Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had a lifelong interest in unusual criminal cases, and his friends often passed on to him interesting accounts of crime and detection from around the world. It was in this way that he learnt of the strange death of Miss Frances Garnett-Orme in the Indian hill station of Mussoorie. Here was a murder combining the weird borders of the occult with a crime mystery as inexplicable as any devised by Doyle himself.
In April 1912 (shortly before the Titanic went down), Conan Doyle received a letter from his Sussex neighbour Rudyard Kipling:
There has been a murder in India. A murder by suggestion at Mussoorie, which is one of the most curious things in its line on record. Everything that is improbable and on the face of it impossible is in this case.
Kipling had received details of the case from a friend working in the Allahabad Pioneer, a paper for which, as a young man, he had worked in the 1880s. Urging Doyle to pursue the story, Kipling concluded: “The psychology alone is beyond description.”
Doyle was indeed interested to hear more, for India had furnished him with material in the past, as in The Sign of Four and several short stories. Kipling, too, had turned to crime and detection in his early stories of Strickland of the Indian Police.The two writers got together and discussed the case, which was indeed a fascinating affair.
The scene was set in Mussoorie, a popular hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. It wasn’t as grand as Simla (where the Viceroy and his entourage went) but it was a charming and convivial place, with a number of hotels and boarding houses, a small military cantonment, and several private schools for European children.
It was during the summer “season” of 1911 that Miss Frances Garnett-Orme came to stay in Mussoorie, taking a suite at the Savoy, a popular resort hotel.
On 28 July she celebrated her forty-ninth birthday. She was the daughter of George Garnett-Orme, of Skipton-in-Craven in Yorkshire, a district registrar of the Country Court. It was a family important enough to be counted among the landed gentry. Her father had died in 1892.
She came out to India in 1893 with the intention of marrying Jack Grant of the United Provinces Police. But he died in 1894 and she went back to England. Upset by his death following so soon after her father’s, she turned to spiritualism in the hope of communicating with him.
We must remember that spiritualism was all the rage in the early years of the century, seances and table-rappings being part of the social scene both in England and India. Madam Blavatsky, the chief exponent of spiritualism, was probably at the height of her popularity around this time; she spent her “seasons” in neighbouring Simla, where she had many followers.
Miss Garnett-Orme’s life was unsettled. She was drawn back to India, returning in 1901 to live in Lucknow, the regional capital of the United Provinces. She was still in contact with Jack Grant’s family and saw his brother occasionally. The summer of 1907 was spent at Nainital, a hill station popular with Lucknow residents.
It was here that she met Miss Eva Mountstephen, who was working as a governess.
Eva Mountstephen, too, had an interest in spiritualism. It appears that she had actually told several of her friends about this time that she had learnt (in the course of a seance) that in 1911 she would come into a great deal of money.
We are told that there was something sinister about Miss Mountstephen.
She specialised in crystal-gazing, and what she saw in the glass often took a violent form. Her “control”, that is her connection in the spirit world, was a dead friend named Mrs Winter.
As a result of their common interest in the occult, Miss Garnett-Orme took on the younger woman as a companion when she returned to Lucknow in the winter. There they settled down together. But the summers were spent at one of the various hill stations. Was there a latent lesbianism in their relationship?
It was a restless, rootless life, but they were held together by the strong and heady influence of the seance table and the crystal ball. Miss Garnett-Orme’s indifferent health also made her dependent on the younger woman.
In the summer of 1911, the couple went up to Mussoorie, probably the most frivolous of hill stations, where “seasonal” love affairs were almost the order of the day. They took rooms in the Savoy. Electricity had yet to reach Mussoorie, and it was still the age of candelabras and gas-lit streets. Every house had a grand piano. If you didn’t go out to a ball, you sang or danced at home.
But Miss Garnett-Orme’s spiritual pursuits took precedence over these more mundane entertainments. Towards the end of the “season”, on 12 September, Miss Mountstephen returned to Lucknow to pack up their household for a move to Jhansi, where they planned to spend the winter.
