Saturday, 11 March 2017

The devil and the book duster; the extraordinary London life of Mohammed Ali Khan (or perhaps Daood Mukranee) 1857-1863?

The Hanwell Asylum

On Wednesday the 12th February 1862 Mr G.S. Brent, deputy coroner for West Middlesex opened an inquest at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum into the death of 37 year old inmate Henry Todd. Todd, by occupation a book duster at the British Museum, had died the previous Sunday, drowned in the river Brent whilst fleeing from a ‘devil’ known to the staff and other inmates of the asylum as Mohammed Ali Khan.  The first witness called to give evidence was Anna Todd of 32 Little Guildford Street, Russell Square, who, according to the Morning Chronicle of 13th February “identified the deceased as her husband, employed at the British Museum up to Friday week, on which day he came home very much excited, on account of the conduct of another employee towards him. He had previously complained of giddiness in the head; and he had been since Christmas last under the medical care of Dr Knightly of Russell-square. He never went to his work again after that day. On Tuesday of last week he left the house during her absence, and exhibited such marked symptoms of lunacy, that the neighbours removed him to St. Giles's Workhouse; and on the following Thursday it was deemed advisable to remove him to Hanwell asylum”.  Dr William Begley, medical superintendent in charge of the male side of the asylum deposed that Todd “was admitted on last Thursday as a very noisy and violent case of acute mania. He fancied he saw devils and that they were pursuing him, and mistook a black patient (Ali Khan) for one, and became exceedingly violent and terrified. On Saturday he appeared a little quieter, and on Sunday he wanted to leave the asylum, and declared that he must go to the librarian of the British Museum”.
 
Even though Todd had wanted to leave the asylum on Sunday, on Monday morning the attendant in charge allowed him to go into the open grounds to get some fresh air. The Dublin Medical Press reported that Todd, who had “made the most positive assertions as to his interviews with devils, and insisted that a fellow maniac Ali Khan, personified Satan himself”, was horrified to run into Khan in the grounds. Todd took flight, running “across the fallow ground, obviously for the purpose of escaping from the asylum. Three of the attendants immediately pursued him, but he outran them, climbed over the boundary fence, plunged into the river Brent, to ford it, and was drowned”.  The first of the three pursuing attendants to arrive on the scene was one Higgenbottom, who threw himself into the river after Todd and “made a desperate attempt to save the unfortunate lunatics life. His attempt however was fruitless, and he only succeeded in recovering the body after life had become totally extinct”. The jury highly approved of the conduct of Higgenbottom and suggested that the owners of the asylum might want to reward him. The jury’s verdict was death by misadventure, The Dublin Medical Press’ scathing, “scarcely a week passes that we have not to record such occurrences… in some of the English Asylums, held up in high places as models for imitation in Ireland. It is quite clear that this man lost his life neglect of proper precautions.”

The imposing facade of India House in Leadenhall Street where Ali Khan proposed starving himself to death
Mohammed Ali Khan had first come to London in the winter of 1859/60 when he had stationed himself in front of the old East India House on Leadenhall Street with the intention of using the old Benares tactic of dharna bait'hna to force the company to address his grievances. In dharna bait’hna a creditor posts himself at the door of the debtor, often with a dagger or poniard visible, with which he threatens to take his life if the debtor does not settle. If the debtor proves to be particularly recalcitrant the creditor may starve himself to death in an effort to shame him into paying. Ali Khan’s tactic failed miserably; the streets of mid Victorian London were full of the malnourished semi destitute who were slowly starving to death and who slept rough in the portals of grand buildings and in these circumstances his protest was essentially invisible. At some point in the early months of 1860 he resolved to try something more dramatic. The Globe of Monday 09 July 1860 tells what happened when Ali Khan went to the House of Lords:

