THE MYSTIFYING DEATH OF BUBBLES SCHROEDER

1949

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Within days of her murder, everyone had heard of Bubbles Schroeder. But why did her death attract such unprecedented public interest? For one thing, she was young and desirable. She was also what was euphemistically called a ‘good-time girl’. And, of course, She was dead. But was there something else? Something less tangible? Perhaps it was that, to many people, she typified the new, post-war age: a world of fast cars, fast living and easy virtue.

Jacoba 'Bubbles' Schroeder was born in Lichtenburg on 8 June 1931. She was educated at Benoni and Vereeniging. When she was four years old, her mother had to go out to work, and she was cared for by a cousin in Vereeniging until she was 13. For the next four years she lived with her mother in Johannesburg.

Then, in March 1948, she returned to Vereeniging to work for a coal agency but, unbeknown to her relatives, she moved back to Johannesburg two months later. Soon after her return to the city, she moved into the apartment of a fifty-two-year-old bookmaker named Philip Stein, whom she had met at a dance in Orange Grove.

Although Stein liked having Bubbles around, he soon realized that his new guest could sometimes be a lot more trouble than he had bargained for. Bubbles was in the habit of throwing a tantrum when she couldn't get her own way.

”She was a young woman, a little loose in her morals,” Stein said. “But she was very sweet-except when she was drunk. Then she became unmanageable.” Matters finally came to a head early in June 1949. Bubbles had come home drunk once too often and Stein asked her to leave. Shortly after this, she moved to Dorchester Mansions in Rissik Street, where she shared an apartment with a girlfriend named Mrs Griffin, who was a 'hostess'. Although Bubbles never held down a regular job in all the time she was living in Johannesburg, she was never short of money. Nor was there a dearth of men willing to pay for the pleasure of her company.

”Bubbles was a glamour girl,” Mrs Griffin would say. “She'd spend her day at the beauty parlour and her nights at night clubs. And she could be most chaining. Until she had a few drinks in her, of course. Then she became obstinate and difficult.”

On Thursday, 11 August 1949, Morris Bilchik visited Dorchester Mansions. He made a date with Bubbles for the following Saturday night, and the two duly went out together. At the end of the evening, they went back to Bilchik's home and spent the night together.

On the following Monday morning, Bilchik boasted of his conquest to his friend, David Polliack (21). At lunchtime, the two men visited Bubbles at her apartment. The plan was that she would get hold of her girlfriend, Penny, and the four of them could go out together that night. Unfortunately, Penny was nowhere to be found. In the end, they decided simply to make up a threesome. After Bilchik and Polliack had left, Bubbles went to visit Philip Stein. She spent the afternoon at his apartment, where she had a few glasses of brandy, and then returned home at 6 p.m. When she reached Dorchester Mansions, Bilchik and Polliack were already waiting for her. She apologized for keeping them waiting and invited them inside while she changed into a green dress and put on some make-up. Around 7.30 p.m. they set out for Polliack's house, Hlatikulu, in the plush suburb of Illovo. (Poiliack's mother was in Durban at the time, so the three of them had the house virtually to themselves.)

Bubbles travelled with David Polliack, while Bilchik took his own car. They reached the house at about eight o'clock, just as Polliack's cousin, Hyman Balfour Liebman (20), was leaving for Houghton to pick up his girlfriend. Polliack and Bilchik invited Liebman to bring his girlfriend back to the house to join the party, but Liebman declined. They had already arranged to go to the cinema for the evening.

After Liebman had driven off, the other three went into the house. Polliack asked Irene, the cook, to prepare some food, and at about 9.30 p.m. they sat down to eat a meal of tinned asparagus soup, followed by chops with chips. For dessert they had a can of tinned peaches. Afterwards, they went into the living room. Bubbles drank a few glasses of brandy and snacked from a tin of peanuts.

At about 11.15 p.m. Bilchik left for home. It seemed obvious to him that Bubbles and Polliack wanted to be left alone.

After Bilchik had left, Bubbles and Polliack cleared up in the living-room, then went upstairs to listen to records in Polliack's bedroom. Not long afterwards, Bilchik phoned. Jealousy, it seemed, had finally got the better of him. First he spoke to Bubbles, then he apologized to Polliack for disturbing them. After about fifteen minutes, he rang off.

Around midnight Hyman Liebman returned from his cinema date. (Although he lived in the Brits district, he often stayed at Hlatikulu when Mrs Polliack was away.) Polliack met him in the hallway and told him that Bubbles was in his room. The trouble was that she'd had too much to drink and he wanted to get her home before she passed out.

Liebman went upstairs to see for himself. It was clear to him, he later said, that Bubbles had been drinking, but she was far from drunk. She insisted on having another drink. Eventually, Liebman got her a glass of weak brandy. At about 12.30 a.m., Bubbles suddenly wanted to go home. Her mother was staying with her, she said, and expected her back by 1.00 a.m. Eventually, at about 1.30 a.m., the three of them walked out onto the driveway, where the cars were parked. Polliack wanted to take her home, but she got into Liebman's car and wouldn't get out. In the end, Liebman offered to drive her home and, with Bubbles complaining that she wanted to drive, they set out for Dorchester Mansions. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, Liebman pulled back into the driveway. This time, he was alone.

”That girls a lunatic,” he told his friend. “She wanted to drive and when I wouldn’t let her she made me stop and got out. I told her to be sensible but she wouldn't listen.”

Polliack was angry. “You mean you let her walk? Where did you let her out?” he asked.

