by Girija Madhavan
Madras, now called Chennai, was enthralled by a murder mystery in 1919-1920. Though the story was inconclusive, it captivated the public. The “De la Haye Murder Case” was said to reflect the sense of fairplay of the judiciary under the British Raj.
Madras society was cosmopolitan. English people living in the city, apart from the civil servants, were lawyers, teachers or doctors. Among the Indian elite were the Maharajas and Zamindars.
The De la Hayes, brother and sister, were teachers, living in the city. She was the Principal of Queen Mary’s College. My mother Mukta was a pupil of Miss De la Haye. Miss McCormick, also a teacher at Queen Mary’s College, was engaged to be married to Mr. De la Haye. But he “jilted” her to marry a “siren”, a lovely Englishwoman. The students were agog when they found the two women closeted weeping together in a room without taking classes.
Mr. De la Haye became the Principal of Newington House, a school for the sons of Zamindars. In addition to studies, these young men were taught social graces, how to offer an arm to escort a lady in to dinner, how to comport themselves at table and conform to Victorian etiquette. They learnt to ride and to shoot. Some were headstrong, getting into scrapes or entanglements. The boys were addressed, not by their given names, but by the principalities or states they came from. Two important characters in the ensuing drama were Kadambur, a tall, swarthy boy with curly hair and Singampatti, the richest of the students
De la Haye was killed on 15 October, 1919 by a shot in the head from a 12 bore gun as he lay asleep on a bed in an upstairs verandah after dinner and bidding the boys goodnight. He was declared dead by Major Hingston, the civil surgeon, who was called in along with the police. Confusion was caused by another gun and cartridges being found in the driveway below the verandah. However, the difference in the bore of the gun and the undamaged state of the cartridges created the suspicion that this evidence was planted.
Singampatti accused Kadambur of planning the murder, citing his resentment of De la Haye referring to “Tamil barbarians”. He also claimed that Kadambur planned for the “Dorai” (or Englishman) to be killed. This testimony led to Kadambur being arrested. Singampatti, as he claimed prior knowledge of the crime, had to become an Approver and Witness for the Prosecution to escape punishment. Scandalous rumours began to circulate about Mrs. De la Haye, the young students, Major Hingston and others. So to ensure a fair trial, the case was transferred from Madras, the scene of the events, to the Bombay High Court. Both Kadambur and Singampatti were represented by the finest lawyers of the day.
My mother remembered how thrilled people were when the brilliant lawyer, Eardley Norton, was retained by the defence in addition to Indian lawyers. The case was tried by Chief Justice Macleod with a jury. The judge arrived for the trial in the ceremonial attire of a British Chief Justice. He wore a full bottomed wig, scarlet robes with white facings, breeches with silk stockings and pumps. He gave clear guidelines to the jury. He pointed out that, though it was a carefully planned murder, there was no positive proof that Kadambur was the culprit. Lady Macleod, among the spectators, was said to be the first to lead the clapping that broke out when the accused was acquitted.
The acquittal of Kadambur left the question unanswered: ‘Who killed De La Haye?’ The shadow of a sinister killer still hangs over the case, which stood out as an example of fairness and justice.
Girija Madhavan is the wife of retired Indian Ambassador A. Madhavan and daughter of Mukta Venkatesh, the well-known painter and poet, who lived for 101 years, painting to the last. Like her mother Mukta, Girija Madhavan, is also a painter. The Madhavan couple reside in Yadavagiri, Mysuru.