Pinelands Murder Mystery

On Monday June 18 1934, the Cape Times headline posters read “Pinelands Murder Mystery”. The previous morning residents had awoken from a night of heavy rain to be told that a body of a young woman was found lying face down in a deserted area alongside Forest Drive. This was first known murder in Pinelands and the victim was possibly of one of the earliest identifiable cases of serial homicides in South Africa.

Madeline “Maggie” Sharkey, aged 23 years, lived with her mother in Victoria Road, Mowbray. She had arranged with her friend, Elaine Thomas, to attend a wedding on the evening of Saturday June 16, 1934. They were unable to find the venue and decided to walk to Elaine’s home as Madeline was to sleep over. As they were walking in the area of Toll Gate in Woodstock, a dark red Morris pulled up next to them. They engaged with the driver, Benjamin Harrison aged 34, and asked for a lift to Mowbray. Benjamin initially refused as he had tickets to the cinema to see Waterloo Bridge and would be late. Nevertheless they persuaded him to give them a lift to Mowbray. While in the car they chatted, and he told them he was separated from his wife and child and was hoping to return to England at some time. At Mowbray they drove on to Claremont where Elaine alighted at the Crown Hotel. Benjamin and Madeline drove to the popular all-night coffee stand on the Grand Parade. At about 9 p.m. Madeline asked to be taken to a friend’s house in Observatory where her mother was visiting. Before dropping her off, they agreed to meet again the next Wednesday and Benjamin went home.

Early Sunday morning her body was found in a Pinelands ditch about a meter below the level of the road. She had been stabbed several times on her neck and hands and there had been attempted rape. Her wristwatch stopped at 12.29 am – presumed to be the time of her murder. There were no clues and the footprints had been washed away by the heavy rain that night. Leaves and a sapling nearby were stained with blood where the murderer had tried to rub some of the blood off his hands. The trail of blood led to where a car had been parked

Based on Elaine’s evidence, the police started looking for Benjamin. At first, he did not realize that he could be connected with the murder or the search. However as he read the newspaper reports he recognized that some of the stories were relating to him. After a few days a friend persuaded him to check with the police, who immediately detained him. Although the circumstances were against him, there was not enough evidence to charge him. His clothes were microscopically examined but there was no sign of blood or mud and he was not known to carry a knife. Furthermore, he had voluntarily come forward and most his story matched that of Elaine’s. Ten days later he was released after being treated harshly in the Caledon Street cells.

His problems were only starting. His landlady at the boarding house in Beckham Street Gardens, refused to allow him to stay and dumped his belongings on the street. He moved into a hotel, but the gossip followed him. Friends shunned him and business associates cold-shouldered him.  Eventually he returned to England as he had planned but he was impoverished and friendless. He died a few years later.

Months later a debate was held in Parliament over the failures in the investigation and the incompetent arrest of Benjamin. There was a public demand for an inquest. At the inquest some more facts came to light but this new information did not help in solving the mystery. No one was ever convicted of the murder.

In the book Strangers on the street, published in 2002, Micki Pistorius links the murder of Madeline Sharkey with that of Connie Adams and Gertrude Willemberg. Connie’s body was found on 4 March 1937 near Rugby Station and on the 9th of March, Gertrude’s body was found on the Old Coast Road. At the time, pathologist Dr R Turner was convinced that all three murders were committed by the same person who had a knowledge of anatomy. A reward of 100 pounds was offered but the case was never solved. Pistorius who is recognized as one of the world’s foremost psychological profilers dealing with serial murderers, believes that Madeline Sharkey was the victim of one of the earliest identifiable cases of serial homicide in South Africa.