Tamil Nadu has witnessed a few murders that were unsolved. One of the earliest was the 10th century assassination of Chola prince Aditya II or Aditya Karikalan, whose murder was perhaps avenged, but lack of historical records had made it a mystery.

The murders of CN Lakshmikanthan (1944), Immanuel Sekaran (1957), Tha. Kiruttinan (2003), and KN Ramajayam (2012) are a few recent examples, in which, despite wide public attention, the culprits were not caught, or at least not yet.

An early unsolved mystery that is not remembered much is the sensational murder that rocked Madras in 1919-20, in which an Englishman was the victim and the teenaged heir of Kadambur zamin was the main accused.

shot in the head

On the intervening night of October 15–16, Clement de la Hey, 41, the acting principal of Newington School, was shot in the head at close range with a 12 bore gun when he was asleep in a bed next to that of his wife. on the first floor of the school building which was also his residence.

Woken up by the report of the gunshot, Dorothy de la Hey screamed in horror as she saw her husband lying in a pool of blood. She could not see anyone else, but heard a thud. The police, who arrived quickly, thought that they solved the murder in less than a day with a student, Seeni Vellala Siva Subramanya Pandya Tallivan, the under-aged (minor) zamindar of Kadambur, identified as the killer.

Four months later, he was acquitted in what an article, published by the Bombay High Court in the 1960s, described as the “most notable and spectacular criminal case ever tried” on its premises. The murder would forever remain a mystery.

The Newington School, which functioned on the present-day campus of the Directorate of Medical and Rural Health Services at Teynampet, was a residential institution. It was intended to be run on the lines of English public schools to educate minor zamindars who were under the Court of Wards system. The presence of minors gave the building the moniker ‘minor bungalow’.

At the time of the murder, there were nine minor zamindars in the school. Eight of them were under the Court of Wards, while the minor zamindar of Singampatti was admitted as a special case. Clement de la Hey, an avid cricketer who studied at Keble College, Oxford, was at Newington School since 1902. He was the brother of another Dorothy de la Hey, the founder-Principal of Queen Mary’s College.

The minor zamindar of Berekai, one of the pupils, was the first to reach the crime scene from his room on the second floor after hearing Dorothy de la Hey’s scream. He was also the first to say that he saw the Kadambur and Singampatti minor zamindars leaving the scene. The police soon after made him to give the information in writing.

The police recovered a gun and a few cartridges from the ground near the building, which, according to their investigation, was thrown from a top floor by the accused. The Kadambur and Singampatti minor zamindars were arrested. Singampatti soon turned an approver, accusing Kadambur of being the main conspirator and the murderer.

The minor zamindars of Talavancote and Urkad the senior (a junior Urkad was also at the school) became key witnesses and blamed Kadambur. Both claimed that Kadambur was conspiring to murder. While Talavancote said he did not alert Clement de la Hey because he thought he would not believe, Urkad claimed he was threatened by Kadambur. At least six students, including Singampatti, blamed Kadambur.

A reportedly strained relationship between Kadambur and Clement de la Hey and an alleged racial slur used once by the latter were believed to be the motive. Leading lawyers S. Swaminadhan and Ethiraj were engaged to defend Kadambur. The case was, perhaps, an early instance of the phenomenon of trial by media, which were rife with speculation on the motive and the culprits. Apart from the racial slur theory, widespread and unsubstantiated claims were made about the alleged flirting of Dorothy de la Hey with the students.

Case shifted to Bombay

Owing to the intense public and media attention that could prejudice the jury, it became one of the first major cases to be transferred from the Madras High Court to the Bombay High Court. Dorothy de la Hey, whose health worsened after the murder, went back to London with her child before the trial finished.

RDN Wadia, another renowned lawyer, led the defense of Kadambur in Bombay, along with Swaminathan and Ethiraj. Though another judge was to preside as per norms, Sir Norman Macleod, the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, decided that he himself would sit on the Bench, considering the nature of the case.

What the police and the prosecution thought was a strong case soon began to crumble as the defense lawyers tore into the claims made by the witnesses, bringing out the inconsistencies, half-truths and lies and making them look highly unreliable in front of the jury. The defense went to the extent of alleging that Singampatti and Urkad committed the crime.

Apart from the witnesses, the prosecution lacked any solid evidence. The defense, with the help of fire-arms experts, proved that the gun could not have been thrown from a top floor as it had no damage whatsoever. Importantly, it brought out a letter written by Singampatti to Kadambur when both were in police custody. In it, Singampatti claimed that he had lied to the police.

WL Weldon, who led the prosecution, tried to control the damage by articulating, in his final summary to the jury, that there was no reason to disbelieve the witnesses and “the defense had contended themselves by throwing an immense amount of mud on all in the hope that it would stick”.

Macleod himself observed that the standard of truth did not appear to be high at Newington. At the end of the four-day trial, on February 5, 1920, the jury unanimously pronounced Kadambur not guilty. The verdict was accompanied by a “tremendous cheering unparalleled in the annals of the Bombay High Court” by the spectators who had gathered in huge numbers to witness the trial, The Hindu reported that day.

Interestingly, the case would play an important role in Ammu Swaminadhan, the wife of Swaminadhan, and their daughter Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, taking leading roles in the Independence struggle. Captain Lakshmi recalled in her memoir that her family was shunned by English people, who were hitherto friends, as they thought her father had allowed a native who had brutally murdered an innocent Englishman to escape.

She said it took away their admiration for the so-called English honesty, fair play and justice and made them stop trying to imitate the English lifestyle. The period coincided with the rise of Mahatma Gandhi in the national scene and the family started boycotting foreign goods.

As for the Newington School, it did not survive the scandal for long and was shut down soon after.

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