THE WOMAN WHO TALKED HER WAY TO THE GALLOWS

MARIA HELENA GERTRUIDA LEE: 1947

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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 months.

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 one.

“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 up North?”

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 engaged.

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,” she explained.

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 Watch Company.

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 her evidence.

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 replied.

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 Prison.

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