Dorethea van der Merwe (or Kraft as she was known at the time of her crime) was the first woman hanged in the Union of South Africa. She died for her part in the murder of Louis Tumpowski, which had taken place at her farm in the Transvaal in 1918.

Having read her story, you may well question whether she deserved this historic distinction. Was she really a scheming hard-nosed woman, who deserved the ultimate punishment? Or was she merely a casualty of her age? A victim of exploitation? Would a modern Judge, given the laws of the time, be likely to pass the same sentence on her?

Dorethea first met Louis Tumpowski when he visited her farm looking to buy fresh produce for his thriving general dealer business. Tumpowski, a Jewish immigrant from the United States, arrived in South Africa in 1887, at the age of twenty-five. On his arrival, he headed for Johannesburg, which at the time was a small but rapidly expanding mining town. Recognizing that the area offered great potential for the small entrepreneur, Tumpowski set himself up selling general provisions. Although he had several sources of supply he would regularly tour farms and smallholdings in the locality in the quest for fresh supplies.

The widowed Mrs Kraft had a very different life. Although she owned her farm, Treurfontein, in the Lichentenburg district, it provided her and her daughter, Polly with a little more than a subsistence existence. It was small and unattractive place, and drought and poor and poor soil meant unrelenting hard work. To add to her problems, the local people she employed as labourers resented taking orders from a woman. Mrs Kraft confided in Tumpowski, that she needed a man around the property: a manager who could run the place. She asked him to keep his ears and eyes open for such a person.

On a subsequent visit, Tumpowski offered to lease and run Treurfontein himself, at a rent of £25 per year. Mrs Kraft found this proposal agreeable and, at Tumpowski's suggestion, a contract was drawn up by a firm of Johannesburg attorneys to make the arrangement legal and binding. The document was signed on 21 May 1914.

Tumpowski moved to Treurfontein, where he and Mrs Kraft soon began living together as man and wife. Despite these changes, however, the farm failed to prosper. In 1918, Mrs Kraft decided that the time had come to sell the property. It was only then that she learnt from Tumpowski that the agreement between then contained an option clause giving him the right, at lease end, to purchase the farm from her at a price of £35s a morgen. (A morgen is approximately 10 000 square metres) This in effect meant that she was compelled to sell to Tumpowski, and at a price well below market value.

Mrs Kraft was highly indignant, maintaining that this option clause had been omitted when the terms and agreement were read out to her. Nevertheless, the firm of attorneys who she approached to look into her legal position simply confirmed what Tumpowski had already told her - that she was obliged to sell the farm to him and at a bargain price.

Finding herself in this legal trap, Mrs Kraft decided to appeal to Tumpowski's better nature. She believed that if she were to marry Tumpowski, she could have the option clause quashed in an ante-nuptial agreement. However, by this time relations between them had become so strained that Tumpowski refused to even consider the possibility of marriage. When this effort failed she returned to her second option: witchcraft. She approached a local witch doctor named Jim Bird (also known as Whiskers) and asked for a love potion which would cause Tumpowski to fall madly in love with her. Unfortunately, when she put some of this potion into Tumpowski's tea he became violently ill and accused her of trying to poison him. After this incident he refused to take food from her.

By the time it had become clear to her that Bird's magic had failed for a second time, Mrs Kraft was desperate. It is at this point that Hermanus Lambertus Swartz enters the saga.

Swartz, who was in love with Mrs Kraft's daughter, Polly, was a regular visitor to the farm and he viewed Mrs Kraft's plight with a great deal of sympathy. He reasoned that the solution to the problem lay in a more direct approach. Mrs Kraft agreed and together they determined to have Tumpowski killed. Jim Bird was prepared to perform the deed in return for a payment of £100.

