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Daisy Louisa DE MELKER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


Birth name: Daisy Louisa Hancorn-Smith
 
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Parricide - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: 1923 / 1927 / 1932
Date of arrest: April 1932
Date of birth: June 1, 1886
Victims profile: William Alfred Cowle, 50 (her husband) / Robert Sproat, 44 (her second husband) / Rhodes Cecil Cowle, 20 (her son)
Method of murder: Poisoning (strychnine - arsenic)
Location: Germiston, Gauteng, South Africa
Status: Executed by hanging at Pretoria Central Prison on December 30, 1932
 
 
 
 
 
 

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 dollars 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, Mr J.M.Graham and Mr A.A. Stanford. Mrs De Melker faced three charges. Firstly that, on or about 11 January, 1923, and 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 become 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 fiance.

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 hemorrhage. 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 hemorrhage. 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 traveled many kilometers 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, 1927, 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 became 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 Cerebal 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, 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 defense. 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:

(a)Rhodes Cowle had died of arsenic poisoning;

(b)The coffee flask held traces of arsenic;

(c)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

(d)The defense 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 1 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 1 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.

 
 

De Melker, Daisy Louisa Cowle

Thrice married, South African Daisy de Melker lost her first two husbands under mysterious circumstances, but homicide detectives were not prone to stirring up a widow's grief in the chivalrous 1920s.

It took the death of Daisy's 20-year-old son, Rhodes Cowle, on March 5, 1932, to set tongues wagging, and de Melker soon found herself behind bars. An autopsy performed on Rhodes Cowle revealed lethal doses of arsenic in his system, and a pharmacist in Germiston, a Johannesburg suburb, recalled selling some of the poison to Daisy. Increasingly suspicious, the authorities exhumed late husbands William Cowle and Robert Sproat -- deceased in 1923 and 1927, respectively -- with traces of poison revealed in both corpses.

Confronted with the damning evidence, Daisy confessed. She had dispatched her husbands for insurance money, killing off her son when he began to blackmail her, threatening to tip the police unless she parted with her savings.

Convicted of triple murder in a speedy trial, Daisy de Melker was hanged in Johannesburg on December 30, 1932.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans

 
 

Daisy Louisa C. De Melker (1 June 1886 - 30 December 1932), (née Hancorn-Smith) simply known as Daisy de Melker, was a trained nurse who poisoned two husbands with strychnine for their life insurance while living in Germiston in the central Transvaal (now Gauteng), and then poisoned her only son with arsenic for reasons which are still unclear. She is historically the second woman to have been hanged in South Africa.

Daisy de Melker was accused of three murders but was only convicted of one, that of killing her son. The charges of poisoning her husbands were never proved in a court of law. It was William Sproat, the younger brother of her second husband, who fingered her because he wanted Robert Sproat's will in favour of Daisy declared invalid. Daisy refused to refund an alleged loan from Mrs Jane Sproat, Robert's mother, to Robert; she regarded it as a gift and argued that it was not stipulated in the will as a loan. William Sproat won the civil case regarding the will, which ran concurrently with the murder trial, and was awarded costs. Daisy withdrew on the date Justice Greenberg sentenced her for murder. William's was a Pyrrhic victory however. To pay her exorbitant legal costs Daisy had to hock all her assets. She was declared insolvent and was eventually buried in a prison pauper's grave.

Early Life

Daisy Hancorn-Smith was born on 1 June 1886, at Seven Fountains near Grahamstown, South Africa. She was one of eleven children. When she was twelve, she went to Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 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 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 married William Alfred Cowle, a plumber, in Johannesburg. She was 23 and 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.

First Murder: William Cowle (first husband)

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.

Second Murder: Richard Sproat (second husband)

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 Sproat's death, his widow inherited over £4000, plus a further £560 paid by his pension fund.

Third Murder: Rhodes Cecil Cowle (son)

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.

Late in February 1932, Mrs de Melker travelled many kilometres from Germiston on the East Rand 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 postmortem 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.

Reasoning behind her son's murder

At the time of his death, Daise de Melkers only son Rhodes Cowle was 20. 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.

Rhodes seems to have been under the impression that he would come into an inheritance at the age of 21. One theory is that he was demanding more than Daisy could give him and was becoming a burden to her. The most obvious answer is that she simply didn't like him and that he was a disappointment to her. She had pampered him all his life, but he rarely showed her any consideration in return.

Arrest, Trial and Execution

By this time, William Sproat, Daisy de Melker's second dead husband's brother, had become suspicious and 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 who had survived.

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
     

  • The defence of suicide was untenable

When the judge finally turned to pass sentence on Mrs De Melker, her face whitened but she still proclaimed her innocence.

Daisy de Melker was condemned to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out and on the morning of 30 December 1932, Daisy de Melker (aged 46 years) was hanged at Pretoria Central Prison.

Daisy de Melker in Popular Culture

De Melker has become somewhat of a South African icon, and has entered popular myth. If a door blew shut in the wind they would say “it was the ghost of Daisy de Melker”. If a child’s hair was unkempt and wild, they said “you look like Daisy de Melker”.

Rumour (fuelled by tourism operators no doubt!) has it that De Melker's spirit haunts Ward 7 of the Transvaal Children's Hospital (now the Florence Transition Home) in Braamfontein. It is here that she worked as a nurse and learnt about poisons.

In 1993 a television mini-series was made about Daisy de Melker, with Susan Coetzer in the title role.

In September 2005 a drag musical Daisy's Well Hung starring Robert Coleman as "Daisy" was staged at the Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg (where De Melker was imprisoned prior to being hanged). This show attempted to transform the dour figure of De Melker into a poltergeist of a husband-killing femme fatale.

Wikipedia.org

 

 

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.

Rob Marsh - Famous South African Crimes

 
 


Daisy de Melker

 

Daisy de Melker

 

 

 
 
 
 
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