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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1933

Podcast 128: The Prick of Death

The Howrah railway station sits just across the Hoogly river from Calcutta and is considered to be the busiest station in India. It was here, on November 26, 1933, that Amarendra Chandra Pande arrived as he began his journey from Calcutta to his family home in Pakur. He was accompanied by several female relatives, most important of which was his aunt, a rich widow named Rani Surjabati. Also, there to see Amar off was his half-brother Benoyendra, which was an unusual act of kindness for him. Benoy was eleven years older than Amar and the two had little in common. While the older Benoy was a free-spending playboy and kind of the black sheep of the family, Amar was the one who was loved and respected by all.

Just as Amar’s party moved through the booking area of the station, a man walking in the opposite direction suddenly brushed up against him. Detecting a sharp sting in his right arm, Amar blurted, “Someone has pricked me.” His aunt would later testify that “A short, black man with an oval face brushed up against him.”

Amar rolled up his sleeve to examine the wound. While the puncture was small, a colorless liquid was oozing out. Nearly all of those in his entourage expressed concern. It was suggested that he should cancel his planned trip and immediately seek medical attention. His brother Benoy was the only one who didn’t seem concerned at all. He made light of the injury as he grabbed Amar’s arm and began to massage the puncture site.

Over the course of the entire train ride to Pakur, his relatives continued to push Amar to change his mind and see a doctor. A few days later he finally agreed and took a train back to Calcutta to do just that. Upon examination, the doctor noted that the pricked spot appeared to be “something like the mark of a hypodermic needle.” A blood sample was taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

Howrah Railway Station circa 1945
The scene of the crime. Howrah Railway Station circa 1945. Image from Wikimedia.

Amar quickly took a turn for the worse. He developed a high fever and his tongue blackened as his face, groin, and armpits began to swell. Amarandra would not recover and passed away on December 4, 1933. The task of cremating Amar’s body fell upon his irresponsible brother Benoy and, having had little respect for his younger brother, he opted to bribe an official to have the body disposed of quickly. As a result, an autopsy was never performed.

Several days later the results of that blood sample were finally reported. Amar had died from bubonic plague and it was thought that he had been infected when that unidentified man pricked him in the arm at Howrah station. His death was now believed to be a murder.

The Black Death had all been thought eradicated in 1933. The last person thought infected in the region had passed away several years prior. And, if Amar was, in fact, injected with the plague, one had to question where one could obtain such a deadly bacterium.

It turns out that there was only one place: Since 1896, all research related to the plague in India was strictly controlled by the Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai today). Under absolutely no circumstance would the Institute supply plague cultures to private companies or individuals.

As investigators scoured through the Institute’s records, one name stood out among the rest. His name was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharjee and he had tried on multiple occasions to obtain a viable culture of the plague to test a theory that he had. Further digging uncovered the fact that Taranath’s closest friend was none other than Benoyendra Pande, Amar’s half-brother.

Suddenly, all of the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together…

Benoy was twenty-seven and Amar sixteen years of age when their wealthy father died in 1929. The estate was split somewhat equally between the two brothers and included a significant annual income from the rental of real estate. Benoy was a known partier who generously shared his lifestyle with his close friends, of which Taranath, the doctor, was a recipient. Of course, to call any of them close friends was a bit of an exaggeration. They were more like parasites who always lived in fear that their source of easy money was about to be cut off.

When Amar turned eighteen in 1931, he began to take steps to regain control of his portion of his estate, which had been handled by the irresponsible Benoy until then. Benoy fought him at every step along the way. At some point, Benoy had become so determined to gain possession of his brother’s money that his close friends began to suggest ways to bump off Amar. It was suggested that Amar be pushed in front of a moving train or that Benoy hire some thug to strangle Amar, but it would be Taranath who offered up what he felt would be the perfect crime. To avoid arousing suspicion, Taranath stated that Amar needed to die of natural causes. The plague was the perfect choice.

The doctor knew of about a dozen laboratories in India where the bacilli were being cultured. He wrote to each one stating his qualifications, sometimes greatly exaggerated them, and explaining the testing that he wished to do. While a few were willing to allow him to do his tests at their facilities, none were willing to allow the cultures or the infected rats out of the laboratory.

Having been unable to obtain a plague culture, it was alleged that Taranath set his sights on the next best thing: tetanus. Since it was unlikely to cause an epidemic, he concluded that it would be less closely guarded and far easier to obtain.

