In the final stop-press
edition of the Johannesburg Star on Friday, 6 May 1927, the following
news story appeared:
NINE KILLED IN SHOOTING
TRAGEDY NATAL BORDER SENSATION. EARLY MORNING FIGHT WITH POLICE
A well-known farmer in
the Charlestown district named S.A.J. Swart, this morning ran
amok and killed 8 Europeans and a native, wounded 3 other Europeans
and then shot himself. Among those killed were his wife and the
officer commanding the posse of police who went to arrest Swart.
Stephanus Swart had always
been a violent, unpredictable man. For a number of years he had
displayed some of the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia
- extreme mood swings, hostility toward authority, and feelings
of persecution - but no one could have predicted the course of events
that would take place that fine autumn morning.
Swart was wedded to a woman
thirty years his senior. Many people in the district believed he
had married the widow for her money - her first husband, Eksteen,
had left her a number of farms. Certainly, the union appeared loveless,
and Swart was resented by some of his in-laws.
He was a poorly educated man,
but there was one thing he had learned in his thirty-seven years,
and that was that he would find no justice in the courts. Perhaps
this belief had its beginnings some years earlier, when Swart lost
a civil suit. He felt, as he would make clear to anyone who would
listen, that he had not only been unfairly treated on that occasion,
but had also been victimized. The evidence indicated quite the reverse.
Nevertheless, Swart grew increasingly embittered with age, and his
temper, rather than mellowing, deteriorated.
In a second and much more serious
incident a few years after the civil suit, Swart viciously assaulted
a relative and was sentenced to imprisonment for eighteen months.
As far as Swart was concerned, the judge had handed down this harsh
sentence purely out of personal animosity. It was confirmation of
his worst fears: that the authorities were against him. He determined
that in future he would solve his own problems in his own way.
On his release from prison,
Swart returned to his wife, from whom he was judicially separated,
and who was living at Potter's Hill. The farm belonged to Mrs Knight,
Mrs Swart's daughter by her first marriage. Early in 1927, Swart
was accused of committing 'a serious sexual offence', namely incest.
He had some difficulty raising the £500 bail required, having
ignored the suggestion from many quarters that he sell some of his
livestock to make the money, because he felt it would have been
unfair on the animals. (He knew he could trust no one but himself
to care for them properly.)
The hearing was set for 4 May.
In the knowledge that he would certainly face a long prison term
if he should be found guilty, and with the trial only two months
off, Swart had to deal with the next problem: both his wife, and
his stepdaughter's farm manager, Mr I.C. Visser, had been called
as witnesses against him.
Swart solved this complication
in a simple and direct way: he threatened to kill them if they attempted
to speak against him. Visser, who had managed the farm for nine
months, and Mrs Swart both knew that Stephanus meant what he said,
and they promised to keep quiet about the whole business. Visser
even said that he would go to Worcester in the Cape to avoid being
subpoenaed by the police. True to his word, he left the farm a few
days later. Soon after, Mrs Swart left for Potchefstroom. She knew
that her husband was having an affair with a young girl and, like
Visser, she had every intention of giving evidence at his trial.
Swart was obviously under a
great deal of strain at this time. Towards the end of April 1927,
he was fined 10 shillings by a local magistrate for driving an unlicensed
vehicle. This seemingly unimportant episode may have been the last
straw for Swart. On Tuesday, 3 May, the day before he was due to
appear in the Magistrates' Court, he drove over to a neighbouring
farm and, for no apparent reason, fired a shot at the owner of the
farm, a Mr Lourens. He had begun to lose control.
When the police learnt of Swart's
unprovoked attack, they issued a warrant of arrest for attempted
murder. The final act in his tragic drama was about to be played
out. Accordingly, Swart made careful preparations for the grand
He began by summoning his attorney,
Mr G. Maasdorp, to Potter's Hill. He wished, he said, to put his
personal affairs in order.
This kind of behaviour is not
uncommon among aggressive psychopaths. Such people have been known
to commit crimes of violence with careful premeditation and planning
and a lack of compassion that even close friends and family find
hard to understand. Psychologists believe that an unbalanced emotional
state is the cause of psychopathic hostility, which takes the form
of remoteness and a seeming indifference to the plight of others.