POLICE INTELLIGENCE Westminster. Mohammed Ali Khan, stated to be a dependent of the Nawab of Joonaghur, India, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by cutting his throat. William Allan, porter at Westminster Hospital, having been sworn interpreter, John Drake, Police Constable 101 A, said that on the 28th ult. he was on duty below the bar of the House Lords, where the Lord Chancellor, the judges, and some the Lords were hearing appeal cases; the public were admitted to such cases, and among other persons he noticed the defendant come at a quarter past one. He remained there quiet with the rest of the people, standing about five yards from the witness, till twenty minutes to two, when the Lord Chancellor rose from his seat to adjourn the inquiry. Witness then heard strange noise behind him, and turning round saw the defendant in the act of cutting his throat with a knife (produced). Witness immediately seized his arm, took him into the lobby, secured a number of papers which the defendant had in his hand, and conveyed him to the Westminster Hospital, whence he had brought him in custody to the police-court that morning. Mr. Arnold inquired whether the defendant called out anything at the time he cut his throat. The constable replied he called out “Allah! petitiona! Allah! petitiona!” The papers were here produced, and were for the most part petitions to persons high in office, complaining ill usage at the hands of the Hon. East India Company. Mr. Arnold asked whether any of the accused's friends were present. Mr. Moran, an inspector at the House of Lords, said every inquiry had been made, but none could be found. The defendant had some presumed claims upon the East India Company, and had once before been to this country, and had & free passage given him back to India, but had returned to England, and had been offered another free passage to his native country, which he had refused to accept, as he said the company owed him money. A gentleman, however, was present well acquainted with the facts the case, who would throw some further light upon the matter. Mr. Arnold, having observed that found in one of the papers that the accused spoke about destroying himself, asked the gentleman to step upon the bench, and after private interview' with the magistrate. The next witness, Mr. William Slater, house surgeon, Westminster Hospital, was called, and said the accused was admitted to the hospital at two o’clock on the 28th ult, and was found to be suffering from an incised wound the upper part the throat. He was immediately attended to, and had been in the hospital ever since. Mr. Arnold inquired what Mr. Slater thought was the state of the accused’s mind. Mr. Slater replied, not being able to understand the defendant’s language, could not form a decided opinion on that point, but, as far he could see, he was perfectly sane. Mr. Arnold asked what was the depth of the wound? Mr. Slater answered, it went nearly down to the windpipe. Mr. Arnold inquired whether, if it had been deeper, it would have proved fatal. Mr. Slater replied, not immediately. Defendant was then asked what he had to say; and replied, through the interpreter, that Colonel Long had sent him from the Bombay Presidency to England, to prosecute some claims he had against the East India Company. He had been in the East India House three years, but no one would listen to his petition, nor to the ‘Victoria petition’ he had drawn up. Mr. Arnold directed the porter to tell him that he (Mr. Arnold) heard he had been offered free passage back to India, which he had rejected. The interpreter gave the accused’s reply,  that that statement was true, but he wanted his rights—which he had come to England for—and if the East India Company would satisfy his claims and give him a free passage would go back. The defendant was then remanded for a week.

The Nawab of Joonaghur, the man who dismissed Ali Khan from his service

In August Ali Khan was back in court, where despite pleading guilty the Judge took pity on him after hearing how he had walked from India to Trieste to pursue his grievance against the East India Company.  The Illustrated Times of Saturday 18 August 1860 takes up the story:

Attempted Suicide in the Lords.— Mohammed Ali Khan, thirty-four, pleaded guilty to charge of having attempted to destroy himself. The prisoner is the Indian who attempted to cut his throat in the House of Lords. He had, it appeared, some claim on the Nawab of Janegar, as hereditary officer, and laid that claim at £2OOO, and to obtain it had come to this country, having first been to Bombay, where he was offered to be put into the native police by the British authorities, who had no power to interfere in consequence of Janegar being an independent principality. From India had walked through Persia to Moscow, then to Vienna, and finally to the point where the General Steam Navigation boats returned from, and one of the captains brought him to this country about two years ago, and the East India Company had done all they could for him, as also had the authorities of the Strangers’ Home; but, although they killed and cooked the food after the Mohammedan style, he objected to stay there, on account of its not being in accordance with the rules of his sect. A gentleman from the India House said that they had wished to send him back to his own Nawab, but he did not wish to go.  Mr. Commissioner Kerr— That I can well understand. If he went back there, his claim would soon lose him his life. The gentleman said the company had desired and tried to get him to go back to his Prince. The Commissioner said—lf you had succeeded you would, to my mind, have been guilty of manslaughter. The poor fellow, upon hearing about being sent home, expressed by action that he should have his arms cut off, and then his throat cut, and, putting his hands together as if supplicating not to be sent, in an earnest tone addressed some remarks to the Bar who were nearest to him, and pointed to the jury and the bench. Mr. Cooper said he understood the prisoner to moan that, if his petition was seen and agreed to by the jury and his Lordship, should have justice done him, and be safe. After some further conversation the Commissioner said he thought the poor fellow’s claim was just, and he should respite judgment and see what could done with him.

