On 17 October, 1932, at Johannesburg High
Court, there began the trial of Daisy Louisa de Melker, who was
charged with the murder of two husbands and her twenty year-old
son, Rhodes. The case attracted almost unprecedented public interest.
Queues of spectators lined up for hours each day before the proceedings
began. On the final day of the trial, some spectators who had
waited overnight to ensure a place in the court sold their seats
for up to 30 shillings each!
At that time it was normal for anyone accused
of murder under South African law to be tried by a judge and jury,
although the law allowed them the option of being tried by a judge
and two assessors. Since public opinion weighed so heavily against
Mrs de Melker, she had opted, on the advice of her legal counsel,
for the latter.
The proceedings were opened before Mr Justice
Greenberg and two senior magistrates, MrJ.M.Graham and Mr A.A.
Stanford. Mrs De Melker faced three charges. Firstly that, on
or about 11 January 1923, at or near Bertrams, in the district
of Johannesburg, she had murdered her husband, William Alfred
Cowle, by poisoning him with strychnine. Secondly, that on about
6 November 1927, in the same district, she had murdered her second
husband, Robert Sproat, by poisoning him with strychnine and,
thirdly, that on or about 5 March 1932, in the district of Germiston,
she had murdered her son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle, by administering
him poison, namely arsenic.
Daisy De Melker (nee Hancorn-Smith) was born
on 1 June 1886, at Seven Fountains near Grahamstown. She was one
of eleven children. When she was twelve, she went to Bulawayo
to live with her father and two of her brothers. Three years later,
she became a boarder at the Good Hope Seminary School in Cape
Town. She returned to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1903, but apparently
found rural life unexciting, because it was not long before she
returned to South Africa and enrolled at the Berea Nursing Home
in Durban. On one of her holidays in Rhodesia, she met and fell
in love with a young man named Bert Fuller who was a civil servant
in the Native Affairs Department at Broken Hill. They planned
to marry in October 1907. However, Fuller contracted black-water
fever and died, with Daisy at his bedside, on the very day they
had planned to marry. Fuller left a will bequeathing £100
to his fiancé.
In March 1909, about eighteen months after
the death of Bert Fuller, Daisy Hancorn-Smith married William
Alfred Cowle, a plumber, in Johannesburg. She was 23; he was 36.
The couple had five children, four of whom died. The first were
twins, who died in infancy; their third child died of an abscess
on the liver; and the fourth suffered convulsions and bowel trouble
and died at the age of 15 months. Their last, and only surviving
child, Rhodes Cecil, was born in June 1911.
Early on the morning of 11 January 1923,
William Cowle become ill soon after taking Epsom salts prepared
by his wife. The first doctor who attended him did not consider
his condition serious and prescribed a bromide mixture. But, Cowle's
condition deteriorated rapidly. Not long after the doctor had
left, he took a turn for the worse. His wife summoned the neighbours
to help and called for another doctor. Cowle was in excruciating
pain when the second doctor arrived. He foamed at the mouth, was
blue in the face, and screamed in agony if anyone touched him
until he died.
Faced with these symptoms, the second doctor
suspected strychnine poisoning and refused to sign the death certificate.
A postmortem was subsequently performed by the acting District
Surgeon, Dr Fergus. The cause of death was certified to be chronic
nephritis and cerebral haemorrhage. Daisy Cowle, the sole beneficiary
of her husband's will, inherited £1795.
At the age of thirty-six, and three years
to the day after the death of her first husband, Daisy Cowle married
another plumber. His name was Robert Sproat, and he was ten years
her senior. In October 1927, Robert Sproat became violently ill.
He was in great agony and suffered severe muscle spasms similar
to those experienced by William Cowle. He recovered. A few weeks
later, he suffered a second fatal attack after drinking some beer
in the company of his wife and stepson, Rhodes. He died on 6 November
1927. Dr Mallinick, the attending physician, certified that the
cause of death was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage.
No autopsy was performed. Following Robert Sproats death, his
widow inherited over £4000, plus a further £560 paid
by his pension fund.
On 21 January 1931, Daisy Sproat married
for the third time. Her husband was a widower, Sydney Clarence
De Melker, who like her previous two husbands, was a plumber.
By this time, Rhodes Cowle was 19. His sister
in law, Eileen De Melker thought him lazy and remarked that he
was often unwilling to get up for work in the morning. However,
another witness at his mother's trial described him as 'bright
and conscientious'. A girl who met Rhodes at a party a few weeks
before his death maintained that he was a ‘real gentleman’.
Certainly the evidence conflicted, but none of it explained why
Daisy De Melker decided to kill Rhodes. In the case of her first
two husbands, the motive seemed clearly to be financial gain.
