Daisy Louisa de Melker (Hancorn-Smith) (1886 - 1932) MP

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Birthplace: Seven Fountains, Grahamstown,, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Death: Died in Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
Cause of death: Execution by hanging
Managed by: John Edward Walsh
Last Updated:

About Daisy Louisa de Melker (Hancorn-Smith)

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.

Background information

  • Birth name: Daisy Hancorn-Smith
  • Born: June 1, 1886(1886-06-01) in Seven Fountains, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa
  • Died: December 30, 1932(1932-12-30) (aged 46)
  • Cause of death: Execution by hanging
  • Number of victims: 3 (excluding the deaths of her fiancee and her other children)
  • Span of killings: 1923–1932
  • Country: South Africa
  • Date apprehended: April 1932

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 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 blackwater 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 fiancée.

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 to be 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 neighbors 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.

Second murder: Robert 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 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, but 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 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, de Melker had traveled from Germiston on the East Rand to Turffontein, to obtain arsenic from a chemist. She used her former name, Sproat, and claimed that she required the poison to destroy a sick cat. Less than a week later, on 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 5 March. 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, de Melker received £100 from Rhodes' life insurance policy.

Reasoning behind her son's murder At the time of his death, Daisy de Melker's 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" and a "real gentleman".[citation needed] 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.

Daisy had bought her son a motorbike for his birthday, and it is said that he was ungreatful and unappreciateve of this.

Mly late mother, Pam Hall, a realtive of Daisy, told us of a family relative visiting Daisy to swop recipes. The relative heard her last husband and son screaming in agony in their bedrooms. When she enquired of Daisy if they were alright-Daisy reportedly responded "They are fine. Now where were we with those recipes?"

It is also noted that further research has been done,. that Daisy was possibly set up by those that gave evidence in court against her, as they had financial gains.She may have been a "scape-goat" or may not have 'worked alone" She did however, make their coffee in the flasks when the two of them went fishing.

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.[citation needed] A state forensic pathologist 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 discoloration, 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 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 arsenic 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 Crown 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.[3]

On the third count, however, he had come to the "inescapable conclusion" that 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 defense of suicide was untenable When the judge finally turned to pass sentence on de Melker, her face whitened but she still proclaimed her innocence.

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

De Melker has become somewhat of a South African icon, and has entered popular myth. If a door blew shut in the wind they[who?] 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 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 learned about poisons.

In 1934, Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote the novel "Three Men Died," based on the de Melker case.

In 1993, a television mini-series was made about Daisy de Melker, with Susan Coetzer in the title role.[4]

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 had been imprisoned prior to her hanging. This show attempted to transform the dour figure of De Melker into a poltergeist of a husband-killing femme fatale.

[edit] References1.^ Daisy de Melker: South Africa's First Serial Killer by Marilyn Z. Tomlins 2.^ Marsh, Rob. Famous South African Crimes. pp. 29–32. http://www.africacrime-mystery.co.za/books/fsac/index.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-29. 3.^ Execution By hanging: Daisy de Melker, retrieved 1932/12/30 4.^ Annie Basson (Director), George Goldsmith (writer), Susan Coetzer (Daisy de Melker). (1993). Daisy de melker. [Television Production]. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106652/. Retrieved 2008-04-29.

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South Africa's Most Famous Poisoner

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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Execution By Hanging: 30/12/1932 Daisy de Melker – South Africa

