If Margaret Elizabeth Rheeder had kept quiet after she had poisoned
her husband to death with arsenic, she might well have got away
Margaret Rheeder (nee Harker) was born on 6 September 1922, at
Platbos, a tiny village just outside Knysna in the Cape. By the
time her father died, she had six brothers and sisters. Later
on, her mother married Cornelius Share, who fathered a further
During her childhood, Margaret knew the meaning of abject poverty.
The house was chronically overcrowded and the family sometimes
went hungry. To make matters worse, her stepfather was a sickly
man who was often out of work. At one time, they had to depend
on an £8 monthly grant provided by the Department of Social
In 1934, Cornelius Share died. Margaret and her sisters, Gwen
and Olga, were sent to an orphanage in George, where they learnt
domestic work. When Margaret was sixteen, she obtained her first
job - working as a servant for a family in Paarl. About five years
later, she moved briefly to Wynberg. At twenty-one she returned
to Knysna, where she took a job as a housekeeper in a local hotel.
It was in Knysna that she met and married her first husband.
She had two children, but the marriage was not a happy one - her
husband spent much time away from home and was always in trouble
with the police. During his absences, she struck up friendships
with other men, and she openly boosted of her 'conquests'. Ultimately,
she divorced her husband while he was in prison.
In 1951, she met Benjamin Freedman Rheeder on the platform at
Great Brak station. It appeared that the couple had much in common:
both had two children and were fleeing unhappy marriages. These
similarities proved to be the basis of a warm friendship and it
was not long before Margaret offered to keep house for him. He
accepted her offer and she moved to Port Elizabeth with him. The
relationship deepened and on 6 September 1952 - Margaret's thirtieth
birthday - the couple were married.
Benjamin Rheeder had a stable job as a checker at Port Elizabeth
docks and, for the first time in her life, Margaret had a degree
of financial security. For a while the marriage seemed idyllic,
on the surface at least. Then the arguments began. First she became
critical of his children, then she began to complain about his
drinking habits, and finally she accused him of flirting with
other women. She made no effort to hide her dissatisfaction, and
often complained to her sister, Gwen.
”I don't love him, Gwen,” she would say. “I
never did. He doesn't suit me. I only married him out of pity.
I'd like to give him a...slow death...” Her next husband,
she maintained, would be someone she 'really loved', not the 'old,
licked-off bones' she was used to.
In October 1955, Margaret Rheeder's prayers were finally answered.
She and her husband took in a lodger: a twenty-two-year-old railway
worker named Johannes Strydom. The man's youth and vigour were
exactly what Margaret was looking for. Not surprisingly, soon
after he moved into the house, she took to visiting him in his
bedroom while her husband was out at work. As time passed, she
became more and more infatuated. On one occasion, she confided
in Strydom that she desperately wanted to get rid of her husband.
”I once even smeared rat poison on his sandwiches, Johan,”
she said, “but Ben said they smelt funny and threw them
”Then why don't you separate?” Strydom asked her.
“Why do you have to kill him?”
”Because I'd have to leave with nothing. And I couldn't
bear to see him with another woman then,” she replied.
By the end of Summer 1957, the Rheeder's marriage had degenerated
into open hostility. To compound matters, Margaret was refusing
to sleep with her husband because of his 'carryings-on'.
The final sequence of events, which was to lead to the death
of Benjamin Rheeder began on Saturday 27 April, 1957. That morning,
Margaret went to a pharmacy in Kempston Road, Port Elizabeth,
which was about three kilometres from her home, and purchased
a bottle of Antexit ant-killer. She was served by the owner, Mr
A. Redhouse, who warned her that the insecticide contained arsenic
and was an extremely dangerous poison which had to be kept away
from young children and pets. She thanked him for his advice and
assured him that she would be most careful. Then she signed the
poisons register and left. The following Monday, Benjamin Rheeder
became violently ill at work. He was still unwell the next day
and visited the railway doctor, Dr Edmund Bloch, complaining of
pains in the shoulder. The doctor diagnosed fibrositis and prescribed
appropriate medication. That night, Rheeder took a turn for the
worse. He began to retch almost uncontrollably and suffered excruciating
pains in his legs. At around midnight, he took himself to the
casualty department of the provincial hospital. Dr Bloch was summoned;
he gave Benjamin an injection to alleviate the pain, and asked
him to visit the surgery the following day.
On the Wednesday, Mrs Rheeder telephoned Dr Bloch and told him
that her husband had greatly improved, but was not well enough
to make his appointment. The doctor asked her to continue the
medication he had prescribed and to keep him informed of the patient's
progress. The next day, he visited Rheeder at his home. Although
the patient complained of vague pains and general nausea, his
condition did not appear to be serious. Dr Bloch fully expected
him to be up and about in a few days.
Five days later, on 7 May, the doctor was called out again. By
this time, Rheeder's condition had deteriorated considerably.
His tongue was thick and white, he was suffering continual bouts
of diarrhoea and vomiting, and was finding it difficult to breathe.
Nevertheless, none of these symptoms appeared life threatening.
Dr Bloch suggested that the patient transfer to the local hospital
for observation either that evening or the following morning,
depending on when a bed was available. Failing this, he would
arrange for a specialist to make a house call to Rheeder.
Meanwhile, Margaret Rheeder seemed to assume that her husband's
death was imminent. To one neighbour, Mrs Fourie, she talked about
the insurance money she would receive when Ben passed away - hardly
the sort of thought that should have concerned a loving wife at
such a time. Other neighbours began to remark on the indifference
she showed to her husband's suffering: on one occasion, she was
seen to be calmly ironing in the kitchen while her husband cried
out in pain in the bedroom.
