"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 28, 2021

Plague Take Him: India's Strangest Murder Plot

Biological warfare is something we think of as happening on a mass scale: rogue nations or terrorist groups seeking to sicken a large number of people.  However, the history of true crime contains a few instances of individuals seeking to murder a specific person by infecting them with a disease.  As viruses and bacteria are tricky things, such efforts are usually unsuccessful.  A tragic exception was a once-notorious murder case which took place in 1930s India.

The Pandey family was the wealthiest landowning clan in India’s Pakur district.  The head of the family, Pratapendra Chandra Pandey, had four children from his two marriages:  Vinayendra and Kananbala with his first wife, and Amarendra and Bonobala with his second.  Sadly, Pratapendra’s second wife died soon after her second child, Amarendra, was born.  His aunt, Suryavati Devi, was a childless widow, but she brought up the orphaned Amarendra as if he were her own.  The two were as close as any mother and son could be.

In 1929, Pratapendra died, leaving his substantial estate to be equally divided between his sons Vinayendra and Amarendra.  As the 15-year-old Amarendra was still a minor, his 22-year-old half-brother was entrusted with Amarendra’s share until the boy reached the age of 18.

The two half-brothers were so different, it was difficult for people to imagine they had the same father.  Vinayendra was a playboy, obsessed with drinking, women, and living the high life.  He cared for nothing except his own dissolute pleasures.  Amarendra, on the other hand, was clean-cut, gentlemanly, studious, and moral.  It should not be surprising which of the boys was more popular among the people of Pakur.

In 1932, Amarendra, who was in his last year of college, turned 18.  As he was under no illusions about his half-brother’s nature, he felt it prudent to get his hands on his share of the estate as soon as possible.  The first thing he did after reaching adulthood was to fire off a letter to his sibling demanding what was now legally his.

Unsurprisingly, Vinayendra was in no hurry to turn over the property, but he came to the disagreeable realization that he had no choice in the matter.  He eventually relinquished half of the estate, but not before an increasingly acrimonious exchange of letters that left the brothers permanently estranged.

Shortly after the unpleasant business was concluded, Amarendra paid a visit to Suryaveti.  To their surprise--and, no doubt, dismay--Vinayendra also appeared on the scene.  One evening, Vinayendra said to his brother, “Babu [the family nickname for Amarendra], come let’s go on a stroll.”  After all that had passed between them, Amarendra didn’t relish the thought, but felt it would be impolite to refuse.

During their walk, Vinayendra suddenly pulled a pair of pince-nez glasses from his pocket, saying they were a present for his brother.  He insisted that Amarendra put them on immediately.  In fact, he was so determined his brother wear the glasses at once that he jammed them on Amarendra’s face with such force that his nose was slightly cut.  Mission accomplished, Vinayendra immediately returned to his home in Calcutta.  Amarendra found the episode unsettling.  He had the feeling his wayward sibling was up to no good, but he couldn’t imagine what that could be.

Amarendra got his first clue three days later, when his face began to swell dramatically.  His doctor diagnosed tetanus, and immediately injected him with antidotes.  When Vinayendra heard of his brother’s illness, he sent a young doctor, Taranath Bhattacharya, to examine the patient.  However, Amarendra’s physicians--who were keeping him under a round-the-clock guard--would not let Bhattacharya anywhere near the sickbed.  They were obviously not fools.

Then, Vinayendra himself turned up, accompanied by another doctor, Durgaratan Dhar.  Dr. Dhar--an experienced physician of some repute--was able to persuade the doctors to inject Amarendra with something he claimed was a highly effective new medicine.  Then he and Vinayendra left, citing a medical emergency which required the good doctor’s immediate attention.

Whatever it was Dr. Dhar gave Amarendra, it caused a sudden deterioration in his condition.  He almost died, but eventually managed to pull through.  Unbelievably enough, after this near-disaster, Vinayendra had the effrontery to return with a third doctor, Shibapada Bhattacharya.  Unsurprisingly, Amarendra’s outraged family and friends would not let them anywhere near the patient.