The two husbands of Daisy de Melker died remarkably similar deaths, and both of them died in agony. The reason was that Mrs. de Melker poisoned them with strychnine in order to collect on their estates. She got £1,795 from the first husband and more than £4,500 from the second. Death certificates in both cases specified that both husbands died of natural causes, so Mrs. de Melker looked all set to enjoy her riches. Then she did an odd thing – she poisoned her only son, 20-year-old Rhodes, with arsenic. Rhodes died in March, 1932, and the cause of death was given as cerebral malaria. The reason, however, has never been explained. Rhodes seems to have been under the impression that he would come into an inheritance when he was 21. One theory was that he was demanding more than his mother could give him and was becoming a burden to her. The most obvious answer is that she simply didn’t like him. She had pampered him all his life but he rarely showed her any consideration in return. When Rhodes died, a relative of her second husband raised the alarm and the three bodies were exhumed. The husbands’ bodies were found to contain massive doses of strychnine, and sales of poisons were traced back to Mrs. de Melker. She was arrested and charged with the three murders. But, said the judge summing-up at her trial, the state had been unable to prove conclusively that the two husbands had died of strychnine poisoning. “It does not convince me, nor does it convict the accused,” he said. On the third count, however, the “inescapable conclusion” was that Mrs. de Melker had murdered her son. For that murder alone Daisy de Melker was hanged on Friday, December 30th, 1932, at Pretoria Central Prison. Worldwide Hangings from True Crime Library.

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Storied blow by blow account of her life and death at this site

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In 1932 Daisy de Melker gained a bizarre kind of status when she became the second woman to be hanged in South Africa and, still to this day, young children are threatened into good behavior by the mere mention of her name.

She does not, however, rank extremely high on the scale of international serial killers, as she can boast of only three victims: her two husbands, William Cowle and Robert Sproat, and her son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle. She also bears a remarkable resemblance to the Rugeley Poisoner, William Palmer, in that they both appear to have fallen into the rather disturbing habit of poisoning their relatives and then collecting on their life insurance policies. Parallels can also be drawn between De Melker and Gesche Gottfried, who lived in early 19th century Germany and who systematically, and patiently, destroyed her close relatives and friends with "mouse butter" made of arsenic and fat. Like Palmer, however, strychnine was De Melker's weapon of choice and she used it in two out of three murders.

Things fell apart for Daisy when William Sproat, Robert Sproat's younger brother, disputed the validity of his brother's will, in terms of which all his worldly possessions were to go to his beloved wife. William instantly alerted the police to possible skullduggery and, in April 1932, this resulted in the bodies of both De Melker's previous husbands and her son being exhumed and checked for traces of poison. Evidence of strychnine poisoning was found in the remains of both Cowle Sr. and Sproat while evidence of arsenic poisoning was found in the remains of Rhodes Cecil.

De Melker was immediately charged with all three murders and the matter proceeded to trial. It seemed, furthermore, a foregone conclusion that she would be found guilty when media exposure of the case prompted a chemist to come forward and declare that she had purchased a large amount of arsenic from him shortly before her son's death. Evidence presented at the trial was insufficient to convince the judge to convict her of her husbands' murders, however, but he quickly enough her guilty of the premeditated murder by poisoning of her young son Rhodes.

She joined a very exclusive club when she was sentenced to death by hanging and that sentence was carried out at Pretoria Central Prison on December 30th 1932.

An interesting point to ponder is this: Robert Sproat had been prescribed a tonic by his doctor several months before he died. One of the major ingredients of the tonics manufactured at the time was strychnine. Strychnine had the unfortunate habit of settling to the bottom of a tonic bottle when the bottle was not in use. Sproat had not taken the tonic for some time prior to his final illness and, when he downed the last dose in the bottle, he ingested almost pure strychnine. This could have at least contributed to his death and could also have been the source of the strychnine traces found in his corpse. .. So: did De Melker poison him? Or did he unwittingly poison himself and thus engineer the fall from grace of a good and god-fearing woman?

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Daisy de Melker's Timeline

1886
July 1, 1886
Grahamstown,, Eastern Cape, South Africa
1909
March 3, 1909
Age 22
1910
1910
Age 23
1911
June 11, 1911
Age 24
1913
June 1, 1913
Age 26
1915
1915
Age 28
1926
July 1, 1926
Age 40
1931
January 21, 1931
Age 44
1932
December 30, 1932
Age 46
Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
????