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December 02, 2007
Daisy de Melker, mugshot 1932
Daisy killed the old fashion way, with arsenic and strychnine.
No one present at the birth of Daisy Louisa Hancorn-Smith had reason to believe that she would one day be famous or, for that matter, infamous. A generation would grow up before a baby girl born in South Africa would again be named Daisy – such was the unpleasant odor that clung to the name.
It was Thursday, June 1, 1886. The place was Seven Fountains, 25 miles from the town of Grahamstown, in the British Cape Colony. The city of Cape Town was 550 miles further south.
Grahamstown was a frontier town: Antelope, leopard and lynx roamed the surrounding valleys. As for Seven Fountains, it was a cluster of white-washed homesteads with corrugated-iron roofs and wooden verandas. The locals were farming folk: A small plot of land surrounded each homestead. They spoke English and not Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-descendant Boer people, the majority of the colony's inhabitants, and they attended the English church. Indeed, they looked on themselves as Brits, which they were. Most had arrived from Britain not all that long into the past, while the rest were descendant from the boatloads of British (English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish) settlers who had arrived in the colony in 1820, 66 years before Daisy's birth.
Newborn Daisy's parents also hailed from England, and like all the others at Seven Fountains, Mr. Hancorn-Smith was trying his hand at farming; dairy farming in his case. He was not a poor man, but the colony was poor and therefore the homestead in which Daisy was born had neither electricity nor hot running water. Mr. Hancorn-Smith also had quite a few mouths to feed: Daisy was the couples' sixth child, and they would still have five more. Eventually, the family would consist of seven girls and four boys.
Daisy was rather pretty. She had blue eyes and a clear complexion. Unfortunately, she had a split palate which messed up her speech. She also had the most unmanageable dark wavy hair.
But Daisy was a friendly child and as her peers were soon to realize, she was also intelligent – "bright," as they said. Not that intelligence was going to take her far in life. Seven Fountains was the kind of place that no one ever left: If you were born there, you died there. It was, though, something that seemed to suit everyone. Or at least everyone but Mr.Hancorn-Smith. Therefore, around Daisy's 8th birthday, he started to speak of "going north".
Those days what was meant by "going north" was that a man was going to go and dig for gold, because in the year of Daisy's birth prospectors had discovered a major gold reef in what was to become known as the Witwatersrand – the "ridge of white waters." (The name derives from the optical illusion formed when rain falls on gold quartz rock and makes it look like glistening water.) But Mr. Hancorn-Smith did not have gold prospecting in mind. He was going to bypass the newly-founded Johannesburg with its timber and corrugated-iron shacks on treeless, dusty streets, to head for Rhodesia, the other Southern-African British colony that was north of the great Limpopo River. (Rhodesia was named after mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes. It is today Zimbabwe.) Land, he had heard, was plentiful up there and was even being given away. He was going to go and see whether he could make a better living up in this "new" colony. He took his two eldest sons, strapping young men, with him.
The letters the three Hancorn-Smith men had written home must have painted a rosy picture of life in Rhodesia, because in 1896, several families from Seven Fountains set off, too. Among the families was Daisy. She was just 10 years old. Why the girl should have joined her father and two brothers is not known, but there were alarming rumors of war between the Boer people and their British rulers which might have decided Mrs. Hancorn-Smith that Daisy would be safer with her father and brothers. Yet, it might just have been that a woman was needed to darn the socks and serve the soup "up north".
Daisy set off by train. The previous year the railroad track that had linked Cape Town and the diamond town of Kimberley since 1885 had been lengthened to run all the way north to the "new" Rhodesian town of Bulawayo. It was a seven-day journey with frequent stops at junctions to pick up and drop off not only passengers but also farm produce and livestock. Daisy had taken a basket of provisions along for the journey as well as her own pillow and blankets. That was the norm when undertaking such a long train journey those days.
The 10-year-old settled down well on her father's farm. She was enrolled at a school that served the farm children. Each day a farmhand took her to the school in the farm's buggy and mid-afternoon, he picked her up again. Soon, two of her older sisters, both married women, arrived in Rhodesia as well.
In 1899, Daisy was back in the Cape Colony: She was enrolled as a resident scholar at the Good Hope Seminary in Cape Town. The seminary was quite an elite establishment: Daisy wore a black and white uniform, and black stockings and a white panama hat. She stayed at the seminary until 1903 and then she returned to Rhodesia. She was 17 years old and quite the young lady. Colonial girls grew up fast, but what also catapulted Daisy from childhood to womanhood was that in the year of her arrival at the seminary the war everyone had been talking about had finally broken out. The Boer War, as it was then called, (today it is known as the Second Anglo-Boer War) had raged for the entire time that Daisy was at the seminary.
Back in Rhodesia, Daisy met a young man and for the first time she fell in love. The young man was named Bert Fuller. Bert cut a dashing figure in a British Army khaki uniform and pith helmet. He was assistant commissioner of Native Affairs which meant that he helped administer the colony by supervising the "natives" (the indigenous Matabele nation). It was an enviable job: He was paid quite well; he would one day receive a substantial pension; he lived in free government housing; he had servants (a housekeeper, a cook and a gardener), and he had an automobile.
Daisy, though, despite the promise of an easy life that such benefits would supply, was not yet ready to settle down. She had plans: She wanted to become a nurse. Therefore, bidding Bert goodbye, she returned to the Cape Colony and enrolled at a nursing school in Durban, Natal. Natal, although it was separately governed, was geographically part of the Cape Colony. (Natal, on the south-east Indian Ocean coast of Southern Africa was "discovered" on Christmas Day 1497 by the Portuguese seafarer, Vasco da Gama, who named it "Rio de Natal" – Christmas River. Today, Natal, as KwaZulu-Natal, forms part of the Republic of South Africa.)
The young trainee nurse spent three years at the Berea Nursing Home. Berea was a leafy, middle-class, hilltop area of Durban. No one there spoke Afrikaans, the language of the Boer further south: In fact, the Boer was as despised there as the indigenous Zulu.
In 1906, Daisy returned to Rhodesia: She had not finished her nursing training, but she had left the Berea Nursing Home for good. In Rhodesia, Bert with his benefits was waiting. That time, Daisy could not resist him and the perks. She agreed to marry him. The two became engaged. The date for the wedding was set. It was to be on Saturday, March 2, 1907, the beginning of the African fall. Bert had in the meantime been transferred to a place named Matetsi near the Victoria Falls. Matetsi was proper bushveld of wiry, gray shrubs, aloes and thorn trees. If one looked out a window on a hot day, and most of the days the temperature shot past 110 degrees Fahrenheit, one saw tall, thin buck dance on the gleaming, silvery water of a lake, but it would just be a mirage.
The bushveld was not Daisy's idea of life. No sooner had she said "yes" to Bert than she asked for the wedding to be postponed. She suggested that they should marry only in October. She was living with one of her brothers on his farm near Bulawayo, but had visited Bert several times in Matetsi. To her chagrin, he was rather down medically speaking. Not that it worried her, or him. One caught all kinds of diseases living a frontier life: Malaria, bilharziasis; tetanus; sprue; dysentery and all sorts of fevers.
