It was Christmas Eve in 1874. Mr and Mrs Hall, the proprietors of the Oriental Railway Hotel at Howrah, received a telegram from Ranigunj asking them to prepare an airy and well-appointed suite and keep a heated bath ready for an illustrious couple. The telegram had been sent by one PAC Dundas. Mr and Mrs Dundas arrived shortly and were welcomed with the cordiality reserved for valued patrons.
Next morning, in the course of conversations over breakfast, Mr Dundas asked Mr Hall if he would care to recommend an establishment whence he might rent a decent horse carriage. Mr Dundas was very particular about the sort of carriage he wanted, “No screws, you know, nor any of your diminutive rat-traps”, but good, solid roadsters with horses that “could pick up their feet”. Naturally, Mr. Hall recommended Ms. Brown & Co. of Dharmatala, the premier transportation company. Dundas then urged Hall to give him an introduction. Armed with the introduction and an ample cheque-book, Dundas hired a solidly respectable carriage. The next few days were uneventful as Dundas and his wife enjoyed the Christmas festivities in Calcutta.
On 29th December, accompanied by Mrs. Hall the couple visited Jellicoe & Co., one of the city’s top jewellers. Their taste was difficult to satisfy and much was rejected out of hand. Eventually however, the couple bought a large amount of jewellery worth more than Rs. 1,000/-, paying with cheques drawn on Lala Nund Kishore Sahib Bahadur of Delhi. Mr. Dundas’ next stop was Ms. Newman & Co., where he bought scientific instruments worth Rs. 120/-, followed by Ms. Baker & Catliffe’s, where he bought a large quantity of millinery. His final call was to Ms. Harley & Co., where he bought a large quantity of paint. Dundas had just received a contract to build a new church in Lahore and the paint, he said, was intended for that lucrative and holy purpose. The same cheques drawn upon Lala Nund Kishore of Delhi were paid to every worthy establishment Dundas honoured with his custom. Yet, when it was time to check out of their hotel, Mrs. Hall refused to accept the same cheque.
A piqued Mr. Dundas was aghast at the discourtesy, but the shrewd Mrs. Hall insisted that she would not let them take away their substantial purchases unless she was paid in full in cash. Frustrated, Dundas left in a huff and returned shortly with a well-known pawn-broker, Mr Mathewson of Fancy Lane. In exchange for the paint intended for the Lahore Church as temporary surety, Mathewson settled the hotel accounts and paid Dundas an additional Rs. 600/. Dundas was awefully obliged and promised to redeem his goods as soon as he got home.
Within days of Dundas’ departure however, all hell broke loose in commercial Calcutta. None of the people who had been paid by cheques were able to encash them. It turned out that there was no Lala Nund Kishore to be found!
Even as the Calcutta Police were notified that some of the top businesses in the city had been swindled over Christmas another curious complaint arrived at their door. On 10th of January 1875, an aged tea-planter by the name of Moseley was headed back home to Britain. He had sold up his plantation, settled all his Indian affairs and was looking forward to passing the last years of his life in Britain. On his way down from Assam to Calcutta, whence he would take the ship to Britain, he had to spend the night at the Goalundo Dak Bungalow. Goalundo was the major riparian port on the River Padma and a busy point of transition between upper Hindustan and the eastern Gangetic Delta and Assam. The Dak Bungalow, as a result, was frequently full of British officers and planters travelling both ways. When Moseley arrived, he was not at all surprised to see the Dak Bungalow already occupied by several others. The Khansama however, refused to accommodate Moseley unless he could render exact change for the night’s charge and dinner. Having just sold up everything in Assam, he was stuck with large bank notes and did not have small change. To make matters worse, Goalundo was not a place big enough to encash large notes. As Moseley was desperately trying to find ways of getting around the problem and finding a place to stay for the night, a certain Major Auckland of the Indian Army over heard the exchange. He immediately volunteered to pay the trifling charge.
The kindly Major in fact went further and invited Moseley to share a drink with him, insisting that he always carried his own alcohol as the fare at such Dak Bungalows was “vile stuff”. Major Auckland was a fine officer and on his way to Assam for a bit of hunting on a short-leave. Having spent the evening with the Major, drunk his alcohol and accepting his generous help, Moseley was hardly in a position to say no when the Major finally asked Moseley for a small favour. It turned out, that the Major had miscalculated how much cash he would need on the journey and brought too little with him and since he was headed for the wilderness of the frontier, there would not be a bank he could withdraw money from. Would Moseley mind lending him some money in exchange for a cheque Moseley could easily encash in Calcutta? Of course Moseley would not mind! It was the least he could do to thank the Major for his kindness. Moseley lent him Rs. 900/- and received a cheque drawn on the Bank of Bengal in return. The next morning the two parted ways to go their separate ways with the usual cordiality.
Upon arriving in Calcutta however, Moseley to his utter distraction found that the cheque was a fraud. The Bengal Bank did not recognize it and there was no Major Auckland on their books. Finally, cheated out of a substantial portion of his life’s savings, Moseley went to the police. The description Moseley offered of the kindly Major to the police matched Dundas!
