PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE

THE FOSTER GANG: 1914

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The Foster Gang (Centre: Robert Foster)

William Robert Clem Foster was born in 1886 and grew up in East Griqualand. He came from a respectable middle-class family. His father was Irish and his mother was a South African, who came from Grahamstown. He went to a good school, showed above-average intelligence, and was popular with his schoolmates and good at sport. After leaving school, he studied mine surveying for a time, and then decided to make his living as a photographer. As an adult, Foster proved himself to be a loving husband, a faithful friend and a devoted father.

So, how was it that, as leader of the Foster Gang, he became involved in the murder of five people - including three policemen - caused the death of five more, crippled one innocent bystander and, for three months from July to September 1914, had the dubious distinction of being Public Enemy Number 1?

Despite his apparently balanced background, Foster was a complicated man who was volatile and headstrong and, later on, bitterly resentful of authority. Even so, his descent into violent crime seems to have occurred slowly and by degrees.

Foster's first brush with the law occurred in Durban in March 1908, where, at the age of twenty-two, he got drunk and ended up in a brawl. When the police eventually arrived to quell the disturbance, Foster chose to resist arrest rather than go quietly. He was overpowered, locked up for the night in the local jail, and fined £3 at the magistrates' court the following day.

Some months later, he was caught travelling by train without a ticket. Again he resisted arrest, and then compounded the offence by attempting to run away. He was apprehended and charged. This time, the magistrate took a dim view of his behaviour. He was fined £10 and sent to prison for a month for ‘escaping from justice’.

After serving his sentence, William Foster went to South West Africa (now Namibia), but before the year was out he was in trouble again. This time he was prosecuted for stealing donkeys. In his defence he said that he had planned to sell them in order to obtain enough money to return to British soil – South Africa. On 12 October 1908, he was sentenced at De Aar to six months in prison.

In 1909, Foster returned to Johannesburg, where he seemed to settle down for a time. He took up surveying and photography once more, and became a keen cyclist. However, given his now entrenched resentment of authority and his bitter grudge against the police, it was probably inevitable that he would run into more trouble before long.

In 1912, Foster made a trip to England. When he returned to South Africa early in 1913, he struck up a friendship with a colourful character named John Maxim, alias Maxwell, a man who was to have a great influence on his life. Maxim was an ex-rodeo star and sharpshooter. He had come to South Africa from America with a travelling show and had decided to stay on. The two men determined to move up in the world together.

Foster and Maxim travelled to Cape Town, took lodgings in the city, and planned the armed robbery of The American Swiss Watch Company, which was situated in Longmarket Street. They were soon joined by Foster's brother, Jimmy, and a fourth man named Jack Johnson.

At first, the gang stayed at Claridges Hotel (since demolished) in the suburb of Gardens, but later moved to a boarding establishment, Ebenezer House, in Hope Street, where they believed they would be less conspicuous.

By Wednesday, 19 March 1913, everything had been prepared. At 6.45 p.m., they set out for the American Swiss Watch Company wearing false beards and moustaches. The two owners of the jewellery shop, Mr. I Hirschsohn and Mr Abraham Grusd were still at work in the shop. They had pulled down the window blinds but had not locked the heavy security gates.

Hirschsohn and Grusd looked up in surprise when Foster and his three accomplices walked into the room where they were working. Foster waved a powerful handgun at them. “Don't move or we'll shoot,” he warned.

Hirschsohn was bound, gagged and hooded, while Grusd was forced at gunpoint to open all the safes. Within minutes, the robbers had taken almost £5 000 worth of watches, rings and jewellery.

“We have a watchman outside,” Foster said as the four men were leaving. “He'll shoot anyone who comes out of this shop in the next fifteen minutes.” Hirscholm eventually managed to free himself. He removed the hood from his partner's head, and then hobbled outside, still in the ankle chains the robbers had used to fetter him, and raised the alarm. Within minutes, the police arrived.

Detectives from the CID conducted an intensive investigation of the area, but the thieves had left few clues behind them.

Immediately after the robbery, Foster packed the stolen goods in one holdall, his burglar's outfit in another, and put both bags in a large leather trunk. Then he called a taxi to take him to the left-luggage office at the station.

In 1913, the cost of leaving an item in left-luggage was two pence. Foster wanted to leave the trunk, a typewriter case, a portmanteau and an overcoat, at a total cost of 8d. However, it wasn't until he got to the station that he realised that he had only a gold sovereign on him. Ernest Sephton, the left-luggage attendant, couldn't change such a large amount, and suggested that Foster obtain change at the booking-office. Foster became unreasonable, refusing to leave his articles at the office without a receipt of some sort. Eventually, Sephton agreed to give him the four tickets without payment.