Before Maasdorp set out for
Potters Hill, he contacted the local police commander, Captain Gerald
Ashman, and asked him whether he shoud delay seeing his client until
after Swart's arrest. Captain Ashman suggested to Maasdorp that
he go to Potter Hill in order to try persuade Swart to give himself
up. Accordingly, Mr Maaskop hired Mr B Plaats as a driver and, in
the late afternoon of Wednesday, 4 May the two men set out for the
Swart turned out to be intractable.
For five days he had roamed the farm planning his revenge, driving
himself and his farm workers to a point of exhaustion in the process.
At night he locked himself in the Farmhouse and sat with his gun
primed, raging against the authorities. Maasdorp was conviced that
the man was mentally disturbed. He learnt that Swart had gone to
Potchefstroom a few days before in order to see his wife and reiterate
his threat - only to learn that she had left for Newcastle. He followed
her there but was unable to find her. On his way home Swart claimed
he suddenly realised that if something were to happen to him, his
car would fall into the hands of his enemies. He had to prevent
this from happening at all costs, so he stopped at the side of the
road and set the car alight then walked the last ten miles to his
Swart refused to listen to
reason and Maasdorp was forced to listen to his ravings until late
into the night. In the end, he ordered Maasdorp to write down a
statement. This last statement to the madness of Stephanus Swart
was twenty- eight pages long and contained the following excerpt:
I have arranged all my
affairs with my attorney. I now give blood for blood. I will shoot
them down till I have one cartridge left. And that will be mine.
But alive you will never get me. With my corpse you can do what
you please. Burn it, mutilate it and treat it in such a manner
as you think fit to best revenge yourselves. I wish this statement
to be published after my death in all the prominent newspapers
in the Union and I desire a copy to be forwarded to the Prime
Minister, General Hertzog.
When Captain Ashman heard of
Swart's ravings the following day, he was greatly concerned. He
knew Swart to be a crack shot and a man who was more than capable
of carrying out his threats. In an effort to defuse what was quickly
becoming an extremely volatile situation, Ashman asked Mr Plaats
to return to Potter's Hill with a message for Swart. In this note
he advised the farmer to give himself up. In this way, he said a
great deal of necessary trouble could be avoided. He also offered
to meet with Swart alone to discuss the matter.
(Courting detection and punishment
is also behaviour typical of a psychopathic disposition. many of
the worlds most notorious killers, particularly those who commit
sexual crimes, have apparently craved the attention their deeds
have brought them. Neville Heath was a case point. Labelled the
most sadistic sex killer of all times during his trial at London’s
Old Baileys in 1946, Heath had so enjoyed the limelight that he
had approached the police in order to see a photograph of the woman
he had murdered.)
Swart seemed in a much calmer
mood when Plaats returned to the farm. He listened quietly while
the letter was read out to him, then gave his reply. He was prepared
to meet with Captain Ashman and Maasdorp if the two arrived on his
farm before sunset. At 600 pm, he said, he intended to close the
main road that ran through his property and shoot on sight anyone
who attempted to cross his land. Then he gave his final instruction
to Plaats: he wished to have a coffin oredered in Volkrust. The
casket was to be made of oak and to be zinc-lined, and it should
not cost more than £40.
When Asman heard Swart's reply,
he knew that the time for talking was over. He gathered together
a detail of 12 policemen and before dawn on Friday 6 May, they set
out in two cars and a motorcycle with a side car on the fourteen-mile
journey from Charlestown Hall to Potters Hill.
The police convoy halted on
the boundry of Swart's property. The policeman disembarked and split
into three groups. The plan was for Captain Ashman and his second-in-command,
Sergeant Annes van Wyk, to direct operations from a small Indian
trading store on the boundry of Swart's property, while the other
two groups advanced on the farmhouse from different directions.
One party would move in from below and the other from a point higher
up the hillside. However just as the men were about to set out,
one of Swart's farm labourers galloped out of the early morning
mist with a warning that Swart was preparing to fight them.
Captain Ashman listened to
the man, then gave some last instructions: he wanted Swart taken
alive if possible. What the police did not realise was that Swart
had gone on the offensive. He had left the farmhouse and had gone
into the fields.
