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THE CASE OF THE MIDNIGHT MURDER

His client has been sentenced to die by hanging. In a few weeks he would take the one-way route to the gallows. The highest court of appeal, the Court of the Last Resort for British India was some six thousand miles away across the seas and oceans, in London. That was the age of slow boats and sea travel. To make matters worse that far away court, the Privy Council was on vacation. No time to go and all seemed lost forever. But he was not the kind who would take a no for an answer. In an unprecedented move and certainly astonishing he sent a cable to a firm of friendly solicitors in London. It was no ordinary cable. It stunned the staff of the Madras City Telegraph office! So long the overseas cable was.

The entire judgements of three High Courts judges at Madras, the memo of appeal including the grounds of appeal, and the petition. The London solicitor was equally astonished, and acting with rare sense of justice he rushed to France where Lord Haldane, the concerned Law Lord was away on vacation in a holiday resort away from Paris ! Undaunted he traced His Lordship at the resort and submitted the appeal. Once a judge, always a judge, they say, and Lord Haldane accepted the appeal papers and at once he rang the Secretary of State for India in London, Lord Crewe to hold up the hanging at Madras of the appellant-accused and keep it in abeyance pending the hearing of the appeal. Lord Crewe did and the condemned client got a fresh lease of life.

(During the British reign of India, the Secretary of State for India was a member of the British Cabinet and he was the boss for Indian affairs.)

That lawyer of rare perseverance, push, and all was Dr. S. Swaminathan, one of the giants of the Madras bar, a master of criminal law, and his fortunate client was a wealthy, influential and powerful landholder known as "mirasdar" of Poondi, a fertile village in Thanjavur district, named Vaidyanatha Pillai. He was accused of murdering his daughter-in-law, and the consequence known as `the Poondi Murder Case' was a sensation, and a 'cause celebre' circa 1912!

Vaidyanatha Pillai was in his fifties and had married thrice, not one after another, as one would expect. No. He belonged to an age and time, and culture when a man could take as many wives as he could, the only restraining factors being the weight of his purse, and of course, the stamina and strength of his flesh, blood, and macho power! This merry mirasdar with vast land holdings and other assets took three, one of them being his own niece, the daughter of his elder sister, Muttachi. That wife died at child-birth leaving behind a son named Ayyasami.

Vaidyanatha had two sons by his wife Kanthimathi who survived the other two wives. The second wife died after presenting him with a daughter named Thangababu.

Being motherless Ayyasami was taken over by his paternal uncle Sami Thevan, a man of some means but not as rich as his brother and he was the village munsiff of Sembiamangalam, a mile away from Poondi. Sami and his rich brother were not on good terms, a consequence of envy lurking in the bosom of the village munsiff. They were blood brothers, no doubt, but Vaidyanatha, as a kid had been given away by his parents in adoption into a wealthy family.

It accounted for the wealth and clout of the mirasdar, and the envy of his brother. A case of blood not being thicker than water!

Ayyasami grew up under the care and attention of the uncle but sadly he showed sure signs of mental abnormality and odd and quirky behavior, which included maniacal violence on occasions. His maternal uncle was of such nature and behavior and the nephew seemed to have inherited it all.

In 1906 Ayyasami married Dhanabhagyam, a girl from a wealthy family from the nearby village, Orattur. Dhanam as she was called was intelligent, worldly-wise and knew her way around. Not surprisingly she took control of her husband and ran his life. The fellow was only too happy to bark to her finger-flicks and generally basked in her sunshine.

Soon after the wedding Dhanam clashed with her in-laws, especially, her sister-in-law Thangababu. This girl had married very young as a mere lass of ten summers in accordance with the custom of the times. Her husband was Dhanam's elder brother. He died soon leaving his pre-teen spouse a virgin widow. But Thangababu who grew fast into a buxom woman with a stunning figure she did not bother to wear the proverbial widow's weeds.

In accordance with tradition and custom she returned to her parental home in Poondi where she led a care-free life, finding joy wherever she could, here, there and everywhere.

Muscle-bound farm-hands, sinewy servants and such males were only too willing and ready to oblige their master's merry daughter filling her with joy.

Such amorous activity often results in certain biological consequences and aftermath and on such occasions the daughter was packed off to the provincial capital Madras for the needful be done. Why did Vaidyanatha keep silent to such conduct by his female off-spring? Whatever happened to his family prestige? The rural folks had an answer. That the father was one of the men in the widow's life. Dhanam too had such belief. Mere rumors? Malicious gossip? Nobody could know for certain but Dhanam thought so.

Dhanam and Thangababu clashed often mainly on the merry widow's romantic escapades, and not surprisingly the family members did not take kindly to Dhanam. The damned daughter-in-law was too cheeky, impertinent and impudent, they felt.

