The Amherst Street Murder and Calcutta’s Real-Life Sherlock Holmes

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    Over a century and a half ago, the sensational murder of a beautiful young Anglo-Indian sex worker named Rose Brown captured the popular imagination. The crime was committed in the wee hours of All Fools’ Day, 1868. It would change policing in India forever, forcing the Calcutta Police Commissionerate, the oldest in Asia, to set up a dedicated crime detection department. It would also be the first case in which evidence photography was used in India.

    Right near the Amherst Street police station, the young Ms Brown was found lying dead on the street in the wee hours of April 1, her throat slashed, part of her sari stuffed into the gash in her neck. The heinous nature of the crime, coupled with the city’s rising violent-crime graph – five other women would be murdered that year, three of them sex workers – meant that this case became all anyone talked about.

    This was also a time when random street crime was new to India’s young cities. Most murders were the results of drunken brawls, gang clashes or family or political feuds. Here, a beat constable came upon a spreading pool of blood, looked into what he thought was a bundle of clothing, and found this young woman already dead. The ring on her right hand suggested she was likely a married Christian woman. Yet no one came forward to identify her body.

    All these details rendered the case so sensational, it was all anyone could talk about in the colonial capital of British India. In middle-class homes and civil servants’ mansions, in newspaper reports and market squares, the Amherst Street Murder was discussed, debated and taken apart, and along with it the several perceived shortcomings of the police department.

    Why had the young woman still not been identified, days after her death? How could such a crime have occurred right on the streets? Who was the killer, and when would he be caught? Amid the unanswered questions, so much outrage was directed at the police by the public and the media, that at one point, even Police Commissioner Stuart Saunders Hogg seemingly felt the need to join in.

    In a letter to his deputy commissioner, he seethed at the inefficiency of his men and said he was gradually concluding that the failure to crack the murder case would not reflect poorly upon his own leadership alone but also cast doubt upon the efficacy of the nascent Police Commissionerate. He was convinced, he added, that it was time to look beyond the squabbling between police station houses and tussles over jurisdiction and establish a wider system. He also said he believed it was time to form a dedicated crime investigation and detective division to solve unusual and complicated crimes.

    It would eventually be about a few weeks before Rose Brown was identified and the investigation started progressing, but even that was the result of one man’s efforts. The bright young Police Inspector Richard Reid. Saunders Hogg brought in Reid to head the Rose Brown murder investigation. Not much is known about Reid prior to this case except that he was in the force already. By then in his early 30s, Reid already had a reputation as a quick thinker, acute observer and hard worker.

    He would also go on to become a pioneering crime reporter and writer, one of the earliest modern crime writers in India. His first book, Every Man His Own Detective! was published in 1887, the same year as Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet – which marked the first appearance of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

    There was one crucial difference: all Reid’s stories were true. And it is because of his writings that some sensational, some strange and some amusing tales from this city’s criminal history survived. Among the cases he covered in Every Man His Own Detective!, Reid described the Amherst Street whodunit in minute detail. In addition to the details of her fatal wound and her attire, he noted the presence at the scene of a sailor’s knife. He also observed that her “feet were bare, and free from mud or dust, so that she could not have walked for any distance on the public road before death.”

    When no one came forward to identify her body, the police decided to dispose of it, he adds in his account. The studio of Sache and Westfield photographers were commissioned to take photos of her corpse before it was interred. Copies of the photographs were circulated in the city and finally, after a few weeks, a Mr Harris, resident of Baitakkhana Lane, close to Amherst Street, came forward and identified Rose Brown as one his tenants. Further investigation revealed that she was frequently seen with one Madhub Chander Dutt, a businessman.

    A search of her belongings revealed a photograph of a man known as Kingsley, known to the police as a thug and a ruffian. Brown had previously stayed at Kingsley’s house in Howrah, and it was said they had been in a relationship. Some months before her death, she had left Kingsley and moved to Baithakkhana Lane, and was said to have lived in fear of Kingsley finding and killing her for leaving him.

    At first, Dutt, who owned a shop in Bow Bazar, was arrested. Later, a search at Kingsley’s house revealed a shirt; some clothes belonging to a woman that had bloodstains on them; and a key that fitted the lock of Rose Brown’s new quarters. All these details we now have as a result of Reid’s book.

    The public interest in the case, meanwhile, showed no signs of waning, as is evidenced from the report that appeared in the newspaper The Englishman on 5th June. “The Government of Bengal have authorised the bestowal of a reward of fee of Rs 1,000 on anyone who will give such information as shall lead to the conviction of the murderer of the unfortunate woman Rose Brown,” it stated. “This may be a very proper measure, but no one believes it will, at this time, lead to any more good than did a similar reward offered after a similar delay in the case of the Jewish housewife. The public, however, is anxious to know how many such cases will be required to open the eyes of the Bengal Government to the condition of the Calcutta Police?”

    Sadly, the case was never conclusively resolved. The outrage over this sensational and mysterious ‘Amherst Street Murder’ heralded the much-demanded change in the police department and Reid would play a significant role in the changes too. About eight months after Rose Brown’s murder, in November 1868, Saunders Hogg announced through a circular that the Calcutta Police would henceforth have an independent Detective Force, the first of its kind in India.