That night, Kenneth Harker, Margaret's brother, who lived in
the same street, went to visit his brother-in-law. Ben Rheeder
was so seriously ill that he could hardly swallow. At about 10
p.m., Margaret spoon-fed her husband a darkish liquid, which Harker
assumed was medicine, from a cup. Soon after this, Rheeder began
to writhe in agony, clutching his stomach and moaning about the
‘hellish fires' that consumed him. Margaret showed little
sympathy. “He's just putting it on,” she said. In
the early hours of 8 May, Benjamin Rheeder died. Dr Bloch was
called out and signed the death certificate. Cause of death was
given as heart failure resulting from acute gastroenteritis.
Despite the rapidly deteriorating condition of the corpse, Margaret
refused to have her husband moved from the bedroom for two-and-a-half
days. By having him buried straight from home, she expected to
avoid the possibility of a post mortem. She also made an attempt
to deflect suspicion from herself through innuendo to the neighbours
that the treatment her husband had received from Dr Bloch was
anything but satisfactory. Dr Bloch, she claimed, had given her
husband a 'deadly injection' and thereby hastened his end. He
had 'put the knife' to Benjamin, she maintained, 'because he was
trying to weed out all the Nationalists'. She repeated the accusation
to her brother-in-law. But, when someone suggested that a post
mortem be held to substantiate these claims, she dismissed the
”I don't need any proof,” she said. On another occasion,
she claimed that Dr Bloch had turned to her after her husband
had died and asked, “What shall we write?” before
completing the death certificate.
Before too long, people began to talk. Eventually, the rumours
concerning the untimely death of Ben Rheeder reached the ears
of one Detective-Constable Petrus Rheeder. Although he was unrelated
to Benjamin, the fact that they shared a surname was enough to
pique his interest. A number of low-key inquiries were made, then
the Detective-Constable questioned Strydom. Shortly thereafter,
an official investigation was instigated and, ten days after Benjamin
Rheeder had been buried, the police called on Margaret Rheeder.
They were particularly interested to know if there was any poison
in the house. They took away for analysis a number of tablets,
but all proved harmless.
The next step was to visit pharmacies in the locality. Within
days, they came across Margaret Rheeder's name in the poisons
register at Kempston Road Pharmacy. (For a time, the police kept
this knowledge from her. When she was finally confronted with
this evidence, she claimed she had bought the arsenic on her husband's
instruction but that he had subsequently thrown it away as he
had thought it too dangerous to have in the house.)
On 11 June, little over a month after the burial, Ben Rheeder's
body was exhumed. Sections of his viscera (large internal organs)
were sent to the Government Chemical laboratories in Johannesburg
for analysis. Traces of arsenic were found in the liver, the kidneys,
the hair and nails. The evidence indicated that a fatal dose of
arsenic had been administered at about 10 p.m. on the night of
On 7 August, Margaret Rheeder was arrested and charged with the
murder of her husband. The trial, which began at the Criminal
Sessions, Port Elizabeth, on 2 November 1957, lasted eight days.
Mr L.C. Barren, the Attorney-General, was State Prosecutor. Mrs
Rheeder pleaded not guilty. Despite the overwhelming body of evidence
against her, she persisted in denying all accusations. At one
point, she implied that her brother, Kenneth, who had visited
the house on the afternoon prior to Benjamin's death, had also
had the opportunity to kill her husband.
”Then are you saying the poisoner was your
brother?” the Attorney-General asked.
”No. I won't say that. I will not bear false
”No. There was no evidence to support that
”Then if it wasn't suicide and it wasn't
you or any other person in the house, who was it that gave him the
Mrs Rheeder paused. “I don't know,”
she said finally.
The trial was concluded on 11 November. Margaret
Rheeder was found guilty of murdering her husband. In returning
the verdict, the foreman of the jury requested that the court show
mercy towards the accused on the grounds that she had suffered 'a
hell of a life'.
The judge did not consider this an extenuating
”Have you anything to say?” he asked
before he passed the death sentence.
Mrs Rheeder was sobbing hysterically. “My
heart is too sore, she whispered. I want to go to my two little
”The sentence of the court,” the judge
said, “is that you be taken to a place of custody and hanged
by the neck until you are dead. And may the lord have mercy on your
In a state of near-collapse, Mrs Rheeder was helped
from the court.
Margaret Rheeder declared her innocence until the
very last day of her life, but as she was taken from the condemned
cell to the gallows on May 6, 1957, she finally confessed to the
crime for which she had been convicted.
”I cannot go to my death with a lie on my
lips,” she said. “Yes, I did give Ben the poison. The
last dose was at noon in the glass of water he asked me to give
him.” This confession was not entirely true. If the fatal
dose of poison had been administered at midday, Benjamin Rheeder
would have been dead when Dr Bloch called at four o'clock that afternoon.
It is perhaps significant that, in the course of the trial, Margaret
claimed that Strydom had 'seduced' her; it transpired that he had
ended their relationship three months before Ben's death. It may
be that, in a final act of bitterness, she hoped to implicate Strydom
- who was at home at midday - in the crime. However, the medical
evidence had proved conclusively that the fatal dose of poison had
been taken late at night, when she alone had had the opportunity
to administer it. Indirectly, her own words had exonerated the man
she wished to punish. A fitting epitaph, some would say, for the
woman who talked too much.