December 30, 1932
Pretoria, South Africa
Daisy Louisa C. de Melker is hanged for the murder of her son
In April 1932, De Melker, described by newspapers as “a trim, handsome little woman of 44,” was arrested for the poisoning murders of two husbands and her 20-year-old son.
Her first husband, William Alfred Cowle (sometimes misspelled as Rowie), died in 1923 after foaming from the mouth and screaming in agony. A doctor suspected Cowle had died of strychnine poisoning, but tests revealed no poison was in his system and it was concluded he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Robert Sproat, de Melker’s second husband, died in 1927 with similar symptoms to those of Cowle. Sproat’s death was also attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Both men had suddenly become fatally ill after ingesting drinks prepared by de Melker, who was the sole beneficiary of the estates of both.
On March 5, 1932, de Melker’s son Rhodes Cecil Cowle died after being ill for several days. Both Rhodes and a co-worker drank coffee de Melker had brought to Rhodes, and both had become violently ill afterward. While Rhodes had consumed a large amount of the coffee, the co-worker had only a small amount and made a full recovery.
Neighbors began to whisper about the string of bad luck to seemingly follow de Melker, who had also seen the death of a man she was engaged to before her first marriage and had only one child to survive childhood (a set of twins died a day after their birth and two sons died of convulsions 10 months apart in 1917). This gossip reaffirmed suspicions held by Sproat’s brother, who contacted police.
Police exhumed the body of Rhodes and found traces of arsenic. During questioning of Rhodes’ employer, they found the link to the illnesses in both Rhodes and his fellow worker, successfully demonstrating how’re Melker poisoned her son. Though they also exhumed her husbands’ bodies, both of whom had traces of strychnine, the investigators were unable to prove where the poison had originated and, by extension, were unable to prove de Melker had a part in their deaths.
De Melker was convicted of the murder of her son and sentenced to death by hanging on November 25. She went to her death professing her innocence.
- Levins, Peter. “When Justice Triumphed.” Sunday News [New York, New York]. October 1, 1933
- “South African Woman Hanged.” Calgary Herald. December 30, 1932
- “Woman Accused of Slaying Two Spouses and Son.” The Bakersfield Californian. October 18, 1932