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
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
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
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
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
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.
A SHORT HISTORY OF HANGING
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
DECOMPOSITION OF A
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.