Between October 1946 and May 1947, Maria Lee
used arsenic to poison to death her young lover, Alwyn Smith,
a man she claimed ardently to love.
Maria Helena Gertruida Lee (nee van Niekerk)
was born in 1899. When she met Alwyn Smith in 1945, she was 46
and had been married three times. He was twenty-six. Her first
husband was named Oosterhuizen. They were married in 1915 and
lived in the Lichtenburg district where they raised four sons.
In 1929, the couple divorced. She remarried soon afterwards, but
her second marriage to a man named Kruger lasted only a few short
On 1 December 1934, she married Jan de Klerk
Lee, a twenty-four year-old metal worker. She sold the tea-room
she had been running in Johannesburg and they set up home together
in Pretoria. She began buying sites, building houses, and then
selling them. Just seven months later, in March 1941, Lee went
into hospital suffering from tuberculosis. He died in July of
the same year and Mrs Lee inherited close to £3000 from
her husband's estate.
After three marriages, Mrs Lee was well set
up: she was a wealthy and attractive widow in her early forties.
However, she had an insatiable appetite for young male friends,
and it was this fatal attraction, which was, in the end, to lead
to her downfall.
Soon after Jan Lee's death, she was engaged
again, this time to one of her husband's friends. But, when she
found out that the man was suffering from a serious illness, she
broke off the relationship and made the decision to move to the
Cape. In 1945, she applied for a job with Lennon’s, a pharmaceutical
firm in Cape Town. In her letter of application, she maintained
she was a twenty-nine year-old widow, with no children, whose
husband had been killed in the North African campaign.
“The whole letter was nonsense,”
she would later explain at her trial. “But I had to do it
for a reason... It was a disease, which might have ended in death
or have resulted in long suffering. I could not face death again
and would having done anything to break it off. I then wrote to
Lennons. I had to go to any place where I could get away.”
Mrs Lee's love life was never simple and
straightforward. While she was engaged to her husband's friend,
she was also writing to two young soldiers who were fighting in
North Africa. One was named C.J.B. Oliver and the other, Alwyn
Smith. In Oliver's case, the pen-friendship blossomed into romance
and by the time she decided to move to Cape Town she considered
herself engaged to Oliver.
Shortly before Mrs lee left for Cape Town,
she met Alwyn Smith at Polley's Hotel in Pretoria. He had returned
from North Africa as World War II drew to a close. Hostilities
in North Africa had ceased many months earlier. On the train to
Cape Town, he suddenly appeared in her carriage. “I remember
clearly saying to him ‘this is only for ladies’,"
she would later claim.
The next morning, they had breakfast together
and from then on they had all their meals together on the train.
When they arrived in Cape Town, Smith took her to La Bella Alliance,
a boarding house in the Gardens. That afternoon, they went for
a drink at the Carlton Hotel. Mrs Lee was flattered by all the
attention she was receiving.
“After that we became good friends,”
she said. “He immediately took so much interest in me that
I was surprised. He told me that he had fallen in love with me.”
Smith, who had to return to Pretoria temporarily to obtain his
discharge from the army, wanted them to marry before he left.
Mrs Lee, however, was in two minds, although the idea was an attractive
“He said he was a major and I had a
few pennies. I decided it might be good for me to get married
to him. In any case he was a healthy man.” But, the next
day she had changed her mind. “How could I break off my
engagement to a man (Oliver) who was fighting for his country
A few days later, they went to a party in
Belleville where Mrs Lee found out that Smith had told all his
friends that they were going to get married. Rather than make
a fool of him in public she played along. “I was always
a game,” she would say. That night, after they had been
to Suikerbossie for further celebrations, they spent the night
together. By the time Smith left for Pretoria, they were officially
Smith was away for six weeks and when he
returned, Mrs Lee had moved to 6 Prince Street, Oraniezicht, Cape
Town. He wanted them to marry the day after his return, but she
was still a little uncertain. “I said we could get married
later,” she said, “but he was very disappointed. He
said that if I gave him a motorcar as a present he would know
he meant something to me. I replied light-heartedly that I would
give him a car if he wanted one. I knew you could not get cars
at that time and thought that by the time they were available
he would have forgotten about it.”
Then Smith started borrowing money from her
£150 the first time and then £500 later on. “We
were very much in love and I would do anything for him,”
Smith promised to repay the money by giving
her some building society shares that he owned. She signed the
paper that he produced and soon after he paid a cheque for £501
and 1O pence into her account. All this time, he kept pestering
her to marry him, but she continued to refuse. Officially she
was still engaged to Mr Oliver.