The reason Daisy had given Bert for the postponement of the wedding was that she wanted to return to the Cape Colony to complete her nursing training. She really would like, she confessed, to get her nursing diploma so that she could do a little bit of nursing before she settled down as a married woman. Wives did not normally work in those days and to have done so gave out the message that money was in short supply. Bert understood. He even confessed that he might join her down in the Cape. Meanwhile, he decided, he was going to make a will: Did one not take a gamble living a frontier life and was it not wiser to get one's affairs in order? On the day Daisy set off by train back to the Cape, she knew that should anything happen to Bert, she would inherit whatever he had, and the British Colonial Office would even pay out to her what money had accumulated in his pension fund.
Daisy did not go all the way to Durban, but got off the train at the Johannesburg railroad station. She had enrolled at the nursing school of a hospital in the town of Boksburg, close to Johannesburg. Hardly, though, had Daisy unpacked her suitcase, than a telegram arrived for her from Rhodesia. Bert was ill. Bert was so ill that it was unlikely that he would survive, therefore, should she want to see him again, she should come immediately. Daisy did not hesitate. Of course, she wanted to see the dying Bert. What was wrong with him? Bert's doctor had diagnosed blackwater fever. Bert was suffering terrible fevers, fevers that left him shivering and babbling nonsense, and his urine was black. (Blackwater fever is a complication of malaria.)
On Saturday, March 2, of that year of 1907, the day that Daisy should have been dressed in white to marry Bert, she was instead dressed in black from head to toe for his funeral. For the three months she was to remain in Rhodesia, she was too overcome with grief to ask about Bert's will: Was there not a time and place for everything?
In July, Daisy was back at the hospital in Boksburg to resume her nursing training. She was, however, complaining of suffering fevers. Going off sick, she said she must have caught blackwater fever from Bert. Daisy's blackwater fever was not, though, fatal. She recovered, did her practical exam and was preparing to start nursing, but in December another missive from Rhodesia arrived, and she was back on the train to return "north." The letter was from a lawyer: Bert had left her ₤95 pounds in his will. Ninety-five pounds was quite a substantial amount in 1907 when a married worker's weekly wage was around ₤4 a week. Should Daisy go slow with her spending, she need not work for at least six months.
How kind of the poor Bert Fuller to have thought of his little tousled-haired fiancée, Daisy.
Marriage and Motherhood
Daisy was soon back in the Cape Colony. She moved in with a relative as a paying guest and started to work as a nurse at a Johannesburg hospital. It was 1908, she was 22 years old, and an independent young woman, something very rare in the colony at that time.
Both the staff and the patients at the hospital liked Daisy. She was an exceptionally caring nurse, they said. So she was. Having experienced bereavement herself, and at such an early age, she seemed to excel at empathizing with women grieving at the bedsides of their suffering, dying husbands.
Some time during that year Daisy met William Alfred (Alf) Cowle, a 36-year-old bachelor who hailed from the Isle of Man. (The Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, is geographically halfway between the coasts of Northern Ireland and north-west England. It is a self-governing British Crown Dependency with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State.) He was a plumber and worked for the Johannesburg municipality maintaining the city's drains. He was considered quite a catch: He earned ₤7 and 2 shillings a week, in other words, more than the average worker.
On Christmas Day 1908, Daisy and Al became engaged, and on Wednesday, March 3, 1909, one day after the second anniversary of Bert Fuller's funeral, the two were married. The ceremony took place in the St. Mary the Less Anglican church in the heart of Johannesburg. As was the local custom, the couple signed a marriage contract in the presence of an attorney. They had the choice of agreeing to an Ante Nuptial contract or a Community of Property contract. The latter was exactly what it said: All their assets on marriage became their joint property. Under Ante Nuptial, what was "his" remained his, and what was "hers" remained hers. This was what the two chose.
The two newlyweds moved into a house in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein – "turf" or "peat" fountain. The house, at Number 22 Tully Street was modest. The toilet was in the backyard and was what was called a "dry latrine." A couple of nights a week, around midnight, a "latrine" truck came to pick up the filled bucket and to leave an empty one. Turffontein had the reputation of not being the healthiest of areas to live in. The reason was that Turffontein had sprung up right in the center of an area dotted with slime dumps from the gold mines.
The slime did soon get to Alf's "English" constitution, a constitution much more fragile than that of his 23-year-old wife, and 14 years his junior. Alf suffered from a bad back and from a weak stomach. He had grown up on the Isle of Man's national fare – "spuds an' herrin," boiled potatoes and herring – and his stomach could not cope with the great quantities of fatty meat and spicy stews the locals served up. Even Daisy, though she fancied herself as an excellent cook, did not go lightly with the curry and coriander.
In 1910, Daisy gave birth to twins to her and everybody's surprise, as it was not possible those days to tell whether a woman was carrying more than one baby. The babies were born prematurely and were weak little things. They would die in infancy, not because of any specific illness, but only due to their general fragility.
Soon after the twins' birth, Daisy was pregnant again. She gave birth to a boy on Sunday, June 11, 1911. The baby was named Rhodes Cecil after non-other than Cecil John Rhodes, the mining magnate and politician after whom Rhodesia was named. (Rhodes had been Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890/1895.)
Rhodes Cecil, or Rhodes, as his parents called him, was also not all that strong a child, but he was able to fight off all the little ailments of infancy. Just as well too because he was Daisy's pride and joy.
Another son, this one named Lester, was born two years after Rhodes. He came into the world on Sunday, June 1, 1913, the day Daisy turned 27. In 1915, she gave birth to another son. That child was named Eric. Lester was to live for just over four years: On October 19, 1917, he passed away. The cause of death as recorded on the boy's death certificate was: "abscess on the liver."
Lester's death was the fourth in Daisy's life in 10 years, or since the death of Bert Fuller. And there was still to be another death because within weeks of Lester dying, Eric, too, passed away. The illness that carried the child off was not recorded.
Four years after these two deaths, Daisy, Alf and Rhodes left Turffontein and moved to a new house in the heart of Johannesburg. The house was at Number 67 Terrace Road in an area named Bertrams that dated from 1889, or the third year of the existence of the city of Johannesburg.
It was 1922 and Daisy was a full-time mother to Rhodes and wife to Alf. She still adored Rhodes, who, at 11 years of age, was rather spoiled, but in much better health than he had been in his infancy. Alf, at 49, was however in very poor health. Not only had his stomach problems prevailed through the years, but he also suffered from hemorrhoids and a fistula. The Cape food and Daisy's cooking certainly did not agree with him.
Soon after the move to Bertrams, the sickly Alf went into hospital to have surgical treatment for both the hemorrhoids and fistula. He was also treating himself with some old wives' concoctions for the frequent stomach upsets. Often he also drank syrups pharmacists mixed especially for him. Once, back in 1914, when the Cowles had been on holiday in Durban, such a syrup had almost killed him, yet, back home, he had taken the pharmacist's prescription to another to have more of the stuff mixed for him. It too, and all the other concoctions, did not give him any relief from his intestinal discomforts.
Daisy, the loving wife, confessed to her neighbors and some friends and family that she had become rather worried about Alf's health. He was a good husband, she said: Despite his frailty, he had built a high brick wall around their property. The money that Alf was bringing into the family home was also so very welcome.
Alf had started to sleep badly too. Daisy urged him to consult a doctor. Alf had consulted three doctors in the past: The Drs. J. J. Perlman, A.E.H. Pakes and P.J. Leighton. The latter was in private practice, while the other two were the official medical practitioners with the Johannesburg municipality's medical fund. Alf, though, refused to seek advice from the three again: Real men did not run to the doctor because they did not sleep all that well.