“At the Dunkeld bus terminus.” “And did she say anything?”

Lieberman nodded. “Yes,” she said, “which way to town?”

“I told her to follow the bus wires along Oxford Road. The last thing she said to me was, "You will be surprised to read about my corpse in the morning papers."

”Don't you realize what can happen to the girl?” shouted Polliack.

”Yes, of course I do,” his friend snapped, “but at this time of night I didn't think she'd come to any harm.”

Lieberman was tired and fed up. “I'm going to bed,” he added, and went into the house.

Polliack was worried about Bubbles. Although it was nearly 2.00 a.m., he set off in his own car to try to find her. About an hour later, he returned home. Bubbles Schroeder had vanished.

The two young men assumed that Bubbles had managed to get a lift with a passing motorist. Neither of them dreamt anything was wrong until Morris Bilchik phoned Polliack at work the next day. That morning, Bilchik had called at Dorchester Mansions to see Bubbles, but had learnt from her mother that she hadn't returned home from her night out. Soon after he had heard this news, Polliack went to see Mrs Schroeder himself. Later Bilchik, Polliack and Mrs Schroeder drove down to Rosebank Police Station to report that Bubbles was missing. Polliack also telephoned the general hospital to see if she had been admitted there.

Bubbles Schroeder's body was discovered, thirty hours after her death, at Birdhaven plantation by Samuel Ngibisa Mobela. The plantation was less than a kilometre from the spot where Liebman claimed to have dropped her off. She was lying on her back among burnt-out grass about 30 metres from the road. Her face was turned to the right, and her left leg was laid over her right. Her left arm was pressed against the side of her body, while her right was flung out at an angle of about 75 degrees. She was hatless, shoeless, and her coat was missing. Although there were scratch marks and some bruising on her neck, there were no footprints around the body, nor any signs of violent struggle.

The first thing that struck Dr J. Friedman, the Johhannesburg District Surgeon when he arrived on the scene of the crime was the position of the body. From the way Bubbles was lying, it appeared that she had been placed carefully on the ground, which suggested that she had been murdered nearby and then carried (probably over the shoulder) into the plantation. This assumption was substantiated by the fact that, although both of the victim's shoes were missing, there was neither grass nor soil on the soles of her feet. She certainly had not walked to the spot where her body was discovered.

The bodice of the green dress she wore was slightly ripped and one button was missing. The lower right leg of her stocking was also snagged in a number of places. Her panties were torn on the right side, but her black petticoat and black brassiere were intact.

The post-mortem revealed that she had not been sexually assaulted. In her mouth were some pieces of a hard, clay-like material. Although some of the bits lay deep in her throat, there were no particles in her lungs, proving that the clay had been forced into her mouth after death. Dr Friedman examined the contents of Bubbles' stomach. The extent of digestion of the various foods particles he found was to entirely substantiate Polliack and Bilchik's subsequent account of events on the night of her death. A highly significant fact that emerged during the post-mortem was that Miss Schroeder was suffering from a condition of the thymus gland which would have caused her to fall unconscious very quickly from only slight pressure around the neck. The bruising on her neck indicated that she had been strangled from behind, probably by a scarf or something similar, and had scratched herself in an effort to tear the ligature from her throat.

Dr Friedman concluded that cause of death was asphyxia and inhibition due to the pressure on her throat and the impaction of a hard clay-like substance (similar to that in a heap of builder's lime a couple of metres away) in her hypopharynx. He estimated the time of death as around two o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, 16 August.

The police launched a large-scale search in the area around Birdhaven Plantation, but without success. However, on 13 October, almost two months after the murder, Hyman Liebman and David Polliack were arrested 'in connection with the murder of Bubbles Schroeder'. They appeared in court the following day and were remanded in custody. Later, they were granted bail of £5 000 and £500 respectively. Their trial began a few days later at the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court.

The evidence, which the police presented to the court was almost entirely circumstantial. The prosecution based its case upon the fact that Liebman and Polliack had been with Miss Schroeder late on the night of her death. There was no direct evidence to suggest that either of the two men were connected in any way to her murder, however, and eventually they were acquitted.

So who did kill Bubbles Schroeder? The police contended that Liebman had strangled her in his car using a scarf. This was after he had driven her to Birdhaven Plantation and attempted to have sex with her. When she fell unconscious, he had carried her body away from the road. But there was not a shred of evidence - apart from the fact that Liebman did give her a lift in his car - to support this claim.

A second theory was that Bubbles was robbed and killed by a passing African. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that her mouth was stuffed with lime. (Among certain African peoples it is customary to place something in the mouth of a victim who has suffered a violent death, to prevent him or her from speaking ill of the killer in the after world.) But this theory has a number of obvious weaknesses. For example, if the motive for the crime was robbery, why was Bubbles killed? And why was the body so neatly laid out?

A third, and possibly the most plausible answer was advanced by the late Benjamin Bennett, who was crime writer for The Argus at the time. Bennett suggested that Bubbles probably tried to hitch a lift home and was picked up by a passing motorist. (If there had been two men in the car, the passenger would have moved into the back so that Bubbles could have the front seat.) She was assaulted - the man in the back was in a perfect position to put a scarf around her neck to restrain her - and she was 'accidentally' asphyxiated. Afterwards, her body was carried into the nearby plantation and dumped. Lime was put into her mouth simply to confuse the police into thinking the crime had been perpetrated by an African. All this is mere conjecture, however, and we are still left with the question of who killed Bubbles Schroeder? It seems unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

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