Tag Archives: forensics

1955: Three for the death of King Ananda of Thailand

On this date in 1955, Thai royal secretary Chaliew Pathumros and royal pages Butr Patamasarin and Chit Singhaseni were shot as regicides. (Many other transliterations of these names, and the other Thai names in this post, are possible.) Few now believe that it was they who killed the young King of Thailand, Ananda Mahidol … but who really did it?


The defendants left to right across the front row: Chit Singhaseni, Butr Patamasarin, and Chaliew Pathumros.

Inheriting the throne of Siam — it became Thailand in 1939* — as a nine-year-old expatriate student in Switzerland, the wispy King Ananda would be described by Lord Mountbatten as “a frightened, short-sighted boy … a pathetic and lonely figure.” Some questioned whether he wanted to be king; others, whether monarchy would or should survive in Thailand at all. (Absolute monarchy had given way to constitutional monarchy in 1932.) Ananda’s own deceased father, a prince who had gone to Harvard, studied medicine, and married a commoner, seemed to model a different direction altogether, and Ananda’s legally questionable selection in 1935 might have been designed intentionally to enthrone a figure with no capacity for governance.

In any event, he would not bear this strange burden for very long — for his reign ended at 9:20 in the morning on June 9, 1946, announced by the single report of His Majesty’s own Colt .45 in Boromphiman Throne Hall. Ananda Mahidol was 20 years old, and he’d been expecting within a few days to fly back to Switzerland and wrap up his law degree. Instead, shot dead in the head at point-blank range, he was the vortex of a murder(?) mystery that continues to this day to elude a satisfactory accounting. His younger brother immediately succeeded him as King Bhumibol Adulyadej and would reign for 70 years** but even he couldn’t say what happened in this 1980 BBC interview.

The palace initially announced that the king had killed himself accidentally while toying with his gun but as more information leaked out it speedily rubbished the hypothesis of accidental or suicidal self-infliction. According to a British forensic pathologist who examined the evidence,†

The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a “contact” discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head.

Such findings pointed to the more politically explosive possibility that someone else shot King Ananda, which was also the conclusion of an official Thai inquiry late in 1946.

Soon, charges that the late king had been murdered at the behest of Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong — a republican who in his student days had been prominent in the successful movement to overthrow royal absolutism — were being aggressively bandied by his opposition. This rumor would eventually be enlisted as justification for a 1947 military coup that forced Pridi to flee Thailand.

Having made the punishment of Ananda’s assassins part of his putsch’s raison d’etre, the authoritarian former Axis collaborator Field Marshal Phibun now fixed his gaze on three palace servants who had been close to the young king in his last hours. Through them, Phibun’s new regime could condemn Pridi in absentia.

In a bizarre and ridiculous legal saga that began in 1948, the trio would be depicted as part of a sinister plot under Pridi’s direction to slay the king — Chaliew as Pridi’s instrument, and the two pages, who were in personal attendance upon Ananda at the time of his death, as complicit witnesses/accessories. (The judgment never quite says directly who pulled the trigger.) Over the course of the legal odyssey, two of the scapegoats’ defense attorneys were murdered, and two more arrested for treason: representing these regicides was such a dangerous task that by the end their team comprised only two young attorneys, one of whom was Chaliew’s freshly-graduated daughter.

Even so, only Chit was convicted in the first go-round but prosecution appeals against the verdict succeeded in condemning both of the other men, too. (One can read the full verdict in English here.) They would be executed one by one via a machine gun fusillade to the back, delivered through a screen — the distinctive local method. Bhumibol could have spared them. He didn’t.

But talk of these men as arch-traitors faded as political exigencies shifted in the subsequent decades. Their alleged conspiracy was incoherently depicted from the start, and nothing of direct evidence really implicated them: one can see in the BBC clip above that King Bhumibol doesn’t even bother discussing them when asked about Ananda’s death. It’s left the rather consequential question of who killed the king in a puzzling irresolution, a situation compounded by Thailand’s expansive lèse majesté law which renders taboo many obvious lines of inquiry when a royal is slain in a closed residence peopled by other royals. Speculation still centers on the three main scenarios considered from the outset: suicide, homicide, and accident.

Suicide

South African historian Rayne Kruger examined the obscure event in The Devil’s Discus: The Death of Ananda, King of Siam and concluded that it might have been suicide after all. In Kruger’s conception, it would have been occasioned by the young king’s mooning over a fellow law student back in Switzerland (Marylene Ferrari) who was forbidden him by his royal station.

It was published in 1964, and is banned under Thailand’s aggressive censorship program.

Homicide

William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King postulates that fugitive Japanese war criminal Masanobu Tsuji, who was hiding out in Thailand at the time, masterminded the king’s assassination.