The first casuality was Constable
Feucht, who was shot as he approached the farmhouse. In a great
deal of pain he made his way back to Captain Ashman, who sent him
back to town for medical attention. At this point, Ashman sent a
note to Segeant Watts, who was leading the uphill party: Carefully
take cover towards house and shoot Swart on sight. Feucht wounded
with shotgun and gone to hospital. Have sent for more men. Try to
save yourselves and do not expose, as Swart is now desperate.
Shortly after this, Swart shot
and killed two more policemen - Sergeant William Charles Mitchell
and Constable William Crossman. After bringing down the men he had
shot both of them at point-blank range to make certain they were
dead. By this time, Swart had realised that despite his success
in having killed three policemen, he would ultimately be captured.
He had other tasks he had to complete first. With the police closing
in, he decided to make use of the thick mist to affect his escape
across a mealie patch. It was while making this manoeuvre that he
encountered his fourth victim, Sergeant Grove. Mortally wounded,
Grove died from loss of blood after crawling hundreds of metres.
After killing Sergeant Grove,
Swart planned to make good his escape, but not before paying a visit
to Captain Ashman and Sergeant Van Wyk in order to seize the horse,
which his labourer had been riding when he first galloped out of
the mist. Swart shot both men dead. Then, before setting out for
Charlestown, where his wife was living, he took Captain Ashman's
Webley service revolver to add to the Mauser rifle and Browning
automatic pistol he was already carrying.
En route to Charlestown, Swart
stopped for a cup of coffee at his neighbour's farm. By this time
it was eight o'clock and the day was brightening. He seemed in the
best of spirits. “I've just killed five policemen,”
he boasted, “and now I'm going to Charlestown to shoot three
more people. If I get through that alive I'm heading for Volkrust
where I intend to kill myself.” To substantiate his story,
he produced Captain Ashman's Webley.
Swanepoel listened in silent
astonishment then, the moment Swart had departed, saddled his own
horse and set out to warn the police that Swart was on his way.
He was nearing Mount Prospect when an African rode up and handed
him a note from Swart. In it, Swart promised to return and kill
Swanepoel when he had completed his mission. This was shortly after
he had killed two more people on the road - Mrs Knight and Mr M.
Roets (who was farm manager for Mr Lourens), both of whom had recently
given evidence against him.
Mrs Swart was staying with
the Van Vuuren family, who lived about three hundred metres from
the Charlestown railway station. When Swart galloped up to the house,
Mrs Swart, 17-year-old Gertrude van Vuuren, and Lucas, her crippled,
21-year-old cousin, were sitting on the stoep. Even from a distance,
Gertrude was frightened by the look on Swart's face. She called
to her sister and together the two girls rushed next door. Their
neighbour, Mrs Thomas, seemed to know instinctively that disaster
was at hand.
“Run to the police station,”
she shouted. The girls ran out of Mrs Thomas's yard just as two
shots were fired. Behind them, Swart had walked calmly into the
house and shot his wife twice, once in the forehead and once in
the chest. Gertrude and her sister, along with two other women,
Mrs Grove and Mrs Erasmus, locked themselves in the police station
and prayed that help would come. Two hours passed before a constable
came to release them from their ordeal.
After killing his wife, Swart
rode to the edge of town. At the main road, he tethered his exhausted
horse to a fence. He tried to wave down the first car that came
along. Inside were Mrs Pulford, wife of the manager of the Charlestown
and District Co-operative Stores; Mr Hadley, a local farmer; and
his three year old nephew. When Mr Hadley failed to stop, Swart
fired at the car. Both Hadley and Mrs Pulford were wounded, but
they managed to drive on to safety.
By this time, the whole district
was getting to know of Swart's reign of terror. The police and local
farmers were mobilized to hunt him down, and a posse eventually
caught up with him near Johannes Swanepoel's farm. Spotting Swart
in the distance, the station foreman at Charlestown, a man named
Kriel, fired three shots in rapid succession. Swart dived into the
veld at the side of the road just as a contingent of regular police
from Volksrust arrived on the scene. Seconds later, a fourth shot
rang out. In what was perhaps Swart's final act of defiance of authority,
he had shot himself in the head with Captain Ashman's Webley. He
had indeed done as he had promised: returned blood for blood.