In February 1946, Smith told her he was in
trouble with an old girlfriend who was now married and asked Mrs
Lee to give him £500, which he claimed he needed to sort
the situation out. To add to all the confusion, in the same month
she travelled to Pretoria to marry Oliver. This was to be her
fourth and final marriage.
The Olivers set up home in Bethlehem, but
all the time she was living with Oliver she was also keeping in
secret contact with Smith. Smith was desperate for her to return
to him so that they could get married. Not surprisingly, within
months her marriage was on the rocks. She left her new husband
and returned to Cape Town, where she worked for the American Swiss
As the marriage lasted only a few months,
she reverted to the name of Mrs Lee. By this time, she had decided
that Smith was the only one for her. Despite this, she refused
to live with Smith until her divorce came through, and to solve
the problem, Smith moved to Durban for a time and obtained work
as a travelling salesman. Alwyn Smith returned to Cape Town in
October 1 946. Shortly after his return, he telephoned Mrs Lee
at work to inform her that he had received a telegram conveying
the message that her mother bad died. She became so distressed
that her employers sent her home. At first Smith was very sympathetic,
but then he began drinking and become abusive. He wanted her to
stop crying. “A person who is dead is dead” he said.
Then he flashed a thick wad of notes under her nose. “I'm
going to Durban to swank it,” He said. “I was very
annoyed with him about it,” said Mrs Lee, “and chastened
him for saying such a thing.”
While working for American Swiss, she was
accused of stealing jewellery worth several thousand pounds.
When her thefts were finally discovered, she
was dismissed. To make matters worse, she thought the money Smith
had shown her was the was the £1000 she had recently given
him. Nevertheless, she trusted Smith enough to ask him to go to
her deceased mother's farm in the Lichtenburg district, in the
Transvaal to wind up her estate. It was around this time he started
to get sick. He started complaining about stomach pains in December
1946. By the beginning of 1947, their relationship was showing
signs of strain, which is not surprising since she had been adding
ant poison containing arsenic to his food for about two months.
To make matters worse, Smith was drinking heavily and had also
taken to gambling. Abdul Raman a general dealer from Woodstock,
testified at the trial how Smith regularly borrowed money from
him for this purpose. He would borrow £20 or £25 in
the morning and would return it later the same day. On one occasion,
Smith couldn’t repay the money on time because he had had
a bad run of poker. “He said he'd get the money from his
wife and return it the next day.” Raman said. He also added
that Smith was often drunk.
In February 1947, Miss Jane Jacob’s,
the daughter of Mrs Lee's landlady, heard the two of them arguing.
The argument concerned the ownership of a car, which Mrs Lee had
paid for. “Why should you get everything?” she demanded.
“Why can't I have the car?” But Smith wasn't put off
by her. 'Remember, I know a lot about you,” he threatened.
Perhaps this was a threat to blackmail her over the jewellery
business as she had never been formally charged, but we will know.
In court she denied that she had ever stolen
anything. Whatever the reason, by this time Smith had shown himself
to be lazy unambitious, a drunkard and he was beginning to make
Mrs Lee's life a misery. Getting rid of Smith would not only solve
a lot of Maria's problems, it would also benefit her financially
as he had a life insurance policy for £3 000 naming her
as the sole benefactor.
In the Autumn of 1947, Smith's condition
deteriorated. On 13 March, 1947, Dr Morris Helman was summoned
to Prince Street by Mrs Lee as Smith was abusive, complaining
of abdominal pains and vomiting. Dr Helman prescribed a tonic
and for a few days and Smith showed signs of improvement. On 20
March, however, Dr Helman was called out for a second time. This
time Smith was in a more serious condition. He had a rash on his
body, was retching continuously, and complaining of acute stomach
pains. On 22 March, he was admitted to hospital with suspected
scarlet fever. However, the tests proved negative. Nevertheless,
Smith's condition quickly improved while he was in hospital and
he was discharged a week later. Not long afterwards, Smith became
seriously ill once more and Dr Helman was again called. By this
time, he had come to suspect that Smith's system had been poisoned
in some way. His patient, however, had lost all faith in the medical
profession, preferring to treat himself, and dismissed Dr Helman.
For a month he had no contact with his patient
and professional etiquette prevented him from contacting Smith.
Eventually, on 2 May, he received a telephone call from a distraught
Mrs Lee claiming that Smith was dying and that she wanted him
(Dr Helman) to come over. When Dr Helman subsequently examined
Smith, he immediately suspected arsenic poisoning, but to confirm
his diagnosis he wished to consult with a specialist. With Mrs
Lee’s approval, he summoned Dr Philip Leftwich.