By this time news of Ali Khan had time and sufficient exposure to make its way back to India where the Bombay Gazette carried out its own investigations into his claims. By September the story that resulted from this investigation was being reprinted in the British papers, such as the London Daily News of Friday 07 September:

THE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS. The Bombay Gazette thus alludes to the case of the Mahomedan who attempted to cut his throat in the House of Lords a few weeks since: "The Mahomedan who is reported in the home papers to have lately attempted suicide in the House of Lords in London is apparently one of those cunning Indian knaves who would rather live upon their wits than by the sweat of their brow, and whose antecedents in Bombay were not unworthy of his late knavish trick in the presence of the peers of the British realm. It appears that his real name is Daood Mukranee, and not Ali Mahomed Khan, a which he has assumed in London; and so far from being the adopted son of the late Nawab of Joonaghiar, in Kattiwar, as alleged by him, he was no more than a common domestic in the late Nawab's household; but, being a man of shrewdness, and withal of an aspiring and daring mind, he took advantage of the confusion in which the late Nawab left his affairs, fabricated some documents, gained some adherents to his plans, and presented himself before the British authorities in Bombay as the adopted son of the late Nawab, and claimed their assistance to his succession to the musnud as the rightful heir instead of the late Nawab's brother, who, he alleged, had forcibly dispossessed him, not only of the musnud, but of very large sums of money likewise. The government of Bombay, it seems, at first lent a willing ear to his tale, but subsequently, either deeming him a madman or that there was a probability of his having been dispossessed of some wealth but in which they had no right to interfere, they ordered him to be placed under the surveillance of the police, and granted him an allowance of 45 rupees a month. This evidently did not satisfy his ambition, and having begged a passage on board of an Arab vessel proceeding to Muscat, on pretence of being desirous of visiting the tomb of the Prophet, he found his way to England, where, from his subsequent statement, he fared 'like a lord;' was lionised for awhile, and returned to Bombay in the full anticipation of successfully carrying his cunning schemes into execution. His hopes, however, were doomed to be disappointed, as the government would not have anything to do with him, further than continue his monthly allowance of 45 rupees, but on what ground this allowance was made does not appear. He remained comparatively obscure for about eighteen months, drawing his allowance, but giving the police executives a good deal of trouble by his mysterious doings. All at once, however, he disappeared from Bombay a second time, and no tidings were heard of him, until the home papers brought by the last mail reported his attempt at suicide in the House of Lords. That attempt is no more than one of his old knavish tricks, for which, it is to be hoped, he will be whipped at the cart's tail-the only reward which his cunning roguery deserves."

A closer look at Mohammad Mahabat Khanji II, the Nawab who precipitated Ali Khan into a life of exile 

During this time Ali Khan continued to live at the Strangers Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders on West India Dock Road in Limehouse. The foundation stone of the Strangers Home had been laid by Prince Albert in May 1856 and it had opened for business the following year providing shelter and religious instruction for Lascars, East Indian sailors who manned the clippers and other ships that sailed between the Port of London and the entrepĂ´ts of the orient. Despite his kindly treatment at the Strangers Home by October Ali Khan was once again threatening to commit suicide and found himself brought up on charges at the Thames Police Court brought by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Marsh Hughes, the governor of the home. The magistrate told the court that he had no power to punish a man merely for threatening to take his own life and accordingly dismissed the charges. At a later trial Lieut.-Col. Hughes described Ali Khan’s stay in Limehouse after he had been discharged by the magistrate. He told the court:

The Strangers Home in Limehouse
I have known him [Ali Khan] 5 years.  I speak his language. From what he has told me I understand he was formerly a dependant of the Nawab of Joonaghur, who is an independent prince or chieftain. I saw him in Cold bath-fields Prison in October. I invited him to come to the Home at the expiration of his sentence. He came on the 18th October, and I admitted him. I had several conversations with him, and he told me that if Sir Charles Wood [1st Viscount Halifax and Secretary of State for India]  did not give him justice be would cut his throat before Sir Charles's eyes and throw the petition over his head. In consequence of that threat I obtained a warrant against him, and was brought up at the Thames police-court on the first of November. He then promised that he would keep in the Home, abstain from going to the India House, and from making any further attempt at suicide. Believing his word I took him back. On Christmas day he left, and I understand he says that gave him pork to eat, which is not true. We allow no pork to be brought into the Home, and all the food is cooked by Mahometans. In order that he might have nothing to find fault with, money was given to him to buy meat from the Jewish butchers, and he could see it cooked or cook it himself. This he accepted. When he was ill Dr. Condor ordered him rice, sago and arrowroot, which were prepared for him by a Mahometan cook. His prejudices were consulted in everything. On Christmas day, according to custom, we gave the inmates an English dinner —roast beef and plum pudding—but everything was purchased and cooked by Mahometans. They were all delighted except Mohammed Ali Khan, who was very angry. He said he must have some fish, which was accordingly provided for him, and he ate it. After dinner some tobacco was given to them, and all were pleased but the prisoner, who refused the tobacco and left the Home immediately. I have not seen him since. He might have remained if he chose, and I have authority to send him to India if he will go. I have no reason to believe that he is insane, except that he labours under some delusion about having a claim on the Government. There is no foundation for that notion. (Morpeth Herald - Saturday 16 February 1861)

