Burrowed within the volumes of Darogar Daptar, the first Bengali periodical dedicated to crime stories, is the story of perhaps the earliest recorded serial killing in Calcutta, which preceded the murders by London’s Jack the Ripper by seven years. Meticulously written by Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, who was the investigating and arresting officer in the case, Darogar Daptar No. 78, follows the journey of Troilokya, referred to in British court documents as “Troylucko Raur”, or Troilokya the prostitute.

Troilokya’s story begins in a village in Bengal. She was still in her preteens, when she was married off to a much older man – a common practice at the time – though she continued to live in her parents’ house as per the norm in Kulin Brahmin polygamy. Her husband and she met once, before he died. After that, she was taken in by an apparently kind-hearted Vaishnavite woman, in what turned out to be a turning point in her life.

The woman, a procuress for Calcutta’s brothels, introduced Troilokya to a young man who seduced her. When their affair became public, they fled to Calcutta to escape shame and social ostracism. But Troilokya’s lover sold her into a brothel in Sonagachhi, Calcutta’s notorious red-light district, and it was here in the early 1880s that a simple village girl’s journey into Calcutta’s criminal world began.

Copies of 'Darogar Daptar'. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

Prostitute to con-woman

For a while, Troilokya’s youth and beauty ensured she was not wanting for money. With her steadily-rising earnings, she bought a mansion and a horse carriage, and hired armed darwans and servants. But inevitably, as her beauty waned, her earnings began to dwindle. An anxiety set in about the future.

Around this time, Troilokya acquired a lover, a married man named Kali Babu, and when his wife died, she adopted his son, Hari. The romantic alliance proved injurious to her trade. Kali Babu’s constant presence acted as a deterrent for prospective clients, and with the added expense of Hari’s education, Troilokya’s situation became even more desperate, forcing her to turn from prostitute to con-woman.

The first scheme the two came up with involved young rakes from Calcutta’s rich families. The men would be lured to Troilokya’s house with the promise of orgies, and served alcohol, often at their own expense. Unbeknownst to the men, there would be cigar ash in the alcohol – a combination that Troilokya believed left the victim wildly intoxicated, making it easy to rob him of his valuables and turn him out onto the street. Mistaking the victim to be a drunk, the local police would lock him up overnight. It was not possible for the victim to protest when he awoke the next morning, since a formal complaint would cause unwanted publicity.

Still, even without police complaints, word got around, making it impossible for Troilokya to lure fresh victims into her trap. Not to be thwarted, she and Kali Babu devised a more elaborate con that exploited Bengal’s caste system.

Troilokya's house in Panchu Dhobani Lane in Chitpur. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

The dowry system among the Srotriya Brahmins of Bengal was the reverse of the norm: instead of the bride’s father paying dowry, it was the groom’s father who paid a “bride price”. This placed the father of the prospective bride in a position to demand any amount, because “suitable girls” could be hard to find.

With the help of another accomplice, Kali Babu found a Srotriya Brahmin family in a village that was desperate to get their son married. Troilokya and Kali Babu then rented a house in Calcutta, far away from the red-light area, filled it with fake relatives, and invited the groom’s family. An attractive sex worker, in her early teens, was told to play the prospective bride. The delighted groom agreed to the match.

The marriage took place within a month, with the dowry and wedding costs paid by the groom’s family. In the groom’s village, the bride was lavished with gold ornaments. She was accompanied by her mother, pretending to be a maid, and another accomplice in the guise of her uncle. A month after the wedding, she sought permission to visit her parents. Since there was nothing suspect in the request, she was allowed to go, provided she was accompanied by her husband. The bride, decked in her wedding jewellery, with her two accomplices and her husband, boarded a train to Calcutta. But somewhere along the journey, they gave the groom the slip, and made their way back to Troilokya. All the wedding jewellery was sold, and after all participants were paid, Troilokya pocketed the remainder. The groom and his family, unfamiliar with Calcutta, were never able to find the bride in the warren of streets.