Dr Leftwich arrived at the house late on
the afternoon of 2 May. He privately confirmed his colleague’s
diagnosis and suggested that the patient be sent to hospital.
Mrs Lee objected since this might kill, him, but within hours
Alwyn Smith was dead.
Mrs Lee appeared devastated by her lover's
death and when Constable Harold Norman Bishop and Constable van
Rooyen arrived in the mortuary van to take Smith's body away for
post-mortem examination, she pulled the covering blanket away
from Smith's ankles in order to kiss his feet.
The following day, Dr E.N. Keen of the Anatomy
School at the University of Cape Town conducted a post-mortem.
It was found that Smith's liver contained 0,41 grains of arsenic,
the kidneys, 0,05 grains, and the fluid of the kidneys and stomach,
0,55 grains. His hair also contained traces of arsenic. It was
likely, according to Dr Hillel Shapiro, the government pathologist,
that the dose, which finally killed Smith had been administered
some time during the 24-hour period prior to death.
Despite an overwhelming body of evidence,
which proved that Smith had been poisoned, there was no direct
evidence linking Mrs Lee to the crime and no arsenic was ever
found in her possession. Consequently, for some months a police
team, under the leadership of Detective Head Constable F. van
Niekerk, investigated Smith's death and Maria Lee's life, associates
and affairs, but could find no conclusive evidence against her.
During the months that followed, Mrs Lee
was convinced that she had escaped the law, and in September 1947,
she decided to leave Cape Town and move back to Pretoria. On 14
October, she was arrested in Pretoria on suspicion of having murdered
Alwyn Smith. She was remanded in custody at the Pretoria Central
Prison while arrangements were made for her transfer back to Cape
Town for the preliminary hearing.
It was while she was in prison that Mrs Lee
finally sealed her fate. Sharing a cell with Mrs Lee was one Margrieta
Minaar. It seemed that Mrs Lee had already decided that her defence
would be that Smith committed suicide by taking arsenic. But,
she decided that she needed an accomplice to substantiate the
story. Mrs Lee therefore asked Minaar to say that Smith had lived
in Durban and that he had also been ill there.
“I was to say that he always complained
of pains in the stomach; that he drank heavily and carried a powder
which he took whenever he had a few drinks,” Minaar later
told the court.
As an inducement, Mrs Lee offered to pay
Mrs Minaar's bail money of £50 and give her a further £100
in 'expenses' if she would go to Cape Town and meet with two of
Mrs Lee's friends - Mrs Peggy Smith and Mr Tommy Arpin. Mrs Minaar
was also to tell Mr Kraai, a salesman friend of Mrs Lee's - the
man who would pay the bail money - that she (Minaar) had known
Smith in Durban in 1942, and that he had confessed to her that
he intended to commit suicide using arsenic.
Mrs Minaar did as she promised. She spoke
to Mr Kraai, who passed on the information to Mrs Lee's attorneys.
However, Mrs Minaar also made a statement to the police on 20
October, the day she was released, and it was this statement that
was to be the final nail in Mrs Lee's coffin.
Mrs Lee's trial eventually opened on 6 April
1948. The case attracted widespread public interest and the public
gallery was packed for every day of the five-week trial. Mrs Lee
dressed-up for the occasion and became something of a celebrity.
The prosecution set out to prove three things. Firstly, that arsenic
was the cause of Smith's death; secondly, that Mrs Lee was the
only person who could have administered the arsenic; and thirdly,
that these claims were supported by Mrs Minaar's evidence.
The most damning evidence of all was the
fact that Mrs Minaar was aware that Smith had died of arsenic
poisoning on 20 October, long before this fact had been reported
in any of the newspapers. She also knew that the doctors were
baffled by Smith's ailments. These two pieces of information could
only have been obtained from one source: Mrs Lee. In turn, Mrs
Lee could only have known that arsenic was the poison used if
she had administered it herself. Although Mrs Lee's defence attorney
tried to undermine Mrs Minaars credibility, he could not shake
Mr Justice Steyn gave his judgment on 10
May 1948. He found Mrs Lee guilty of murder.
“Do you wish to say anything before
I pass sentence of death on you?” he asked.
”I repeat, I am not guilty,” she
Mrs Lee lodged an appeal, which was eventually
dismissed on 11 September, 1948. On the morning of Saturday, 18
September, 1948, Maria Lee was hanged at the Pretoria Central