Laxmibai Karve, a 45-year-old widow from Poona, was poisoned by her doctor on the train to Bombay.
by Randor Guy
The slow-crawling passenger night train from Poona to Bombay pulled into Victoria Terminus, Bombay after a weary stop-at-every station journey soon after dawn. A middle-aged man, Anant Chintaman Lagoo, a Poona-based doctor, arranged for a stretcher to carry a 45-year old widow. She was unconscious and obviously needed immediate medical help. Lagoo raced towards G. T. Hospital, some distance away, where the woman was admitted. It was about 5:45 a.m.
Lagoo told the hospital doctors that the lady whom he had not known before had travelled in the same compartment with him on the Poona-Bombay night train. He had gathered from the usual train journey chat that her name was Indumati Paunshe and she had a brother G. B. Deshpande, living in Calcutta. She took ill during the journey and became unconscious on board.
The lady was treated for diabetic coma. Glucose and insulin were administered along with other drugs, but she did not respond to the treatment. Nor did she regain her senses and she passed away at 11:30 a.m.
She had neither jewelry nor ornaments on her. No money either. Except the clothes she had on her person, there was nothing. She seemed a destitute. And nobody came to claim her body nor did anyone turn up to see her, of course, besides the Good Samaritan Poona doctor, Lagoo.
Dr. Vairava, the Honorary Physician, doing the rounds had examined the unconscious woman, and did not agree with Dr. Ahuja, the lady medical officer in charge of the ward about the diagnosis as diabetic coma. When he came to know that the patient had died, he suggested that a post-mortem should be performed and made an endorsement accordingly on the case sheet. Dr. Ahuja referred the matter to Resident Medical Officer Dr. Mouskar. The two doctors discussed it and Dr. Mouskar decided that a post-mortem was not called for and overruled Dr. Vairava’s suggestion.
Dr. Mouskar sent a telegram during the afternoon of November 13 to Lagoo “Indumati Expired Arrange Removal.” Lagoo did not turn up, but a letter from him dated November 14 reached Dr. Mouskar on the following day in which he wrote that he was writing “about a woman… admitted in the hospital at 6 a.m. on November 11, 1956 and who had expired at 11 a.m. I have already telegraphed to the brother of Indumati Ponshe at Calcutta. Earliest he will reach on 15th. His name is G. V. Deshpande – Shri Deshpande will take the body.”
No Deshpande turned up to take the body. Nobody did. So the unclaimed corpse was sent on November 15 to the J. J. Hospital morgue. Later, as per rules governing unclaimed bodies, the coroner of Bombay ordered that the body be handed over for the use of medical college students for study and dissection purposes. A menial who took charge of the body for transport noticed some scratches and the coroner was informed and the body returned. The coroner ordered a post-mortem.
On November 19, the Police Surgeon, Bombay performed the post-mortem but he could not detect anything unusual or unnatural. The viscera, examined by the Chemical Analyzer, did not reveal any poison. Everything seemed all right and the body was cremated on November 24 by a social welfare organization of Bombay, the Hindu Relief Society. It was all over. Or so it seemed.
Meanwhile, back in Poona, friends and relations of the deceased woman were anxious to know about her. Her son, her lawyer and some friends and relatives received frequent letters from Laxmibai stating that she had left on a pilgrimage tour to holy places of India during which she had met and married a Joshi at Rathodi. She had no intention of returning to Poona or to see anybody there and so nobody need bother to find out her whereabouts.
Who Was Laxmibai?
Who was Laxmibai? Her maiden name was Indumati Paunshe and after her marriage in accordance with custom and tradition in her community, she had changed her name to Laxmibai Karve.
The relatives and friends were surprised and intrigued. Laxmibai, a tradition-bound, conservative widow marrying again at her 45th year? It seemed so unlike her. She was no spring chicken. Nor man-hungry or giddy-headed. She was not that healthy either. She was a diabetes patient and suffered from tuberculosis. Besides she had uterine and menopause problems. Indeed she had been visiting hospitals and being treated by doctors of Poona. For such a person to marry again?
One of the doctors who treated her regularly for her various complaints was Dr. Anant Chintaman Lagoo.
The letters continued to arrive from various places full of intimate details about the married life, her husband, the places visited and such.
Yet some of her relatives, like her grown up son, were not convinced. They were indeed worried. They were aware that Laxmibai and her medical adviser and good friend Lagoo had left for Bombay by that night train and his explanation about parting company with her in Bombay did not seem convincing. Something seemed wrong somewhere…
Soon, the relatives and friends approached the Poona police authorities and an inquiry was ordered into the case of missing widow Laxmibai Karve.
Laxmibai was no poor widow. She had a house of her own in Poona. Besides she had considerable gold jewellery, shares and debentures in public limited companies and a respectable cash balance in a bank. Altogether a well-to-do woman.
When the police began to probe the friendship between Lagoo and Laxmibai many interesting facts came to light. Lagoo was not merely the widow’s medical adviser, but also her good friend and guide in all her dealings, both financial and otherwise. She developed immense faith in Lagoo and trusted him to the hilt. Two days before Laxmibai left for Bombay on that one-way-train ride of no return she had given Lagoo two documents signed by her. One was a bearer check for Rs.5000 and the other was a letter addressed to her bank giving notice that she would draw from her account Rs.5000 in the following week (the equivalent of $1,000 in U.S. currency at that time). One November 12 – the day of the departure – Lagoo deposited a share dividend warrant in favour of Laxmibai for Rs.2600. In her hurry to prepare for the journey – her last – she forgot to sign it but this did not bother Lagoo. He forged her signature so well that the bank had no doubts.