Detective Reid attempted to follow up the only lead he had in hand, viz. the cheques. He soon found the printer in Calcutta who had printed the Bengal Bank cheques. Actually, finding him had not been tough, since he came to the police with his own complaint. It turned out that a gentleman had called on him to print the cheques but upon delivery wished to pay by cheque. Moreover, the gentleman said for accounting purposes he only drew cheques of even numbers and so if the printer did not mind paying him Rs. 15/-, he make out a cheque for Rs. 50/- rather than the Rs. 35/- that he owed. The printer had happily agreed, only to find out later that the cheque was a fraud.
By now the Calcutta papers were abuzz with the doings of the arch-swindler. The police was under immense pressure and the best detective of the time, Robert Reid, was assigned to the case fulltime. Reid tracked two of the large notes Moseley had paid Auckland to Serampore Railway Station. The booking clerk at the station, on being questioned, recalled selling two first class tickets to a Colonel Abercrombie and his wife for Allahabad.
Reid took the next train to Allahabad. Upon reaching the station however, the Station Master told him that no one by the name of Colonel Abercrombie had arrived. A certain Lieutenant Duff of the Royal Engineers and his wife handed in the ticket numbers Reid had. The Master also recalled that Mr and Mrs Duff had dined sumptuously at the Railway Refreshment Room in Allahabad and asked an European attendant to get them to first-class tickets for Muzaffernagar.
Once again Reid followed in hot pursuit. Arriving at Muzaffarnagar, on the 14th of January 1875, Reid was told by the Station Master of Muzaffarnagar that the British couple who had handed in the ticket numbers he mentioned, then took a horse carriage to Roorkee. With no time to lose, Reid pursued them to Roorkee immediately. He had no difficulty in locating the house to which the previous carriage had taken the couple. Arriving there, Reid demanded of the servants to meet the couple. Soon a tired and irritated couple came out in turn demanding to know what he wanted. The man was indeed a respectable officer in the Engineers and a resident of Roorkee and bore no resemblance to the arch-swindler. Upon Reid having explained himself the gentleman explained how just as he and his wife had arrived at Allahabad station to buy tickets another gentleman came upto him and offered to resale a ticket he had no use of any more owing to last minute change of plans. Having thus procured the tickets at a slight discount, the engineer and his wife had unwittingly acted as the decoys for the elusive swindler.
Disappointed and frustrated, Reid called the police headquarters in Calcutta. He was told that reports had just come in of a similar spate of frauds in Jabbalpur. It was too late that day and Reid said he would make his way to Jabbalpur the next day. Should any developments take place before then, the head office could leave word at the Allahabad Post Office. As he would need to go through Allahabad anyway, he could pick up the message.
Next morning, Reid true to his word arrived at Allahabad and made his way to the Post Office. Upon asking the clerk if there was any message for Inspector Reid however, he was surprised to be told that there had indeed been a message but that Inspector Reid had just picked it up. Even before Reid could fathom what was going on, a local policeman who had been keeping watch arrested Reid, thinking him to be the swindler trying to impersonate a police officer. Despite his protests Reid was thrown in jail. Eventually a wire was sent to Calcutta to verify who was the real Reid and it was another day before Calcutta confirmed that the man in prison was actually the police officer!
By then a certain, Sir Peter and Lady Duff had swindled Jabbalpur’s top businessmen, including a Parsi wine-merchant, Karsetji, known for his shrewd and miserly bargains. Upon a tour of the legendary Marble Rocks, in a fit of magnanimity, Sir Peter had presented the Khansama at the Dak Bungalow with a ruby-encrusted ring—one which later turned out to be from Jellicoe & Co.
Upon their disappearance there had appeared a certain SE Lovett, MA, an Inspector of Schools in Shahpur. Mr Lovett examined various schools in the district, conducted exams and wrote eloquent testimonials for the head teachers, before of course borrowing money from them.
Finally, Dunbar—for that was the real name of the arch-swindler, turned up as Mr. and Mrs. P. Austin in Bhopal. The ruling Queen of Bhopal, Her Highness Nawab Sultan Shah Jahan Begum Sahiba, Nawab Begum of Dar-ul-Iqbal-i-Bhopal, had just been married and the marriage festivities were in full swing. A number of royal guests, including many Europeans, were in attendance and the Austins presented themselves as royal invitees. They were put up in the palace and a grand horse carriage placed at their disposal.
It was by then early-March 1875, but finally, Dunbar’s luck had run out. Reid arrested him at the palace in Bhopal and after ascertaining his identity brought him back under arrest to stand trial. At every station at which the train stopped on the way, huge crowds lined the station to catch a glimpse of the man who for three months had managed to fool people up and down the length and breadth of Hindustan.
Like many other colourful figures, Dunbar disappeared from the archive after his arrest. I have not been able to find the outcome of his trial. In fact, his real identity too remains a mystery. I do not even know if he was an European, an Anglo-Indian or simply a light-skinned Indian using a Scottish name. But this much is clear that many at the time saw him in a rather romantic light. Reid mentioned in his memoir that when Dunbar was being brought back to Calcutta, a young European woman on the platform in Allahabad had tried to raise a subscription for his defense and many had cheered her. After all Dunbar’s victims were all rich merchants. When he dealt with poorer people, such as the Khansamas at Goalundo or Marble Rocks, he was generous to a fault. He may not have been a Robin Hood, but there was something about his swindles that evoked the common man’s sympathy.