18 August 1947, Henry Everington murdered at 28 Searle Street.
The Searle Street Murder
It is in the early hours of the morning during Kimberley’s cold months that traditionally, residents should be more alert than usual, as it is then that criminals take advantage of the weather to steal, be it from houses, cars or yards. They presume, and rightly so in many cases, that the residents are snug in their beds as the temperatures plummet to below freezing. No-one, they assume, would be awake, and if they were, they would prefer their warmth under the blankets and eiderdowns.
It was such a night in Kimberley on the 17th/18th August 1947, and the thieves had 28 Searle Street in the De Beers suburb east of the main Cape-Johannesburg railway line as their target.
The owner of the house at 28 Searle Street was 74 year old Herbert Wilson Everington, a well-known sportsman and personality of Kimberley in years gone by, like many people in their twilight years, struggled to sleep and most nights he would sit up deep into the night reading, or working on his business’ books. He had arrived in Kimberley in 1891 and worked for De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited before opening up a small business from his home. He had set up a petrol pump and repaired bicycles, and both jobs kept him fairly busy although his family thought he should slow down a little. But Herbert was not the type to just sit back and do nothing. He had been an all-round sportsman in his day, particularly in the field of bicycle racing and the trophies on the mantelpiece above the fireplace paid silent testimony to his excellence in that sport. Herbert’s sister-in-law, Mrs J. Everington, lived on the premises in an outside room adjoining the house, while her youngest daughter Helen resided in the house itself, separated by a wall from her mother. Having family on the property ensured that Herbert did not become a recluse like so many other elderly people.
He was still awake at 1.30am that long winter’s night, balancing his books. He had dozed off for a while, as was his wont, in his chair in front of the fire. He found it difficult after so many years to sleep in his bed, preferring the chair, and the noises at the kitchen door that night forced him to get up from his comfortable position and go investigate.
Mrs Everington also awoke at the same time, as she heard a scuffle and sounds of fighting from the main house, and finally a gunshot. Her daughter Helen too, hammered on the wall, calling for help and for her mother to come quickly. All the dogs in the yard were barking hysterically, and lights in the neighbours houses started to go on.
After Helen let her mother into the house, the two of them made their way through the lounge and into the kitchen, only to find Herbert lying in the doorway unconscious, with blood pouring from a facial wound. There was a strong smell of chloroform in the house. They phoned for an ambulance and for the police, the ambulance arriving first, and Detective Constable J.F. van Zyl half an hour after the attack. At that stage Everington had been taken to hospital but had died in the ambulance before reaching medical assistance. The attempted burglary had now become a murder.
There were a few clues for the police to go by, one of which was a bicycle lamp that the intruders had left behind on a wireless set in the lounge. It took the police several days before their informer network produced results, and on 1 September 1947, the 25 year old Joseph Khumalo appeared before the Magistrate H.R. Muirhead on a charge of murdering Herbert Everington. Khumalo’s wife, his wife’s sister, and their mother had all worked for the Everington family. It appeared to be an inside job. After the initial examination, Khumalo was formally charged with the murder and the police began to put their case together.
The murder trial began on 9 March 1948 before Justice W.E. Bok and two assessors, Advocate F.K. Loewenthal and Mr W.H. Trehaeven. Advocate E.O.K. Harwood appeared for the Crown (remembering South Africa only became a Republic in 1961), while Advocate P. Wiese was defence counsel for Joseph. The prosecutor had several aces up his sleeve – he had Khumalo’s two accomplices of the crime, David Phiri and George Banda, turn Crown witness, and an added bonus in that Khumalo’s brother-in-law was a paid police informer. The latter was not named to protect the informer for future work in the black townships.
Khumalo was the key to the murder. He had worked at the Kimberley Hospital as a cleaner in the operating theatre for six months in late 1944 and early 1945 and at the time of the murder had been working at the Hollandia Steam Laundry. At the hospital he would have learnt about chloroform and he had access to the same substance at the laundry. Phiri and Banda were both from Blantyre in Nyasaland (now Malawi), had worked in Johannesburg for a number of years, and had arrived in Kimberley in August 1947 looking for employment, albeit illegally as they did not have the permits required by law from the “Rhodesian Natives” department, and they did not bring luggage with them.
