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Death at Olifantsfontein

Jacob Gamler, a well-known Jewish trader on and around the Diamond Fields, packed his wagon on Friday afternoon 19 January 1877 in readiness for a “smousing” trip to the Orange Free State. The wagon, although light of build, and drawn by four mules was filled with requisites popular among the farming fraternity which he hoped to sell along the way. Among the goods was photographic equipment and apparatus, as Gamler had become a keen photographer and hoped to take some stills of scenery, even, perhaps, some farmhouses and family pictures to sell back to the farmers themselves. Traveling with him was a Koranna named Gert, employed that day as his regular employee had decided to remain in Kimberley.


He left the town late that Friday evening along the Olifantsfontein road that would lead him to the Bosvark Road junction, left to Boshof and right to Jacobsdal, both roads having many farmhouses. He could of course, have then carried straight on to the Vendusie Drift which crosses the Modder river, the road itself continuing on to the Petrusburg region. No matter which way he was going to travel, he was tired before he left Kimberley and had mentioned to some of his friends that he was going to outspan fairly soon for the evening.


Jacob Gamler decided to outspan close to Olifantsfonteinkop; the mules were tied to trees close by; a light meal was eaten and after a cup of coffee, the trader turned into his blanket for the night. Gert did the same, after first checking to see if the mules were safely tied before he too climbed into his single blanket as the evening was very warm.


The sun was already climbing in the east when two travelers, Mr Eagan (aka Higgins) and a friend from Kimberley, who were heading eastwards towards the Modder River in an attempt to hire some workers when they saw in the distance a lone wagon, seemingly overturned. Upon arrival at the scene, they saw the wagon was indeed upset, and the mules and owner nowhere to be seen. Eagan and his companion thought that this was strange and a quick search of the wagon revealed “marks of blood in the vicinity of the wagon”. They then decided to search the immediate vicinity of the overturned wagon and soon came across Gamler’s body with his skull smashed in. The first pool of blood had been close to the wagon, and alongside the pool was a blood spattered rock. Gamler’s body had been dragged off into bushes some twenty metres away from where an obvious crime had been committed. Neither Gamler’s employee, Gert, nor the mules, were anywhere to be seen. Eagan and his friend returned to Kimberley post haste and reported the murder, for that was what it appeared, to the Resident Magistrate who in turn contacted the police.


Messrs Goldsmith and Stone (the former was President of the Jewish Burial Association) were soon on the way to the scene of the crime with a police orderly supplied by Major Lanyon, armed with a letter addressed to the Landdrost (Magistrate) of Boshof because Olifantsfontein fell into the Boshof magisterial district of the Orange Free State, a sovereign state at that time. The police party found the body as described by Eagan, and the local Veldcornet was sent for. Missing from the body, according to his family and friends, were a beautiful diamond ring, a watch and chain, and a considerable amount of money. The Veldcornet, responsible for law and order in the immediate area around Olifanstfontein, was away celebrating Nachtmaal at Boshof, so the Cape colony police decided to return the body of Gamler to Kimberley for a post-mortem.


This was done by Dr William Grimmer on the Sunday, while unsuccessful attempts were made to contact the relevant authorities in the Orange Free State. The Griqualand police were placed on full alert for the missing Gert, a £50 reward was posted – to be paid upon conviction – and police detective Collins was hot on the trail of the murderer whose tracks had been discovered leaving the scene of the crime. It was not Collins that would arrest the missing Gert however, but a farmer named Rothman.


Gert, after killing Jacob Gamler while he was sleeping by hitting his head with the rock three times, had removed the ring, not one watch but three, and money before departing the scene. He had intentionally gone to Platberg, Adriaan Rothman’s farm, and asked Rothman how he could escape from the police who he knew were searching for him. When Rothman asked him about the murder he gave quite a circumstantial account but said that he admitted to destroying the paper money, and that two white men had stolen all three watches from him. Rothman made a citizen’s arrest and secured Gert before bringing him into Kimberley where he was handed over to the police and incarcerated in the Du Toitspan gaol. Two  coloured persons were arrested by the Kimberley police for complicity in the murder, but they were released after admitting they had only taken the watches from a black man along the road.


Gert was not long in Du Toitspan gaol, as the Sheriff of the Orange Free State arrived and he was handed over for transfer to the neighbouring state where he would stand trial for the murder of Jacob Gamler. By 14 February he was in the Boshof gaol awaiting trial, the court case was finally heard by the Free State circuit court on Monday 2 July and lasted two days. Chief Justice Francis W Reitz presided, State Attorney J.A. Bier prosecuted and Advocate Lagerweij, in spite of his reluctance, defended the prisoner (and made a capital defence, too, according to witnesses).


The court, packed with locals of all races, heard from Gert that soon after Gamler had outspanned, another African, released that very day from gaol in Kimberley, had joined him at the camp. He had told the un-named African that Gamler had “lots of money” and other goods and they had decided to kill him while he slept, Gert throwing a large stone on Gamler’s head first, and then another stone thrown by the second murderer. The unfortunate trader died immediately. The two killers then upset the cart, chased away the mules and spread the wares and goods around the cart in an effort to make it look as if there had been a terrible and tragic cart accident. They had then gone to Kimberley where they shared the loot and parted company, Gert heading towards the Vaal River via Platberg where he met up with the man who apprehended him, Adriaan Rothman.


Gert’s companion was never found, and it was Gert’s voluntary confession to the murder of Jacob Gamler that saw the Boshof jury, after a mere seven minutes deliberation, return a guilty verdict. A solemn Judge Reitz pronounced sentence of death, and Gert was executed in the sleepy little Free State village within a month.


Originally Published in Tourism on Track No 40, 3 May 2005

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