When Daisy Louisa Hancorn-Smith was born on the 1st June 1886 at Seven Fountains, near Grahamstown, nobody suspected that she would rise to fame as South Africa’s first recorded serial killer. DAISY DE MELKER was charged with the murder of two husbands by strychnine poisoning and that of her twenty-year-old son, Rhodes, by arsenic.
Her murder trial in 1932 at the Johannesburg High Court attracted 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 reportedly paid up to 30 shillings each to secure a prime seat in court. Daisy greeted the crowds with the elegant wave of a movie star, noticeably revelling in the attention. She wore the same modest black dress every day and her light-hearted behaviour throughout the course of the trial belied that of someone who honestly believed she would be acquitted. And she almost got away with murder, were it not for a surprise witness and an imaginary cat...
In her youth Daisy moved to Bulawayo in Rhodesia to live with her father and two of her brothers. During the Anglo Boer War she returned to South Africa as a boarder at the Good Hope Seminary School in Cape Town where she was a stand-out student. After a short return to Rhodesia in 1903 she enrolled at the Berea Nursing Home in Durban. During a visit home, Daisy met Bert Fuller, a handsome young civil servant. They were engaged to be married when Bert fell ill. Daisy rushed to his bedside, where he died of Blackwater Fever, on the very day they were meant to be married. Bert left a will bequeathing Daisy £100.
A mere eighteen months after her first love’s untimely death, Daisy married William Alfred Cowle. He was a thirty-six-year-old plumber from Johannesburg. The couple had five children, but only Rhodes survived. The first were twins, fragile and premature and who died in infancy. Their third child died of an abscess on the liver and the fourth suffered bowel trouble and convulsions.
William, whom Daisy affectionately called ‘Alf’ suffered from stomach ailments and became ill after taking Epsom Salts as a laxative prepared for him by his wife. The first doctor who attended him did not consider his condition serious and prescribed a bromide mixture. Cowle’s condition deteriorated rapidly and not long after the doctor left he took a turn for the worse. The second attending doctor found William blue in the face and foaming at the mouth. He was in excruciating pain and screamed if anyone touched him. He died a short time later on the 11th January 1923. A post-mortem certified that cause of death was chronic nephritis and cerebral haemorrhage. Daisy Cowle inherited £1795.
Three years (to the day) after the death of her first husband, Daisy married Robert Sproat, another plumber. A year later, on a seemingly innocuous Sunday morning, Robert collapsed. He suffered severe stomach cramps and convulsions, but made a full recovery. His reprieve only lasted a month though, when on the 6th November 1927, he suffered another attack and died within minutes. The attending physician certified that cause of death was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. Robert’s brother William Sproat suspected foul play on Daisy’s behalf, but at the time could not gain a post-mortem. Daisy inherited £4000 and an additional £560 paid out by Robert’s pension fund.
In 1931 Daisy married for the third time. Her husband was Sidney Clarence De Melker, who, like her two previous husbands, was a plumber. By this time Rhodes Cecil Cowle, Daisy’s only child, was nineteen years old and had a reputation for apathy and laziness. It is not clear why Daisy decided to kill Rhodes. In the case of her first two husbands, the motive seemed clearly to be financial gain. In the case of Rhodes, it has been suggested that she thought him a disappointment, that she grew weary of supporting him financially, that he was a burden to her, and even most shockingly, that he suspected her involvement in the death of his father and step-father and she was being blackmailed by him. Whatever the reasons, Daisy De Melker poisoned her son.
Rhodes was buried at New Brixton cemetery beside the graves of his father and step-father, and a week later, Daisy was arrested. William Sproat, whose suspicions had never subsided, alerted the police to the uncanny similarities in the deaths of all three men. The bodies were exhumed and faint traces of strychnine were found lodged in the vertebrae of both husbands, coloured a soft pink from the dye chemists used to mark the poison at the time. Rhodes’ body was remarkably well-preserved, a characteristic of the presence of arsenic.
When the police searched her house though, they found no trace of any poisons. The prosecution had only circumstantial evidence, not enough to guarantee a conviction. They desperately scoured the poison registries at pharmacies in the area without any luck, until a local newspaper printed her photograph and a pharmacist from Turffontein recognised an old customer.
Late in February 1932 Daisy De Melker travelled from Germiston to Turffontein to acquire a measure of arsenic from a pharmacist in that area claiming she needed it to kill a cat. Spilkin, the said pharmacist, recognised Daisy as Mrs Cowle, although she signed the register as Mrs Sproat. By that stage she had been Mrs De Melker for thirteen months already.
The prosecution sprung Spilkin as a surprise witness and when she saw who was about to testify, Daisy’s smugness dissolved immediately. Her lawyer scrambled to undo the damage, claiming she had been visiting a friend in the area and happened to pop into the pharmacy, that she had tossed the cat in the dustbin without mentioning it to her family and that she had signed her old name by force of habit. It was a futile attempt.
On the 25th November 1932, Daisy De Melker was acquitted for the deaths of her two husbands but found guilty of murdering her son. She was sentenced to death by hanging.
On the morning of 30 December 1932, South Africa’s first recorded serial killer, Daisy de Melker, was hanged. Her husband Sidney maintained her innocence until the very end and laid white violets on her coffin.
Fun Facts about SA’s First Femme Fatale:
- Daisy De Melker is historically the second woman hanged in South Africa. The first was Dorethea Van Der Merwe who was hanged in 1921 for assisting in the bludgeoning to death of her former lover. The last woman to be hanged in South Africa was Sandra Smith, who together with her lover knifed to death a young girl they had befriended.
- Daisy De Melker became somewhat of a popular mythical icon in South Africa: If a door blew shut in the wind it was said to be the ghost of Daisy De Melker. If your hair was unkempt and wild “you looked like Daisy De Melker”
- Rumour has it that Daisy haunts Ward 7 of the Transvaal Childrens’ Hospital in Braamfontein