It was 1923. On Monday, Jan. 8, Daisy finally persuaded Alf to consult a doctor. Shunning the medical fund's two doctors, he made an appointment with Dr. Leighton. It was for that coming Friday. Thursday morning Alf was suffering such excruciating stomach cramps that he could not get out of bed. When Daisy talked to him, his replies were incoherent. She called the neighbors to come and help. They stood at his bedside as helplessly as she. Alf was vomiting; Alf was coughing; Alf was perspiring; Alf was constipated; Alf was screaming with pain. Daisy helped him drink a glass of Epsom salts she herself had mixed. (Epsom salts is a laxative in the form of tiny white crystals and it contains magnesium and sulfate.) Daisy, almost frantic, summoned Dr. Leighton who rapidly examined Alf and left a prescription for medication with Daisy, but before the day ended, Alf was dead. He was 50. Daisy was 37 and remembering Bert's death, she felt as if she'd been widowed for a second time.
Dr. Leighton, summoned back to come and issue Alf's death certificate, refused to do so. He wanted an autopsy. It was performed by Dr. B.W.H. Fergus, acting police pathologist for the Transvaal. (In 1910 the Cape Colony with the British-ruled Natal and the two "rebellious" Boer "republics" – Transvaal and Orange Free State – the main protagonists of the Second Anglo-Boer War - had united to form the "self-governed" Union of South Africa. The Union had remained until 1960 when it had become the white-ruled "apartheid" Republic of South Africa which comprised four "provinces," that of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State, each with its own capital. White rule ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the country's first president elected by universal suffrage.)
In Dr. Fergus's autopsy report, dated Jan. 12, 1923, the cause of Alf's death was given as Bright's Syndrome which had caused a cerebral hemorrhage. (Bright's Syndrome is a disease of the kidneys which can be either acute or chronic.)
With no foul play suspected, Daisy could bury the man who had been her husband for 14 years. She called Hobkirk Undertakers from Johannesburg to collect the departed one's body from the state morgue. With refrigeration facilities rare and January being the hottest month in southern Africa, Alf was buried the next day in the Johannesburg cemetery of Brixton. Daisy was heartbroken.
With Alf gone, Daisy had a financial problem: His Friday pay packet would no longer be coming in and there was little money in the bank. Fortunately, it was a problem soon solved. Alf, like Bert Fuller, had not died intestate. Daisy had seen to it that he made a will and he had left her everything he had to his name. It came to ₤1245 13s 2d as well as a pension fund pay-out of ₤553 8s 3d. With more than ₤1178 to her name, widow Daisy could be described as a "widow of means." Also, the house at Number 67 Terrace Road in Bertrams had been bought in her name. The bond Alf had taken out to buy the property still had a few years to run before it would be fully reimbursed, but that would not be a problem. As it was, Daisy could even have bought herself a second home, one she could have let. A nice little two-bedroom house would not have cost her more than ₤300 pounds.
Daisy, though, still wanted to return to work. As she had not done any nursing for years and since it was an ever-changing profession, she was not certain that she could just walk into a nursing job. So, she became a hospital porter at the Children's Memorial Hospital in the Braamfontein area of Johannesburg. She started in November and she would work there for almost three years until July 1926. (If the South Africans are to believe, though, Daisy never really left the hospital: She, or rather her ghost, apparently still walks along the hospital's long, silent corridors. Hospital staff even claim that when her ghost appears at the bedside of an ill child, that child dies.)
Content as she was at having landed a job at a hospital, albeit only to push stretchers to and from the operating theatre, Daisy had a new worry. The beloved Rhodes's health was not all that it ought to have been. The 12-year-old had begun to suffer from epilepsy. Also, Rhodes was a bit of a dunce.
But to the latter, Daisy found a solution. Blaming incompetent teachers for Rhodes's learning problems, she sent him to a private school in Natal. The school, Hilton College, in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, was not only South Africa's most prestigious, but it was also Africa's premier private school. After matriculating at Hilton, the young scholars normally continued their studies at the universities of Harvard, Yale, Cambridge or Oxford.
Rhodes, a resident scholar, wore the school's black shorts, knee-high black socks, white shirt, black tie and black cap, which cost Daisy a small fortune. Such attire did nothing to increase his brain-power, though, and he stayed at the school for only a year. He returned home without having passed a single examination. Daisy would not accept defeat. She sent him to yet another top school. That was Marits Brothers College, and although it was in Johannesburg, he was again a resident scholar: Daisy thought that he would be a more enthusiastic scholar if he could study in the company of other boys, rather than alone at home. Her tactic was not successful, yet Rhodes managed to hang on there for three years, but, aged 16 and still without any diplomas, he was back home. Next, Daisy enrolled him at a trade school. He was going to become a plumber, just like his late dad.
Trying Marriage Again
Robert (Bob) Sproat was 46 years old when he met Daisy Cowle. He was 5'6" in height and weighed 138 pounds, therefore not very well-built for a man: Not a colonial man, in any case. But then Bob was from England: He had arrived in the Colony in 1903, 23 years before meeting Daisy.
Bob was a bachelor; why he was is not known. It might have been because he did not want the financial liability that would have accompanied a wife and kids. Bob was a plumber just like the late Alf. In fact, he and Alf had been colleagues: Bob, too, was employed by the Johannesburg municipality. He earned ₤7.4s a week and it was money he had liked to spend on himself, certainly. He used to sail back home to England often for a vacation with his aged, widowed mother; he was a sassy dresser, and he had an automobile. Another reason for his bachelorhood might have been that he liked beer a little too much.
But widow Daisy was looking for a husband and she focused on Bob. Having been married for 14 years, life on her own was not to Daisy's liking: There was a great big emptiness in her life where once there had been companionship. There was also the sex part of marriage that she missed: All the men who had ever crossed her path had concluded that she was accomplished between the sheets. She also needed a man's hand in dealing with Rhodes. Adorable as she thought he was, she had started to accept that he had no wish to study and that his heart wasn't even in the plumbing career she had chosen for him.
Daisy and Bob – he was 16 years her senior - were married on July 1, 1926, or just over three years after Alf's death. The two signed an Ante Nuptial contract. Daisy knew the story: Bob, just like Alf, would leave everything in a will to her. She had a good idea how much he had to his name. He had a rather large stock portfolio: It came to ₤1088 15s. He also had some savings and then should he die before the age of retirement whatever he had already paid into the municipality's pension fund would go to his widow – in other words, to her. Bob was in all aspects a "catch." His portfolio of shares alone could buy two fairly large houses.
Once married, Bob moved from an apartment he rented from the municipality into the house at Number 67 Terrace Road with Daisy and Rhodes. The latter did not hit it off so greatly with his stepfather. Soon, the stepfather also started to dislike his stepson: He thought Rhodes was a spoiled young man, because whatever he wanted his mother immediately bought him.
History was repeating itself, because Bob Sproat turned out not a healthy man. Just like Alf, he had a weak digestive system: He suffered from stomach cramps and indigestion. Also like Alf, he was a real sucker for old wives' concoctions and for over-the-counter medicine. Bob, though, did consult doctors, several of them. Two – Pakes and Perlman of the municipality's medical fund – had already treated the late Alf. A third of Bob's doctors, Dr. S.S. Mallinick, had a local private practice.