There were other reasons too. Ayyasami was a spendthrift and loved to lead a cushy comfy life. When his father refused to cough up the cash he resorted to borrowing from friends, relatives, and professional money-lenders in the rich district. After all he was a wealthy mirasdar's son, was not he?

As a son he had a share in his father's huge estate, had not he? Such ideas were dinned into his dull head by his wife. That was not all. She hinted more than often that her husband should demand a partition of the family estate, get his due share, and walk out to lead a life of his own with his wife and kids. The atmosphere at the Poondi family mansion was so immoral, she suggested. Vaidyanatha hated his daughter-in-law for all this and more, her cleverness, and her hold on that stupid son of his. What sort of a son was he to be so hen-pecked?The damned fool.

Soon Ayyasami's debts began to snowball, and Vaidyanatha decided to step in and put his foot down. He published public notices, in English in the District Gazette, and also in Tamil in a leading daily of the day published from Madras, "The Swadesamitran". The notice obviously drafted by a lawyer clarified that Vaidyanatha was not, and would not be responsible for his son Ayyasami's debts, past, present, and future too for three reasons. The property was his self-earned and so Ayyasami had no right by birth to claim a share under the Hindu Law. Secondly Ayyasami had always been treated by Sami Thevan as his own son and brought up as such. Thirdly the fellow was not of sound mind and therefore not responsible for his deeds and debts!

As a result of the notice the misunderstanding touched a new high and Ayyasami and Dhanam left the Poondi family mansion and went to live in Orattur with her parents. Ayyasami hit back against his father by filing as criminal complaint charging Vaidyanatha with rioting, wrongful confinement, and trying to extract from him a release deed giving up all his claims to his father's estate. The case came up for hearing in May 1906 and was dismissed as baseless.

Years passed over the yonder blue horizon with the father and son living apart with some kind of peace. But Ayyasami had no inner peace. He went into inexplicable bouts of vicious temper and violent behavior. He abused his close relations and friends in filthy Tamil using profusely many choice two-letter words (the equivalent of four-letter words in English!). He threw stones and rocks at people for no particular reason other than being called to have a bath. He attacked his wife with glass. He broke bottles and even a cart owned by his in-laws. He refused to touch food and starved happily for days.

But Dhanam did not take it all to her heart. She was anxious to get back to Poondi and discussed the matter with close relations and family friends. But Vaidyanatha was in no mood to give in but the pressure from many sources was heavy and strong. At last in 1911 he was in a mood to let bygones be bygones. Terms of reconciliation were discussed for weeks with Dhanam asking for more and then some more. In September Ayyasami, Dhanam, and their two small kids left to live in the Poondi family mansion. There were conditions, of course, agreed by all concerned. Three really mattered. One was that all should live amicably for a specified time. In course of time there would be a partition of the estate. And the third was a bitter pill for Vaidyanatha and his circle. Thangababu should quit and live elsewhere! Dhanam refused to live under the same roof with that wild widow. Vaidyanatha was left with no choice than to agree to send the daughter out of the family home. The enraged woman went to live with relatives
threatening to teach Dhanam lessons in due course!

October 20,1911. Deepavali Day. The festival of lights. A day of rejoicing and rich repasts, of fun and frolic, fresh clothes and fireworks. The fond father invited his dear daughter to come home for the important festival, and Dhanam could raise no valid objection. Ayyasami did not care and he was in one of his fasting spells! Deepavali festival be damned he felt and sulked, and starved.

After the euphoria of the festival of lights was all over troubles surfaced once more with more vigor. After two days Dhanam and Thangababu clashed exchanging filthy abuses, so unlady-like, igniting insults and red-hot words and the screaming and screeching sessions went on and on till late at night. With tempers cooled somehow. all retired for the night....

Vaidyanatha, his wife Kanthimathi, and Ayyasami's little girl slept in an airy hall while Dhanam, her husband and a child lay in another part of the mansion, a smaller hall. The old lady Muttachi slept in a passage nearby.

Around 2 am, Muttachi heard-or, so she said later- feminine screams and cries,".. Ayyo ayyayoo... he is killing me... beating me..." coming from the next room. Recognizing the voice as Dhanam's she rushed, and to her horror, she saw Ayyasami standing- or sitting, as she said, later- with a bloody sickle, known in Tamil as 'aruval', beside the cot in which Dhanam lay dead with bloody wounds. Shocked the old lady screamed using more or less the same words she had heard earlier.

Minutes later Vaidyanatha, his wife and others came rushing and Muttachi exclaimed," ohohoh... Dhanam is dead.... he has killed!"

It was all over. Dhanam was gone. Murdered in bed. And then the day dawned-October 23- and Vaidyanatha sent his men in several directions, to call Sami Thevan, and to inform Dhanam's family at Orattur. The Orattur folks were told rather surprisingly that Dhanam had died of cholera! And not murdered. Such were the instructions of the mirasdar to his henchmen.