“You go and get change and then come back and pay me,” he said. Foster agreed. Minutes later, he returned with the money he owed and complimented Sephton on showing such trust.

This incident was Foster's first serious mistake - he had committed the professional criminal's cardinal sin: that of drawing attention to himself.

Lodging at Ebenezer House at the same time as Foster and his companions was a man named Harry Bloom. In his time, Harry had been an actor and singer, and he knew Cape Town's relatively small entertainment community well so when the four strangers claimed to be music-hall artists appearing at the Tivoli or Opera House, he knew they were lying. When the group suddenly departed on the morning after the robbery, Bloom’s worst suspicions were confirmed, and he contacted the police. On searching Foster's room, the police found a number of clues that linked the men to the robbery at the American Swiss Watch Company.

They interviewed John Gailias, the taxi-driver who had taken Foster to the station, and before long they were talking to Ernest Sephton. When the police eventually opened Foster's luggage, they had all the evidence they needed.

Meanwhile, the owners of the American Swiss Watch Company offered the substantial reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of the robbers.

The offer of reward appeared in the Cape Times on the morning of Friday 21 March 1913.

Three days after the robbery, on the morning of Saturday 22 March, Foster strolled up to the left-luggage counter, handed over his tickets and was immediately arrested. He was carrying in his pocket a set of keys that belonged to the American Swiss Watch Company and a loaded Mauser pistol. He also had two firearm licences in his possession, one in the name of Robert Ward Jackson and the other in his own name. After being interviewed by detectives from the CID, he was locked up in Roeland Street Jail. The hunt for his accomplices continued. Not long after, Foster's brother, Jimmy, and one of their accomplices, Jack Johnson, were arrested in Johannesburg. Maxim escaped arrest.

While in Roeland Street Jail awaiting trial, Foster married a dark-eyed beauty named Peggy, whom he had known for about two years. The service was conducted in the prison chapel under special licence. A local minister performed the ceremony, and the chief warder and another prison official acted as witnesses.

The first hearing concerning the robbery took place on 23 March, 1913. On this occasion, Foster was alone in the dock, but at the next hearing, held on 13 April, he was joined by his brother and Johnson. All three men were committed for trial.

The trial began on 22 May 1913, presided over by Sir John Kotze. Robert Foster expected Jimmy to get away with a light sentence, but he was unaware that the robbery was not his younger brother's first offence. In fact, Jimmy had served a three-month prison sentence just the previous year. Each of the three men was sentenced to 12 years hard labour. Peggy Foster, who had been at the trial every day, was barely able to gasp, “I'll wait for you, Chummy,” before she collapsed and had to be helped from the court.

Foster's reaction to the sentence was one of fury. He considered it a travesty of justice that despite the fact that he had organized and led the robbery, Jimmy was being equally punished. From that day on, it seems, he was determined to get back at the system that had imposed, what he perceived to be a harsh and unfair punishment.

It is also interesting to note that this trial led to a precedent being set under South African low, in terms of the granting of reward money (see Who Gets the Reward? at end).

Robert Foster, Jimmy Foster and Jack Johnson were duly incarcerated in Pretoria Prison. Nine months later, in February 1914, Foster escaped while working in a prison gang. Shortly after this, he teamed up with John Maxim and Carl Mezar, alias George Smit, a twenty-two-year-old with a long criminal record. For the three months from July to September 1914, the Foster Gang, as the trio became known, went on an orgy of robbery and violence the likes of which South Africa had never seen before.

On 17 July, the Foster Gang began their campaign of terror by attempting to rob the Boksburg North branch of the National Bank. They were in the process of breaking into the bank when they were surprised by a clerk who slept on the premises. Carl Mezar immediately attacked the man and a fierce struggle ensued. The clerk managed to get away, and rushed towards the Boksburg North Hotel on the street corner opposite, shouting for help. The commotion drew a barman named Alex Charlson to the scene. When Charlson tried to intervene, he was shot in the chest. He died an hour later. In fact, the entire robbery had been a catalogue of disasters. The robbers’ plan was to get into the bank by breaking through the wall of the building next door, but, just as they were about to enter the bank, the man who had hired the room they were using, returned. Also, out on the street, an onlooker who attempted to prevent the robbers from escaping was shot in the leg and crippled for life. The Foster Gang escaped on a motorcycle.

A few weeks later, the gang successfully robbed Roodepoort Post Office. This was followed by a second post office robbery, this time at Vredendorp. Then, in the early hours of Sunday13 September, at the Big Bottle Store on the corner of Vilioen and Kimberley Roads in Doornfontein, there began a sequence of events which ultimately was to lead to nine deaths and the most intensive manhunt the South African Police had ever conducted.

