The mystery of the clock tower deaths

A century and a quarter after two Parsi girls fell to their death from the iconic Rajabai Clock Tower in Mumbai, the shocking incident continues to intrigue

On 25 April 1891, at about 4pm, Bachubai and Pherozebai fell to their death from Rajabai Clock Tower in Bombay University. Bachubai was the wife of Ardeshir Godrej, the founder of Godrej Brothers Co., and Pherozebai was his sister. Their bodies showed evidence of sexual assault—nail marks on breasts, legs and groins.

After a few weeks, on 8 July, one Maneckji Aslaji was arrested for attempted rape and murder and tried at the sessions court before being acquitted on 14 July owing to insufficient evidence. The acquittal was followed by major public outrage and appeals were made to reopen the trial.

The Bombay police were accused of hasty investigation and corruption. The case became a labyrinth of botched forensic data, missing evidence, hostile witnesses, confused testimonies and a major subject of contemporary social discourse.

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The search for the culprit

At first glance, there were clear signs that the two women had been sexually assaulted right before their death—several of the scratches even penetrated the skin on their breasts and thighs. Pherozebai’s hymen showed a slight rupture as well, which further strengthened the case for attempted rape.

Maneckji Aslaji was a suspect right from the start. The police were tipped off by Enty, an assistant managing clerk at Ms Conroy and Brown Solicitors, who said he had seen a fracas at the second floor of the tower between “two khojas (rich merchants) and two Parsi girls”. He said he even saw Maneckji intervening and his jacket was torn in the process.

On the evening of 25 April, Maneckji returned home in a victoria carriage accompanied by a friend who appeared deeply worried, according to Maneckji’s manservant Bala. Both their coats were torn. The clothes were put in the laundry basket.

Later that night the police repeatedly visited Maneckji’s house. Bala realized the clothes may bear connection to the Rajabai murders, so he tied them in a bundle and took it to khoja Ahmed Thooar and tried selling it to him for Rs5.

Thooar examined the clothes and found a pencilled note in the pocket that read “To Nensi Peru and Seth Nur Mohammed Suleman, Let it be known to you that you must come to Rajabai Tower this evening at 3pm and bring Rs40 with you. Don’t forget. Pay one rupee to the bearer of this note.”

Thooar took the bundle to a Marwari trader next door, who agreed to keep the bundle and give Bala the Rs5. The next day, Bala came and informed Thooar that he intended to use that bundle for blackmail.

Promptly, Thooar informed Jehangir B. Murzbaan, the editor of Gujarati newspaper Jam-e-Jamshed, who in turn contacted the officer investigating the case, Fremji. Bala was immediately arrested. The police, however, waited for 56 hours before visiting the aforementioned tradesman to retrieve the bundle. It had vanished in the meantime.

Witnesses ignored

Enty, who had been standing near the tower when the two women fell to their deaths, was one of the main eyewitnesses in the case. He had not been alone; his companion, Rattanji Aga, also saw the same thing. Oddly enough, neither was called in to give statements in court.

Another eyewitness, Henry Charles Shon, a professor of German, French and Russian at Bombay University, saw the bodies after they had fallen. He also saw Enty conversing with Maneckji and later with the police superintendent, McDermott. Shon even said he had seen McDermott and Maneckji speaking in private near a tree.

When he wanted to give testimony in the sessions court, McDermott told him “not to make a fool of himself”.

There were also two children whose testimonies directly implicated Maneckji, but they were completely ignored. Another eyewitness, Bhagwandas Ranchhoddas, was considered hostile because he had had an altercation with Maneckji in the past.

However, Ranchhoddas maintained that McDermott and Maneckji had offered him a Rs50 bribe to lie, and that when he refused to do so, his testimony was dismissed.

Several other important witnesses who were not cross-examined included Mullakbhoy Manikbhoy, Syed Lall and Prabhashankar, who were at the top of the tower right after the women had fallen.

Atmaram Babji, the university havildar, who had accompanied the women up to the tower, Gangaji Hiraji, another employee of the university who saw the women go up, and Hemchand Kachara, who also saw the women making their way up the staircase, were not called upon by the court.

And the witnesses who were called in court gave contradictory testimonies, though most were in favour of Maneckji. None of them, however, were cross-examined, as a matter of “kindness to the prisoner, who had not had the onus thrown upon him of calling them”.

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The police—McDermott, in particular—were accused of accepting a bribe of Rs5,000, a hefty sum in those days, from Maneckji, based on the account of Mohansingh Dhansingh, the driver of a victoria.

He claimed that McDermott had originally rented his victoria, and had picked up a havildar the driver knew by sight and then Maneckji. Dhansingh said he had overheard the conversation, including the offer of a bribe of Rs5,000 for McDermott. The havildar received another Rs500 for his services.

