Ted Botha weaves together a fantastic cast of killers and conmen, detectives and lawmen, journalists and authors in his latest book.
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Daisy de Melker: Hiding among killers in the City of Gold

Ted Botha, Jonathan Ball Publishers

4 stars

Mention the name Daisy de Melker and you will get all sorts of responses. Some say: “My auntie or great grandma, and so on stayed next door to her!”, while others admit they know she killed her husband but aren't sure when or how. De Melker is at once a real and mythical character. You can even tour the places in which she lived. Just make sure you visit the correct houses.

Or you can read Ted Botha’s Daisy de Melker: Hiding Among Killers in the City of Gold for the facts and, of course, grizzly details of her murders. When we meet for lunch, Botha describes this odd fascination South Africans have with De Melker: “Her name is so famous, but people don’t know much about her. They have these preconceived ideas about what she had done, what she looked like. You scratch the surface, but there is not much knowledge about her. She is quite a character — tall, strong and impressive, with a singular focus and ambition. She knew exactly what she was doing and where she was going. Even her lawyer, Harry Morris, who was an incredibly smart guy and should have been on the world stage, was impressed by her.

But De Melker is not the only criminal Botha unearths in Joburg. The book was first titled Murder City, quite apt, as we learn of numerous other criminals operating when De Melker was killing her husbands. The publisher correctly decided to name it after the infamous murderess because, as Botha says: “Daisy de Melker sells.”

The milkshake that brought all the conmen, grifters and killers to Joburg’s yard was simple. Says Botha: “It was gold. They all knew there was money down here and people to be robbed and taken advantage of. When you think of people like Daisy, where would they go? They couldn’t go to London or New York, so this was their pot at the end of the rainbow. They wanted a place to get lost in.” 

Daisy de Melker: Hiding among killers in the City of Gold by Ted Botha.
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In the 1800s, Johannesburg was a boomtown, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Botha writes: “Johannesburg was known by many names — Egoli, City of Gold, but to those who hated it — it was “Sodom, the City of Ramps ... and the University of Crime. Almost from the moment that gold was discovered in 1886, the mining camp exploded ... Within two years there were 77 bars, 43 hotels, 12 billiard halls, the racetrack at Turffontein, gambling dens, circuses, boxing matches, roller-skating rinks and countless brothels.”

De Melker operated between 1914 and 1932, peak ragtime years. The criminals Botha focuses on are deadly, though their names and what happened to them sound straight out of a Bugsy Malone film. There’s the Foster Gang, led by drifter and cold-hearted killer William Foster, described by a reporter in the book as “dark and saturnine”. They robbed jewellery stores and banks, killing several people, including police officers.

Botha says: “The Foster Gang was probably the widest spread news event of the time. Everyone knew about them and the city was in hysterics. They were worried about who these men were and who they were going to kill next. People made sure they were safely in their homes and locked up their daughters. Even General Del la Rey was killed by gang antics. This itself could have been a much broader story, especially the hysteria in the town and how the gang was eventually caught hiding in the cave in Kensington.”

" He kept on popping back in and out. He was this irresolute criminal and nothing could stop him. 'Til his dying days, he was a criminal "
- Ted Botha, about Andrew Gibson

We also meet fraudster Andrew Gibson, who pretended he was a medical doctor and set up practice in Belgravia, east of the city centre. Botha writes: “In one case he took the top off a man’s skull, removed a tumour, and got the head in order again.”

In the notes section at the end of the book (worth reading for extra nuggets of information), Botha quotes the lawyer Morris as saying a doctor told him: “I was quite convinced it was a piece of meat smuggled into the theatre.” Morris asked the doctor what happened to the patient: “Oh well, she recovered.”

Botha says Gibson was his favourite character to write about. “He kept on popping back in and out. He was this irresolute criminal and nothing could stop him. 'Til his dying days, he was a criminal.” For the 80 years Gibson lived, 46 were spent in jail.

This was happening while De Melker married and allegedly killed Alfred Cowle in 1914, Robert Sproat in 1926 and Sidney Clarence de Melker in 1931. But it seems she could have started killing as far back as 1908.

Daisy Louisa Hancorn Smith was about to marry Bert Fuller in Rhodesia. He became gravely ill with suspected black water fever and died on March 3, the day they were to marry. She then went to live in Bertrams in Joburg with her aunt, where she met Cowle and had three children. Only one of the boys would live beyond his fifth birthday. The other two died of “convulsions”, a broad term used when the actual reasons for death were unknown. Had De Melker poisoned her children as well?

There are many other murders and murderers Botha covers, and he brings in surprise guests, such as famous characters Arthur Conan Doyle and writers Sarah Gertrude Millin and Herman Charles Bosman, both of whom covered the De Melker trial. All brought expertly together by Botha in this melting pot of early Johannesburg.


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