When the robbers attempted to rob the Big Bottle Store they triggered an electronic alarm that alerted a night watchman who was sleeping inside the building. The man tried to scare the burglars away by rapping on the windowpane with a key. Then he saw a beat policeman approaching and tapped more vigorously to attract his attention. The constable heard him, approached to investigate. He was attacked by the three robbers and knocked unconscious. Foster and the others then ran off, and the night watchman rushed to the local police station.

At 4:15 the next morning in another part of town, Sergeant Neil McCloud, who was on patrol with Constable Swanepoel, spotted Maxim sitting on a bench opposite the Imperial Bottle Store. On being questioned, Maxim claimed to be waiting for a tram to go to work. The policeman searched him anyway and, finding a loaded revolver and housebreaking tools in his pockets, arrested him. However, just as the three men were passing the Imperial Bottle Store, Maxim suddenly began shouting for help. A moment later Foster emerged from the side of the building, brandishing a revolver. “Hands up! Release that man!” he demanded.

Instead of doing what he was told, Sergeant Mcloud ordered Constable Swanepoel to draw the gun they had taken from Maxim. Shots rang out. Foster was hurt, but McCloud fell to the ground mortally injured. As Swanepoel ran off to seek assistance, the three robbers escaped by motorcycle. Minutes later police reinforcements were on the scene. Then, in nearby Eleanor street, the body of Sergeant Robert Mansfield was discovered. Like McCloud, Mansfield had been shot dead. The evidence indicated that he had been investigating a noise inside the building where the three robbers were at work at when he was shot, probably by Mezar: a trail of blood extended from a spot near a blown safe to where Mansfield's body had been found in the street.

A massive manhunt was set in motion for the three men whom The Star Newspaper dubbed 'The Motorcycle Bandits'. It was not long before a woman living in Regents Park contacted the police to say that she knew where the men were staying. They had taken a small cottage on the corner of Bob Street and South Road, she said. She had first become suspicious when she noticed that the men avoided neighbours and seemed to come and go at odd hours of the day and night. Then she had recognised them as the wanted men from their pictures in the newspaper.

Three plain-clothes officers were sent to investigate. Detective Mynott, who was in charge of the contingent, warily approached the backyard. Sure enough over the fence he spotted the criminals working on a motorcar. Instead of waiting for assistance to arrive, Mynott decided to arrest the Foster Gang himself.

Mynott dispatched Detective Layde to the front of the house and Constable Murphy to the rear then went and knocked on the front door. Receiving no reply, he opened the door, walked through the house and out into the yard at the back.

“Put your hands up!” he ordered. Instead of being thrown into a state of panic, Foster, Maxin and Mezar remained cool, calm and collected. Without turning around, Foster began to try bluster his way out of the situation. At the same time, Maxim quietly handed him a gun.

Detective Layde shouted a warning to Mynott just as Foster turned around and fired - but too late. As Mynott fell to the ground, fatally wounded, his pistol fired, the bullet hitting the car. Within a matter of seconds, Foster had grabbed his wife and child and started the car. As the vehicle roared down the driveway, Maxim and Mezar threw themselves aboard.

Within hours of Mynott's death every policeman in Johannesburg was looking for the Foster Gang. Road blocks were set on every route in and out of the city, themselves causing a couple of bizarre deaths (See Incidental Victims at end) Eventually the car in which the gang had escaped from Regent's Park was found abandoned on the old road that ran behind the Primrose Cemetery, near Bezuidenhout Valley, with a bullet in the gearbox. The police brought in tracker dogs and the search was intensified.

Meanwhile Foster (who was wounded), Mezar and Maxim had taken refuge in a cave in Kensington hills that Foster had known as a boy. Foster's wife and child had gone to a safe house in Germiston.

On the afternoon of 16 September, 1914 a search party led by Sergeant Thomas Granger and Lance- Corporal Sergeant discovered the gang's hiding place. Without reinforcements, however they couldn't flush the men out, so they rolled rocks in front of the cave mouth, effectively sealing it, then sent for their superiors and mounted a guard.

Within hours a heavy cordon of police, and hundreds of sightseers surrounded the cave. The police first attempted to drive the robbers out into the open by lowering tear gas canisters on ropes to the entrance of the cave, but the wind blew the gas towards the onlookers, forcing police to give up the venture. As night fell, floodlights were brought in. The next morning the police were in the process of removing some of the boulders from the cave entrance when a shot rang out: Mezar had committed suicide.

