George Edward Dessa: Lord Lytton’s Would-be Assassin
In a previous blog post I wrote of an assassination attempt on Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India. I was asked if I could find out more about George Edward Dessa (sometimes written De Sa), the would-be assassin.
Contemporary press reports follow Dessa’s arrest in December 1879, his trial in 1880, and his subsequent transfer to Bhowanipore (Bhawanipur) Lunatic Asylum, as he was deemed to be mentally ill. Press accounts paint a picture of a confused individual who held a grudge against the Government, believing it to owe him money as compensation for wrongful imprisonment. The language used is somewhat lurid. George appears to have stayed at Bhowanipore as a long-term patient. Our records show that George died there of heart failure on 8 February 1913, age 68, and was buried at the Roman Catholic Military Cemetery at Fort William, Calcutta.
Originally a private institution, Bhowanipore was managed by the Bengal Government as an asylum for Europeans and those of European descent. A report giving a snapshot of conditions at Bhowanipore in 1887 can be found online and Annual Reports have been digitised by the National Library of Scotland.
Delving deeper, there is a file on George Dessa in the Public and Judicial Department records, which includes accounts given by his father, George Henry Dessa, and his brother William David Dessa. What emerges is a picture of a family divided and torn by long-term mental health issues. The father recounts how his son suffered bouts of ‘insanity’ from an early age, including hallucinations and paranoia. Attempts to secure him work, including on the East Indian Railway, had all ended in dismissal due to ‘mental unsoundness’. George’s last job at the Preventative Service, Customs Department, ended with him threatening to shoot his supervisor. A brief spell in the Benares Lunatic Asylum followed. His fixation with compensation from the Government stemmed from this ‘imprisonment’. As well as threats to harm others, George had attempted to harm himself on at least two occasions by taking large doses of opium. George senior describes how his son was no longer able to live with him: ‘I would not let him live with me because I was afraid of him… at times he is dangerous, but has lucid intervals’. His brother William felt no longer able to speak to him.
It is clear from the accounts that the family firmly believed Dessa’s mental health struggles were genetic. In the language of the day, George Henry Dessa described how his youngest (unnamed) son had died aged 12 ‘an idiot’, while his wife, Ann Elizabeth Dessa née Rogers, had also been a patient at Bhowanipore from 1849 to 1874. Patient returns show that she was admitted on the recommendation from doctors, suffering from ‘imbecillitis’; in 1850 she is described as being in good physical health with a ‘more cheerful’ mental state. On discharge, she went to live with her son William, who stated ‘She is harmless, but commits mischief. I keep her under lock and key at night. She would tear curtains etc. She does not know me’. Ann died age 70 on 12 December 1888 of ‘old age’, and was buried in the cemetery attached to the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta. Her husband predeceased her, having died at Howrah in 1881.
We’ll share any further discoveries about the Dessa family on this blog.
Cataloguer, India Office Records
IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’, Feb-Mar 1880.
IOR/P/2957 Jul 1887 nos 43-49: Proposal of the Government of Bengal for providing increased accommodation in the Bhowanipore Lunatic Asylum, Jan 1887-Jul 1887.
IOR/P/14/5 nos. 44-45 Returns of public patients treated at Bhawanipur and Dullunda Asylums, 1849-50. 7 Aug 1850.
1867-1924 - Annual report of the insane asylums in Bengal - Medicine - Mental health - Medical History of British India - National Library of Scotland.
IOR/N/1/387 page 229 Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913 - Findmypast.
IOR/N/1/206 page 380 Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888 -Findmypast.
For Bhawanipur Lunatic Asylum see Waltraud Ernst, ‘Madness and Colonial Spaces: British India, c1800-1947’ in Topp et al (eds.), Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2007).
Accounts of George Dessa’s arrest, arraignment and subsequent trial can be followed in newspapers such as the Madras Weekly Mail (20 Dec 1879, 31 Dec 1879), The Illustrated Police News (10 Jan 1880), The Friend of India (21 Jul 1880) and The Homeward Mail (23 Sep 1880, 1 Oct 1880) available at the British Newspaper Archive, also via Find My Past.