But why kill her son?
Rhodes seems to have been under the impression
that he would come into an inheritance at the age of 21. Perhaps
he was demanding more than she could give him and was becoming
a burden to her? The most obvious answer is that she simply didn't
like him. He was a disappointment to her. She had pampered him
all his life, but he rarely showed her any consideration in return.
Whatever the cause, late in February 1932,
Mrs de Melker travelled many kilometres from Germiston to Turffontein,
to obtain a quantity of arsenic from a chemist there. She used
her former name, Sproat, and claimed that she required the poison
to destroy a sick cat. Less than a week later, on Wednesday, 2
March 1932, Rhodes took ill at work after drinking coffee from
a thermos flask which his mother had prepared for him. A fellow
worker, James Webster, also become violently sick. Webster, who
had drunk very little of the coffee, recovered within a few days,
but Rhodes died at home at midday on the following Saturday. A
post-mortem followed and the cause of death was given as cerebral
malaria. Rhodes was buried at New Brixton cemetery the following
On 1 April, Mrs de Melker received £100
from Rhodes life insurance policy. But the story does not end
By this time, William Sproat, her dead husband's
brother, had become, suspicious. Eventually these suspicions were
conveyed to the authorities. On 15 April 1932, the police obtained
a court order permitting them to exhume the bodies of Rhodes Cowle,
Robert Sproat and William Cowle.
The first body to be removed was that of
Rhodes Cowle. The corpse was found to be in an unusually good
state of preservation - which is characteristic of the presence
of arsenic in large quantities. Sure enough, the government analyst
was able to isolate traces of arsenic in the viscera, backbone
and hair. Although the bodies of William Cowle and Robert Sproat
were largely decomposed, traces of strychnine were found in the
vertebrae of each man. Their bones also had a pinkish discolouration,
suggesting that the men had taken pink strychnine, which was common
at the time. Traces of arsenic were also found in the hair and
fingernails of James Webster, Rhodes' colleague.
A week later, the police arrested Mrs de
Melker and charged her with the murder of all three men. Public
interest in the De Melker case grew, and the newspapers gave the
story a great deal of coverage. The Turffontein chemist from whom
she had bought the arson that killed her son, recognized De Melker
from a newspaper photograph as being Mrs D.L. Sproat, who had
signed the poisons register, and went to the police.
The De Melker trial lasted thirty days. Sixty
witnesses were called for the Crown and less than half this number,
for the defence. To present the forensic evidence, the Crown employed
the services of Dr J.M. Watt, an expert toxicologist and Professor
of Pharmacology at the Witwatersrand University. In summing up,
before giving his verdict, the judge pointed out that the State
had been unable to prove conclusively that Cowle and Sproat had
died of strychnine poisoning. “It does not convince me,
nor does it convict the accused,” he said. On the third
count, however, he had come to the 'inescapable conclusion' that
Mrs De Melker had murdered her son. This was evident because:
When the judge finally turned to pass sentence
on Mrs De Melker, her face whitened, and for a moment all the
strength seemed to leave her body.
“You have been found guilty of the murder
of your son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle. Do you have anything to say before
I pass sentence of death on you?” A hushed silence fell
over the court.
”I am not guilty of poisoning my son.”
”There is only one sentence I can pass,”
responded the judge, and, so saying, he condemned her to death
On the morning of 30 December 1932, Daisy
de Melker was hanged.
Strychnine is a colourless, crystalline powder with
an exceptionally bitter taste. It is obtained from Strychos nux
vomica and other plants. About one and a half grains (100 Milligrams)
constitutes a fatal dose. Although 15 mg of the poison has proved
fatal, and toxic symptoms can result from a dose as small as 5
Strychnine poisoning causes the muscles of
the back to go into spasms, causing convulsions so intense that
the body aches violently. This symptom called opisthotonus, can
last up to two minutes, during which time the victim is conscious
and in extreme pain. Sometimes the muscles of the face are drawn
up in a horrifying smile of death referred to as the risus sardonicus
in some older textbooks. Eventually these muscles tensions prevent
the lungs from working. Death, from either respiratory failure
or exhaustion, usually follows within an hour.
In the past strychnine has been used as rat
poison. At one time, there was also a plethora of strychnine-based
'tonics' available. These were usually prescribed to invalids
and people recovering from long illnesses. Tiny amounts of the
drug have the effect of raising the blood pressure slightly, which
tends to create a general feeling of well being. Not surprisingly,
accidental deaths and suicides from strychnine were fairly common.
These would result if the bottle had not been shaken properly
and the patient would take a dose of the concentrated strychnine
liquid, which had accumulated at the bottom of the bottle.