Amarendra may have survived these mysterious assaults, but his health was completely broken.  For months, this young man who had been a health and fitness fanatic continued to suffer from debilitating weakness.  He had little appetite, endured dizzy spells, and spent much of his time in bed, unable to even read.  He eventually pulled himself together enough to return to his work in Pakur, but he remained a shadow of what he had once been.

On November 18, 1933, Amarendra received a telegram signed with the name of Suryavati Devi.  It read, “Property levy-related legal matters.  Rush to Calcutta.”  When he arrived, he found he was the victim of a hoax.  Suryavati was not even in Calcutta, and she had sent no such message.  When Amarendra told her what had happened, she was terrified for her beloved nephew.  They both could make an educated guess who had sent the bogus telegram.  Suryavati begged him not to let Vinayendra anywhere near him.  They knew some further blow was coming, but it was a mystery what form the blow would take.

During this whole period, Vinayendra--that busy, busy man--made several failed attempts at forging Amarendra’s signature in order to withdraw most of the money in their joint bank account.  Naturally, when Amarendra heard of this, it did nothing to restore family harmony.

On November 25, Amarendra planned to leave Calcutta and return to Pakur the next morning.  That evening, Vinayendra visited his lodgings, seeming to be the epitome of the loving, caring older brother.  He was overflowing with sympathy, compassion, and concern over his sibling’s health.  Amarendra was far from being stupid enough to fall for any of this, but when Vinayendra solicitously asked him the departure time of his train the next day, he saw no reason not to tell him.  Having gotten this information, Vinayendra was satisfied, and left.

On the morning of the 26th, a group of Amarendra’s family and friends accompanied him to the Howrah Railway Station.  They were appalled to see Vinayendra waiting for them.  “What is this scum doing here?” someone asked.  Amarendra shrugged it off.  After all, they were in a public place, surrounded by people.  What could he do?  Sadly, he soon found out.  A few moments later, a stranger wrapped in a dirty shawl dashed up, pricked Amarendra’s arm with some needle-like object, and disappeared into the crowd before anyone had time to react.  When Amarendra checked his wound, he saw a colorless liquid seeping out, but otherwise the injury seemed negligible.  His companions were frantic with fear, and begged him to see a doctor at once.

Vinayendra, on the other hand, saw no need to rush.  “You can visit a doctor on reaching Pakur, can’t you?” he asked his brother.  He added proudly, “We are scions of the Pakur zamindari [landowners.]  We aren’t worried about silly things like ordinary people.”

Amarendra was torn about what to do.  He realized the wisdom of seeing a doctor, but he had important business in Pakur, and a delay might jeopardize matters.  He finally decided to board the train and seek medical attention at the end of his journey.

During the train ride, his sister Bonobala was particularly distressed by what happened.  She remembered that she had seen the man in the dirty shawl before.  When she and Amarendra attended the cinema the week before, the stranger had been wandering aimlessly around the ticket counter.

Bonabala’s worst fears soon came true.  By the time the train arrived in Pakur, Amarendra was seriously ill.  The injured arm was swollen, his temperature had reached 105 degrees, and his blood pressure and heartbeat were shooting up and down.  He was rushed to Calcutta for the best medical treatment possible.  A blood culture was done, in the hopes of finding the cause for this dramatic illness.

Tragically, Amarendra was beyond help.  On December 3, he fell into a coma, and died the following day.  The day after his death, the results of the blood culture arrived.  His doctors were horrified to learn that Amarendra had died of bubonic plague.

Howrah Railway Station in 1945

Since it appeared that the unfortunate young man had died of dreadful, but perfectly natural, causes, the doctors felt that no autopsy was required, and the body was cremated.  Throughout the cremation services, Vinayendra--required by protocol to act as chief mourner--sobbed despondently and appeared the image of grief.

Amarendra’s distraught family and friends refused to let the matter rest.  They were certain he had been murdered, and they were equally sure who was responsible.  They had just one problem: how to prove it?  His grieving relatives went to the Calcutta Police and described the sinister chain of events which led up to Amarendra’s death.  They acknowledged that they did not have sufficient evidence to lodge a formal complaint, but they were certain that if only detectives would agree to do a little quiet snooping on Vinayendra, some interesting things would turn up.