In June 1927, Daisy and Bob were busy preparing to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, when Bob suddenly collapsed. He had a severe pain "in his side," as he told Daisy. Dr. Pakes was summoned to Terrace Road three times in as many days. He diagnosed indigestion. The following month, the couple, by then having celebrated their first anniversary, Pakes was again called to the house: Bob was in such agony that he could hardly breathe. Pakes again diagnosed indigestion and prescribed medication. The medication had no effect on Bob's condition.
Next, Dr. Mallinick was called to the house because Bob had collapsed yet again. Mallinick, after having taken Bob's blood pressure and having listened to his heart, diagnosed high-blood pressure and arteriosclerosis as the problem. He explained to Bob that, as a plumber, he must be working with lead and that the lead had certainly caused his arteriosclerosis. Bob, who did not believe what he was being told, stayed in bed for a few days and then, saying he felt a little better, returned to work.
Bob also had very bad teeth and on Saturday, Oct. 8, he had two teeth pulled out. As was the norm, he was given chloroform to put him out for the extraction. That night, as his mouth was still bleeding, he did not sleep much, but the next day, he took Daisy out for a drive. On getting back home, because his mouth was still bleeding, he went into the bathroom to gargle with a mouthwash. Stepping back into the bedroom, he just had time to sit down on the bed before he passed out. Daisy telephoned Dr. Pakes, but he was not available, so she called Dr. Mallinick instead.
By the time Mallinick arrived at Terrace Road, Bob's stomach was contracted into such a severe spasm that he was screaming for help. He gave Bob an injection which he said was for the pain and then he left.
Half an hour later Daisy called Mallinick again. Could he return because the injection had not dulled Bob's pain at all. Mallinick returned to Terrace Road and injected Bob yet again. As with the first injection, he did not explain what the substance was he was injecting into the suffering Bob, but said that it would certainly ease the pain. He also left a prescription for medication.
Bob's best friend, a fellow plumber named Billy Johnston, arrived at the house soon after Mallinick had left. Daisy had telephoned him to say that Bob was in a bad way. Daisy left Billy with Bob to go and telephone Bob's brother, William, to ask him to come to his brother's "death bed." William Sproat, who had settled in South Africa soon after Bob had done so, lived in the city of Pretoria, 36 miles from Johannesburg. He would be on the first train to Johannesburg he promised Daisy. The road between the two cities was not in a good condition, so it would be much safer and faster to use the railroad.
During the night, waiting for William to arrive, Bob, like Daisy and Billy, certain that he was dying, remembered that he had not made a will. Or at least, he had made a will on one of his vacations in England, but that was before he had married Daisy and he had therefore left all his possessions to his mother. Worried about it, Bob grabbed hold of Billy's arm and asked him to remember what he was going to tell him: Daisy was his heir and his "only" heir.
At 4 a.m., William Sproat arrived at Bob's bedside. Immediately, the two started to "talk" last wills and testaments. Bob had rallied somehow and though pale was not in such atrocious pain. He asked his brother to remember that he was verbally changing his will: He wanted Daisy to be his heir, his sole heir.
That morning, Monday, Oct. 10, William assisted Bob to draw up and sign a new will. Daisy was present. Bob used a standard "Last Will and Testament" form which Daisy had gone to fetch from somewhere in the house.
The will signed, Daisy summoned Dr. Pakes. When he arrived Daisy and Bob told him about Dr. Mallinick's injections. Pakes listened and told the couple not to take notice of what Dr. Mallinick had said and that Bob should not take the medication Mallinick had prescribed.
On Tuesday, Bob was better. He was so much better that he got out of bed and went to work. He also had a prescription Dr. Pakes had given him made up at a pharmacy. The prescription was for a "tonic." Bob was weak and needed a tonic to give him a little energy was what Pakes had said.
That week passed. A month passed. Bob had no further "attacks," but his chronic digestive problems were still very much present. But he had learned to live with those.
It was Sunday again: Nov. 6. Daisy and Bob were going to go for a drive: They loved their Sunday afternoon drives. On waking, Bob told Daisy that he wasn't feeling all that well. He thought he should take some of Dr. Pakes' tonic. He did. He also had a beer: His chronic digestive problems had done nothing over the years to stop his love for the stuff. Daisy started to cook lunch. It was hot. Temperatures were in the high 90's. The house's windows and doors were wide open. Bob was in the living room. Rhodes was ambling around in the garden. Finding it too hot outside, he walked into the living room for a chat with Bob. Bob was lying stretched out on the sofa. He was ashen in the face. Rivulets of perspiration ran over his cheeks. Rhodes screamed for Daisy to come and have a look. Unable to get Bob to respond to her shouts for him to wake up, she summoned Dr. Pakes.
Dr. Pakes was again not available: He did not work on Sundays. Dr. Perlman was also not available. Dr. Mallinick was. When he got to Terrace Road, Bob, with the help of the next-door neighbor, a man named Louis Bradshaw, had been put into his pajamas and was in bed. Mallinick gave Bob one look and announced that he had suffered a stroke. He told Daisy that her husband was dying; that he had only a few more minutes to live. Mallinick left the room, apparently to call a colleague, and while he was away, Bob did indeed die. Daisy was certain he had died of a heart attack. Mallinick would hear nothing of it. In the death certificate he wrote out immediately, he stated that Bob Sproat had died of arteriosclerosis and a cerebral hemorrhage.
Daisy was a widow for the second time. Experienced in such matters, she called the same undertaker she had used for Alf. She wanted Bob buried beside Alf. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Daisy sobbed bitterly when Bob's casket was lowered into the grave; Rhodes looked shocked but seemed in control of his emotions.
Bob left Daisy more than Bert and Alf had done together. He left her ₤4174 – his portfolio of shares had grown – and a pension pay-out of ₤566 15s 9d. Bob had not omitted to mention his car in the will. It too went to Daisy. Because of such an inheritance, at 41, Daisy had become "comfortably off," as the locals called anyone who was not exactly a pauper.
In June 1928, six months into her second widowhood, Daisy set off for a long vacation in England. Rhodes, unemployed, having failed his plumbing apprenticeship, went along. The two left by train for Cape Town where they boarded a cruise liner from the Union Castle Line for the 12-day voyage to Southampton. Over the years several relatives in England had offered to put Daisy up should she decide on visiting "ye olde country," and Daisy took up their offers. Before her departure she had also written to Bob's aged mother to say that she and her son would be in England and asking whether they could stay with her. The old lady's reply had been that she was not in a financial or physical position to offer anyone hospitality.
For three months Daisy and Rhodes toured England, then, they were back on ship for the long voyage to Johannesburg via Cape Town. Back at the Terrace Road house, Daisy entertained the neighbors with the tales of her travels. Obviously, she and Rhodes had had a splendid time, but she also griped about how the two of them had struggled to get the motorbike she had bought Rhodes in England on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train. The bike, a shiny machine of power and prestige, was parked outside on the street for all to admire, and to oblige those who wanted a quick spin around the block.
From August 1928, the month Daisy had arrived back in Johannesburg, to around the middle of 1930, she lived, to all appearances, the life of a grieving widow: She didn't go out partying and wasn't dating. She again had a money problem. What she had inherited from Bob was slowly running out and that which she had inherited from Bert and Alf had long since been spent. She tried to get back her job as a hospital porter – she had resigned in order to take the vacation to England - but she was told that, as her replacement was working well, there was no need to dismiss him.