Back in Poona, Lagoo – while Laxmibai’s body lay in a Bombay morgue, as a destitute, unclaimed corpse – went to the bank on November 17 and handed over the widow’s letter and on November 20 withdrew Rs.5000 fully aware that she was dead by that time and left alone with nobody to claim her body.
The letters received by the relatives and friends from Laxmibai proved equally interesting to the police. The letters were found to be posted not at post offices but in Railway Mail Service vans attached to different trains. Police found persons who told them that they had done so under Lagoo’s instructions. And the signatures of Laxmibai in every letter were forged, courtesy of Lagoo.
At the G. T. Hospital, Lagoo gave the authorities false information about the unconscious woman. He gave the name as Indumati – her maiden name – which she had stopped using long, long ago. That was not all. He overstated her age to give the impression that she was much older than she actually was, saying she was “about 70.”
Besides he had told Dr. Ahuja that he had no idea who Laxmibai was and met her only on the train. A tissue of lies, damned lies, and pure lies.
G. T. Hospital was far away from the Victoria Terminus whereas within 50 yards of the railway station there was the well-known St. George’s Hospital but Lagoo chose not to take the unconscious patient there. Why not? Obviously he did not wish to give her medical aid immediately and took her to a farther place which would take a longer time to reach. Why did he do so? Did he expect her to die during the taxi ride or her condition to worsen further?
Did that mean that he had given her some poison on the train?
More evidence to damn the Poona doctor was unearthed with more effort. The police found that the “Calcutta Brother” – G. V. Deshpande was fiction and a figment of Lagoo’s imagination. There was no such person, no such address.
Another point of significance surfaced when a study of Lagoo’s letter of November 14 to Dr. Mouskar was made. A sentence in it ran as follows: “A woman… who had expired at 11 a.m.” The RMO’s telegram to Lagoo to which this letter was a reply made no reference to the time of expiry. How come Lagoo knew the time? Obviously he was in the hospital and left only after making sure the woman was dead.
A bigger and sharper nail to pin Lagoo down surfaced when the cancellation of the post-mortem by Dr. Mouskar was dug into. Varying and contradictory versions were given by Dr. Ahuja and the RMO, one trying to pass the buck to the other. More interesting was the fact that Lagoo and Mouskar were old and good friends for years having been together in college. The RMO had also lived in Poona for some time.
Laxmibai’s relations swore that on the day she left for Bombay she had worn gold and pearl ornaments, but there was nothing on her except wearing apparel at the hospital. Obviously Lagoo had robbed them on the train as soon as she lost her consciousness.
The police gathered evidence to show that Lagoo had misappropriated Rs. 26, 5000 belonging to Laxmibai Karve. He had forged her signature on several documents and robbed her in a planned manner over a period of time.
Proving Lagoo’s Guilt
Cheating… criminal misappropriation… forgery… serious crimes indeed but murder? Did Lagoo murder Laxmibai? What could be the proof that would stand scrutiny and tests during cross-examination in a court of law? True, there was plenty of suspicion. Yes, but proof? No evidence of any poison was found either by doctors at the G. T. Hospital or by the police surgeon or chemical analyzer. The police realised that they faced a problem. So, the issue was referred to a senior medical man and expert in Bombay in medico-legal matters Dr. H. S. Mehta.
Dr. Mehta made a deep and thorough study of the medical records, post-mortem reports and all and he expressed the definite and firm opinion that Laxmibai did not die of diabetic coma as believed by the GTH doctors. He wrote out a well-reasoned and researched opinion which could not be shaken even by the best of lawyers.
Dr. Mehta felt that the death was in all possibility caused by the administration of some unrecognizable poison or some recognizable poison which had become incapable of detection by analysis on account of the time-lapse between the date of death and chemical analysis of the viscera: almost seven days.
If the post-mortem had been performed as suggested by Dr. Vairava on the same day Laxmibai died – November 13, 1956 – perhaps the poison could have been detected. That was the reason why Lagoo worked hard on his college mate and friend Dr. Mouskar to decide against the post-mortem.
Lagoo Arrested and Charged with Murder
Lagoo was arrested and charged with the murder of Laxmibai under Section 302, Indian Penal Code by administering her some “unrecognized poison” and a sensational trial followed generating wide public interest. Even though there was no direct evidence, no eyewitnesses to the murder, to the actual administration of the poison by Lagoo, the circumstantial evidence pointing to the guilt of the accused was indeed overwhelming.
Lagoo was found guilty and sentenced to death. He filed an appeal to the Bombay High Court which upheld the conviction and confirmed the death sentence. The condemned doctor filed an appeal to the highest seat of justice in the country, the Supreme Court of India at Delhi.
A panel of three judges, Mr. Justice S. K. Das, Mr. Justice Hidayuatullah and Mr. Justice Sarkar, heard the appeal with great patience and examined every aspect of this unusual case with utmost care and attention.
Interestingly their decision was not unanimous. Their Lordships S. K. Das and Hidayuatullah came to the conclusion that Lagoo’s guilt had been proved beyond reasonable doubt by the circumstantial evidence against him and also his own conduct before and after the homicidal death of Laxmibai Karve.
However, his Lordship Sarkar differed and held that the prosecution had not proved the case against Lagoo beyond doubt and hence he was entitled to the benefit of doubt and should be acquitted. He declared that in a case of murder by poisoning conviction can be sustained only if it was legally proved that the person died as a result of poison and the accused had administered it. In this case there was no conclusive proof that Laxmibai had died of poison and Lagoo administered it.
Anyway the majority opinion prevailed and the conviction was upheld and death sentence confirmed that “it was the only sentence that could be imposed for this planned and cold-blooded murder for gain.” Lagoo was executed by hanging soon after his appeal was declined.
Lagoo’s case stands as a classic example of circumstantial evidence proving the legal maxim “witnesses may lie but circumstances do not.”