Calcutta Crime: Jailbirds, a Cop and an Unforgettable Chase
The charming scamps Jai and Veeru in Sholay, played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, remain one of the most beloved pairings in Hindi cinema. But long before either actor was born, a real-life criminal duo really did forge a friendship, commit crimes and get up to such escapades that they would go down in local history, much to the dismay of the then fledgling Calcutta Police.
It was a dark summer night in 1888, and the police force of this colonial city – a force that had been constituted a mere 22 years earlier – was on high alert. There had been a spate of robberies in the affluent neighbourhood of British Indian (now Abdul Hamid) Street, near the city’s administrative centre of Dalhousie Square. Residents had reported thefts of watches, jewellery and silverware. The thief had been sighted several times, and been variously identified as a Muslim, a Jew and in one case, a Eurasian. Each time, he had slipped away.
The Calcutta Police had responded by posting guards every few yards on British Indian Street, and assigning senior police officials to patrol the area all night. On this night, the cops struck gold. The thief was spotted inside a house. But as soon as a constable raised the alarm, he fled at top speed, leapt over a wall and ducked into a neighbouring home. The police gave chase, but the thief proved far more fleet of foot. They watched as he scaled walls and jumped from terrace to terrace, eluding them all and ultimately disappearing down the far end of the street.
The last place the thief was sighted turned out to be a hotel. When the police walked in and made enquiries, they were told the establishment had only two guests in residence. A search revealed a cache of stolen goods in one of the two rooms and the occupant was immediately arrested. The thief turned out to be neither Muslim, Jewish nor Eurasian, but a British man named Healey.
Sumanta Banerjee provides the fascinating story of this man in his book, The Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta (2009). Healey had come to India as a soldier and participated in several of the East India Company’s campaigns. At one point, while posted in Meerut, he turned deserter and returned to England. Here he formed a criminal gang that would become so notorious that Healey was forced to escape to Bombay. From there he made his way to Calcutta, where he continued his rather successful career in crime, until the night he was apprehended.
In August 1888, Healey was sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment and sent to Calcutta’s Presidency Jail. There he met the man who would take his career, as it were, to newer heights. Warner had been the manager of the Singer Sewing Machine Company store at Dalhousie Square. On 18th October 1886, he had reported a theft of jewellery and cash from the store. When the police investigated, they realised it had to have been an inside job. The store’s main gate, which Warner had reported as being open when he got there, used a Chubb detector lock. This type of lock is designed to jam when someone tries to pick it or open it using the wrong key; the fact that it hadn’t jammed indicated that the lock had either been tampered with (no signs of such tampering were found) or been opened with its key. And the only key had been with Warner at the time.
Three days later, Warner was officially charged. By this time, though, he had disappeared. The police zeroed in on a prostitute Warner was known to visit, and when they raided her residence, she was found wearing one of the bangles Warner had reported stolen. It was further learned that Warner had sent a parcel a few days earlier to his mother in Bombay. The parcel was intercepted, returned to Calcutta, and found to contain more of the jewellery that he had reported stolen. It took the police an entire year to locate Warner, but he was eventually arrested – all the way in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) – and sentenced to four years’ rigorous imprisonment.
When Healey arrived at Presidency Jail, then, Warner was about a year into his sentence. The two men struck up an ardent friendship that would prove to be surprisingly beneficial surprisingly soon. Just a few months in, on 5th March 1889, the two escaped prison together, and did it in the unlikeliest of ways. It was at this point that the soon-to-be-famous Bengali detective Priyanath Mukhopadhyay became involved. A police sub-inspector at the time, he was assigned the task of tracking the men down. And in a story titled Ingrej Dakat that he later wrote for a crime magazine that he ran called Darogar Daptar, Mukhopadhyay describes their escape.
British prisoners of the time enjoyed better privileges than their Indian counterparts. One of these privileges was being allowed furniture – typically, beds, chairs and tables – in their cells. Warner and Healey probably bribed a prison guard and smuggled in a pickaxe as well. With this they broke open their shackles. They then carried all their furniture out into the yard, piled it up against a prison wall, and simply, nimbly, stepped out into freedom! The guards, even though they had spotted the duo making their escape, were unable to do much about it because, though they had rifles, they had no bullets!
This, incidentally, wasn’t the first time Warner had escaped a prison. Based on the pattern that followed his earlier escape, Mukhopadhyay guessed that he would attempt to take a train out of the city. His guess proved accurate when the British stationmaster at Serampore, 31 km north of Calcutta, confirmed that two Englishmen had indeed been spotted on 6th March 1889, on a train bound for Asansol in North Bengal.