Rhodes too was a problem yet again. Having failed his plumbing exam, he was drifting from one menial job to another. He got the jobs easily, but after two or three months he was dismissed, or as he told Daisy, he had been paid off because his employer had run out of money: Always the same excuse. He had worked as a salesman in a haberdashery; he had given plumbing a go despite not having qualified; he had done deliveries for shops, and he had worked on a building site, doing odd jobs. He had lasted three months in that one, but he was puny in stature, and construction work was for heftier men.
Because of Rhodes's inability to bring money into the household, he and Daisy started to quarrel, quarrel loudly. The neighbors heard the shouting. Yet, in 1930, at Easter, the two, apparently best friends again, set off for another vacation. They went to Rhodesia. Daisy's father was no longer alive – her mother had passed away too – but she still had two brothers and two sisters who were living in Rhodesia and they put her and Rhodes up. The relatives did not much care for Rhodes – they thought he was lazy, spoiled and rude – but they thought that Daisy was a wonderfully caring person, and a most loving mother to Rhodes.
To Daisy's delight soon after that vacation, Rhodes got a job. He was to repair service vehicles - automobiles and trucks - for the government of Swaziland. He was to be based in the town of Bremersdorp. (The Kingdom of Swaziland lies between South Africa and Mozambique. It was a British Protectorate in 1930. Bremersdorp, today named Manzini, was the capital at that time. Lobamba is the current capital.)
What Rhodes knew about automobile repairs is perhaps not something to dwell on, but he was good at repairing his motorcycle which must have given him the idea that he could therefore also repair a truck.
Twice Daisy went to Bremersdorp to visit Rhodes. On each visit, he asked her for money and she handed it over, but she also reprimanded him for overspending. Working as a mechanic wasn't all that lucrative, not if you were unqualified like Rhodes, and his salary was less than ₤4 a week.
Daisy always took gifts for Rhodes along too. And always some cookies she had baked especially for him. On one visit, she also took him a Last Will and Testament form. He was to make a will, she told him: A man should not die intestate. That was something Daisy knew all too well.
Alone in the house on Terrace Road, Daisy was lonely. She started to think of marrying again. But to do so, she needed a man, a lonely one just like her, and, more important, he would have to be looking for a wife.
Daisy found him. He was Sidney (Sid) Clarence de Melker also known as "Slapie" de Melker. "Slapie" is Afrikaans for "nap." A pair of sleepy eyes gave the impression that he was about to nod off.
Loving Husband … Problem Son
Sid de Melker used to be famous. In 1930, aged 46 and falling in love with Daisy, he had, though, already learned how fickle fame was. In 1906, aged 22, he had played rugby for South Africa; he had been a "Springbok," as the South African rugby players were and still are called, and in that year he had toured the British Isles with the team. At that time, he had thought that the fame he was experiencing would last forever, but after 24 years, few were those who could even remember the name. Daisy … Daisy remembered.
Sid was, like Alf and Bob, a plumber. He worked at a gold mine, the Simmer and Jack Gold Mine at Germiston, north-east of Johannesburg. (John Jack, a Scotsman, had founded the mining company in the late 1880's with a partner, August Simmer, thus the name. The town that had sprung up around the mine, Jack had named "Germiston" after the Glasgow area where he hailed from.)
Sid always made certain that everyone understood that he was not a miner, not as such. Miners were always black men, and they were the ones who went down into the earth to dig for gold. No, Sid, as a plumber – and a white man – was part of "management" and "management" was always "European," the legal racial classification of whites. The others, the "non-Europeans," were the country's indigenous African, Khoi and San peoples, as well as immigrant Asians and people born of interracial marriages and liaisons, known as "coloreds."
As a "European," Sid lived in a neat white-washed cottage with a red-painted corrugated iron roof – Number 19 Simmer East Cottages – that was in a compound that was owned by the mine and where only whites were allowed to live. The "non-Europeans" lived in "townships," areas outside of the white town and cities.
A widower, Sid shared his home with his daughter, Eileen Norah, an only child. She was 19 and training to be a teacher. Some time, somewhere, Eileen had met Daisy and although the age difference was too great between the two for them to have become friends, they never passed one another without stopping to exchange niceties. Early in 1930, the two had run into each other again. On that day, Sid had been with his daughter and knowing Daisy by sight and reputation – he had heard that she had been widowed twice and that she had nursed her dying husbands with tender care – he had been glad to see her again. Lonely himself, it had been only a matter of days before he and Daisy had become an item.
On Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1931, a sweltering hot summer day, Daisy Louisa Sproat and Sidney Clarence de Melker were married in Germiston, in the St. Boniface Anglican Church designed by master architect, Sir Herbert Baker, who had also designed "Groote Schuur," today the official residence of South Africa's presidents. (Sir Herbert Baker, who died in 1946, aged 84, lies buried in Westminster Abbey in London.)
On the wedding day, Daisy was 45 and Sid was 47. Neither looked like young blood anymore. Sid was a short, slightly-built man with gray hair and a lined face. (The game of rugby has since Sid's time roughened and today a man of such slight build would probably not even consider becoming a player.) As for Daisy, her waist had expanded; her stomach bulged; she had varicose veins, bunions and a double chin, and she wore dentures and glasses, and the African sun had engraved her once clear complexion with myriads of fine lines. There was also her hair. More uncontrollable than ever – she broke combs trying to straighten out the knots whenever she washed her hair – it had become sprinkled with gray.
Present in church were Rhodes, 20, and Eileen, also 20. On meeting, before there was even any talk of them becoming step-siblings, they had taken a dislike to each other. Eileen, who had started to teach, thought, and told her father, that Rhodes was a dim-wit. He even looked dangerous, she said. Rhodes, in turn, had called his mother aside to tell her that Eileen was a busy-body and that she was bound to make trouble in the marriage.
Daisy moved in with Sid and Eileen; Rhodes was still working as a mechanic in Swaziland. Cottage Number 19 was about the same size as the Terrace Road house, but there were memories, too many memories there of illness and death, so Daisy did not mind moving. She put the house onto the market and it was quickly snapped up. As she and Sid had also signed an Ante Nuptial contract, she had the assurance that should the marriage not work out, the money she had obtained for the house would not automatically go to Sid: She could leave it to Rhodes in a will.
Sid was a good husband. Daisy said so to relatives and friends. His health was also excellent and what a change that made from the constant worry she had had over the health of Alf and Bob. However, Daisy did have a worry: Rhodes. Eileen was right when she had called him dangerous: He was getting into arguments with his colleagues in Swaziland and often the quarrels turned physically violent, Rhodes initiating the violence. Daisy even had to take the train up to Swaziland to go and try to calm him down. Always, she took more cookies along for him.
Three months into Daisy and Sid's marriage, Rhodes arrived at Cottage Number 19. He had given up his job. That was what he said, but Daisy, Sid and Eileen suspected that he had been dismissed.
With Rhodes in residence, it became clear immediately that life in the cottage would never be totally blissful again. He argued with Sid; he argued with Eileen, he even hit her once, and he argued with Daisy. Rhodes's health also wasn't all that it should be. Rhodes suffered stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Daisy feared that his epilepsy, which had mercifully stopped, would commence again. Should the young man die, and Daisy was not one to shirk from the acceptance that in life one is in death, he had fortunately signed the Last Will and Testament form she had left with him on one of her visits to Swaziland. She also knew that she was his sole heir, sole heir to everything he had to his name. That was not much: It consisted of only an insurance policy she and Alf had taken out for him when he was 11 years old.
