THE WOMAN WHO TALKED HERSELF TO DEATH

MARGARET RHEEDER: 1957

If Margaret Elizabeth Rheeder had kept quiet after she had poisoned her husband to death with arsenic, she might well have got away with murder.

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 five children.

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 Welfare.

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 away.”

”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 idea.

”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 his death.

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 testimony.”

”Then was it one of your children?”

“No.”

”Then did your husband commit suicide?”

”No. There was no evidence to support that idea.”

”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 fatal dose?”

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 circumstance.

”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 children.”

”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 soul.”

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.

ARSENIC is a metallic element obtained mainly from algar or orpiment ore, which are occasional by products of lead and iron mining. Processed arsenic usually takes the form of a white powder that looks much like flour at sugar. Arsenic has been a favourite of poisoners since the eighth century, when it was first produced by an Arab alchemist. At one time, it was so popular in France that it was known as poudre de succession or 'inheritance powder'. The symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning - such as stomach upset, rashes and discoloration of the skin - were often attributed to other causes such as cholera and dysentery. Other advantages of arsenic are that it has a faintly sweet taste and it can be administered in small, cumulative doses. The victim of such dosage becomes ill, slowly deteriorates and eventually dies - a much less suspicious end than a sudden and unexpected death. Two grains (130 mg) is recognized as a fatal dose.

Contents

 

 

The Serpent Under

South Africa Weird and Wonderful

 

 

Web Design & Artwork 2009