The Great Hall of the Strangers Home in West India Dock Road - the Daily Graphic
The reason for Ali Khan’s reappearance in court in February 1961 was that on the 5th February he had made his most audacious suicide attempt yet. On the day of the state opening of parliament he had waited patiently in Whitehall for the Queen’s coach to draw level with him and then rushed out into the roadway calling to her majesty whilst attempting to cut his throat. In the official records of the Old Bailey PC A424 Richard Flawn gave the following evidence at Ali Khan’s trial:

I was on duty on 5th February, as Her Majesty was proceeding to open the Houses of Parliament—I saw the prisoner step out from the crowd as the Royal carriage was passing—he was, as near as I can guess, about four yards from the carriage—he had this envelope in his left hand, suspended from his thumb with a string—he was holding it out in his left hand—he made use of some words which I could not distinctly understand—I thought it was, "Me no protection, me justice"—I did not perceive where his right hand was until I seized hold of him by the shoulders and turned him round—I then saw his right hand sawing at his throat with a knife, cutting across his throat—I knocked it out of his hand immediately—the knife was at his throat at the time I turned him round—he was then bleeding from the throat; he bled more on the way to the station—I took him at once to the King-street station, which was close by—this (produced) is the knife; I picked it up—on searching him at the station I found this quantity of papers in his coat pocket—this small bone was rolled up in the papers—I afterwards took him to the Westminster Hospital—his wound was dressed at the station-house; he was bleeding at that time.

Mohammed Ali Khan in the official annals of the Central Criminal Court showing he was aquitted
William Travers the house surgeon at Westminster Hospital testified that he had treated Ali Khan’s injuries; he testified that the two inch wound in the Indian’s throat was superficial and presented no danger to his life. Ali Khan grew excited as the doctor was giving his evidence and interjected that he “brought my bitter enemy near me, who has tyrannized over me.” Mr Travers explained to the court that Colonel Hughes called to see him one day; he was the only person; there was a little excitement when he saw Colonel Hughes.” The jury’s verdict was that Ali Khan was not guilty of attempting to commit suicide but his happiness would have been shortlived; he soon found himself evicted from the Strangers Home and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum where he terrified Henry Todd into killing himself. The final chapter of Ali Khan’s story is recounted by Joseph Salter, a missionary who worked amongst London’s Lascar sailor community and who recorded his experiences in  ‘The Asiatic in England: Sketches of Sixteen Years among Orientals’ published in 1873. He tells us that whilst in Hanwell Asylum Ali Khan spoke to a missionary who had helped him for a number of years:

“Padre,” he said to the Missionary, “where should I have been if it had not been for you, and yet I have brought so much disgrace on you by my wild acts? You must ask the people of England to forgive me, and I hope God will forgive me too. This was said in review of the attention he had received from the Missionary, notwithstanding the trouble he had given to him. He had consoled him in the hospital, assisted him in his defence, was interpreter at his trial, was a constant visitor at the lunatic asylum, and prepared the way for his coming to the Asiatic Home; and finally escorted him to Southampton and saw him safely out of England.


Where was he going? Not back to India and the Gujarati principality of Junagadh. Despite the Bombay Times assertion that Ali Khan was really Daood Mukranee (and therefore most likely a Hindu and not a Muslim at all), his final wish, according to Salter, was “to go and die at Mecca”. His ship from Southampton was bound for Jeddah. We lost sight of Ali Khan here, embarking on the south coast; whether he made it to Jeddah or Mecca or continued his wanderings in other countries is unknown. Ali Khan disappears from the historical record.