The driver added that he had even seen Maneckji count out the money and hand it to them, and that McDermott had assured that the money would be shared by other officers involved in the case.

The medical evidence

Meanwhile, the bodies had been examined by four Indian doctors and the official coroner, Sidney Smith. Early on in the investigation, Smith agreed with the other doctors that sexual assault was likely the case. However, he later changed his statement and maintained that a projecting buttress or gravel on the road caused the scratches on the women’s bodies.

When a dummy was thrown from the tower, though, it did not hit against any buttress; further, there were eyewitnesses who saw the fall and were certain that the bodies had not hit anything.

Smith then argued that the marks on the breasts were from the silver buttons on their waistcoats. Since there was determined to have been no actual penetration (the slight rupture of Pherozebai’s hymen was not definitive evidence, as it could have been caused by other factors) and both women had been virgins, despite physical evidence the idea of attempted rape and sexual assault was eventually dismissed.

It was Smith who was instrumental in influencing the court’s decision even when the Indian doctors disagreed with him and maintained that the women had been sexually assaulted. Maneckji was eventually acquitted by the sessions court.

Bachubai’s spectacles, headdress and kutsi (sacred thread) were missing; there were also rips from knee to waist on Pherozebai’s trousers. Rogue trees, jutting buttresses, opportunist buttons and immoral gravel received all the blame for their physical condition.

The aftermath

In November 1892, a petition signed by 40,000 people from various communities and professions was sent to Lee Warner, secretary to the government of India. The case was by then popularly referred to as the Rajabai Tower Mystery.

The petition requested the appointment of an independent committee to inquire into the case and file a fresh appeal against Maneckji in the Bombay high court. According to Warner, the appeal had two main flaws:

First, the petitioners had already decided that Maneckji was guilty. The petitioners appeared to be clueless about the ongoing investigations, and had assumed that the police had deliberately ignored some important evidence, he said.

The medical evidence may have been that of attempted rape before the autopsy, but that was a hypothesis, which was later found incorrect, Warner said.

Second, he added, since no prima facie case against Maneckji could be established, there was no reason to pursue it further. The police had established it was either accident or suicide, and the government agreed with the verdict.

The petitioners were accused of pandering to hearsay, being misled by prejudice and racism, and were even told that baseless allegation of bribery could be viewed as perjury.

The suicide accusations had put the focus on the Godrej family. On 28 August 1891, in a letter to the editor to The Times of India, Ardeshir Godrej wrote about the poor quality of investigation of the case, but his main concern was to reiterate that there had been absolutely no reason for the women to have committed suicide.

He added that a Gujarati newspaper had published slander about the family based on the account of one Kerawalla, a man completely unknown to their family. However, his wife Bachubai’s virginity was bound to raise questions (the couple had been childless), and the authorities further used that to establish the case for suicide.

The appeals did not cease—the next petition had 60,000 signatures, and it focused on the signed testimonies of Thooar and the victoria driver Dhansingh. What followed was a very interesting debate between the petitioners and Warner about the nature of evidence.

The petitioners argued that they had obtained signed testimonies from all the witnesses. Warner argued that the people who had attested the testimonies were biased and had already decided that Maneckji was guilty. He totally negated the driver’s testimony as lacking any credibility. He further added that the two alleged khojas that the eyewitnesses had seen actually never existed.

Murzbaan was accused of being an enemy of one of the investigating officers in the case, inspector Fremji. This was allegedly the reason he had created witnesses to malign the police force and humiliate the inspector. Shon, Enty, Aga and Thooar were all declared as hostile witnesses who had personal scores to settle with the police.

Warner also added that the financial situation of some of the witnesses showed that they could easily have been bribed.

Ranchhoddas, it was pointed out, had had an altercation with his father, it showed he lacked character and integrity; therefore, his testimony was of no value.

Two years after the case, in 1893, Dhansingh admitted to lying about the bribery conversation in his victoria. He claimed he was bribed by a Parsi man to tell his story, according to an article in the Amrita Bazar Patrika. Warner openly declared that the Parsi baronets were famous for their notoriety and had forced others to sign the petition.

The case got plenty of attention, primarily because influential people were involved. It was even discussed in the British parliament, but the verdict of suicide or accident was never contested. The case has still stayed in the public memory, particularly among the Bombay Parsi community. While we will never know what actually happened on 25 April, the incident continues to intrigue us even today.

Sources: British Library, India papers, L/PJ/6/304 (1432) and L/PJ/6/329 (1672). Kaiser-e-Hind (1891-92).

Aditi Sen is a historian based at Queen’s University, Canada.

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