Ok, perhaps Daisy de Melker is not one of South Africa’s great heroines, but she is certainly one of South Africa’s most interesting female criminals. In Women’s Month we should probably acknowledge that there are some women who fall short of the ideal of the feminine nurturing and sacrificial love.
She was born Daisy Louisa Hancorn-Smith near Grahamstown on 1 June 1886. She trained as nurse at the Berea Nursing Home in Durban. As a young woman she met and fell in love with a Rhodesian civil servant, Bert Fuller. They planned to marry in October 1907, but 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, a fortune in those days, to his fiancée.
In March 1909 Daisy married William Alfred Cowle, a plumber, in Johannesburg. Early on the morning of 11 January 1923, William Cowle became ill soon after taking epsom salts prepared by his wife. First one doctor was summoned and then another. Cowle was in excruciating pain, blue in the face and foaming at the mouth when the second doctor arrived. He died soon after. 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.
Three years to the day after the death of her first husband, Daisy Cowle married another plumber. His name was Robert Sproat. 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.
On 21 January 1931, Daisy Sproat married another plumber, Sydney Clarence de Melker. She purchased arsenic from a chemist in Turffontein, far from their Germiston home under her previous name, Sproat, claiming it was required to destroy a sick cat. Less than a week later her son Rhodes Cecil Cowle became 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 1932. 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.
William Sproat, the brother of Daisy de Melker’s second dead husband conveyed his suspicions to the police and on 15 April 1932, the police obtained a court order permitting them to exhume the bodies of Rhodes Cowle, Robert Sproat and William Cowle. It was found that Rhodes had died arsenic poisoning, and traces of strychnine were found in the bones of William Cowle and Robert Sproat. Traces of arsenic were also found in the hair and fingernails of James Webster, Rhodes’ colleague who had survived.
De Melker was arrested and charged 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, a Mr. Abraham Spilkin, 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 trial lasted thirty days but De Melker was acquitted on the charges of murdering Cowle and Sproat. The judge however came 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 passed sentence on Daisy de Melker, she went pale 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.