So this was the sensation of the moment. And so people in not only in Hyderabad and
Lucknow, were following the story, but in Calcutta, which was then India's Colonial
Capital and in London were reading verbatim transcripts from what people said each
day in the trial. And so that spread the rumors and the testimony, whether true or
false, about Ellen, all the way back to London and all across India.
Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Janet Cunningham with the
University of Utah College of Humanities, and this season I'm in discussion with professors
from across our college about their book publications. I'm currently sitting here
with Benjamin Cohen, professor of history, to discuss his book, An Appeal to the Ladies
of Hyderabad: Scandal in Raj, which tells the dramatic story of an elite couple's
fall from society in 19th century India that set the benchmark for Victorian scandals.
Welcome Professor Cohen.
So first, I want to say as I'm reading this book in my head, I'm picturing the Netflix
series of this book because it has all the makings of like a limited series drama.
Thanks. I agree. I hope that maybe someone from Netflix is listening or from Hollywood
or Bollywood would be lovely.
Because it has all the things. It has scandal, it has elites of society, it has lies
and bombshells and just anything that could make you just draw you into this series.
I can just picture in my head every single series or every single episode just ending
with this massive bombshell that we'll talk about in this.
So just as an introduction, I want to hear from you about what fascinated you enough
about this scandal and this story that motivated you to write the book.
I think when I first came across the story, it struck me as a very human tale of love
and also of the rise and fall of this couple in colonial India. And it was also a
story that historians of India had ignored or had swept under the carpet. And so I
wanted to bring back the story and the voices of Mehdi Hasan and Ellen Donnelly.
When were you first introduced? When did you find out about this story about Mehdi
So I was a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and
my advisor was retiring while I was still at Madison. And he was cleaning out his
office and he gave me a bundle of xeroxed pages and he said, "Oh, you're working on
Hyderabad. This might be interesting to you." And I eventually read it and was introduced
to the story of Mehdi and Ellen through that bundle. Those pages were the court transcript.
And so from that I worked backward to understand how we got to that court case and
then forward after the court case to find out what befell Mehdi and Ellen.
So give us just a brief kind of overview and then we'll kind of get into these more
specific questions. So just to familiarize everyone with who Mehdi and Ellen are.
Yeah, so this is really a love story and it's between a relatively poor North Indian
Muslim man named Mehdi Hasan and an Indian born Christian woman of British heritage
named Ellen Donnelly. And they met in North India in the City of Lucknow, midway through
the second part of the 19th century. And they got married and then they moved south
to the City of Hyderabad where Mehdi Hasan enjoyed a just skyrocketing career. And
they became quite the social couples circulating both within Indian and British circles
in Hyderabad. They then went off to London and met the Queen. And when they got back
the people of Hyderabad, a few people were fed up with Mehdi Hasan's success and wrote
a very nasty short pamphlet, unable to say anything bad about Mehdi Hasan, they went
after Ellen and said quite terrible things about her. And then there was a court case
and then that led to the last part of their lives.
So let's kind of start from the beginning. When Mehdi and Ellen got married, their
marriage was seen as a bit controversial, right?
And so why was that?
If Mehdi and Ellen were here, they would say that it was a love marriage and there
was nothing controversial about it at all. At this time in India, interracial marriages
were not uncommon, especially amongst sort of the lower stratum of the class society,
that is people who are not elites. And neither Mehdi nor Ellen were elites. And so
they got married and she converted from Christianity to Islam, which again was not
that uncommon and proceeded to live as husband and wife for a few years in North India
before their luck changed and they moved to the South.
So what motivated them to move from Lucknow to Hyderabad, and how did this choice
contribute to their future problems?
So at the time, we have to think of India, there are really two Indias at this time,
in the latter part of the 19th century. There is directly controlled India, which
included Lucknow, and that is that the British, that part of India was directly administered
by the British. And then about a third of the Indian subcontinent was indirectly controlled
by the British. And this is where the native princes and chiefs still held some degree
of sovereignty over their states. These were the princely states.
