Pierre Corneille Faculys
Basson was posthumously convicted of murder in 1906. He was described
by Inspector Easton, the police officer who went to investigate
his death, as 'a scoundrel from infancy'. Basson, who is believed
to have killed eight or nine people, was in all probability, South
Africa's first mass murderer.
Physically, Basson was unprepossessing
- he had dark hair, deep-set brown eyes and was of average height
and build - but he had a sharp mind and a keen nose for a shady
deal. He was also violent and highly disturbed. He attacked a boy
with a knife when he was only twelve, and he took pleasure in causing
pain to animals. He liked to catch birds and torture them to death.
He also chopped the feet off cats so that he could watch them writhe
In his teens, in Cape Town,
Basson earned himself a reputation as a petty thief and this led
to bitter conflicts at home. When Basson's father died suddenly
after a short illness, Pierre, who was then 17 or 18 at the time,
showed little or no concern. However, the death of his father seems
to have been a turning point for Pierre.
As head of the household -
comprising his mother, two younger brothers and a younger sister
- he now had the freedom (and a little insurance money) to enter
a new and more lucrative field of criminal operations: insurance
Pierre's easy-money scheme
involved money lending. For this service, he charged the normal
rate of interest and insisted that the lender take out a life insurance
policy to cover the ‘unexpected', naming himself as beneficiary.
There was nothing unusual in this: it was normal business practice.
The only difference between Pierre's operation and that of other
moneylenders was that Pierre intended to make certain he collected
the insurance money.
At first, Pierre kept things
in the family. In 1901, he took out small life insurance policies
for himself, his mother and his brother, Johan. Jasper, his youngest
brother, however, was insured for £3 500, which was a huge
amount at the time. This disproportionately large amount of money,
he argued, was to Jasper's advantage: in later years he would be
able to borrow against the accumulated sum in the policy. Within
months of taking out these insurance policies, Basson allowed them
all to lapse – with the exception of Jasper's policy.
In February 1903, Pierre and
Jasper decided to go fishing together at Gordon's Bay. Pierre went
down a day before his brother and booked in at the Holloway Hotel.
Mr Holloway, the owner of the
hotel, would later recall when being questioned by insurance assessors
that Pierre had been particularly interest in drowning incidents
in the area. Mr Holloway remembered telling him about someone named
Roux who had lost his life at a spot called Ruigte Vlei not long
before. He also mentioned a particularly notorious spot called Sewing-room
Rock where there was a vicious undercurrent and victims vanished
without trace. Pierre, he recalled, asked if the men had been washed
off the rock and why none of the victims had ever been found. These
apparently innocuous questions were later to assume great significance.
Jasper Basson arrived at Gordon's
Bay late on the afternoon of Friday, 13 February 1903. The two brothers
left the hotel to go fishing before light the next morning. At about
6.45 a.m., two other early-morning fishermen, Mr August Deydier
and Dr Ford, met Pierre, who was walking back towards the hotel.
He had two rods over his shoulder.
'There has been a great accident,'
Basson said. 'My brother Jasper's been drowned. He was cutting bait
when a tremendous wave swept him off the rocks. I heard him give
a cry for help, but another wave washed over me and threw me into
a gully. I spotted him once, face downwards in the water, and then
he vanished from view. He did not come up again.'
Mr Deydier and Dr Ford looked
at each other. Pierre's calmness struck Mr Deydier most strongly.
He would have expected someone who had just witnessed a family disaster
to show signs of distress or confusion, but Pierre was in total
control of himself. And Basson's account of the incident mode him
even more suspicious. If the second wave, that had prevented him
from going to his brother's assistance, had driven him into a gully
between the rocks, how was it that only one of Basson's trouser-legs
A search party was organized.
Basson and a number of local fishermen took to a rowing boat and
set out along the coast. When they reached Sewing-room Rock, Basson
pointed to the spot where his brother had disappeared. There was
no sign of the body.
Despite an extensive search,
Jasper Basson was never seen again. Shortly after returning to Cape
Town, Basson notified the insurance company of his brother's death.