6 am. Sami Thevan arrived and saw his blue-eyed boy in bed beside the body of the ill-fated Dhanam. Ayyasami had a reddish cloth on and it had blood-stains. He was silent and answered no questions. He did not react when Vaidyanatha told his brother that his son had killed Dhanam.

Soon a Police Sub-inspector came and took charge of the body. He took long leisurely looks around the room making mental notes. The body lay on the cot and bench, with its feet resting on a stool. The face was turned upwards slightly to the right. The head rested on a pillow on the bench. The eyes were closed and mouth was shut. The hair was loose, wet with blood. The body seemed to be in peace and calm. There were injuries on the left side of the body, and on the chest and above. None at all on the right nor below the chest.

The police officer also noticed cuts and punctured wounds, one very deep on the left side of the neck, and also on the face and upper lip, left ear and upper regions of the chest. In all there were thirteen injuries which seemed to suggest that the killing was done with maniacal fury daubed with sheer wantonness.

He also saw blood. Plenty of it. On the pillow there was a 20-inch long stain wider in the middle, obviously spurted from the neck injury. Also on the bed, the mattress underneath, and on the floor.

There was a white cloth stained with blood lying on the floor near the cot. The garment worn by Ayyasami worn when he went to bed hours earlier. How did it reach the floor? How did Ayyasami come to wear that reddish cloth? Who changed it all? Ayyasami? Somebody else? Who?

The murder weapon, the 'aruval' was found in a corner of the hall on the floor. It had blood on the blade.

The police officer had a strange and disturbing feeling. The body, its position...the feet on the stool. It all seemed too neat. Too pat! Very orderly and neatly arranged. And the bed showed no signs of struggle. No disturbed bed-linen. Nothing. Was the killing done elsewhere and the body brought back to the bed and neatly laid? Who could have done it? The killer, or, killers? Could one man do all
that, or, were there more than one? Who?

The officer examined the inmates of the house, servants, and neighbors. He talked to Ayyasami but got nothing out of him. Later the Thashiladar, a petty official with magisterial powers entered the scene and questioned Ayyasami about the murder. He remained silent but pointed out to his father Vaidyanatha. But he did not elaborate
further.

The body was removed and sent for the post-mortem, and an inquest was held. At the end of it Ayyasami was arrested for the murder of his wife. Now for the first time he spoke and made a statement according to which he was absolutely innocent. The culprits were his father, his wife Kanthimathi, Thangababu, Somu and Kalyanam (Vaidyanatha’s sons), and some servants. They killed his wife. The first blow was given by Vaidyanatha with the aruval. Others held him dawn and took him away to another room while Dhanam was carried to the back yard. Later the body was brought back to the bed. He too was shifted back and placed near
the body.

The First Class Magistrate at Mannargudi took up the enquiry as part of the committal proceedings, and in his court the case took a dramatic turn. The judicial officer took the view that Ayyasami was not- and could not be- the culprit. In the circumstances the killing could not have been done by a single person. It would need more than one, surely. A stupid solitary fellow like Ayyasami with his feeble mind would have found it almost impossible to kill his wife who was no weakling. Suspicion pointed out its firm finger to the rural bigwig, Vaidyanatha. He hated his daughter-in-law, her brains, and her hold over his idiot son, and all the gossip she had spread about Thangababu and himself, her goading Ayyasami to demand a partition of the estate, and, making his life miserable. The cheeky bitch! So he had the motive to kill her. To do away with that damned daughter-in-law. And, the rural big shot had the clout to have his way and in Poondi his word was law. Killing anybody was no big deal for a man like Vaidyanatha...

So ran the magisterial reasoning, and he discharged Ayyasami finding him innocent. To the surprise of many and shock of quite a few he ordered the arrest of Vaidyanatha. This sudden development shook the entire Thanjavur district, and the mirasdar's arrest became the focus of gossip everywhere in that part of the world. The police arrested Kanthimathi, Thangababu, and some farm hands. Interestingly Somu and Kalyanam, the mirasdar's sons vamoosed and could not be traced.

The police traced a menial Thyagan who claimed that he knew all about the murder in his capacity as a participant. He made a confession and was taken as approver. He said that he was one of the killers along with his brother. They had acted under the instructions of their feudal master Vaidyanatha. On the fateful night they had carried Dhanam to the back yard of the mansion and under a sweet-lime tree in the presence of their master they had killed the woman. Ayyasami had been tied up earlier in a corner of the small hall. After the foul deed was done the body was brought back and neatly laid in bed. Ayyasami too was brought back and the feudal master raised hue and cry that Ayyasami had cut his wife and killed her...so ran his confession.

