An Assassination in the Archive

Opening Up the Body’ is a Wellcome-funded project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1921. This post was written by Project Archivist Natasha Shillingford.

While cataloguing the 1909 volume of post mortem case books of St George’s Hospital, we came across the post mortem examination of Cawas Lalcaca, a Medico. The cause of death was listed as ‘Bullet wound in back perforating lung, diaphragm, liver, mesentery, intestines and ilium. 2nd bullet wound in right chest.’  The medical case notes record that the ‘Patient was murdered on July 1 at the same time as Sir William Curzon Wyllie at the Imperial Institute by an Indian fanatic named Dhingra, who was subsequently executed at Pentonville.’

Photo of post mortem PM/1909/223.
PM/1909/223. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

What happened on that fateful night to result in the murder of two men?

A reception had been given at the Imperial Institute on behalf of the National Indian Association. It was attended by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, K.C.I.E, C.V.O, Political Aide-de-Camp to Viscount Morley, Secretary of State for India and his wife, Lady Wyllie.

The Globe newspaper reported on the 2nd July that “The occasion passed without incident until the close of proceedings. Sir Curzon was descending the staircase prior to leaving, Lady Wyllie having, in the meantime, descended to the cloakroom to fetch her wraps. Descending the staircase near Sir Curzon was Dr. Cawas Lalcaca.

Then suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye as it were, and to the stupefaction of those around, shots rang out, and Sir Curzon fell on his back on the stairs. An Indian student was standing in front holding a smoking revolver. One bullet had shattered Sir Curzon’s right eye; another bullet had pierced his face just below the other eye. Dr. Cawas Lalcaca fell with a bullet through his chest.”

There were a number of doctors among the guests, and they attended the victims, but “it was at once seen, however, that Sir Curzon’s fate was sealed and life was certified to be extinct. In the case of Dr. Cawas Lalcaca hopes were entertained of his ultimate recovery, and he was conveyed to St George’s Hospital, but died almost immediately.”

An eyewitness at the scene said that Dr. Lalcaca had previously been speaking to Sir Curzon Wyllie, and he was “of the opinion that he must have noticed the actions of the assassin just as he was about to fire, and thrust himself before Sir Curzon Wyllie, and thus received his death wound.”

Photo of post moretem PM/1909/223
PM/1909/223. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

The morbid appearances in the post mortem examination at St George’s Hospital reveal the extent of Dr. Lalcaca’s injuries. The external description of the body describes the locations and entry of the bullets.

Meanwhile, the assassin was apprehended at the scene and escorted to Walton Street Police Station. The Globe newspaper reported that “the prisoner, stated to be a Parsee, is apparently about 25 years of age. Not of powerful physique, but mild-mannered, cool and self-possessed, his hair black, he was wearing gold spectacles, and a turban, which in the enactment of the tragedy fell off.” The motive of the crime was believed to be political, and in addition to the revolver which he fired, he had a further revolver, a long knife and a dagger on his person. His name was given as Madan Lal Dhingra, a student in Engineering at University College.

The Globe newspaper reported that when asked if he had anything to say, the prisoner replied, “The only thing I want to say is there was no wilful murder in the case of Dr. Lalcaca. I did not know him at all. When he advanced to take me I only fired in self-defence.”

An inquest on the body of Dr. Lalcaca was held at Westminster Coroner’s Court and was reported in the London and China Express, 9th July 1909.

It stated that Dr. Lalcaca was a native of Allahabad but resided in Bombay, later at Shanghai. He was a doctor of medicine and had been in England since June 8th. A friend described him as a “fine looking Indian, slightly over medium height, with a handsome bronze countenance, of a genial bearing, and refined appearance.”

The Coroner stated that it was a clear case of wilful murder by Dhingra or Dr. Lalcaca. He said that it was true that Dhingra stated that his intentions were not against Dr. Lalcaca and it was an act of self-defence, but that was not an excuse for murder. The Jury returned a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder’.

So, what was Dhingra’s motive for the attack on Curzon? The Christchurch Times reported on 10th July 1909 that a brother of Dhingra had written to Sir Curzon Wyllie asking if he would offer Dhingra some advice, as “the family feared he was getting into a dangerous circle.” Sir Curzon apparently did write to Dhingra, and advised him in a tactful manner, but Dhingra resented this advice and clearly indicated this in a letter sent to Sir Curzon.

It was also said that Dhingra had attempted to kill George Curzon, Viceroy of India and had planned to assassinate the ex-Governor of Bengal. Wyllie’s presence at events with Indian students, made him an easier target for assassination.

Dinghra was tried at the Old Bailey on 23rd July. He stated that “Whatever I did was an act of patriotism and justice which was justified. The only thing I have to say is in the statement which I believe you have got,” and he pleaded not guilty to the indictment. The Bicester Herald published Dhingra’s statement on 20th August 1909. He wished it to be read at the trial, but permission was refused. “I admit the other day I attempted to shed English blood as an humble revenger for the inhuman hangings and deportations of patriotic youths. In this attempt I have consulted none but my own conscience. I have conspired with none but my own duty.” He continued, “I believe that a nation held down by foreign bayonet is in a perpetual state of war, since open battle is rendered impossible to a disarmed race. I attacked by surprise; since guns were denied me I drew forth my pistol and fired…The only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die, and the only way to teach it is by dying ourselves. Therefore I died, and glory in my martyrdom.”

For the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie and Dr. Lalcaca, Madan Lal Dhingra was hanged at Pentonville prison on 17th August 1909.

The funeral of Dr. Cawas Lalcaca took place at Brookwood Cemetery, the only Parsee burial place within the metropolitan district. The London and China Express described the ceremony at the graveside as ‘short, simple and impressive. The coffin was covered with floral tributes. It was placed on a bier and drawn to the Fire Temple of the Parsees. When the coffin was taken into the building a fire of sandalwood and frankincense was lighted on the altar, on either side of which burned also a candle. The interment took place in a plain grace, and after the body had been taken from the temple, most of those present placed a small piece of sandalwood in the flames on the altar.”

The British Medical Journal reported that the floral tributes were particularly beautiful, and “conspicuous among them was a wreath from Lady Wyllie inscribed: ‘These flowers are sent by the wife of Sir Curzon Wyllie, in ever grateful remembrance of the brave and noble man who lost his life on the night of July 1st in trying to save her beloved husband and others, with deepest sympathy.’”


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