So weak did Rhodes soon become that one morning Daisy summoned a physician, Dr. Eric Mackenzie, to the cottage. Dr. Mackenzie diagnosed that the 20-year-old young man suffered from malaria. (Malaria was rife in Swaziland, a land-locked land of mountains, savannas and rainforests.) He left a prescription with Daisy for the medication that Rhodes should take and she promised that she would immediately send someone to a pharmacy to collect it. She also reassured the doctor by saying that she would look after her son herself. She was after all a trained nurse, not even to mention the experience she had gathered nursing her two dying husbands.
For three weeks, Daisy almost never left Rhodes's bedside. Her care, though, paid off. He started getting out of bed and went to sit in the warm fall sunshine out in the garden. Soon, he was so much better that he started looking for a job. He found one. He was to drive a dry cleaner's truck. However, after not many weeks in the job, he was fired for rudeness. Quickly, he got another job. He became a vehicle mechanic once more. Yet again, he started to argue with his colleagues and with customers.
At home, too, Rhodes angrily argued with everyone. One day, his anger out of control, he put an ax to his motorcycle. It was clear, said his colleagues, neighbors and relatives, that he was losing his mind, or worse, he had already lost it.
Next, Rhodes hit Daisy. She, still the loving, adoring mother, however told him, in front of a furious Sid and Eileen, that she forgave him. She'd already been telling Sid and Eileen that she was yet again worried about Rhodes's health. He was losing weight. Never having been fleshy, he was the last one who could afford to lose weight. Daisy thought that the malaria he had suffered earlier had flared up again. On top of this, Rhodes was depressed and started to speak of doing away with himself.
On Wednesday, March 2 – it was 1932 – Rhodes did not return home immediately after work. No one worried about it because they knew where Rhodes had gone. With a stepfather who had once been a "Springbok" rugby player, Rhodes had decided that he too wanted to play rugby. He had therefore gone practicing after work.
Just after 8 p.m., Rhodes walked in. Daisy had kept his dinner warm for him. He sat down to eat, but announced that he wasn't hungry. He said he had a headache; the rugby playing had given him a headache. He was, though, feeling fine within minutes because he got up and said he was going out with some friends for a while. The following morning he got up, went to work and although he was a little yellow in the face, he said he was feeling fine. After a few hours, he was back at home. He wasn't, as he said, feeling fine anymore. He put on a pair of pajamas and crawled into bed.
Early Friday morning, March 4, Rhodes called Daisy to his bedroom and said that he was feeling so poorly that he would not be able to get up and go to work. She immediately telephoned Dr. Mackenzie. He was unable to come to the cottage, but he sent his brother, Dr. Donald Mackenzie in his place. The latter said that Rhodes was suffering from intestinal influenza. He prescribed medication. Daisy saw that Rhodes took it.
All through the day, Rhodes was perspiring yet he also shivered with cold, and he vomited, and had diarrhea. Daisy sat at his bedside and wiped his face with a wet towel; she fed him clear soup, spoon by spoon like she used to feed him when he was a baby. She helped him, almost carried him, to the bathroom and tucked him up in bed afterwards. There was no doubt that she loved him dearly and was going through hell because she might lose him as she had lost Bert, Alf and Bob.
On Saturday, March 5, Rhodes was so weak that he could no longer get to the bathroom: Daisy gave him a bedpan. A neighbor, who had come to see how the young man was, fed him some brandy with a spoon: Daisy had supplied the brandy. As Rhodes no longer wanted to eat or drink anything, Daisy had to keep his mouth open while the neighbor forced the fork in.
Daisy, dissatisfied with both the Drs. Mackenzies, summoned Dr. Fergus to Rhodes's bedside. Dr. Fergus was the one who had performed the autopsy on Alf back in 1923 and had come to the conclusion that he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage that had been caused by Bright's disease. He gave Rhodes chloroform to ease his pain. By then Rhodes was doubled up with stomach pain and to stop the agony had become the doctor's priority. Soon afterwards, Rhodes slipped into a deep sleep, a very deep sleep. Later in the morning, Dr. Eric Mackenzie turned up at the house to see how the patient was doing. Rhodes did not wake up. Dr. Mackenzie nevertheless gave him an injection. He left without saying what the injection contained or what it was for.
In the afternoon, it was clear to Daisy, Sid and the various neighbors who had come to look in, that Rhodes was in a coma. While they stood in stunned, helpless silence around his bed, he breathed his last. He was 20 years old.
Daisy called Dr. Eric Mackenzie to come and certify that Rhodes was dead and to issue a death certificate. The doctor refused. Ill at ease about the young man's demise, he wanted to perform an autopsy. That he did. The reason he gave for the death was cerebral malaria. He told Daisy that her son's brain was congested, his spleen and liver were enlarged and the walls of his stomach were inflamed. (Cerebral malaria is fatal if not treated within 24-72 hours. The main symptoms are fevers, blood in the urine, difficultly breathing, seizures, going into shock and finally coma and cardiac arrest.)
Daisy sent undertakers to the state morgue where the autopsy had been done to collect Rhodes's remains. She had since Bob's death taken insurance with a new firm of undertakers called "Swift." She told "Swift" that her son would be buried on top of his father in Brixton Cemetery. Consequently, on Tuesday, March 8, the grieving Daisy had one consolation; one straw to hold on to. Since Bob lay beside Alf, her three beloved "departed" would be together.
In less than a month, on Friday, April 1, Daisy received a check in the post from the African Life Insurance Company. Rhodes had indeed filled in and signed the Last Will and Testament form she had left with him when she had visited him in Swaziland. In his will, he had named her as his sole heir. All he had to his name was that policy that she and Alf had taken out for him when he was 11 years old. The insurance company's check was for ₤100. Had Rhodes not died, the money would have been his, but the policy still had a year to run to maturity: It would have been paid out on Rhodes's 21st birthday.
Daisy also went around to the garage where Rhodes had worked. She wanted his wages, the wages due to him for the days he had put in during the last week of his life. Fifteen shillings were put into her hand and she took the money: It could buy a week's meat and milk. Getting back home, Sid was waiting to comfort her.
What Sid did not know, what Daisy did not know, was that Bob's brother, William Sproat, had had a word with the police. Having decided that the deaths of his brother and Rhodes were intriguingly similar and, knowing that his sister-in-law's first husband, Alf Cowle, had died in the same way, he wanted the police to exhume the three bodies. William Sproat was certain that the three men had been poisoned, poisoned by none other than Daisy.
Deep into the night of Tuesday, April 15, police stood watch as gravediggers opened up the two adjoining graves where Alf, Bob and Rhodes lay. The first coffin to be brought up was that of Rhodes; next was Alf's and then finally Bob's. Taken to the morgue where two government-appointed autopsy experts, the Drs. G.F. Britten and J.M. Watt, were waiting, the bodies were prepared for analysis. The body of Rhodes, dead 42 days, and still in a fairly good condition, was first to be analyzed. Arsenic was found in his hair, spine and viscera. There was also arsenic in the remains of Alf and Bob. So too strychnine. The two experts had no doubt that the three men had been poisoned. (Dr. Britten was senior analyst at the government's chemical laboratories. Dr. Watt was Professor of Pharmacology at the medical faculty of Witwatersrand University.)
Who had poisoned the three unfortunates? The police had a good idea who the culprit was.
Arrest, Trial and Death
It was to be an ordinary day at Cottage Number 19. Sid and Daisy rose early: Not only does dawn break early in Africa but Sid had to be at work at 7a.m. It was at about the same time that Sid stepped into his white overalls at the gold mine that there was a loud knock at the cottage's front door. Daisy was in the kitchen. She was enjoying a cup of tea with one of her cousins, a woman named Mia Melville. Mia lived close by.
