MURDERING FOR MONEY

PIERRE BASSON: 1903

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 agony.

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 fraud.

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 was wet?

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 Town.

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 his office.

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 accommodation.

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 read:

CAPE FLATS MYSTERY
MURDER THEORY FAVOURED
INFORMATION VOLUNTEERED

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 brother’s face.

“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 committed suicide.

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 all...

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