The trial began at the District and Sessions Court at Thanjavur and attracted wide attention. It was elevated to a public event by the rivals of the rich mirasdar. Pamphlets containing songs and poems describing the misdeeds, atrocities, and criminal acts alleged to have been by Vaidyanatha in the past were printed and circulated all over the district. Incest, rape, murder, sadistic beatings and more gruesome deeds found mention in the booklets. Large crowds collected inside the court hall at Thanjavur and cops had a tough time controlling them.

R. Satagopachariar, one of the top criminal lawyers of the Madras province defended the first accused Vaidyanatha assisted by members of the Thanjavur bar, and local lawyers appeared for the other accused who were small fry and the big shot's wife and widowed daughter.

Born in 1854 " Satagopa" as his friend and colleague at the Madras bar, and a legend among Indian lawyers, Eardly Norton called him with love and affection, worked hard to get his law degree helped by his mother, a poor struggling musician. Enrolled in 1879 he made his mark soon thanks to his forensic eloquence, a commodity almost unknown in Madras in those days especially among Indian lawyers, known as `native vakils.' Indeed Norton described his pal as " a silver-tongued orator, and a past master in the art of Queen Elizabethan oratory!"

Col. Hassel Wright, a Britisher and senior medical officer, was called as an expert witness for the defense. He felt that the injury on the neck of the victim, the most serious of them all would have rendered the victim unconscious. The position of the body and injuries being on the left showed that the killer was on the right. The number of injuries suggested that the killer was in a maniacal mood. One man could have done it, a man of an abnormal state of mind.

The learned Sessions judge disbelieved the approver's evidence as fanciful but felt that Vaidyanatha was responsible for the murder of> his daughter-in-law. He had the motive, the means, and the men at his disposal to dance to his tunes and carried out his wishes accordingly. There was also evidence to damn him. He had told people that Dhanam had died of cholera. Sami Thevan told the court in his evidence that his brother seemed over-anxious to cremate the body and offered Ayyasami a bribe of Rs. 30,000, to accept to the cremation. It was a sizeable fortune in that era! But the son had refused. In that community bodies are buried and never cremated. If so why did Vaidyanatha wish to burn the body? The reason was obvious.

The assessors returned as verdict a guilty against the accused. In the districts during the British regime, the members of the jury were known as assessors.

The Sessions judge accepted their verdict and awarded death sentence to Vaidyanatha, and lesser punishment to the other accused.

Vaidyanatha filed an appeal against the conviction in the Madras High Court and engaged Dr. S. Swaminathan to lead R. Satagopachariar and defend his case. A Bench consisting of Mr. Justice Bakewell and Mr. Justice T. Sadasiva Iyer heard the appeal during the first week of June 1912. C. F. Napier, a British Barrister practising in Madras appeared for the Crown-respondent.

Dr. Swaminathan, then at the height of his fame and name, fought tooth and nail and skin for his client. He raised many points to prove that his client was innocent. Vaidyanatha had a defective right arm, the consequence of a wrongly set bone fracture in the past, which prevented him from lifting it. So he could not have cut the victim, as claimed by Ayyasami. Besides, the nature and number of wounds on the body proved that the attack was the handiwork of a maniac, like Ayyasami.

Mr. Justice Bakewell was not convinced by the defense case, and in a lengthy judgement he confirmed the death sentence. The other judge Mr. Justice Sadasiva Iyer disagreed with his `learned brother' (as High Court judges referred to one another), and he wrote a separate judgement and acquitted the accused. In view of the difference of the judicial opinion the appeal was referred to a third judge, Mr. Justice C. Sankaran Nair (later Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair). He heard both sides and agreed with Mr. Justice Bakewell and confirmed the death sentence on Vaidyanatha.

It was then Dr. Swaminathan created legal history in Madras when he sent the `marathon cable' to the London solicitor. In June 1913 the appeal came up for hearing in London before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Sir Robert Finlay (later Lord Finlay) appeared for Vaidyanatha assisted by Dr. Swaminathan who went all the way to England. Such journeys were rare in those far off days. Besides, Brahmins, like Dr. Swaminathan were prohibited by their religious law from crossing the seas!

After four days of hearing the Privy Council agreed with Mr. Justice Sadasiva Iyer and acquitted Vaidyanatha.

The much-relieved and happy mirasdar of Poondi offered Dr. Swaminathan in addition to his fees a gift of 300 sovereigns of gold for his extra-ordinary services but the lawyer refused to accept it. He said he had only done his duty to his client for which he had been paid. However after much persuasion he chose to accept the gift and donated it to the Kalyani Hospital, Madras, run by Christian missionaries of south India.

Ninety-plus years have gone over the horizon since that dark night Dhanam met with a bloody end, and even today in the 21st century, folks of Thanjavur district and lawyers of Madras, especially old-timers still talk about and discuss the Poondi Murder Case. They argue over whoever killed that ill-fated daughter-in-law. Vaidyanatha? Ayyasami? Who? One can only wonder at this distance of time….

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