    Until this point, in line with the recommendations of the 1845 Patton Committee, the commissionerate system was modelled on the London police force. It was introduced in Calcutta on 1st November 1856. The then chief magistrate, Samuel Wauchope, became the first police commissioner. Soon after, the same model was adopted in the presidencies of Bombay and Madras. At the time, a recommendation to set up a detective force in Calcutta, as there was within the London Police, was disapproved by the then Lt Governor of Bengal, Frederick James Halliday. And so it would be over a decade before India finally got a Detective Force, in November 1868. Reid joined it immediately and would go onto head it in 1873.

    Reid was a remarkably successful police detective. His powers of observation were so dependable that he was assigned to be a bodyguard to the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII – when the royal visited Calcutta in 1875-76. In 1876 Reid, now an Inspector, was asked to officiate as superintendent of both Detective Force and Reserve Force.

    Through his career, Reid solved numerous cases and trained several batches of police officers in Calcutta and beyond. He became known as the “conscience keeper and adviser of the commissioner” in the words of T Chattopadhyay, author of Kolkata & Its Police: A History of City Police from Charnock’s to Present Day (2013).

    Little is known of his life before he joined the force. But while he was a Calcutta policeman, it is known that Reid was married and lived in the police compound at Lal Bazar with his family. Reid resigned from the force in 1879 but continued to train new police recruits in the arts of detection and investigation.

    And then, eight years later, his writings began to be published. In addition to Every Man His Own Detective!, Reid wrote Romance of Indian Crime, Tales of the Indian Mutiny, Revelations of an Indian Detective and Knavery Unmasked published in the decade of 1890s.

    The cases he recounted in Every Man His Own Detective! covered all kinds of crimes – burglary, larceny, swindling, impersonation, forgery, murder, and those that never really made their way into the police registers. In keeping with the spirit of a good teacher and chronicler, Reid also outlined instances where he had been made a fool – as when a Calcutta courtesan and her two associates smartly swindled a jeweller in Burra Bazar and he had failed to catch the culprits.

    In addition to offering exciting details on crimes committed in 19th-century Calcutta and the evolving practices of forensics, observation and deduction from a time when criminology was still at a nascent stage, Every Man His Own Detective! detailed certain chilling practices prevalent in society. There were deaths from illegal abortions and dead newborns who had been suffocated by desperate unwed mothers told to put ash in their mouths. In many such cases, Reid said in his book, everybody was involved, including the family and community, and the district collectors always preferred to look the other way.

    And then there was the rather funny case in which it turned out Reid was the victim himself. The case of a canny cop fooled by his informer. The canny fraud had approached him timidly, made a profound salaam, and handed him a document addressed to the deputy commissioner of police, then endorsed by that official with the remark: Mr Reid, give this man a trial. In the correct phrasing, the petition went on to state that the petitioner was a professional police informer who wanted employment in this particular line of business in which he was adept and that he could give valuable information regarding some clever burglaries recently committed in the neighbourhood.

    “After reading the document, I carefully surveyed the petitioner from head to foot. He was a man… with small shifty eyes… [and] as bad a set of features, with all his apparent meekness, as ever were turned out of Nature’s mould. One of the toes of the right foot, I noticed, was missing. I was not much impressed with the man’s appearance, you may be sure, but having been sent to me by my Deputy Commissioner of Police for a specific purpose, I was in duty bound to employ him,” Reid wrote.

    His first request, after being installed as a police informer, was that beat constables be ordered not to accost him if he was found out after dark. The informer’s next request was for some subsistence money, to enable him to carry on until he earned the reward offered for the apprehension and conviction of the offenders he had undertaken to hunt down. Both requests seemed reasonable enough and were granted.

    “A week passed before he returned to the Thannah to report progress. He had by then a long account to give of how he obtained his first clue… had the game well in hand, and was cautiously stalking them until the property turned up...‘You must be aware, Sir,’ he said with a knowing twinkle of his small restless eye, ‘the housebreakers would be of no use without the property; there would be no evidence to convict them, and I would lose my reward, and you the credit of working up the case. Let me have a little more subsistence money, and the plot will be ripe for action in a day or two.’ The rascal got a further advance of money.”

    Ten or twelve days passed without him turning up again, and Reid asked the constables to bring him in if they could. “I had not long to wait... He had, of course, a very plausible story… for his long absence. He assured me that everything was almost ripe for immediate action and asked for one day’s grace — only one: this was granted.”

    The next morning came a report of burglary involving a considerable quantity of valuable jewellery. “I accompanied the complainant to the spot to make inquiries,” Reid said. “On reaching the stairs my attention was attracted by a blood-stained footprint on each alternate step leading to the room from which the property had been stolen. The footprint, I observed, left only the impression of four toes instead of five.”

    It was, of course, the informer. “I was simply horrified… To think that… I had [been] not only employing, but actually paying, a professional thief to hunt himself down. I have never employed professional informer again,” Reid said. Not much was known of Reid's later life and what happened to him.

    While the mystery of the ‘Amherst Street Murder’ endures, the Crime detection branch of Kolkata police, the Reid legacy, is still solving crimes even today.


    Devasis Chattopadhyay is a corporate reputation and brand management strategist, columnist, Kolkata history buff and author of Without Prejudice.

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