Monday, 4 May 2009

Greed - Daisy Louisa de Melker, 1932 (hanged)

Daisy de Melker (46), a Johannesburg nurse, was sentenced to death for the murder of her son, Rhodes Cecil Cowle (20). She poisoned him with arsenic; he died in 22 Tully Street, Turffontein (map), on Saturday, 5 March 1932. Her motive was, in her defence counsel’s view, to prevent her son litigating over his father's estate. He wanted to claim his inheritance on his twenty-first birthday in June 1932. Daisy felt she was in danger. Something might be discovered about her husband's death. Alternatively, her son may have suspected her of murdering his father and begun to blackmail her. Despite the uncertainty expressed in the Minister's report as to her motive, it became widely accepted in the legal fraternity that she was executed for greed. Governors and Governor-Generals usually did not allow women to hang for murder between 1850 and 1950, but they made an exception in cases where women murdered men for money. De Melker is thought to have murdered two of her three husbands and perhaps seven others. As a result, she has become known as South Africa’s first executed serial murderer. She was only the third white woman to be hanged after Union, the others being the Knysna woodcutter, Dominica Radulphini (1917), and the Lichtenburg farmer, Dina van der Merwe (1921).[1]

[Oswald Pirow to His Excellency the Governor-General, Earl of Clarendon]

There seems to be no escape from the conclusion that the prisoner deliberately poisoned her son.

In his summing up, the learned Judge deals fully with the question of motive. In view of the defence, which was more denial of guilt, the motive is largely a matter of conjecture, but I agree with the learned Judge that the fact of her inheriting under the will of her son probably was not the sole motive for the deed. Other elements enter into the case. It is clear from the record that the prisoner is a woman who has mercenary instincts and is fond of money, and rather averse to parting therewith. It also appears from the evidence that the deceased had been badly spoilt by her, that there was every possibility, nay probability, of his turning out to be a “ne’er-do-well”, a spendthrift and a source of continual expense and worry to her, while the evidence establishes that he assaulted her on more than one occasion and treated her generally in a most unfilial manner.

The probability, therefore, is that the motive was a mixed one, and that the crime was due to a combination of various factors. In his report the learned judge makes a further suggestion that the prisoner feared that the deceased would be the cause of trouble between herself and her husband, and that he might even go the length of doing away with the latter, and that the explanation of the crime lies in this fear.

Only the prisoner can say what her real motive was, and we can only judge what the probable motives are from standards and emotions to which human beings react as a rule. The fact remains that the prisoner, whatever her motive may have been, deliberately put an end to the life of her son by poisoning.

The only facts upon which the exercise of clemency can be supported is the treatment of the prisoner by the deceased: the learned Judge seemed to accept the evidence on this point, though the Crown Prosecutor is inclined to be somewhat sceptical and to hold the view that this treatment was exaggerated.

But even accepting that the treatment by the deceased of his mother was “abominable” (to quote the language of the learned Judge), this hardly seems to constitute a palliative of her act. She did not act hastily or on the spur of the moment: the only evidence as to actual physical violence speaks to events occurring in the middle of December, 1931. Only towards the end of February, 1932, does she prepare to carry out the scheme of destroying him. Her action therefore, assuming the truth of the alleged treatment, seems to spring rather from motives of revenge than provocation, while it is not certain that this treatment was the sole and only reason for her conduct.

Under these circumstances, I can find no reasonable grounds for extending mercy and the law must take its course. Her action was calculated and deliberate and sprung from motives which she alone can explain.

[1] Judge Leo Greenberg presided with two Assessors, Magistrates J.N. Graham and A.A. Stratford, in the Witwatersrand Local Division of the Supreme Court in Johannesburg. Advocate H Morris appeared for the defence and Crown Prosecutor CC. Jarvis appeared for the Crown.


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