According to both Phiri and Banda, they had arrived in Kimberley the day of the murder, one of the first people they met being Khumalo. They told the court that Khumalo had taken them to Everington’s house on Searle Street to ask the old man for employment, and that Khumalo, armed with a pistol, had told them to wait outside while he went inside. At that stage they knew that a burglary was in progress but that Khumalo had told them to stay put otherwise he would shoot them.
After hearing the shooting from inside the house, Phiri said that he ran to Khumalo’s home in No 2 Location and waited for Khumalo to return, which he did some two hours later. Banda, on the other hand, said that he had run into the veld and hidden the entire night before meeting up with both Khumalo and Phiri the next day. They had discussed the crime and the shooting. Phiri told the court that Khumalo had said to him that “he had cut the chain on the door, that he had fired two shots”, and had shown him a bottle of chloroform.
Khumalo’s family suspected him of having a hand in the murder of Everington, and brother-in-law the informer soon came to the party. The police had searched the home of the suspect twice, and found nothing, but after the second search Khumalo had told the informer that: “The mattress saved me. I have the thing in my pocket.” Remarkably, on the special “location police” searching the house two days after the police search, they found a carton for bullets as well as loose cartridges in the mattress. Khumalo had also borrowed the bicycle lamp from his brother-in-law, and in the ensuing commotion immediately after the shooting, had left it at the murder site. It looked ominous for Khumalo when Justice Bok, after studying the case for both the prosecution and the defence with the assistance of his assessors, resumed his seat on the morning of Friday 12 March 1948, Khumalo in the dock.
“Not guilty of murder”, Judge Bok told the court. It had all seemed a bit too easy.
Judge Bok described the story told by the two main Crown witnesses Phiri and Banda, as “fantastic”, and that “…it was more probable that one of them had committed the murder.” He continued giving his judgement, stating that although Khumalo’s relatives rightly believed that he had been involved to some degree in the murder, “…being old retainers of the Everington family, and in excessive zeal rather than dishonesty, they did their best to bring them to justice.”
“It was inconceivable that anybody about to commit a burglary and ready to risk murder should take two strangers with him on such a pretext.” It was highly unlikely that the two witnesses had returned to Khumalo’s house and discuss the crime if they had really gone to the murdered man’s house for employment – they would have remonstrated with Khumalo about his lies to them in that regard rather than about the burglary, continued the Judge. “It is clear that both men are lying. They were present that night, and not in the role of innocent or unwilling spectators. It is likely that the accused, having a knowledge of chloroform and having access to it at the laundry where he worked, accepted the idea of putting Everington to sleep. Whoever shot Everington obtained the chloroform from the accused. These facts, however, are not sufficient to find the accused guilty of murder.”
Judge Bok continued, stating that although Khumalo was probably an accomplice in the burglary, it had not been established that he entered the house. He had been quite willing to share the proceeds from the crime, and it was more than likely that the two Crown witnesses had approached Khumalo for his assistance in helping them burgle Everington’s house. Khumalo had provided the torch, he had shown the way to the house, but “it was more than likely that one of the others forced his way into the house”.
There were many strange happenings in connection with the searches of Khumalo’s home, and of the cartridges found.
The police had searched the house twice before anything was discovered, and only through Khumalo commenting to his brother-in-law, whom he must have known was an informer, that he had hidden bullets in the mattress. “It was obvious,” said Judge Bok, “that someone closely related to Khumalo was doing his or her best to provide the police with evidence against him. Rightly believing the accused to have been involved they (Khumalo’s family) were determined to bring him to justice…someone put the cartridges where they could be found.” On the evidence shown to the court, Khumalo had never possessed a pistol. Therefore, based on all the evidence put before the Court, Khumalo was not guilty of the murder of Herbert Everington, although it was certain that he was there at the time.
The police, and the prosecution, had failed miserably in their job of convicting whom they thought had killed Everington. The murder story had ended with Khumalo escaping the hangman’s noose, but for the two Crown witnesses, and indeed for Khumalo, a new docket was soon opened, but on the lesser charges of burglary.