Jack the Ripper attacks a woman. Image courtesy: Police Gazette/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

This con too was repeated several times, until it had to be retired because the girl playing the bride grew up and could no longer be passed off as a 13-year-old. Troilokya and Kali Babu then hatched a scheme that involved kidnapping young girls from Calcutta’s streets and selling them off. At the time, Brahmin families in East Bengal’s villages often couldn’t find what they felt was a suitable match. So the partners in crime would brainwash the abducted children, and get them married into these families in return for money. But as the disappearance of girls started making news, the police became more alert, forcing Troilokya and Kali Babu to abandon their crime.

Murderous journey

Troilokya’s picaresque adventures turned murderous from there. The first attempt, though, was botched. Kali Babu acted as a middleman for a raja (a man from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar), promising to fetch him jewellery from a shop in Barabazaar at low prices. He asked the shop to send him the jewellery through a shop assistant, guaranteeing him payment upon receipt of goods. But when the assistant arrived with the valuables, he was murdered by Kali Babu and buried under the floor of a rented house. Kali Babu delivered the jewels himself and pocketed the money. The case was handled by Mukhopadhyay, who managed to trace the rented house and find the body. Kali Babu was caught and hanged, but Troilokya’s role in the entire episode could not be proved in court. She walked free.

Forced to sell her house and jewellery, a desperate Troilokya began approaching her former acquaintances in Sonagachhi. Like her, most of them were ageing and worried about the future. Playing to their insecurities, she told them of a holy man who could end their troubles. If the women wore all their jewellery when visiting him, he would double the baubles with his blessings.

Over a period of three years, Troilokya took five women, one at a time, to a derelict garden house near Maniktala in Calcutta. In the garden was a large pond, where the women were told to bathe. The gullible women took off their jewellery before entering the water. And as they showered, Troilokya struck, holding their heads under the water until they drowned.

Despite carefully selecting a desolate neighbourhood, Troilokya was once caught red-handed, as a passerby saw her trying to drown a woman. The victim, who survived the murder attempt, along with the eyewitness, dragged Troilokya to the local police station. But Troilokya charmed the old police officer and convinced him to let her go. Not satisfied, the plaintiffs took their case to Mukhopadhyay, who investigated the case, believed Troilokya was guilty, and had her arrested and sent to trial. Luck was on her side, though. The police officer who had earlier let her go had been suspended. Fearing that a conviction would cost him his job, he bore all the expenses of her defence, and probably even sabotaged the prosecution’s case. Once again, Troilokya walked free.

Dhobani Lane in Chitpur. Troilokya's house is on the right. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

But the court case had generated enough bad publicity. Troilokya had to move to a house in Panchu Dhobani Lane in Chitpur. Soon enough, the money gained from previous crimes started running out, and she began looking for another victim. One of the prostitutes living in the same house, Rajkumari, owned considerable gold jewellery. Troilokya tried drugging her, but when two doses failed to knock her out, she choked her to death and took her ornaments.

Mukhopadhyay was called to the scene days after the murder. The moment he found out that Troilokya lived in the same house, he was convinced she was the killer. In a story titled Shesh Leela (The Last Act), Mukhopadhyay detailed how he laid a trap for Troilokya, framing her adopted son Hari for the murder. The sight of Hari in handcuffs convinced Troilokya to come clean. She surrendered the gold jewellery that she had hidden in a secret compartment behind her wooden cupboard, along with other incriminating evidence.

Her cooperation did not last long. Once Troilokya realised she had been tricked into confessing, she refused to go down quietly. The case went to the High Court, which held up the conviction. She even wrote a mercy petition to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir Augustus Rivers Thompson. But her luck had truly run out. On the eve of her execution, Troilokya was visited in her cell by Mukhopadhyay, who was strangely conflicted. On the one hand, he had outwitted a notorious murderess, but on the other, his efforts were about to lead to the death of a woman. Mukhopadhyay’s recounting of the case, whose details are corroborated in the writings of historian Sumanta Banerjee, reflect the police officer’s quandary.

In a long interview, Troilokya revealed the details of her life and her previous crimes. Her last words to Mukhopadhyay were, “I am leaving Hari behind…Please look after him so that he does not get into trouble.” Troilokya was hanged in 1884.

Troilokya’s exploits are the focus of the ‘Murder & Mayhem Walk’ by Kolkata’s walking tour company Heritage Walk Calcutta.