Column | How the murder of an Anglo-Indian dentist shocked Kottayam in 1913

The news about Burton Swinny's escapade appeared on Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle published on August 20, 1913. Photo: Screenshot of Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle

On a monsoon night in 1913, the sleepy town of Ettumanoor, near Kottayam, woke up to noise and commotion. A murder suspect by the name of Burton Swinny had managed to escape from police custody was on the run with two swords that he stole from the armoury.

A policeman chased Swinny down and finally managed to catch him with the help of a large group of residents who witnessed the commotion. The escapee, an Anglo-Indian, was one of two suspects in the murder of Buckingham Stephens, a 35-year-old dentist, who was shot in his bed.

Until he tried to make a daring escape, Swinny was given special privileges in lock-up, as he had convinced the Kottayam District Magistrate that he “belonged to a respectable family” and was used to certain comforts. “He complained that he was confined to a narrow ill-ventilated and damp room, and consequently he became subject to cramp and fits of rheumatism, and prayed that he might be allowed all the comforts he was enjoying when he was in the lock-up in Vaikkom, and that food supplied to him might be allowed to be prepared by his own relatives, subject to medical examination, before being served,” the Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, said in August, 1913.

A medical exam revealed that Swinny was under the influence of alcohol when he escaped from lock up. This attempted breakaway led to his trial getting expedited.

At that time, Benjamin Bertram Buckingham Stephens, a prominent member of the Anglo-Indian community, had been married to Florence Gunther for 11 years. Unbeknownst to him, however, his wife was having an extra-marital affair with Swinny.

On the night of June 11, 1913, Florence Stephens approached the Kottayam Police and said her husband had shot himself. After investigating the case, the police arrested Mrs Stephens and Swinny. The police claimed Mrs Stephens shot her husband, while he was asleep in bed.

Like Swinny, Mrs Stephens appealed to the magistrate to be kept in better conditions. Her father, Albert M Gunther hired P Gopala Menon, one of the most illustrious lawyers of the Cochin Chief Court to represent Mrs Stephens.

Indian Bungalow Murder
The trial kept getting delayed as Mrs Stephens was pregnant and Swinny was in and out of hospital for a host of reasons. The case was covered by several Indian and foreign publications, as the Western media was intrigued by the English-sounding names.

The case became known across the world as the “Indian Bungalow Murder.”

The prosecution led by Sircar Vakil Thomas Varghese successfully argued the case and both Mrs Stephens and Swinny were sentenced to life imprisonment.

“The woman was found guilty of the murder and Swinny with abetment,” a wired report that appeared in several newspapers on March 7, 1914, said. The report added, “Evidence was given of Swinny’s having been seen in the act of cleaning the gun the day before the occurrence, and that it was taken to his room. Experts declared it was impossible for Mr. Stephens to have shot himself, as he was alleged for the defence.”

Both Mrs Stephens and Swinny appealed the conviction and were acquitted.

Another family feud
The duo left Kottayam and moved to the Straits Settlements (modern day Malaysia and Singapore). Mrs Stephens made headlines, once again in 1916, as she was involved in another court case. Her father Albert Gunther took her to court to recover the legal expenses he incurred during the murder trial.

Gunther said he spent the then princely sum of Rs 3,000 for his daughter’s case and approached the court to recover Rs 3,332. The court ruled in his favour and asked Mrs Stephens to pay Rs 2,754.

After Mrs Stephens was acquitted in the murder case, she received several thousands of rupees that were bequeathed to her in her husband’s will. She used this money to start life afresh and left India with Swinny and her two children.
This writer did not find any further information about the infamous “Indian Murder Bungalow” in the archives. The death may just have been ruled as a suicide when the case went into appeal.

It is impossible now to know what exactly happened on that fateful night in 1913. An Anglo-Indian family-tree website mentions Buckingham and Florence Stephens but has no information about their children. The secret probably stayed with the family in their new home in the Straits Settlements.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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