By this time, a number of unpleasant rumours were circulating. To
make matters worse, the insurance company instituted an inquiry
and discovered that Basson had attempted to get Mr G. Kruse, the
barman at the Holloway Hotel, to make a false statement concerning
the sequence of events on the fateful morning. Kruse had initially
agreed to sign an affidavit to confirm Bassons description of events,
but when Basson subsequently arrived with a Justice of the Peace,
Kruse found that his (Basson’s) account of the incident bore
so little resemblance to the truth that, despite an inducement of
£25, he declined to sign.
The insurance company refused
to pay out - because of the unsatisfactory evidence of Jasper's
death 'by violent, accidental, external and visible means'. In other
words, it was indirectly accusing the family of fraud (not murder).
At Pierre's insistence, his mother took the insurance company to
court. Ultimately, the case went to the Supreme Court and judgment
was pronounced in Basson's favour. With the payout, the Bassons
bought a house called The Arums in Heatherton Road, Claremont, Cape
It would seem that Basson's
success with the insurance company encouraged him to repeat his
scheme a number of times. One man who had ceded his life insurance
policy, worth £375, to Basson was found dead on Woodstock
beach in Cape Town. There was some indication that he had been throttled
to death. Another of Basson's clients drowned while the two of them
were out sailing together. A German couple by the name of Smit,
who were acquaintances of Basson, were also shot and robbed, and
there was evidence that linked them to Basson. He is also believed
to have been responsible for the death of a man named Adolf Beck,
whose body was found floating in the Black River.
Between 1902 and 1905, Basson
conceived a number of ingenious schemes designed to trick people
out of their money. Then, towards the end of 1905, he met a German
farmer named Wilhelm Schaefer. This meeting would have disastrous
consequences for both men, and would lead to what later became known
as ‘The Schaefer Affair’.
Wilhelm Schaefer owned the
farm, Highlands, which was situated about twenty-five kilometres
from Claremont, Cape Town, at the end of the Klipfontein Road. Schaefer,
who was 54, was a frugal and industrious man. He shared the property
with his brother, Gottlieb. When Basson learnt that Schaefer was
looking to sell Highlands, he made up his mind to swindle him out
of the property. In December 1905, Basson went to see Schaefer and
made an offer to purchase the farm. Schaefer insisted that the asking
price was £1 400, but, after some hard bargaining, the two
men agreed on a price of £ 1 020. Schaefer explained that
once full payment for the property had been made, legal transfer
of ownership would take place. To this end, the two men visited
Schaefer's Cape Town attorney, Hermann Hirschberg.
Schaefer made one important
provision at this stage in the transaction: transfer was not to
take place unless he was present. In other words, he did not want
the deed of transfer passed to Basson without proof of payment.
A few days after the initial
meeting, Basson called at Hirschberg's office and tried to get him
to transfer the property into his name. Hirschberg refused. Basson
was disappointed, but not discouraged: he was convinced he could
outwit the attorney.
A week later, Basson visited
Hirschberg's office a third time. On this occasion, he announced
that he had paid Schaefer for the farm and again asked the attorney
to transfer the property into his name. Hirschberg refused, since
Basson had neither receipt nor any other proof of payment. He did
agree to prepare all the necessary documents for signature, however,
and provided Basson with draft documents for the intended sale,
which he could present to the Board of Executors to substantiate
his application for a loan of £500. (Shortly after this, the
Board approved the loan, subject to a bond being passed for Highlands.)
Early in January 1906, Basson
arrived at Hirschberg's office with a receipt for the outstanding
£1 020. Although Hirschberg was unaware that the receipt was
counterfeit, he did explain that, as a formality, he would have
to contact Schaefer before final transfer could be made. Basson
objected to this. The seller was quite satisfied, he claimed. Furthermore,
he maintained, Shaefer had gone to Kimberley, so it was impossible
to contact him.
