was haunted by the then manager, Deanne Hanchant. We went in as our research team, Paranormal Field Investigators and were only going to stay for around 3 months, we ended up staying as the official researchers there for over ten years. As we searched for evidence of the Adelaide Gaol ghosts, we had so much happen in that first few months that it would have been silly to walk away. Nearly 20 years later we are still there as Adelaide Haunted Horizons, both researching and enabling the public to also try their hand at paranormal investigating. After all with our long association there, nobody knows the spooky side of the Gaol quite like we do!
In the early days, we were lucky that we had access to the Gaol whenever we wanted and we were able to stay all night. It quickly transpired that there did appear to be some strange phenomena happening in the Gaol. Most of what we had happen there can be read in my book ‘Ghosts of the Past’ (Link Below).
In the early days, we went in armed with video cameras, tape recorders (no digital back then) and basic EMF and thermometers. Our cameras, pen and paper were our best friends… oh how technology has changed over the years! We didn’t have the luxury of taking 100s of photos, as film was expensive to buy and develop so, photography was kept to a minimum. We even left equipment for days on end which would trigger the cameras to record if there were changes in the environment. This changed over the years and our arsenal has grown, having spent over $40,000 on equipment over the years. The dawn of digital has certainly made it much easier to investigate.
We purposely didn’t want to know too much in the early days, so that if we had anything happen, we could approach the manager and ask if it was relevant. I remember one of these times was when Bill, one of our investigators, was grabbed and pushed around by something unseen in the Induction Centre. I rarely saw him rattled, but on this occasion, he was physically shaking. On reporting to Deanne the next day, she explained this had happened more than once in the same spot. The other time I saw Bill rattled was when he was in the upper cell of Yard 4, a cell we where were told the light kept coming on. Bill had sat on the bed to do some meditation when the mattress indented as if somebody had sat down next to him.
We recorded a variety of E.V.P. (electronic voice phenomena), one of the more outstanding was a male voice caught by Jeff that seemingly says “Sergeant Murphy”. Could this be one of the Adelaide Gaol ghosts in the New Building? Another was in one of the solitary cells. We had two female investigators in there and as they were discussing how cold it had become, a male voice is clearly heard over their voices “I’m so cold!”.
One of the most embarrassing bits of equipment to use at the time was a device called a Ghost Box. Spils, my teammate brought it to me and asked if we could use it. I laughed and asked if he was serious. The ghost box is nothing more than a broken radio scanning through the A.M. bandwidth and white noise. Being rational it made sense to me that any responses we got would just be radio snippets and therefore we would try and fit those snippets to being answers. The first time we used it was in the laneway of the Gaol. As I expected we only heard garbled radio as it clicked through the stations. Feeling uncomfortable at my scepticism and out of desperation, Spils asked “Can you convince Alison by saying her name please?”. Suddenly the radio stopped clicking, which is the noise it makes while scanning, and there was a brief silence before a male voice clearly said “Alison” before the clicking commenced once more. “Coincidence” I stated. But I have to admit I drove home slightly intrigued that night. Since then, we have had many a strange response out of this, so I am a little more tolerant. Some of these responses can be found in the videos below.
The Adelaide Gaol ghosts never performed on cue and still don’t to this day. There are quiet times and then more active periods. All in their own time, not ours. However, the reports and stories continue to grow and the Adelaide Gaol continues to be not only an amazing historic location but an intriguing one for paranormal activity too!
Watch our Adelaide Gaol Videos
Read more on the ten years of research we did at the Gaol in my book ‘Ghosts of the Past’
For more Articles visit our Paranormal Blog
To see where else we have investigated go to Investigations in Australia and Overseas
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Author, blogger, Paranormal Researcher
and owner of Haunted Horizons