This Gentleman Sleuth Modernized India’s Police Department - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Richard Reid was a real-life Sherlock Holmes.

Sometime in the 1870s, an agitated British gentleman called Perkins appeared before Richard Reid at Calcutta’s Park Street police station to report being swindled by a crook, Bolachand Dhur. Perkins refused to file a formal complaint — he didn’t want his story in the papers — but Reid’s inspectors had heard about Dhur from other victims. They even knew where he was — but unfortunately, he was in a nearby French territory, and the extradition might take long enough that Dhur could easily disappear. So instead, Reid initiated a sting: He invited Dhur to a boat party on the river, swarming with pretty girls, opium-laced hookahs … and policemen in disguise. While Dhur was distracted, the boat drifted down the river and back into British territory. By the time he caught on and tried to escape overboard, it was too late. He’d been caught by Richard Reid, perhaps the most prominent British detective in India.

Reid had a stellar career as a detective in Calcutta — then the capital of the British empire in India — solving innumerable cases and training several batches of police officers. Not much is known about him before he became a sleuthing star, but he was known as the “conscience keeper and adviser of the commissioner,” according to Tapan Chattopadhyay, author of the book Kolkata & Its Police: A History of City Police from Charnock’s to Present Day. Even after he resigned in 1879, Reid continued to teach new recruits the art of detection and investigation. Dhur’s story is one of the many cases chronicled by Reid in Every Man His Own Detective, a collection of the lectures he delivered to recruits and officers in Calcutta’s police force.

Published in 1887 — the same year as Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet — the cases Reid recounts cover all kinds of crimes, including theft, swindling, burglaries and murder, along with runaways and those that never made their way onto police complaint registers. There’s even a suppression of evidence probe for a case registered during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In keeping with the spirit of teaching, Reid also outlines instances where he himself had been fooled: A thief convinced Reid that he was a prince, and on another occasion a notorious courtesan swindled him of a large sum of money. 

While Calcutta Police were designated as a separate organization in 1856, the detective department was set up in November 1868 following the murder of an Anglo-Indian woman named Rose Brown — one that was never solved. The department consisted of just one superintendent and one inspector, both British. Reid was made detective chief in 1873. 

But Reid was not an average officer, and he offers a fascinating glimpse of crime during the peak of colonization. In his lectures, he emphasized the importance of observation, and the criticality of supporting theories with cold hard facts instead of assumptions. He was known for employing unorthodox methods (such as deceit!) to coax confessions or smoke out criminals. Unfortunately, Reid was also a passionate advocate of physiognomy, or facial analysis, as a means of figuring out guilt — which distinctly highlighted his innate racism and anti-native stance: “My beloved pupils, observe and study the human face if you wish to excel as a detective,” he wrote.

“Reid was influenced by the contemporary Eurocentric obsession with physiognomy in criminology: the assumption that facial features and expressions alone are an index to the criminal mind,” says Sumanta Banerjee, author of Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta. “Also, Reid’s experiences were mainly confined to his investigations in the White Town [largely] involving cases like jewelry theft, bank sharpers, domestic burglary in commercial establishments and residences of European citizens.” 

Burra Bazar, Calcutta, India, early 20th century.

Calcutta in the early 20th century, when it was the capital of the British empire in India.

Source The Print Collector/Getty

This means that the crimes prevalent in Black Town, the part of Calcutta inhabited by native Indians and other non-White people, were largely ignored. Reid’s methods, too, were often useless there. “His methods of training native detectives did not work out for the Bengali sleuths who had to cope with domestic situations that defied the training imparted by him,” says Banerjee. Other police sometimes ignored Reid’s tenets in favor of their own methods for exactly this reason.

Nevertheless, Every Man is among the first authentic chronicles of crime in colonial Calcutta. Apart from providing insight into the lives Europeans led in the city — and the level of privilege they enjoyed — the book also shines a light on the inherent biases of the justice system, fundamentally structured against the native populace, even though he propounded deductive reasoning.

Every Man ends on an enlightening note, with a collection of Reid’s maxims for the true student of human nature. There are 26 of them, some insightful and others dark and reeking of cynicism. But they’re the perfect way to end a treatise on crime and colonization in Calcutta, where injustice thrived … even among detectives.

“Never mind what a man’s virtues are, waste no time in learning them,” Reid wrote. “Let his vices be to you what Greek authors should be to the academician — a study by day and a dream by night.”

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