Daisy knew that whoever had knocked must be a first time caller. Relatives, friends and neighbors never knocked; they just walked straight in. Most front doors on the compound were even left unlocked, indeed, they were left open. The "Europeans Only" compound of Simmer East Cottages was secure: White people did not steal; white people did not murder …
A man in gray flannels, blue blazer and dark tie stood on the threshold. He wore a gray fedora: He lifted it in greeting. The caller was Chief Detective Constable J.C.H. Jansen. He asked Daisy whether she was Mrs. Daisy Louisa de Melker and when she said that she was, he asked her to accompany him to his precinct's headquarters. She wanted to know why. He said that the police wanted to have a word with her. He asked Mia to leave the cottage immediately and as he drove off with Daisy, uniformed police began searching it.
At his precinct's headquarters, the CDC informed Daisy that she was being charged with the murder of her first two husbands, Alfred Cowle and Robert Sproat, and of her son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle. She was warned that whatever she would say could be used as evidence against her. She stared at the CDC as if she had not heard him.
When Mia got back to her own home, she telephoned Sid. The latter, hearing that Daisy had gone off with the police, asked his boss if he could have a few hours off. Why would the police want to speak to Daisy? What could be going on, he wondered. The poor dear! And her being in mourning too for her beloved Rhodes.
Daisy, once charged, was driven in a police vehicle to Johannesburg's "The Fort" Prison. There, she was booked into the "Women's Prison" as that section of the prison reserved for women was called. She was body searched and given gray prison garb – frock, cardigan, socks and sandals - to put on. As the prison was racially segregated, just like life outside the prison's gates, she was given a cell in the "Europeans Only" area of the "Women's Prison." There were few inmates in that part of the prison: A white man may still commit a crime, but a white woman certainly not.
The "Old Fort" dated from the days of the Boer War (the Second Anglo-Boer War). It was constructed on orders of President Paul Kruger, the man who had gone to war against the formidable British Empire so that his people, the Boer people, could govern their country themselves. At first, the prison had been for "Europeans" only, but eventually sections were added for "non-Europeans." One such "non-European" was Mahatma Gandhi, incarcerated there in 1906. Another was Nelson Mandela. Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Mr. Mandela's second ex-wife, had also become an inmate as a political activist. At the end of minority white rule in South Africa in 1994, part of the "Old Fort" complex was demolished and was replaced with the country's new Constitutional Court building. The part that has not been demolished houses a museum dedicated to freedom and democracy. Visitors can view Mr. Mandela's cell.
The day after Daisy's incarceration, the South African papers headlined the story. Unanimously, the editors condemned her. She had, they wrote, murdered the three men for material gain. (The Union of South Africa was as poor as the Cape Colony had been. Statistics show that 85 percent of the whites, "poor whites," as they were called, were little more prosperous than the disfranchised blacks in their "townships" where they lived in ramshackle shacks without electricity and running water. Daisy, having murdered for a hundred pounds here and a thousand pounds there, made perfect sense.
The attention the case was receiving made one of Rhodes's co-workers remember that he had gone down with a severe stomach upset on the very day – Wednesday, March 4 – that Rhodes had fallen ill with the illness that had sent him to his grave. The man, James Webster, went to the police and they took cuttings from his hair and fingernails. Those were tested for poisoning, and yes, they contained arsenic. Asked if he could remember what he had eaten or drunk at work that particular Wednesday, he said that he had drunk a cup of coffee from Rhodes's thermo flask. Could he remember whether Rhodes had brought the flask from home? Yes, Rhodes had: Every day Rhodes had brought a flask of coffee with him to work. Did Rhodes ever say who had made the coffee and filled the flask? Yes, Rhodes had: It was his mom, Daisy. Could he remember what the flask looked like? Well, it looked "like a flask". Could he remember, perhaps, what color the flask was? He certainly could. The flask was blue.
On Wednesday, July 20, with Daisy in prison and Sid at work and trying hard to concentrate on what he was doing because he was certain that the police were making one hell of a mistake blaming his wife for the deaths of her previous two husbands and son, CDC Jansen returned to Cottage No. 19 to look for a blue flask. He found three flasks. The glass interiors of two of the flasks were broken. The other flask was intact. It was also blue. Jansen handed the three flasks over to Dr. Britten for tests. On Thursday, Aug. 4, Britten informed Jansen that he had found arsenic residue on the blue flask.
Someone else also came forward with evidence. This was a pharmacist named Abraham Spilkin. He told CDC Jansen that on Thursday, Feb. 25, he had sold arsenic to Daisy. Mr. Spilkin had a pharmacy in Turffontein. It was in Turffontein that Daisy and Alf had lived at the time of Rhodes's birth, before they had moved to Bertrams. While living in Turffontein, Daisy had bought all the family's medication at "Spilkin's Chemist." After having moved to Bertrams and visiting friends in Turffontein, she had on some of those visits popped into the pharmacy to buy medication. Therefore, on that Thursday afternoon back in February, Mr. Spilkin had not been surprised to see her walk in. She had a problem, as she had told him. The problem was stray cats; they wandered onto her property each night and knocked over the garbage can – and they made a terrible noise. She wanted to put arsenic down to kill them: That was something that was quite customary in the country at that time. Could he prove what he was saying, the CDC wanted to know? Sure, he could. As required by law, Daisy – Mrs. Sproat, as the pharmacist called her – had signed the poison register. Though she was no longer Daisy Sproat but Daisy de Melker, which Mr. Spilkin had apparently not known, she had signed the register "D. L. Sproat." She had also deliberately cleared her tracks because she had noted her address as the one she had had in Bertrams: Number 67 Terrace Road.
On Monday, Oct. 17, Daisy's trial opened in Johannesburg High Court. Facing a triple charge of murder, she risked capital punishment. Should she be found guilty of only one murder, say that of Rhodes because of the damning evidence of the presence of arsenic in James Webster's hair and fingernails after he had drunk coffee from a flask that she had filled, she still faced hanging.
Daisy was not worried. She arrived at court, her unruly, graying hair cut in a bob. In a book written shortly after the trial, the late South African writer, Sarah Gertrude Millin, described Daisy as "small, thin, with tousled gray hair, claw-like fingers, a faded skin, large spectacles, a mouth like a fish and a cleft palate." She would continue: "She made no attempt to look beautiful. Her lips were not reddened, nor her cheeks painted. She wore, everyday for six weeks, the same black dress with the same lace front."
Daisy, did not however, see herself as Sara Gertrude Millin described her. No, Daisy, saw herself as a Hollywood star. Every morning, arriving at court, she seductively smiled at the photographers waiting outside the courthouse for her arrival, and arrogantly scowled at those people in the public gallery attending the trial. Most in the public gallery, as the newspapers would report, were women. They wore their "Sunday" best: Hats and gloves were de riguer despite that the courtroom was hot and stuffy. Secretly, Daisy was planning to write a script for a movie on her life. She would go to Hollywood herself to negotiate with producers and directors. She told Sid that she was certain that she would be acquitted. Even an idiot, she said, could tell that no court in the world could find her guilty, not with the pathetic evidence – a poison register kept by some decrepit pharmacist and an old flask – the prosecution was going to produce.