Hyderabad, where Mehdi and Ellen end up in the middle part of their lives was India's
largest princely state, 82,000 square miles, which is about the same size as France,
and also happens to be the same size as Utah. So it's not a small place. And the prime
minister of Hyderabad was on tour in North India and was recruiting young men who
had been educated in British run schools to come to the South and to help him administer
Hyderabad state. It was felt that those individuals with that British inflected education
would be better bureaucrats. And so Mehdi Hasan was recruited to come to the south
and he and Ellen got on a train and that's what they did.
And you said a little bit earlier that he quickly rose through the ranks and they
became part of this kind of elite society. So can you talk about his quick rise and
how it may have angered a few people?
Yeah, that's exactly right. He starts as a low level bureaucrat. He becomes like a
local city judge and eventually works his way up to being chief justice of Hyderabad's
high court. And after that goes even onto one administrative position higher. And
from everything that my research showed, he was a pretty upright and competent administrator
and practitioner of the law. And while he is coming up in Hyderabad circles, Ellen
comes out of purdah. She had maintained the Muslim tradition in South Asia of staying
in purdah. She comes out of purdah and she sort of wanders away from Islam and seems
to have gone to church a few times and comes back into a Western Christian mode. And
so the two of them are this power couple. He's a young Muslim man on the rise, and
she's circulating now with the British women and British men who are living in Hyderabad,
who are part of the British presence and Hyderabad.
And they cross-fertilize each other's social calendars. So because of his background
and his position, they're invited to the Nizam of Hyderabads palace and the prime
minister's palace. And they're circulating on the one hand in that Indian milieu.
And because of her British heritage and sort of wandering back to Christianity, she
and thus he, are invited to the British residency, which is where the local British
official, the seat of power is. And they go to the club and they circulate in that
circle and they rise up the social ladder. And then when he's called to the bar in
London, and so they go off to Europe and it's when he gets back that the local Hyderabadies
are frustrated with his success. And so they circulate the pamphlet.
And so then in 1892, this seven page, eight page, pamphlet gets distributed to kind
of all the elites in society, titled An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad. And it's
passed around. And so kind of discuss everything that it details, which is a lot,
and kind of the chaos that it created for Mehdi and Ellen.
Yeah. So there's one copy of this pamphlet left in the whole world, and I was very
privileged to find it.
Oh my gosh.
On the last day of a research trip overseas. And when I found it, I knew I could write
the book because this was the keystone for the whole story. So the pamphlet tells
or makes about five accusations. First it says that as a young woman, Ellen had been
a prostitute in Lucknow. Second, it says That Mehdi and Ellen, or that she had been,
after working as a sort of common prostitute, she had become a kept woman, sort of
an advanced prostitute and was kept by several local men in Lucknow.
Third, the pamphlet says that Mehdi and Ellen in fact never got married. And in the
court case there was some controversy about who was actually at the wedding. So that
the accusation there are the insinuation is that this was an illegitimate couple and
they were passing themselves off as respectable and as married.
The fourth accusation is that once they got to Hyderabad, that Mehdi Hasan no less
than pimped his wife to some of the local Hyderabad officials where she bestowed her
services for them. And then the last accusation was that some of the local Hyderabad
officials who had also come from North India knew about this and they covered the
whole thing up. And so there was a coverup as well as the accusations about what she
had been and what she had done.
And so through your research, what are the intentions of this author or authors of
this pamphlet? Was it just to take the couple down?
Yeah, I think so. There is a strong sense in Hyderabad and in that region of India
called the Deccan, of being a local. And being a local and being part of that local
community, that sense is really strong and Hyderabad in particular. And the locals
were threatened and annoyed and irritated with this North Indian, who was not a local
and his white wife who showed up and then rose through the ranks. And they wanted
to bring him down. And since they couldn't find anything that he had done wrong, no
bribery, no corruption, seems to have been a fairly competent administrator and judge
and whatnot, they went after Ellen and that was what did them in.