Their plan was simple: Benoy obtained a pair of glasses and proceeded to smear the tetanus germs across its nosepiece. While on a family vacation in the fall of 1932, he asked Amar to go for a short walk. The conversation turned to that of eyeglasses and Amar agreed to try them on. Just at the eyeglasses were settling into place, Benoy jammed them down on Amar’s nose and pierced the skin.

The next day, Amar was taken to a local doctor and diagnosed with tetanus. His aunt wired Benoy and requested that he bring the family physician. Yet, when Benoy arrived, he had brought Taranath instead. Taranath insisted that the administration of the tetanus antitoxin be stopped and injections of morphine be used instead. The local doctor held his ground and refused to give in.

Frustrated, Benoy soon showed up with another doctor, Dr. Dhar, who injected Amar with a serum that he had obtained in Calcutta. He would soon develop an abscess at this site of this injection. Later, Benoy arrived with both Dr. Dhar and Taranath in tow to administer additional selected medicines. By this time, Amar’s aunt and sisters had grown suspicious of Benoy’s actions and would not allow his personal doctors to treat Amar. Amar would slowly regain his health over the next few months, but in the end, it is said that he was left with a permanently damaged heart.

With the tetanus infection having failed, Benoy and Taranath returned to their original plan. They would once again attempt to obtain a plague culture.

On April 30, 1933, Benoy traveled to Bombay to meet with a doctor at the Haffkine Institute. He said that he had been sent in advance to find out whether the institute would allow a fellow doctor, as if he were one, to use their facilities to test a curative drug for the plague. He was informed that approval of the Institute’s director would be required.

In May, Taranth finally found a doctor who was willing to work with him, but under no circumstance was Taranth allowed to handle the plague culture. When his experiment failed, the doctor that he had been working under refused to secure a second culture for testing.

On July 1st, Benoy was once again in Bombay waving wads of cash in an effort to convince two veterinarians to obtain a plague culture from the Haffkine Institute. They also refused.

Shortly after this rejection, Benoy found a doctor at the Arthur Road (now Kasturba) Hospital who took interest in Taranath’s research. He assigned an assistant to work with Taranath and a live plague culture was obtained from the Haffkine Institute. Benoy and Taranath purchased some white rats from a bird dealer and the supposed testing began, although the assistant later testified that he never observed any type of medicine ever being applied. On July 12th, Taranath told the assistant that he had urgent work that he needed to attend to back in Calcutta and needed to leave right away. He would not return. That night, both Taranath and Benoy skipped town.

It was around this time that Benoy attempted to obtain a life insurance policy worth 51,000 rupees on his brother with the stipulation that the policy not be contested after Amar’s death. He was denied coverage.

With the plague culture now in their possession, Benoy needed to lure Amar back to Calcutta. He tried to persuade his aunt to send a telegram, but she outright refused. So, he sent a bogus message using her name instead. Amar arrived in Calcutta on November 19, 1933.

While he was there, Amar went to the theater with five female relatives. Benoy was spotted hovering around the premises with a man whose description was nearly identical to that of the man who fatally pricked Amar. It was thought that the man had been hired by Benoy to administer that shot-in-the-arm that evening but it was not done because Amar was too closely surrounded by his relatives when they emerged from the theater. Instead, Benoy and that unknown assailant would complete their dastardly deed a few days later at the railroad station.

It took investigators about ten weeks to piece this entire sequence of events together. Benoy was arrested on February 16, 1934, followed by Taranath two days later. Also charged with the murder were Dr. Dhar, who had administered that fake dose of tetanus antiserum and Dr. Sivapada Bhattacharjee, who wrote out the death certificate claiming that Amar had died from sepsis pneumonia.

During the trial, eighty-five witnesses were called to testify and more than three-hundred exhibits were introduced. The prosecutor stated that the case was “unparalleled in the annals of crime of India in its enormity and well-planned scientific design.”

It took the jury just four hours to unanimously find Benoy and Taranath guilty of murder and recommended mercy, while the other two doctors were acquitted of the charges. The judge stated, “This is the coldest-blooded crime I have ever come across” and, on February 16, 1935 – one year to the day after Benoy’s arrest – the two men were sentenced to death.

