22 September 1947, Two elderly ladies murdered at 23 Roper Street by James Louw.
22 September 1971, The Town Hall saved from demolition by public poll.
Double Murder at 23 Roper Street
It had been a little quiet over the road at 23 Roper Street, thought Catherine Kidd, of Number 34. She had not seen her two elderly neighbours, the 85 year old Sarah Lowden, and her unmarried daughter Mary Gill, aged 63 years, for a couple of days, and her suspicions were aroused as Mary had always greeted her every day, regular as clockwork, when she went out to buy groceries. The two ladies had not been very well of late – indeed, Mrs Lowden’s eyesight had failed completely and her daughter had to lead her whenever she moved around – so Mrs Kidd walked down to the police station on Transvaal Road – six hundred metres down Roper Street to the west – to report her fears.
A little later that day – on 22 September 1947 – Constable Barend van Schalkwyk accompanied Mrs Kidd to the house where the two ladies had lived in quiet solitude for over thirty years, but asked her to remain outside the actual premises. The front door was locked so the constable went around to the back of the house and found the door there was unlocked. Entering slowly, it was as Mrs Kidd had feared, as he found the body of Mrs Lowden, dressed in her nightgown, lying on the floor of the dining room. She had been strangled. In a bedroom, lying spread-eagled on a bed among blood stained bedclothes, was found Miss Gill, also strangled.
Constable van Schalkwyk called the police station for reinforcements, and the detective department was soon on the murder scene.
Questioned a little further on when she had last seen the two elderly ladies, Catherine Kidd said that it had been on the Friday morning, 18 September, when Miss Gill had been on the stoep (verandah). A gardener had been employed for the day by Miss Gill and had busy in the small garden at the back of the house. As the ladies had never employed servants and had maintained their own garden, it had been well remembered by Mrs Kidd.
The police swung into action in the biggest manhunt Kimberley had seen for decades, calling the double murder “one of the most gruesome crimes ever committed in Kimberley” and that “it ranked among the foulest they had ever investigated.” Large numbers of Kimberley residents, upon hearing the news of the crime, stood in groups outside the wood and iron house, discussing what was known, peering into windows, and watching police vehicles coming and going. In fact, no-one really knew the two elderly ladies who had lived a simple life and been virtual recluses in their home. Miss Gill had been a dressmaker, but had abandoned this job when her health had begun to fail and she remained at home with her mother.
Reverend Henry Lowden, son of the murdered Mrs Lowden and half-brother to Miss Gill, arrived from Johannesburg to identify the bodies, which he duly did, and he also advised the police that items were missing from the house, including a clock. It did not take long for the police to make a breakthrough and on 28 September Major C.L. Rademeyer announced that a 22-year-old Griqua, James Louw, had been arrested for the double murder. Louw’s arrest came as he had taken the stolen items to a friend’s house in the local suburb known as Number 2 Location. He had worked as a gardener for the two ladies on the 18th, and had told his friends that same day, before he made his way back to the house, that: “I am taking a big chance tonight!”
The police stated that the murder had been committed on either the Friday night or Saturday morning, and not during daylight hours, as the ladies had been in their night clothes, had prepared for a meal for the following day, and that a Sunday newspaper had been found unopened in the letterbox. There had been no signs of a forced entry and the back door had been found open and unlocked. It was probable that the ladies had not locked the door by the time Louw entered the house. He had worked there during the day, and he was aware of the layout of the house and that the two ladies were a soft target.
Remanded in custody by the Magistrate, Mr H.R. Muirhead, Louw was charged with the murder of Sarah Lowden and Mary Gill, and appeared before Justice W.E. Bock in April and May of 1948 for his life. The prosecutor, E.O.K. Harwood, used the evidence of Catherine Kidd, who had recognized Louw as the gardener that fateful day of 18 September, plus the evidence of Louw’s friends in the township, to gain the conviction for Louw that he wanted – guilty on two charges of murder.
But it was not only the testimony of witnesses – it was also the fact that Louw had admitted his guilt; that the stolen items were found in his possession; and that his fingerprints were everywhere in the house on Roper Street. In his defence, Louw said that he had killed the ladies, “…but I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing.”
The defence of being drunk when murdering two harmless ladies was not good enough for Justice Bock, who had found Louw guilty, but before passing the sentence of death, asked if the murderer had anything to say in mitigation of sentence.
He did. “I ask for mercy – not to be hanged.”
The plea was in vain, as Louw was given a double death sentence and later in the year was executed in the Central Prison, Pretoria.