Mukhopadhyay set off immediately on their trail, determined to make enquiries at every station from Serampore to Asansol, a distance of almost 200 km, if that was what it took to find them. Sadly, his investigation was severely hampered by the presence of the two English police officers who had decided to accompany him on his quest. In the interiors of rural Bengal, most villagers had still never laid eyes on a ‘gora saheb’. While this meant that Healey and Warner would be spotted and remembered wherever they went, villagers were also so frightened by the English officers that appeared in their wake, that they simply ran off when approached, refusing to answer any of Mukhopadhyay’s questions.
By 7th March, Mukhopadhyay and the two English officers had reached the town of Memari, now in the Purba Bardhaman district. The signalman at the station remembered Healey and Warner, and said they had indeed alighted there. He had checked their tickets and told them Asansol was much further down the route, but the duo had paid no heed and disappeared into the local market.
From here the chase commenced on foot. Mukhopadhyay, accompanied by two constables from a local police station, interviewed villagers, some of whom pointed them in the direction the two criminals had taken. But now the heat and humidity were proving too much for the Englishmen, who abandoned the chase and retired on 9th March to the nearest town, Burdwan (now Bardhaman).
For the next three days, Mukhopadhyay pursued his quarry like a bloodhound, often walking through the night, and going days without food. Near the Damodar River, a local villager said he had spotted Healey and Warner there just the day before. The sneaky Healey had told villagers that they were from the government’s irrigation department, there to inspect the dams set up across the river. The villagers had greatly benefitted from these dams, and so responded with gratitude, taking them into their homes and treating them to lavish meals! In another village, the two Britons identified themselves as employees of the railways, there to conduct a survey for a new line, and were once again accorded the royal treatment.
And so it went, in village after village. Mukhopadhyay would arrive to discover that the two men had been fed, watered, pampered and helped along their way; sometimes, mere hours before he himself got there, exhausted and hungry. But Mukhopadhyay finally did catch up with the duo, near Susunia Hill in southwest Bengal. He was accompanied by two police constables, but they were not armed. Healey on the other hand, was a former soldier and, by all accounts, also a giant of a man!
So Mukhopadhyay and the constables decided to hide in the bushes that lined the path Healey and Warner were walking down. Once the two thieves had passed them, the trio attacked from behind. The constables tackled Warner, while Mukhopadhyay took on Healey. A struggle ensued. Mukhopadhyay had his nose shattered but still would not break his grasp. Ultimately, when the diminutive Bengali began to choke the much larger Englishman by somehow contriving to place his boot on the latter’s throat, the giant of a man surrendered.
Mukhopadhyay finally had his prize. On 12th March, he arrived at Howrah with his two prisoners. Colonel Hume, the Police Superintendent of Burdwan, found it hard to believe that an unarmed Bengali had defeated a former soldier in hand-to-hand combat. He sent an armed escort of no less than seven policemen to accompany Mukhopadhyay, Healey and Warner to Calcutta. Back home, when a final tally was made up, it turned out that Mukhopadhyay had walked about 290 km in pursuit of his prey!
To everyone’s surprise, Healey heaped praise on the brave Bengali Sub-Inspector. A report in the newspaper The Englishman, dated 13th March 1889, states: “He was the most plucky native whom Healey had ever known, and his conduct could not have been better if he had been a European.”
The story doesn’t end there, however. Warner was eventually released from prison, having served his time, and settled down to a quiet life in Bombay. Healey, the authorities thought, was too dangerous to release in India. So it was decided that, upon the completion of his prison term, he would be sent down to Bombay and from there deported to his native England. Accordingly, in October 1891, Healey was taken straight from the prison gate to Howrah station and put on a train for Bombay, accompanied by a British constable and two Indian sepoys.
He waited for his guards to fall asleep and then jumped from the moving locomotive, taking with him, according to a report in the Amrita Bazar Patrika, “the constable’s great coat, cap and Rupees 37 and the paper relating to his deportation”. The police did ultimately apprehend him, however, and he was eventually deported.
But that first chase would be the case that made Mukhopadhyay famous. He received a cash reward of Rs 200 for his valiant work, along with a chain and pocket watch worth another Rs 300, given to him by the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. When the Commissioner of the Calcutta Police heard of the Sub-Inspector’s exploits, he took off his valuable ring and put it on Mukhopadhyay’s finger. Mukhopadhyay would go on to serve on the force until his retirement in 1911. His exploits would earn him the title of ‘Raybahadur’ and his magazine, Darogar Daptar (which began approximately around 1890 and continued for the next 12 years), would also make him one of the pioneers of Bengali crime-writing. Who said crime doesn’t pay?