On the night of 2 February 1918, during a violent hailstorm, Mrs Kraft, Hermanus Swartz, Jim Bird and three local labourers assembled in the living room of the farmhouse. Speaking in low tones, they made final preparations. Finally, Swartz took Bird to the door of Tumpowski's room, quietly worked the latch, and then pushed the witch doctor inside. Tumpowski barely had a chance to look up in surprise before Bird attacked him with a knobkerrie. Blow after blow rained down on the victim's skull. Yet, when Bird stepped back from the bed, Swartz was convinced the man was still alive. He tied a leather thong around Tumpowski's neck and cut his throat with a pocket knife. Mrs Kraft fetched a blanket, which she used to stem the flow of blood. At this point, Jim Bird, convinced that someone was watching through the window, suddenly took fright. Disregarding the offer of a further £100 if he would use his magic to conceal the crime, he ran off into the night.

With the help of the three African labourers - Hermanus, Andries and Piccanin - Mrs Kraft and Swartz then carried Tumpowski's body outside and buried it in a rough grave beneath an ash-pit in the garden. By daylight, all evidence of the crime had been removed. After the murder, Mrs Kraft began to complain that she had been deserted by Tumpowski, and for a short time even went to stay with a neighbour because, she said she was afraid to remain alone on the farm. (Her daughter, Polly, by this time, was living in Johannesburg.)

Within weeks, everyone had forgotten all about Louis Tumpowski. That is almost everyone. Nearly three months after his mysterious disappearance, Tumpowski's sister, Mrs Saltman who lived in Johannesburg, received a letter from a man who was interested in purchasing the option on Treurfontein. He therefore wanted her brother's 'new' address. When Mrs Saltman and her husband Louis made enquires, they became increasingly suspicious. Eventually, she approached the police and asked them to investigate her brother's disappearance.

Mrs Kraft told the police who paid a visit to the farm that she was neither interested in nor concerned about the man's whereabouts. It was her belief, she declared, that Tumpowski had vanished in order to avoid debt repayment. When she heard this explanation, Tumpowski's sister pointed out that it had no basis in truth: her brother's financial affairs had been in perfect order at the time of his disappearance.

About a year was to pass before the police would at last concede to the request made by Tumpowski's sister to conduct a full-scale search of the farm. The investigation was sanctioned by one Inspector A.E. Trigger, head of the Transvaal CID, who had, by this time, come to learn of the option clause in the agreement between Mrs Kraft and Tumpowski, and considered it motive enough for murder. Without a corpse, however, nothing could be proved.

The search was organised by Detective-Sergeant Frederick William Daniels. In July 1920, he began looking for Tumpowski's body on the farm. He used eight prisoners from Lichtenberg Prison to do the digging. For the next month-and-a half, acres of the farm were dug over, wells were plumbed, and even floors of the farmhouse lifted, but all to no avail. After a month of arduous work, there was no sign of the body and no one had come forward with information, despite a £100 reward offered by the police.

Daniels had come to hear of Jim Bird during the course of his investigations and on 20 August, went to question him. It was during this interrogation that Bird confessed to taking part in the murder. However, he maintained that because he had run away before the body was disposed of, he had no idea as to the whereabouts of the corpse. Following this disclosure, Bird joined the eight convicts digging up the farm. At night he was kept in a lock-up because 'there was no other place'. On 20 September 1920, almost two-and-a-half years after Tumpowski had been murdered, his body was found by Jim Bird buried on the edge of the ash pit near the back door of the farmhouse. Although the body was badly decomposed, some grey hair was still visible and there were marks indicating a cut across the throat. On a finger of the left hand was a signet ring which neighbours were able to identify. A local cobbler also recognized the boots that the corpse was wearing. Louis Tumpowski had finally been found.