Despite the fact that he held
power of attorney, Hirschberg stood his ground and refused to transfer
ownership of the farm. At this point, Basson withdrew a cheque for
£850 from his pocket, claiming that the money had been given
to him by his mother towards payment for the property. By this time,
Hirschberg's suspicions were fully aroused. He declared himself
unhappy with the whole affair, and refused to proceed with the transaction
until he had spoken to Schaefer personally. Basson stormed out of
It was evident to Basson that
his carefully planned scheme to defraud Schaefer was going badly
wrong. He reasoned that his only recourse was to murder Schaefer,
hide his body, and forge his signature on the relevant documents.
To this end, he immediately began making preparations in earnest.
As soon as he reached home, he sent his gardener, Martin Cherrick,
to fetch a labourer, named Peter Christian, from a nearby brickyard.
Basson set Christian to digging a large pit in the chicken run in
the back yard. To his mother, Basson gave the explanation that the
pit was being dug for pipes which were to be used to improve the
drainage system. He said that since he had not obtained permission
for the scheme from the local council, the work had to be conducted
in secret. A week later, the pit was complete. He then obtained
two bags of lime, which he stored inside the hencoop. The next step
in Basson's plan was to acquire chloroform with which to drug his
victim. He used a false name to obtain this from a pharmacist in
Long Street. (It would later emerge that Basson had obtained cyanide
from the same source on two previous occasions.)
The stage was set, and Basson
summoned his victim to Claremont. On 22 January 1906, Wilhelm Schaefer
set out by horse-and-trap for Basson's home. En route, he stopped
at Herbert Hawkins' blacksmith shop in Lansdowne Road and asked
Hawkins to shoe his horses and make some minor repairs to his carriage.
“I'll be back in one or
two hours,” he said, “after I've collected the money
for my farm from Pierre Basson.” He then set off on foot.
When Schaefer arrived at The
Arums, he was met by Basson and a friend of Basson’s named
Tobias Louw. The three men went into Basson's room together. Schaefer
was never seen alive again.
What happened to him? A possible
scenario is that Schaefer was first plied with drink, then overpowered
and murdered by Basson, possibly with the help of Louw. After that,
his body must have been kept hidden inside the house until nightfall.
Then, when everyone else had gone to bed, the two men would have
stripped their victim before carrying his body out through a door
in Basson’s room out into the yard, and across to the large
hencoop. (Ironically, Mrs Basson would later explain that she had
assumed that Schaefer had left the house this way.) It just so happened,
however, that a local charwoman named Catherine Caroline Josephine
Mochella, was passing by the yard just as the two men set to work.
She heard suspicious noises, spotted the feeble light the two men
were using, and, thinking that someone was in the act of stealing
Basson's birds, cautiously crept forward to investigate. Through
a gap in the wall she saw what a looked like the body of a white
man being tumbled into a large hole in the ground. “Give me
the lime,” she heard Basson hiss.
Alarmed by what she had seen,
Mochella crept away and went home. She didn't contact the police
because she was afraid they would put her in prison “for nothing”.
In another part of Claremont,
Hawkins the blacksmith was also perturbed because Schaefer had not
returned to collect his property. The next morning, he rode into
Claremont and called at the police station, then went to Basson's
house, where Mrs Basson told him that she thought Schaefer had left
for Kimberley the previous afternoon. This didn't sound right to
Hawkins, but he nevertheless returned to his shop.
Shortly thereafter, Basson
himself arrived to take possession of Schaefer's horse-and-trap.
He produced a receipt for £1 020, purportedly signed by Schaefer,
claiming that he owned all of the German's property, and then paid
for the repairs. What most surprised Hawkins was that the receipt
was dated 11 January? Yet, the previous day (22 January) Schaefer
had said he was in town to receive payment for the farm. It didn't
seem to make sense to Hawkins that a cautious man like Schaefer
would issue a receipt without first receiving payment.
Within days of Schaefer's disappearance,
Basson moved to Highlands and began going through Schaefer's papers.