An appeal was immediately filed. On January 9, 1936, the lower court’s decision was affirmed, but the decision was made to set aside the death sentences. Instead, Benoy and Taranath were sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Podcast 127: The Case of the Doctor-Doctor Kidnapping

During the early morning hours of July 12, 1933, a Northern Pacific passenger train that was headed for Duluth, Minnesota sideswiped a car that had been on the track approximately 4-miles (6.4 km) north of St. Paul. The train was brought to an immediate halt and the train crew ran over to offer assistance.

The sedan itself suffered minimal damage: As the train pushed the car into a ditch, its front fender and headlight were smashed in.

Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found.
Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found. From the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The driver, on the other hand, was in far worse condition. Later identified as 45-year-old Dr. (Edward John) E. J. Engberg, the Secretary of the State Board of Medical Examiners, he was unconscious and bleeding from his mouth. A rusty .32 caliber revolver with its handle taped was found lying on the floor of the car between his feet. Two shots had been fired through the window and side of the sedan. In the back seat, police found a pair of surgeon’s rubber gloves, an ether mask, and a bloody towel. Extra bullets and a black mask were found in the pockets of his coat.

Dr.  E. J. Engberg
Image of Dr. E. J. Engberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

The car that Dr. Engberg was found was owned by 34-year-old Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg, a local chiropractor. Police found the chiropractor lying unconscious in a ditch about 0.25 miles (0.4 km) away with a bullet wound in his ear.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that the two men had never met each other before. Yet, their lives would cross paths in such an unusual way that the story would be told on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

After regaining consciousness, Engberg – the doctor – told police that he had received a call at his home the previous Friday night to come to the aid of a patient. This was not unusual at a time when doctors still made housecalls, but the doctor later came home and told his wife that he had been unable to locate the patient. A call received the next day said that another doctor had treated the patient, but that Engberg’s services would still be needed in the future.

Map of the crime.
This map showing the location of the crime is from the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The doctor received another call at 8:30 P. M. on Tuesday, July 11th, the evening before he was knocked unconscious by the train. He drove in his automobile to the specified location where “The man leaped into my car. He stuck a gun against my side and warned me that I would not be harmed if I did as he directed. We drove a while and then met a car with other men.” Dr. Engberg told the police, “I asked what they wanted me to do and was told I was expected to perform a surgical operation on a man being held captive. Of course, I refused. I did not even see the man they wanted to be the victim of that mutilation.”

After his refusal, what was believed to have been an ether-soaked towel was wrapped around Dr. Engberg’s head and he lost consciousness. Physicians who later treated Dr. Engberg at the hospital stated that he had been forcibly injected by a hypodermic needle.

Of course, the intended target of the surgical mutilation chiropractor Dr. Hedberg. He told a similar story of being lured from his home by a telephone call seeking medical help. After arriving at the specified location, he was seized by three men. One wrapped a towel around his head as two others pressed their guns against him. Just as with Dr. Engberg, chiropractor Hedberg was injected with anesthesia and fell unconscious.

Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg
Image of Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

When the effects of the anesthesia began to wear off, the chiropractor reached up, turned off the car’s ignition, and tossed the keys outside of the automobile. This did not go over well with his captors and he ended up in a fight with one of them. As the tussle continued, chiropractor Hedberg reached for the door latch and the two fell out on to the road where he was briefly knocked unconscious. As he came to, he again struggled with his captors, at which point they fired two shots, one striking him in the earlobe. Believing that Hedberg’s wound had been fatal, they left his body lying in a ditch and drove off. Their next stop was to place Dr. Engberg in the car, set him up so that it looked like he had committed the attack on the chiropractor, and they then left him in the car awaiting the collision with the train.

As police continued their investigation, they learned that chiropractor Hedberg had been visited in his office on July 5th by a woman who identified herself as Miss Irene Plazo. She requested that he perform an illegal operation and offered Hedberg $15 (nearly $300 today). She commented, “and there’s a lot more where this came from.” Hedberg soon learned that Miss Plazo had given him both a fictitious name and address and he refused to take part in whatever she had planned.

Mrs. Hedberg told police that, in addition to Miss Plazo showing up at her husband’s office, he had been receiving threatening phone calls and began to fear for his life. Just in case something should happen, he opted to take out a $30,000 (approximately $590,000 today) life insurance policy. Mrs. Hedberg commented, “I knew Dr. Hedberg was worried about something. There’s something crooked. I knew it would happen.”

