As dark falls upon the wilderness of Mussoorie, the place bears a soul of its own. The mountains close in and watch, as if the hills have eyes. And the cold winds surge, seeming to sing of a tale from long ago. It is the true story of an eerie past, when the Queen of Hills was the pleasure capital of the Raj. In these recesses of colonial history bedecked by regal ballrooms, secret romances and English luxury, lurks a spooky chronicle of the occult — of crystal-gazing, mind-bending, haunting ghosts and the perfect murder of a sorcerer perpetrated at The Savoy a 100 years ago.
In the 1800s, European citizens serving in India hankered to escape the heat and dust of the plains; pining for the cool climes and liberal revelry of their native lands. Though Shimla gained prominence, its official air as the summer Capital stifled the civil servants and military men, their wives and girlfriends from having unreserved casual fun. And so, with Captain Young’s discovery of Mussoorie in 1825, the hill station became a bustling place of the rich and the powerful.
Not only the elite Europeans but scholars and royalties from places near and far climbed up the Himalayan foothills to unwind. Bored European wives whose husbands went away alighted in Mussoorie for free-spirited parties and illicit romances. Indian kings also thronged the place to have their share of the licentious dalliance.
During such halcyon days of Victorian glory, at the turn of the 20th century, an Irish Barrister called Cecil D lincoln raised a hotel most luxurious, one that matched The Cecil in Shimla and Carlton in lucknow. The lavish mountain resort spread over 11 acres dazzled as a stunning masterstroke of imperial luxury. It was named The Savoy, appropriately after the Savoy in london, and opened for the stately public in the summer of 1902. Even today, it is the largest hill-station hotel in India.
White and wooden, The Savoy nuzzled gorgeously among towering Deodars with true Victorian class. Describing the grand construction of the hotel, author Ruskin Bond writes, “Everything heavy, including the building materials, came uphill by bullock carts. Massive Victorian or Edwardian furniture, grand pianos, billiards tables, barrels of cider and crates of champagne — all the appurtenances of a hotel that was to become well known as the Raffles in Singapore or the Imperial in Tokyo came up in these lumbering Mr Buckle’s Bullock Cart Train.”
With not a detail of richness amiss, The Savoy became the crowning jewel of the Queen of Hills. Four years after its inauguration, the Princess of Wales stayed at the historic hotel. With its enormous rooms, imposing dining hall, swanky ballrooms and genteel hospitality “Savoy had catered to virtual who’s who of its time — Her Highness Princess of Wales, Motilal Nehru, Indian Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. His Holiness the Dalai lama, the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, His Majesty the King of Nepal, His Majesty the Crown Prince of laos, Pearl S Buck, a host of Maharajas and many others,” recounts Bond.
It became the centerpiece of joie de vivre among high echelons of the historic epoch. And flourished in this insouciance unrestrained indulgence of nightlong fox-trot, flighty spouses, unreciprocated love and furtive liaisons. Interestingly, it had a partially blind waiter who rang the Separation Bell religiously at 4am every morning, so that the philandering guests could return to their own rooms before chhota hazri (tea, a banana and two cookies) was served two hours later. Visiting the hill resort in 1926, the famous American broadcaster and traveller lowell Jackson Thomas wrote, “There’s a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.”
In this period of roses and wine, in 1911, an occult practitioner called Miss Frances Garnett-Orme came to stay at The Savoy with a fellow spiritualist, Eva Mountstepehen from lucknow. Aged 49, Orme was an eerie woman whose husband, a British officer in the United Provinces, had died before their marriage could consummate. Frozen into her tragic past, the eccentric woman walked to the dead. She relegated her life to the paranormal space, and with companion Mountstephen, racked up haunting practices like crystal-gazing, spectral table-rapping and seances. As described by writer Ganesh Saili, “Miss Mountstephen soon returned to lucknow. From there, she went on to Jhansi. One morning not long after this, lady Garnett-Orme was found dead in her bed. The door of her room was locked from the inside. The autopsy revealed that she had been poisoned with prussic acid, a cyanide-based poison. The police ruled out suicide and the mysterious murder became the sensation of the town. Jaws dropped when only a few months later, Orme’s doctor was also found dead by strychnine poisoning at another place.
A well-known psychic claimed that Orme had been killed by Mountstephen. It was claimed that the latter had applied her magical incantation powers to make the victim add poison to her own bottle of sodium bicarbonate medicine. Mountstephen was arrested and tried in the Allahabad High Court. However, in the lack of evidence she was acquitted. In what came to a dead-end as the perfect murder, the Chief Justice of Allahabad observed that penings of Orme’s death would probably never be known.”
There was also an appeal ‘Miss Eva Mountstephens vs Mr Hunter Garnett Orme’ decided on May 24, 1913 in the Allahabad High Court involving a “will annexed to the estate of the late Miss Francis Mary Garnett Orme. The estate is roughly valued at Rs17,000,” indicating that the bizarre victim was wealthy.
As the unsolved creepy murder became the talk of the town, Rudyard Kipling wrote to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle bidding Doyle to create a new Sherlock Holmes adventure on The Savoy Murder. While Doyle himself did not use the case, he narrated it to Agatha Christie who used the circumstances of the case in her first novel The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920). The Savoy crime that founded the beginnings of the writing career of Christie, later also inspired another literary work — Ruskin Bond’s In A Crystal Ball — A Mussoorie Mystery. Writing about the spectres of Mussoorie, Bond muses, “Most visitors from the other side are melancholy spirits looking for a lost love or a lost home. They are unquiet, unhappy souls, haunting the places they once knew.”
And for a 100 years now, it is attested that the hallways and ballrooms of the Savoy are haunted by the ghost of Orme. Be it from the heritage hotel’s staff, old timer natives or crew members of film shootings (Anand Jha’s spot boy asserted having encountered a ghost at The Savoy), there are anecdotes galore vouching that as the day draws to a close, Orme rises from the dead; and drifts scarily in the corridors of the hotel, prodding one’s memory to a cryptic murder perpetrated so long ago.
Time and again, several visitors and local residents claim that the Regal Ballroom of the Savoy comes alive at night, the grand Piano renders haunting melodies as the chandelier sways back and forth, propelled by an unseen force. In the billiards room close by, the pit-a-pat of snooker balls hitting cues can be heard. And chilling one to the spine, an English lady steps out of unoccupied rooms locked from outside.
Under the ownership of India’s second largest hotel chain (ITC), the historic hotel has been renovated while keeping intact its Gothic character. Today, with more than 100 rooms embellished with antique furniture, oak wood floors and white beams, The Savoy is an upscale heritage hotel attracting elites from around the world.
Over six decades past the end of the Raj, as the hill station becomes a clutter of piddling garish motels, not much of the old European charm of Mussoorie remains. But for a few singular places like the old Savoy, where time and spirit, both seem to hang on the curtains of antiquity.