The post-mortem showed that Tumpowski had suffered a fractured skull, and there were marks across his throat that indicated knife damage. There was now no doubt that Tumpowski had been murdered. Shortly afterwards, the police arrestedMrs van der Merwe, Hermanus Swartz, Jim Bird and the three African labourers. At this point, Bird struck a deal with the police, who accepted his offer to turn King's evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The trial of Mrs Kraft (who in the interim had become Mrs van der Merwe) began on 13 June 1921, at the Potchefstroom Circuit Court Mr Hoal, the State Prosecutor, began his address to the jury by pointing out that, for a guilty verdict to be returned, it was not necessary for the State to prove to the court that Mrs van der Merwe murdered Tumpowski herself, only that she had instigated the crime.

The case for the prosecution hinged on the testimony of Jim Bird, who the Judge had pointed out was by his own admission a 'liar, adulterer - he had had sexual relations with Mrs Kraft on a number of occasions - witchdoctor and murderer'. Nevertheless, the evidence implicating both Mrs van der Merwe and Mr Swartz in the murder of Tumpowski was so overwhelming that the jury had no hesitation in returning guilty verdicts for both accused.

Dorethea van der Merwe and Hermanus Swartz were later hanged at Pretoria Central prison. Two of the African Labourers whom Jim Bird claimed had been accessories to the murder of Tumpowski were committed to trail, but later acquitted on lack of evidence. The third man was not tried.

Hanging is thought to have originated in Persia (modern Iran) and brought to Europe in the Middle Ages by the Huns. It was taken to England by the Anglo-Saxons, along with other aspects of their culture. Originally, criminals were simply strung-up from the branch of a tree. The first innovation to this practice was the construction of rudimentary, gallows - normally two legs supporting a crossbeam. The condemned person mounted a ladder placed against the crossbeam, had a noose put around his or her neck, and the ladder pushed away normally resulting in slow strangulation and spectators were often in the habit of pulling on the victims legs to hasten the end.

In the latter half of the eighteenth Century, the first 'modern gallows', designed to fracture the victim’s neck, was introduced. This device made use of a properly constructed noose that was positioned under the chin in order to fracture the cervical vertebrae, and a trap door through which the victim fell when the leaver was pulled. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century there was an attempt to make hangings more 'humane'. In England, public executions ceased and prisoners were no longer left hanging on the gibbet to rot. The famous Yorkshire executioner, James Berry, also devised a Table of Drops based upon the weight of the Prisoner and the length of the fall required to kill him. The object of this table was to ensure that the victim died instantaneously and with a few marks as possible. (If the rope was to short prisoners tended to die of strangulation, and if the rope was too long it literally tore of the victims head off.)

Death from hanging under properly supervised control is normally instantaneous, although heart and lung action may continue for up to fifteen minutes. The victim is normally left to hang after execution for approximately one hour to ensure death. In less civilised times, burial alive was a very real possibility.

Usually begins about 48 hours after death. Roughly twenty-four hours later, the first visible signs of decomposition is often a greenish discoloration of the abdomen. Around this time too, the veins begin to show through the skin as reddish lines, an effect sometimes known as marbling. After thee weeks, the corpse is grossly disfigured: the swollen and bloated features are unrecognisable. The process of liquefaction may have begun.

Moisture and air are essential to the process of decomposition, and tight clothing can mummify a corpse. When exposed to the elements, it normally takes about one year for a corpse to be reduced to skeleton. (Insects and animals may hasten the process, however) Professor John Gaister, who for many years was Professor of Forensic Medicine at Glasgow University, maintained that, as a general rule, a body decomposes in air twice as quickly as in water, and eight times as rapidly as in earth.

The internal organs decompose at different rates. The brains, stomach and intestines deteriorate quickly, while the lungs, kidneys, uterus takes much longer. The elderly tend to decompose more slowly than the young: fat people more quickly than thin ones. It is interesting to note that some murderers - like Pierre Basson (see ‘Murdering for Money’) have used quicklime in an attempt to hasten the decomposition process. Ironically, under certain conditions this substance tends to act as a preservative. Arsenic, too, retards the decomposition process - a telltale side effect of the poison that some murderers have learnt to late.




The Serpent Under

South Africa Weird and Wonderful



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