SOUTH AFRICA'S MOST FAMOUS POISONER

DAISY DE MELKER: 1932

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 day.

On 1 April, Mrs de Melker received £100 from Rhodes life insurance policy. But the story does not end there.

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:

  • Rhodes Cowle had died of arsenic poisoning;
  • The coffee flask held traces of arsenic;
  • The accused had put the arsenic into the flask (‘I can see no escape from the conclusion that the accused put arsenic into the flask..,') on the Wednesday prior to Rhodes Cowle's death; and
  • The defence of suicide was untenable.

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 by hanging.

On the morning of 30 December 1932, Daisy de Melker was hanged.

Strychnine
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 mg.

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.

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