Bhumibol and the Thai court permitted Stevenson intimate access for several years researching this volume, although this did not prevent the book from also meeting a chilly reception in Thailand. (It’s unclear to me whether it was in fact ever formally banned, as some sites assert.) Although Stevenson’s theory about the killer doesn’t have many adherents, one supposes that in view of the author’s access, Bhumibol must have suggested it or assented to it during their private conversations.

Accident

Scottish journalist and former Reuters Bangkok correspondent Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of another book banned in Thailand (A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century), has argued that the only plausible inference from the strange pattern of circumstantial evidence is that King Bhumibol himself — then an 18-year-old — pulled the trigger, likely by accident while horsing around with Ananda.

If Ananda was not assassinated by an intruder, did not shoot himself by accident, and did not commit suicide, that means he was shot by somebody known to be at the Barompiman Hall that morning. And only one person was not able to fully account for their movements that morning: Bhumibol. In particular, his testimony to investigators appeared to conflict with that of the royal nanny …

Discrepancies in the accounts of what happened when Bhumibol went to see Ananda at 9 a.m. are also telling. Investigators began to suspect the most likely scenario was that Bhumibol had indeed gone to see Ananda, but had not been turned away by the pages as he and they were later to claim. He went into Ananda’s room.

What happened there over the next 20 minutes, only Bhumibol knows for sure.

Bhumibol and Ananda both owned several guns and enjoyed playing with them. Indeed, Bhumibol had been known in the past to playfully point a gun at his brother. This has led many people to speculate privately that Bhumibol and Ananda were playing some kind of game in the bedroom that morning and that something had gone terribly wrong. The forensic evidence suggests Ananda was asleep when he was killed, however, although there remains the likelihood that, as the British ambassador’s secret cable suggests, the scene was rearranged after Ananda’s death. In any event, no credible explanation for the death of Ananda has ever been proposed other than this: between 9 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Ananda’s Colt .45 was taken out from his bedside cabinet, and somehow Bhumibol came to shoot his brother with it, with the muzzle very close to Ananda’s forehead. Perhaps they were playing, or perhaps Ananda was still dozing and Bhumibol wanted to wake him with a practical joke, holding the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Most probably, he removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic, put it to his brother’s head, and pulled the trigger, forgetting that even with the magazine removed, one round remains in the breech. Less likely, but possible, is that they argued about something and Bhumibol brandished the gun in a fit of anger. Bhumibol alone has the answer, and he seems unlikely to ever give us the truth.

This theory, which is also of course lèse majesté in Thailand, is supported by Paul Handley, yet another journo with a banned book (The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej).

Marshall’s website zenjournalist.org touches this event in a number of posts; he makes the case most directly and thoroughly in “The Tragedy of King Bhumibol”, Part III and Part IV. These and other posts also marshall diplomatic cables and intelligence reports showing that Bhumibol as the killer was common private scuttlebutt among both Thai and foreign officials from the very first days to the point of being received, albeit publicly unutterable, wisdom. For example, American diplomat Kenneth Landon‡ casually remarks as fact that King Ananda was “killed by his brother, either intentionally or accidentally, by the gun the OSS guy had given them to play with” in this recording made by his son for a family history. (It occurs in passing at 4:48)

Rumor is not proof, of course, but this theory would certainly account for the shroud of permanent mystery surrounding June 9, 1946, not to mention the king’s own grave public persona (“The King Never Smiles …”). For Marshall, Bhumibol — a fun-loving, jazz-playing sprite at the time he allegedly shot his beloved older brother — was a figure of monumental tragedy and, at least before he got to the point of allowing innocent people to take the fall for it, his dissembling about Ananda’s death

was not a way of shirking responsibility. Quite the reverse: his failure to confess was in many ways a profound sacrifice. Had he told the truth about the death of Ananda, he could have escaped back to Switzerland for a very comfortable life as a playboy prince, albeit a notorious one. Instead, he lied, and accepted the crushing burden of kingship, a role that he had never wanted. He resolved to devote himself tirelessly to royal duty for the rest of his life. It probably seemed the only way he could even begin to make amends.

* Thailand was again Siam from 1946 to 1948. I’ve simply used “Thai” and “Thailand” throughout this post about events overlapping this period, the better to avoid confusion.

** Bhumibol, who died in 2016, was among the world’s longest-reigning monarchs ever. As of this writing his son holds the throne.

† The palace immediately took control of, and meddled with, the scene, so the available evidence falls very far short of what a crime scene investigator might wish for.

‡ Kenneth Landon’s wife Margaret, his longtime companion in Siam/Thailand since the two first went as missionaries in 1927, is noteworthy as the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which is the basis for (among other adaptations) the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and the Jodie Foster film Anna and the King.

1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.