Dr. Hedberg's home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul
Image of Dr. Hedberg’s home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune

The St. Paul police thought that this whole series of events could be the work of one of the chiropractor’s disgruntled patients. They began to scour his patient records to see if they could find any clues as to who may have engineered this bizarre plot.

Fast forward a little more than five weeks to Saturday, August 19, 1933. Chiropractor Hedberg called to his wife stating that he would be home in a half-hour but never arrived. A brakeman in the yards of the Chicago Great Western Railway spotted him early Sunday morning wandering between boxcars and warned Hedberg to stay off the tracks.

Early Monday morning, the police received an anonymous call that there was an injured man lying on the ground in the railroad yards. When they arrived, they discovered Hedberg in a semi-conscious state with five needle marks in his right arm. He had been injected with the barbiturate sodium amytal, the same drug believed to have been used on Dr. Engberg in that earlier attack.

While chiropractor Hedberg was in the hospital recovering, police announced that they had identified him as the sole assailant who had drugged Dr. Engberg. Officials initially considered a sanity hearing, but ultimately decided to file charges of kidnapping and intent to kill against the chiropractor.

The big question is why would chiropractor Hedberg want to kill Dr. Engberg? The two had clearly never met before. It turns out that Hedberg had been ordered by an attorney representing the State Board of Medical Examiners to remove a sign that read “physician” from a window in his chiropractic office. Hedberg became enraged and refused to remove the sign. Instead, he painted the word “chiropractor” above it in small letters above the word physician. Since Dr. Engberg was the secretary for the medical examiners’ board, Hedberg held him personally responsible.

Location of the original crime.
Location of the original crime. The dashed arrow points to the location where Dr. Engberg was found after the train hit the car. Image appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Hedberg pleaded not guilty to the charges and the trial was scheduled for October 24, 1933. When Dr. Engberg was asked if Hedberg was the man who had attacked him, he replied, “Not a shadow of a doubt.” The chiropractor took the stand and stuck to his story of being attacked by several men. His wife told the court of the mysterious phone calls and that her husband had told her at one point that “lots of funny things have happened lately.”

As testimony neared its conclusion, one of the jurors was declared insane and dismissed. The decision was made to continue with just eleven jurors. On November 8th, two weeks after the trial had begun, the jury needed just three hours to issue their verdict: Hedberg was acquitted and sent home a free man.

Did he do it? I guess we will never know. The evidence seemed highly stacked against Hedberg, yet a jury of his peers concluded that he was innocent of the charges. In addition to having served as president of the Minnesota Chiropractic Association, he served twenty years on the board of directors for the Logan College of Chiropractic. He passed away on August 29, 1968 at 79 years of age.

As for Dr. Engberg, he would spend 31 years as the superintendent of the Faribault State School and Hospital before retiring in 1968. He was 83-years-old when he died on July 18, 1971.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

6-Year-Old Goes on a Buying Spree

On April 29th 1933, 6-year-old Bertha Deshefy, who resided at 317 Nepperhan Avenue in Yonkers, NY, decided to go on a spending spree. In just four short hours, Bertha managed to purchase $110 (that’s approximately $2,100 today) worth of candy, ice cream, and toys at stores in her neighborhood.

Bertha started her buying spree with the help of her friend Helen Semendie, but pretty soon more and more “friends” were helping her. Some of these friends, if you can call them that, spent her money on slot machines in an effort to win various prizes.

This image of 
Bertha Deshefy appeared on page 5 of the June 4, 1933 publication of the Salt Lake Tribune’s Magazine Section.

David Astor, a store proprietor at 218 Warburton Avenue became suspicious when he saw such a young child with nearly $20 on her. He called police and soon dad was notified.

It turns out that Dad had been saving the money at home and Bertha had found the hidden stash. She blew through $110 of the $130 originally in the money roll.

“You just can’t keep up with this younger generation,” said police Sergeant William Coney. He continued, “They are stepping faster than ever.”

 

Le Mars Trilogy: Part 2 – Farmers in Revolt

Useless Information Podcast
The Great Depression was an awful time for farmers in Iowa. It culminated with the near hanging of a judge in Le Mars. It just happens that the farm involved was owned by the T.M. Zink estate, the same man who left his savings for the establishment of a womanless library. Continue Reading