Just before midnight on Wednesday, 9 November 1948, the police raided the private medical practice of Dr Gerhardus Bernieres Buchner at Castle Mansions, Eloff Street, Johannesburg. They discovered five women in different rooms, each of whom had undergone an abortion. Buchner was in another room, counting money on the bed.

When Detective Head Constable F.C. van Niekerk, the officer in charge of the raid, accused Buchner of carrying out abortions on the premises, Buchner claimed that the women were being treated for varicose veins. One of the patients was immediately transferred to the Johannesburg General Hospital where it was established that she had received an abortion. Thus began one of South Africa's greatest scandals in recent times.

Buchner (44) was an outstanding physician. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town Medical School, in Germany and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He had been operating an extremely lucrative abortion clinic in Johannesburg for over eight years and his private practice at Castle Mansions provided the perfect front for these clandestine operations.

The system at Castle Mansions was simple, efficient and well organised. On arrival, patients would be examined either by Dr Buchner or his junior partner, Dr Edward Blumberg (34). Once pregnancy had been confirmed, Nurse Susanna Pieterse (34), would present the bill. (The average cost was £70 to £75, payable in advance.) When the financial details were concluded, arrangements for the abortion would be made.

Normally, patients would arrive sometime during the afternoon, go into the Theatre late in the evening, and be discharged the following morning. They would not know the names of the doctors or the nurses that treated them.

The abortion team comprised four people. Buchner or Blumberg carried out the operation with Nurse Pieterse acting as anaesthetist. A second nurse, Anna Sophia Kelly, sometimes performed the duties of general assistant. In addition, a relief nurse who filled in for Kelly in 1941, when she went on holiday, provided a referral system. From 1943 to 1945, this nurse had worked for another doctor, but would send pregnant women to Buchner. For this service, she received a commission of £5 to £7 per patient. In 1946, she worked in the Castle Mansion rooms once more and was paid £30 per month - an excellent salary of the time.

At the inquiry that followed Buchner's exposure, the same nurse claimed that at least five abortions were carried out each day - although the clinic had on occasion handled up to nine patients in a twenty-four hour period. In some cases, operations were conducted by torch-light in order to avoid attracting unnecessary attention to the premises!

Despite the elaborate precautions, which Buchner and his associates took to maintain their anonymity, word slowly got around. In the end, exposure was inevitable. Buchner had a close shave in 1946, when the Johannesburg newspaper, Weekblad, published an article entitled Aborsie in Johannesburq, in which it was alleged that one of Johannesburg's foremost abortionists had three flats in the city, all under different names and was said to be making £2 500 a month from the practice. The newspaper's source was subsequently proved to be more than accurate. Indeed, exactly how lucrative Buchner's practice had become was revealed during the trial.

Financial records presented to the court showed that from July 1 946 to June 1947, over £51 000 had been paid into Buchner's banking account. From August 1947, to July 1948, the figure was £36 000, and in the three months that preceded the police raid, Buchner's income had been £9 500. Buchner also owned a farm and plots of ground on which houses were built and sold. The abortion clinic at the Castle Mansions was making him very wealthy.

The end came for Buchner shortly after the police were informed about the illegal operations being performed at Castle Mansions by a small stock former from the Northern Transvaal. The farmer had been asked by his recently-widowed cousin to take her to Johannesburg where she was to have a medical examination for 'varicose veins'. After the first visit to Castle Mansions, she had asked him to lend her £75, for the cost of the operation. She had no money of her own because her husband's estate had not been wound-up. Her uncle gave her £70, and a few days later they returned to the city. When he picked her up after her operation, she looked 'very weak and pale' and on the return journey, she confessed to having had an abortion.

The farmer later returned to Castle Mansions, spoke first to Nurse Pieterse and then to Buchner and tried unsuccessfully to get some of their money back. It was not long afterwards that he approached Brigadier Mickdal, Acting Commissioner for the police in Pretoria, and alleged that Buchner was procuring illegal abortions on a 'wholesale scale'.

Following the raid on Castle Mansions, the police began an intensive investigation to trace other patients of Buchner and Blumberg. Needless to say, the investigation was of an extremely sensitive nature, all the more so since the police had no wish to cause hardship or distress to any of the women who had been treated by either of the two doctors.

Meanwhile, Buchner, Blumberg and Pieterse were remanded in custody pending an inquiry. The inquiry, which began on 9 December, 1948, quickly established that there was a case to answer. The four accused were granted bail, Buchner and Blumberg for the amounts of £500 each.