About an hour after this, Foster came to the cave entrance. “I want to see Peggy,” he said. “Where is she?” asked Detective Martin, the man in charge of the operation. Foster gave them the address in Germiston where his wife was in hiding. At about two o'clock in the afternoon, she was brought to the cave entrance. (See picture at head of this chapter)

“I only want to have a chat with her,” Foster said. “After that we'll send our guns out and surrender.” For a while the police debated the wisdom of allowing Mrs Foster to join her husband. It was obvious that none of the robbers could escape and it seemed a small concession to make, particularly if it meant that the deadlock could be resolved without further bloodshed.

Half an hour after Peggy Foster had entered the cave, Foster spoke to the police once more. He wanted to say farewell to his mother and father and two sisters, who were also waiting nearby.

In the gloom of the cave entrance Foster, who, according to his father, was ‘garnered up’, introduced Maxim to his family. “This is the man who has stuck to me right through,” he told them. “Judge Kotze is to blame for all of this,” he said. “And 1 didn't want to kill Mynott either. He fired at me first and I had to defend myself. What could we do?” he asked. “It was them or us.” He then announced that Maxim and he had decided to commit suicide in order to avoid being hanged.

“I'm going to stay with you, Chummy,” Peggy Foster said. Foster didn't argue. He bounced his five-month-old baby daughter on his knee for a few moments then, handing her over to his sister, said, “The rest of you had better be going now.” A suicide pact had been formed.

A few minutes after Foster's family had left the cave, three shots rang out. Maxim had acted as executioner, shooting first his two companions and then himself. In the cave, the police discovered a box of stamps linking the gang to post office robberies at Roodepoort and Bellevue.

The saga of the Foster Gang had finally ended - or so it seemed. Yet, there is one last twist to this unusual tale.

The police inspector who had permitted Peggy Foster to join her husband in the cave subsequently became so overwrought at what he perceived to have been a serious error of judgement on his part that he too committed suicide. He was the Foster Gang's eleventh victim.

AN INTRIGUING POSTSCRIPT

In June 1937, a man named Andries du Plessis was arrested at Strubenvale by Detective Michiel Ackermann and charged with murder, He was accompanied by a woman who would later claim to be the daughter of Robert and Peggy Foster.

At his trial, Du Plessis maintained that the woman was innocent of any involvement, and she was allowed to go free, When, after Du Plessis's conviction, the woman went to Defective Ackermann to collect some of her lover's belongings, she made a number of startling revelations.

She maintained that she had been married to a policeman and had lived in the Eastern Cape - until she had met a miner with whom she had moved to Durban. She had subsequently left this man to go to the Rand, where she had met and fallen for Du Plessis. She had been attracted by his impulsive, reckless nature, she said. After Du Plessis had left his wife for her, she claimed, they carried out a number of robberies together. At first, the woman said, she simply acted as lookout, but later she become more involved. Du Plessis had murdered seven people (not five as the police suspected) she had merely searched their pockets and belongings.

However, she confessed that she had shot and killed the eighth victim herself.

Defective Ackermann could find no evidence to link the woman to the killings, and had to release her. She disappeared and was never heard of again. From the information the woman had supplied, he was certain of one thing, though, and that was that she was the daughter of Robert and Peggy Foster.

If she was, we can only theorize as to what caused her to follow in the footsteps of her notorious father, Robert Foster. But only she really knows if she is still alive...

Who Gets the Reward?

Following the successful prosecution of the three robbers, Henry Bloom, John Gallias and Ernest Sephton came forward and claimed £500 reward that The American Swiss Watch Company had offered. Harry Bloom, who had summoned the police to the Ebenezer House straight after the robbery, had the strongest claim. However it transpired that he had contacted the police before the reward had been offered. (Bloom contacted the police the morning after the robbery that is Thursday, 20 March.)

The offer of reward only appeared in the Cape Times on the following morning, Friday 21, March. In 1915, the Supreme Court advised the company that they were under no obligation to pay the reward to anyone, thereby establishing the principle that no one can claim a reward from another unless a definite contract exists between them.

The publication in a newspaper or the announcement on TV of a reward offer, which is common practice these days constitutes such a contract. However it remains true that anyone who aids the authorities in bringing a criminal to justice is not eligible for a reward if the information is provided prior to an offer of a reward being made.

Incidental victims

On the East Rand, a Dr Gerald Grace, who was rushing to answer an urgent call failed to stop at a roadblock and the police, thinking he was a member of the Foster Gang, fired into the car killing him outright and wounding his wife.
On the other side of The Reef, General Jacobus Hercules de la Rey, who, it would later emerge was on his way to Potchefstroom to start a rebellion amongst the troops there, was shot dead when he ordered his chauffeur to drive through a roadblock. He was also mistaken for a member of the Foster Gang.

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