On the morning of 19 September, while Miss Mountstephen was still away, Miss Garnett-Orme was found dead in her bed.
The door was locked from the inside. On her bedside table was a glass. She was positioned on the bed as though laid out by a nurse or undertaker.
Because of these puzzling circumstances, Major Birdwood of the Indian Medical Service (who was the Civil Surgeon in Mussoorie) was called in. He decided to hold an autopsy. It was discovered that Miss Garnett-Orme had been poisoned with prussic acid.
Prussic acid is a quick-acting poison, and would have killed too quickly for the victim to have composed herself in the way she was found. An ayah told the police that she had seen someone (she could not tell whether it was a man or a woman) slipping away through a large skylight and escaping over the roof.
Hill stations are hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, and of course the gossips had a field day.Miss Garnett-Orme suffered from dyspepsia and was always dosing herself from a large bottle of sodium bicarbonate, which was regularly refilled. It was alleged that the bottle had been tampered with, that an unknown white powder had been added.
Her doctor was questioned thoroughly. They even questioned a touring mind reader, Mr Alfred Capper, who claimed that Miss Mountstephen had hurried from a room rather than have her mind read!
After several weeks the police arrested Miss Mountstephen.
Although she had a convincing alibi (due to her absence in Jhansi) the police sought to prove that some kind of sinister influence had been exerted on Miss Garnett-Orme to take her medicine at a particular time.Thus, through suggestion, the murderer could kill and yet be away at the time of death.
In Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), the poisoner was in a distant place by the time her victim reached the fatal dose, the poison having precipitated to the bottom of the mixture. Perhaps Miss Christie read accounts of the Garnett-Orme case in the British press. Even the motive was similar.
But there was no Hercule Poirot in Mussoorie, and in court this theory could never be made convincing. The police case was never strong (they would have done better to have followed the ayah’s lead), and it appears that they only acted because there was considerable ill feeling in Mussoorie against Miss Mountstephen.
When the trial came up at Allahabad in March 1912, it caused a sensation. Murder by remote control was something new in the annals of crime. But after hearing many days of evidence about the ladies’ way of life, about crystal-gazing and premonitions of death, the court found Miss Mountstephen innocent. The Chief Justice, in delivering his verdict, remarked that the true circumstances of Miss Garnett-Orme’s death would probably never be known. And he was right.
Miss Mountstephen applied for probate of her friend’s will. But the Garnett-Orme family in England sent out her brother, Mr Hunter Garnett-Orme, to contest it. The case went in favour of Mr Garnett-Orme. The District Judge (WD Burkitt) turned down Miss Mountstephen’s application on grounds of “fraud and undue influence in connection with spiritualism and crystal-gazing”. She went in appeal to the Allahabad High Court, but the lower court’s decision was upheld.
Miss Mountstephen returned to England. We do not know her state of mind, but if she was innocent, she must have been a deeply embittered woman. Miss Garnett-Orme’s doctor lost his flourishing practice in Mussoorie and left the country too. There were rumours that he and Miss Mountstephen had conspired to get hold of Miss Garnett-Orme’s considerable fortune.
There was one more puzzling feature of the case.
Mr Charles Jackson, a painter friend of many of those involved, had died suddenly, apparently of cholera, two months after Miss Garnett-Orme’s mysterious death.The police took an interest in his sudden demise. When he was exhumed on 23 December, the body was found to be in a perfect state of preservation. He had died of arsenic poisoning.
Murder or suicide? This puzzle, too, was never resolved. Was there a connection with Miss Garnett-Orme’s death? That too we shall never know. Had Conan Doyle taken up Kipling’s suggestion and involved himself in the case (as he had done in so many others in England), perhaps the outcome would have been different.
As it is, we can only make our own conjectures.
Excerpted with permission from A Gallery of Rascals: My Favourite Tales Of Rogues, Rapscallions And Ne’er-Do-Wells, Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company.