Gottlieb, the dead man's brother, protested vehemently, but Basson
merely brandished the receipt and reiterated his claim that he had
bought the farm 'lock, stock and barrel'. In a magnanimous gesture,
he agreed to let Gottlieb remain on the farm until he found alternative
To those who knew him, Schaefer's
disappearance was a complete mystery. The police were approached
to investigate the matter, but without a body or any hard evidence,
there was little they could do. The newspapers, however, were free
to speculate. In The Argus of 7 February, there was a story that
CAPE FLATS MYSTERY
MURDER THEORY FAVOURED
The whereabouts of Schaefer,
the Cape Flats farmer, is still a mystery. Every nerve has been
strained by the police to elucidate the circumstances that passed
from the time that Schaefer left the premises of Hawkins the blacksmith
at Claremont and there is more than a possibility that Schaefer's
disappearance will be followed by some startling revelations.
Two days later, on 9 February,
the police offered a £50 reward to anyone who could offer
information that would help resolve the mystery of Schaefer's disappearance.
The missing man was described as ‘German, aged 54, unmarried,
height 5 feet 7 inches. Medium build, broad shoulders, stoops when
walking. Light brown cast in one eye. Was wearing when last seen,
a dirty grey jacket, striped cotton shirt with collar, brown tie
with white spots an old brown felt hat and old yellow Blucher Boots.’
For three weeks there was no
response. The Caroline Mochella sent an anonymous note to the head
of the CID it read:
Go and search Mr P. Bassons
fowl run for the missing man. Dig the grown up Heatherton Avenue
for Mr Schafer the missing man.
She waited for a response in
the newspapers, but nothing happened. In desperation, she wrote
a second letter:
Sir this is the hole story
of the missing man Mr Shafer the first notice I send was for the
police to no that the missing man is on the property of Mr P Basson
in his fowl hock under the floor there is a lot of sand on the
top Not the hock but where they sleep in.
On 10 February, an interview
with Basson appeared in The Argus, in which he denied any knowledge
of Schaefer's disappearance. He had agreed to the interview, he
claimed, ‘because of the stories that were circulating and
the garbled and unfair stuff published in some papers'.
On the same day, the police
received Caroline Mochella's second note. In response, Inspector
Easton, detective Head Constable Walker, Detective Sergeant Bree
and two other detectives immediately went to The Arums, where they
begun to dig up the hencoop. Pierre, who had hidden in his bedroom,
emerged after about ten minutes. He was accosted by his big brother,
Johan, who said, “They’re digging up the fowl house,
Pierre.” He claimed there was a wild look of despair on his
“It was Louw,” Pierre
whispered. “The police will find the body if they dig deep
enough. I’ll be arrested; they’ll arrest me. The detectives
will find Schaefer's body and they will bring Louw and me into it.
We did it together.” He then returned to his room.
Shortly afterwards, his mother
went in to him. He kissed her. “I'm going to get dressed for
the police,” he said. “I have done no wrong. It was
Toby's [ Louw’s] show.”
However, only moments after
she had left, a shot rang out. He had put a gun to his head and
In the Sporting Edition of
The Argus that same night under the heading ‘Flats Mystery
Solved an article described events after the police had begun to
dig up the hencoop at Basson's house at about 2.45 p.m. ‘A
strong smell gave [the] indication that developments were at hand,’
the article explained. Eventually Schciefer's body was found It
was 'immersed in quick-lime, in an advanced stage of decomposition
but was easily recognisable'.
So, Pierre Basson was never
brought to trial for his crimes, His accomplice, Louw, was subsequently
tried for murder, but there was insufficient evidence against him
and he was acquitted. On 1 March, Mrs Basson was also arrested,
remanded in Roeland Street Jail for a week, and then released.
The closing chapter of this
grizzly saga was played out some months later. After Pierre's death,
the family was destitute and The Arums and its contents were sold
by public auction. It is rather interesting that the event attracted
over 1 500 people and the goods on sale fetched outrageous prices,
far in excess of their real value. Perhaps crime does pay after