And so what do you know about the authors? Because they have some very specific detailed
information that not a lot of people... I mean either if it's a rumor, if it was true,
not very many people are going to know. So what do you know about who authored the
Yeah. It was never clear throughout, over a decade of research if there was one or
in fact multiple authors. And what I think happened is that a small group of people
who knew Mehdi and Ellen from their Lucknow days got together in Hyderabad this time
and wrote up the pamphlet and different people probably contributed different ideas
or bits of information, whether true or not. And they stitched it together in a narrative
and that was the pamphlet.
And so now Mehdi is mad obviously, and he can't figure out who has written this pamphlet.
So he goes to the printer of the pamphlet and pursues legal action against him. And
there's this huge drawn out, what was it, nine months?
Yeah, it's a over nine month trial.
... of this trial. And it is full of just bombshells and witness information. So tell
me, what were some of the key points and what were those most turbulent moments?
I think one of the witnesses who came to Hyderabad and testified against Mehdi and
Ellen was a man named James Lachlan. And Lachlan takes the stand and in a bombshell
moment announces that he had in fact been married to Ellen when she was younger, in
their Lucknow days, and that which no one seemed to have known in Hyderabad. And not
only had he been married to Ellen, but he broke off the marriage when he caught her
in an incestuous act with her father. At that point the marriage was dissolved. I
think that moment was one of the bombshells. As I read through the court transcript,
it was an oh my gosh moment.
I think the second moment that was more moving was at the very end of the witnesses
after nine months, Ellen herself takes the stand, and she of course denied all of
the accusations and talked in really loving terms about her marriage to Mehdi Hasan
and what that looked like. And so it was so gratifying to hear her voice in that court
case. And you can imagine that when she entered the courtroom, everyone's head turned.
And there must've been a lot of whispering and pointing. And then she takes the stand
and the trial transcript, you really feel the moment when that happened. And I think
that was for me, a really special part of that document.
As you're reading through the trial, it is just all about her and witness after witness
just dragging her through the mud and nothing really about Mehdi.
Right, right. And this was for the purposes of the pamphlet. This was about her as
a way to get to him. And so you do have witnesses, not only James Lachlan, but other
witnesses who testify to making love with her on the roof in Lucknow and then exchanging
money and gifts for that experience.
This is also being recorded dail,y as in printed in the news outlets daily on the
updates of the trial. So everyone's following it.
Absolutely. At this time, newspapers in India and courtrooms in India were open. And
so this was the sensation of the moment. And so people in not only in Hyderabad and
Lucknow were following the story, but in Calcutta, which was then India's colonial
capital and in London, were reading verbatim transcripts from what people said each
day in the trial. And so that spread the rumors and the testimony, whether true or
false, about Ellen all the way back to London and all across India.
And so what was the result of the trial?
Well, at the end, the judge, after sitting for nine months and listening to everyone's
testimony, basically said to Mehdi Hasan and the prosecution that they hadn't proved
their point and he dismissed the case. But as you pointed out, with the testimony
being broadcast everywhere, their reputations were ruined. So that was the end of
their... any hope for them for redemption in Hyderabad.
So they move out of Hyderabad.
Right. Within days of the trial ending, they're back on a train heading north.
And what becomes of them?
Well, Mehdi Hasan goes back... they both go back to Lucknow where their lives as a
couple had started, and Mehdi Hasan practices law for a while, and near the end of
his life gets involved with the Indian National Congress. And the Congress party is
a political party and a movement that eventually Mahatma Gandhi leads, and it's the
party that takes India to independence. But Mehdi Hasan, earlier in his life was dead
set against India's independence and thought that the Congress and the idea of getting
rid of the British Empire in India was a terrible idea. And so you see him change
over the course of his life to come around to being a tepid supporter of Congress.