On 17 January, 1949, the official hearing began at the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court under Mr M.A.S. Mathews. In order to protect the identities of those involved, the hearing was held in-camera and none of the names and addresses of the over sixty witnesses who were called to give evidence were released to the press. At the end of each day an official bulletin was issued.

Buchner, Blumberg, Pieterse and Kelly were subsequently committed for trial on 1 March 1949. The seven-week trial which began two months later was to attract immense public interest, produce over 1100 pages of written evidence, and reveal some astounding facts. The prosecution was led by Mr F.E. Lutge K.C., Attorney General for the Transvaal. Witness after witness came to the stand and testified that they had had abortion performed by Buchner and Blumberg under conditions of great secrecy. In virtually every case the patient had no knowledge of the names of the doctors or nurses who treated them. One woman told the court how, on the morning after the operation, she was brought a cup of tea in her room and noticed that there were a number of other cups on the tray. She had assumed that this meant that other patients were also being treated. She also said that on the day after her operation she was sent home in a taxi, even though she was still very weak, because her room had to be vacated by noon.

Another woman from Natal went to Johannesburg to procure an abortion after doctors in Natal refused to help her. She approached a number of doctors and all but one refused to help her in any way - he gave her Buchner's name. At Castle Mansions, she was first interviewed by a blond nurse (Pieterse) and was later examined by a doctor who told her that she was five months pregnant. The blond woman then asked her if she couldn't get married. Pieterse then informed her that, because of the advanced state of her pregnancy, the fee for the abortion would be £200. This figure was later reduced to £150. The women paid £90 in cash - all the money she had with her - and Pieterse also took down her parents' names and address.

Why did Nurse Pieterse do that?” Mr N. Masters, Mr Lutge's assistant asked.

”As a guarantee,” the woman replied. “Guarantee? Guarantee of what?”

”That they would tell my parents if I didn't pay the money I owed.” She later sent the balance by post.

Dr Blumberg was also charged with attempting to defeat the ends of justice. He was alleged to have approached a policeman friend (who happened by coincidence to have been part of the raid on Castle Mansions) and asked him to get the names and addresses of some of the key witnesses. The police initially maintained that this was an attempt by Blumberg to get some of the witnesses to either change their evidence or claim that their evidence was given under duress. These charges were later dropped.

After hearing evidence for seven weeks the judges retired on 27 June to consider their verdict. At 10 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, 9 August 1949, judgment was finally given.

Facing a packed courtroom, the judge began his two-hour summing-up. He began by commending the defective team of Detective Head Constable F. C. van Niekerk, Defective Head Constable H.P. Mare and Detective-Sergeants J.A. Le Roux and S. Smidt. They had carried out extremely delicate investigative work with great tact and consideration. Consequently, neither the lives nor the reputations of any of the women involved had been harmed in any way.

The judge turned to the defendants. The court had accepted, he conceded, the defence counsel’s argument that the women who had appeared for the prosecution were in no way complainants. All those called had appeared merely at the request of the police. However, as he pointed out, the morality of abortion was not the issue. It was the task of the court simply to establish if the law had been broken and this was clearly the case. Furthermore, the accused were fully aware of the illegality of what they were doing: they had operated under conditions of great secrecy, and the names and addresses of the women who had undergone abortions did not appear on any file cards. It was clear, therefore, that Buchner's private practice at Castle Mansions was being used to procure abortions on a regular basis. Of the 60 counts on which Buchner was charged, he was found guilty of 49. He was given six weeks 'hard labour' for each count - a total of five years and 34 weeks. Blumberg was given six weeks 'hard labour' for 34 counts - three years and 48 weeks. Nurse Pieterse, who had actively participated in the abortions and acted as anaesthetist, was given four weeks on each of 48 counts - a total of four years. Nurse Kelly received four weeks for ten counts but her four months sentence was suspended. Buchner, Blumberg and Kelly received their sentences stoically and made no protest as they were led away to the cells. Pieterse, however, broke down completely and had to be assisted from the court.

And so it seemed that along and drawn out cause celebre had finally ended. But the closing chapter of the story was still be written. Buchner was to use his medical knowledge to save a life while in prison. For this exemplary conduct he was granted two years reemission of sentence. Dr Gerhardus Buchner died several years after his release.




The Serpent Under

South Africa Weird and Wonderful



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