Thursday, January 24, 2013

Did this criminal prevent civil war in South Africa?

Robert Foster was born in an area of South Africa called Griqualand East in 1886, the year in which gold was discovered in what became Johannesburg.  He had a good childhood, was a decent student, played sport, and became a good husband, a loyal friend, and a loving father.
Robert Foster
He also became South Africa’s most wanted man.
As is often the case, it started with little things – resisting arrest when drunk, resisting arrest when apprehended on a train without a ticket,  and so on.  In 1908 he moved to South West Africa (now Namibia) where he was caught stealing donkeys.  He was sentenced to 6 months prison in South Africa.
When he returned from a trip to England in 1913, he settled in Johannesburg and became friendly with an American – ex-rodeo rider and sharp-shooter, John Maxim.  They decided they should move up in the world.
They went to Cape Town and decided to rob the American Swiss Watch Company with Robert’s brother Jimmy and another man, Jack Johnson.  Wearing disguises of false beards and moustaches, off they went and robbed the establishment of about £5000 of cash and watches.  After the heist, Foster put the loot in one bag, his disguise and clothes in another, then put both bags into a trunk, which he took to railway station to leave at left luggage.  Here he made his first mistake.  He didn’t have change for the attendant and had to persuade him to take his luggage while he went to get small change.  Of course, this made the attendant remember him.   
The second mistake was telling another resident in the lodgings at which they were staying that they were actors.  The man was an actor himself and knew they were lying.  When the four men disappeared on the morning after the robbery, which was of course reported in the newspapers, he became suspicious and spoke to the police.
The police searched his room and found evidence of the robbery.  They found the taxi driver who took him to the station.  They spoke to the left-luggage attendant, who showed them what he had left.  And so very quickly, the police had all the evidence they needed.
Three days later, Foster came to fetch his trunk and was arrested and held in the Roeland Street jail.  While awaiting trial, Foster married his long-time lady friend, Peggy – the ceremony being held in the prison.
Foster's wife, Peggy
Maxim had evaded arrest, so the three of the four robbers on trial were sentenced to 12 years hard labour and sent to Pretoria Prison.  Foster's wife, Peggy, managed to gasp “I’ll wait for you, Chummy,” before collapsing in court!
Now comes the interesting part.  (The bizarre part comes later.)
Nine months later, Foster escaped from a hard labour gang. 
Together with his friend Maxim and another man, he then started his reign of terror.
They tried to rob the National Bank in Boksburg, were discovered by a night watchman, and eventually killed a barman from the hotel across the road who came to see what was happening.  An onlooker who tried to stop the escaping men was shot and crippled for life.
Then the gang successfully robbed two post offices without harming anyone.
Then they went after the Big Bottle Store.  During the break-in they tripped an electric alarm (in 1913!).  A night watchman alerted the police and the gang fled, killing one policeman.  Later a policeman stopped Maxim, searched him, and found a revolver on him.  Maxim then shouted for help, Foster came out of the hotel at which they were staying, and in the ensuing gunfire, Foster was hurt and another policeman killed.  The three escaped on motorcycles.
The Wanted poster
Needless to say, a massive manhunt ensued, and a little old lady in one of the suburbs told the police that she thought the gang was staying in a cottage next to her.  The police went, one was killed, and the gang escaped again.
It was at this stage in the saga that some bizarre events took place.  More of that later.
The gang abandoned the car and took refuge in some caves in the hills on which Johannesburg is built.  The police found the car, and tracker dogs soon located the men.
Entrance to the cave
The mouth of the cave was soon surrounded by police and spectators.  Obviously the three men of the gang weren’t going to get away this time.
Police and spectators at the cave
The next morning, a shot rang out from the cave.  The third man, the police later found out, had committed suicide. Eventually Foster came to the mouth of the cave and asked the policeman in charge, Inspector Martin, to let him speak to Peggy and his baby daughter.  Foster promised that once he had seen them, he and Maxim would surrender peacefully.
Martin eventually agreed and sent a police car to the neighbouring town to fetch the two.  Peggy and her daughter went into the cave where Foster told her that he and Maxim were going to commit suicide rather than be hanged.
“I’m going to stay with you, Chummy!” Peggy said.
Fosters parents were also outside the cave.  He asked to speak to them.  When he had done so, he gave them the 5-month old daughter.  After they left, three shots rang out.  Maxim and shot Robert and Peggy Foster and then himself.
The saga was over!
But not quite.  Inspector Martin was so upset that he had let Peggy go into the cave and to her death that he later committed suicide.
And the bizarre events?
When the gang escaped from the cottage, the police set up roadblocks all around Johannesburg.  At one, a doctor responding to a medical emergency failed to stop and was shot dead and his wife wounded.
At another, an ex-Boer general, Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey, told his chauffeur to drive through it.  He too was shot dead.  It turns out he had broken his oath to support South Africa and was on his way to start a rebellion among the South African troops, who were supporting Britain in World War I.
General de la Rey
So perhaps Robert Foster inadvertently prevented a civil war in South Africa, just as it was finding its feet after the Boer War!

Stan - Thursday
P.S.. I gleaned a lot of this information from the book Famous South African Crimes by Rob Marsh.

1 comment:

  1. You've always been terrific with the punchlines, Stan. What a story!! Forget about Bonnie and Clyde. This is the real deal.