In the final stop-press edition of the Johannesburg Star on Friday, 6 May 1927, the following news story appeared:

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 finale.

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 farm.

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 home.

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.




The Serpent Under

South Africa Weird and Wonderful



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