Many doctors in Calcutta were also unconvinced Amarendra’s death was a natural one, particularly after they learned of the pricking episode at the train station.  They wrote a joint letter to the Director of Tropical Medicine, asking if it would be possible to inject someone with plague bacilli in amounts sufficient to cause illness and death.  The affirmative reply convinced them that the young man had indeed been murdered.  However, the doctors were puzzled to learn that the plague bacilli was unavailable in Calcutta.  The only place in India where it was stored was the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing in Bombay.

After the revelations in the Tropical Medicine report, an official complaint was lodged with the police against Vinayendra, the two Dr. Bhattacharyas, Dr. Dhar, and the unknown man who had stabbed Amarendra at the train station.  When Vinayendra heard of this, he tried to flee the country, but was nabbed at a train station.  The others were also soon arrested, except for the man in the dirty shawl, who could not be found.  Vinayendra eventually admitted that he had sent the man to the cinema in order to identify Amarendra, but he stubbornly refused to give the assassin’s name, or any other information about him.

When in police custody, Vinayendra was persuaded to tell all.  He admitted that he had begun planning his brother’s murder literally since the day he received Amarendra’s demand for his share of the estate.  After the tetanus serum on the pince-nez glasses failed to do the trick, Vinayendra realized he needed the aid of a more reliably fatal disease, at which point he enlisted the aid of Taranath Bhattacharya.

Taranath, it turned out, wasn’t really a doctor; merely a research assistant in a medical supply laboratory.  He was the one who thought of using bubonic plague as a foolproof murder weapon.  He sent a telegram to the Haffkine Institute posing as a scientist researching bacteria-borne diseases.  He asked them to send him a sample of plague bacilli for use in his work.  Wisely, the Institute replied that they would do no such thing without the permission of the surgeon-general of Calcutta.  Vinayendra paid Dr. Shibapada Bhattacharya and Dr. Dhar to write the Institute on his behalf.  The institution still turned them down.

As a murderer, Vinayendra gets points for stick-to-itiveness and an ability to think outside the box.  However, his style definitely lacked subtlety.  He had fallen in love with the exciting possibilities of bubonic plague, and was not going to give it up easily.  He traveled to Bombay and made the acquaintance of two doctors from the Haffkine Institute.  For days, he wined and dined them, set them up in an expensive hotel, and generally encouraged them to live it up. As an expression of their gratitude, the doctors agreed to smuggle a vial of live plague culture out of the Institute.

The prosecution now knew not only what had killed Amarendra, but how he had been killed.  Although Vinayendra spent a small fortune on his defense, the outcome was never really in doubt.  The lower court sentenced Vinayendra and Taranath Bhattacharya to death by hanging.  Dr. Dhar and Dr. Bhattacharya were both acquitted.  However, the higher court lessened Vinayendra’s punishment to life in prison.  After India gained its independence eleven years later, political prisoners were granted amnesty.  Although Vinayendra hardly fell into that category, he somehow managed to obtain his release, as well.  He returned to Pakur, where his increasing mental instability led to many disputes with his relatives.  One day, he marched into the family mansion with a gun, threatening to kill everyone present.  The subsequent standoff with the police ended when he was shot dead.

The man who actually gave the fatal plague injection was never traced.  It was theorized that he had managed to elude the police dragnet long enough to leave the country, but those who knew Vinayendra best believed that he had had the assassin killed, to ensure he would never talk.

Vinayendra Pandey was just that kind of guy.

[Note: many thanks to @Unudurti on Twitter for bringing this bizarre case to my attention.]


  1. Killing someone with a disease that was no longer that common wasn’t exactly genius, but, as you wrote, Vinayendra had fallen in love with the idea. It’s just as well he eventually got what he deserved - hopefully without having the opportunity to kill anyone else in the interval.

    1. Yes, one of the first things that made some people suspicious about Amarendra's death was the fact that there had been no recorded cases of the plague anywhere in the region for quite some time.

  2. An earlier version of the 1978 umbrella poisoning in London.


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