Daisy had the choice of trial by jury or trial by a judge and two assessors. On the recommendation of her two legal counsels, H.H.Morris and I.A. Maisels, she opted for the latter: As the two lawyers had told her, the people were against her to such an extent that a jury would undoubtedly send her to the gallows. Even the two lawyers believed that their client was guilty. Morris, once told that Daisy was highly strung, replied: "Not as high as she's going to be soon."
Being so certain of Daisy's guilt, and fate, Morris and Maisels concluded that all that they could do was to plead for clemency so that the judge (Justice L. Greenberg) and the two assessors (the magistrates A.A.Stanford and J.M.Graham) would pronounce a sentence of life imprisonment and not of capital punishment. At one stage of the hearing it appeared that their strategy was going to be successful because Justice Greenberg dropped the charges against Daisy of having murdered Alf and Bob due to lack of evidence. The country, though, was still screaming for the hangman to get to work and for Daisy to "swing," fair punishment for murder.
The trial lasted 40 days. For Sid, like Moses, it was 40 days of crossing a desert, crossing it on foot and without water. Sid found the thought that he might lose his dear little wife too painful to bear. He totally believed in her innocence. He was, after all, there when she had nursed the poor, dying Rhodes. Surely, had she poisoned the boy, she would not have tried to save his life, as she had done in those last few desperate hours.
In Morris's final plea for Daisy's life, he suggested that Rhodes had committed suicide. Rhodes, he said, had threatened to do so often enough. That the police had checked the poison registers of every pharmacy on the Witwatersrand and even in Swaziland and had not found an arsenic purchase made by the young man, did not mean that he had "not" bought the poison, argued Morris. (As all in the country knew, hardware stores sold arsenic freely to people in the construction profession to use in the mixing of paint, and Rhodes, as a vehicle mechanic, could have passed himself off as a construction worker.)
In Maisels' final plea, he pointed out that even if the court could prove that Daisy had bought arsenic with which to kill her son, then the court still had to prove that she had put it in food or drink she had given him. Rhodes might have done so himself in order to commit suicide.
On Friday, Nov. 25, a sweltering hot day, the court room was packed. It was the day of judgment. All night people had queued outside the court house and the moment the court room's doors opened they were inside. Some were touts, though, and immediately left the court room again to go and sell their seats outside at almost a pound each. All hoped for a day of entertainment. On the previous 40 days, Daisy, loving the attention she received, had made sure that no one would be bored. She had shouted "Liar!" at witnesses (there had been 72 of which a mere 12 had been for the defense) and during her cross-examination by the chief prosecutor (C.C. Jarvis), she had vehemently argued her innocence while she spluttered out insults at just about everyone.
The public gallery was silent when Justice Greenberg rose to pronounce the verdict.
"Daisy Louisa de Melker do you have anything to say before I pass sentence for the murder of Rhodes Cecil Cowle?" he asked, looking straight at Daisy.
She, standing, replied: "I am not guilty of poisoning my son."
"I can pass only one sentence," replied Justice Greenberg. "Daisy Louisa de Melker, I find you guilty of poisoning your son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle, which had caused his death. You will be taken from here to a place of execution where you will hang by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul."
In the minutes that followed, Daisy was driven back to the "Women's Prison" in "The Fort" prison complex. There, she was told to pack her belongings. She was being transferred to Pretoria Central Prison, South Africa's "hanging" prison.
On Dec. 30, the white South African people, the "Europeans," packed into bottle stores and butcheries to buy their New Year celebration fare. They would see the New Year – 1933 – in with a barbeque in their gardens. The "non-European" South Africans would be seeing the New Year in drinking home-made beer in the "shebeens," the illegal bars, of their townships.
In Pretoria Central Prison, no one was thinking of celebrating yet. The prison authorities had some unfinished business to get out of the way before there could be any thoughts of a beer and a "braai," the local jargon for a barbeque. They had a woman to hang. By noon the job was done: Daisy Louisa de Melker, 46, was dead. Some rookie coppers had gone to watch. That was the norm: They had to see what a hanging was like.
As for Sid Melker, he would marry twice more.
Death on the Gallows in South Africa
Capital punishment was abolished in South Africa on Tuesday, June 6, 1995. The news was greeted with cheering in Pretoria Central Prison. Some 453 people were still on Death Row. Their sentences were commuted to life.
There had been a moratorium in the country on capital punishment since 1990, but in 1993, the last "white" or "European" government had lifted it, although no further hangings had taken place.
In April 1994, after the country's first non-racial parliamentary election, won by Nelson Mandela's "African National Congress" party, the debate to abolish capital punishment had again begun.
The June 6 decision, taken after a debate by the 11 judges of the Constitutional Court, was hailed by the African National Congress as "a major victory for the democratic forces of our country, who for years had campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty. Never, never and never again must citizens of our country be subjected to the barbaric practice of capital punishment."
The first capital punishment case in South Africa was in 1739, the 87th year after the landing at the Cape of Good Hope of Dutchman, Jan van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, which began the colonization of that part of Africa. Estiénne Barbier, a French-born Huguenot, was guillotined for having organized a rebellion against the governor, Dutchman, Daniel van den Henghel.
How many had been hanged in South Africa since the beheading of Barbier is not known, but a Nov. 22 1967 UN report claimed that 1,066 people had been executed throughout the world between 1961-1965 and that almost half of them were in South Africa. South Africa's own records show that between 1910 and 1989, 4,200 people were hanged in the country with more than half of them between the years 1978 and 1988. Between 1983 and 1988, the years when the anti-Apartheid struggle was at his height, 638 had been hanged, the overwhelming majority of them Black or "non-European" people. At the time Mr. B. Currin, director of Lawyers for Human Rights, said: "Here it is like a little factory where they just process hangings." Usually, up to seven condemned men were hanged simultaneously at Pretoria Central Prison.
Daisy de Melker was the second white woman to be hanged in the country. The first was Dorethea Van der Merwe, who was hanged in 1921 for assisting in the bludgeoning to death of her former lover, the Polish-and-Russian-Union-born American citizen Louis Tumpowski. (It has not been recorded who the first black or "non-European" woman was who was hanged in South Africa.)
The last woman to be hanged in South Africa was Sandra Smith, who was "mixed race," or "colored." She and her lover, Yassiem Harris, also of mixed race, had knifed to death a young girl they had befriended. The girl, Jermaine Abrahams (also of mixed race), had surprised the two when they had broken into her parents' house to steal jewelry she had told them about. Smith and Harris were hanged simultaneously on June 2, 1989 at Pretoria Central Prison where they were moved from Cape Town, their hometown.
Once the hanging had stopped in South Africa, its last hangman, a man named Chris Barnard, now deceased, who had hanged over 1,500 people, explained the procedure to journalists. The condemned, handcuffed, was taken from Death Row to the pre-execution chamber. It was a walk of 52 paces. Next-door to the pre-execution chamber was the gallows chamber. The condemned was blindfolded and guided into it. It was 40 feet long and painted white and very well lit. A beam from which seven nooses protruded ran the length of the room. The condemned was then positioned underneath a noose and his or her feet were pulled or pushed onto two white-painted footprints on the floor. Next, the noose was slipped over the condemned one's head and a hood was pulled over his or her head. The time had then come to pull the lever that would open the trapdoor underneath the condemned's feet. The executed one was always left to hang for 15 minutes before a doctor would step forward to announce that death had taken place. The body was then washed off with a hose and put into a coffin to be driven immediately to a nearby cemetery for burial.
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