He dies relatively young and they had no children. And so Ellen is left alone in North
India. She slides deeper and deeper into poverty. I found letters from her where she's
trying to sell her jewelry, which is an indication of how bad things got. She has
sisters who are scattered around the globe and she's trying to go and stay with them,
but she's never able to. And finally she dies alone from the flu.
And it's so sad. But this couple who they kind of in the beginning, oh, their marriage
is false and they're this and that, and they stay together this entire time.
Right. It was interesting to me to think about that, that either one of them could
have walked out. They could have said, "This is too much." Or if Mehdi Hasan believed
the accusations, or if Ellen thought that Mehdi was the problem in the marriage, or
if there had been a problem, they could have walked away. It would've been possible,
but they stuck it out. And to her dying day, she signed her letters, Mrs. Mehdi Hasan,
which I thought was a remarkable testament to love, which I think what this is really
Because I can't imagine having to go through that trial and just sticking it out and
staying together because they faced so much, and they were like the top of society
for a while. And then at the very, very bottom.
So one question that just, I know you're a historian and it is based on fact, but
I would love to know, who do you think wrote the pamphlet?
I think it was a man named Vasu Devarao, who is a local Hyderabady who had friends
in the circles that were opposed to Mehdi Hasan. And I think he was the most likely
person to have written it, but I think it was co-authored by him and some others.
But there were some newspaper accounts after the trial was settled that pointed a
finger pretty clearly at Vasu Devarao.
So with every podcast, I end with the same question, so it can be related to the conversation
we just had. It can be unrelated. What does this world know now because of your research
that they didn't know before for?
It's a great question and I'm happy to take a stab at answering it. I think at one
level, this was a story that had been either forgotten or intentionally hidden away
by those who were involved or those who were affected by the story of Mehdi and Ellen.
And so it was an opportunity for me as a scholar and as a historian to give them their
voice back. And I tried very hard to bring their voices through the narrative and
let them speak.
At the same time, it was also, as an academic, a contribution to scholarship on race
in South Asia. It's certainly a story of class and that both Mehdi and Ellen started
from very humble origins, and as you said, went all the way up and then all the way
back down the arc of financial success, is a story in some ways, much about gender
and about what it meant to be a woman, an Indian born white woman who was fluent in
Urdu, the language of Lucknow and of Hyderabad and the attack on her position as a
woman and what that meant. And also, his manliness was questioned. There were a lot
of questions about his virility and his manliness. So it's an intervention in gender
studies in some way. And then stepping back, their lives are set in colonial South
Asia, which is a story about power. And then at the end of the day, like at the beginning,
this was a story about love. And so I think that it's a love story that it was worth
I think we were talking about this before we began recording, and that this book...
you're a historian and you're an academic, but this book is really targeted towards
anyone because the story just goes on and on and on. But everyone can understand it.
I personally loved the book and I followed it word for word. And I would encourage
anyone who's interested in this scandalous love story to really pick up this book
and learn about this, because it also offers, at least when I was reading it, thinking
about how would this scandal play out today? What parts would happen, what would not
be allowed, what would I be reading about on Twitter or X as it's called?
Yeah, thank you for that. I very much wrote the book for a popular audience. I had
enjoyed a lot, success as an academic historian. But this story and the story of Mehdi
and Ellen seemed too good to bog down, if you will, with academic jargon and heavy
theory. And I published bits of the story and other things elsewhere. But when sat
I down to write, I envisioned my ideal reader. And that was not a fellow professional
historian or a university professor. It was a much bigger public that I was targeting.
And so if it made sense to you and anyone else who read it, then I'm really happy.
And it obviously feels very research academic because there's a lot of transcripts
from the pamphlet from letters and from the court trial. And so I think that's one
of the things that makes it so interesting, is actual fact. But it's put in a story
that is just so interesting and engaging that I think anyone can really enjoy.
Yeah, thank you. I traveled the world to do the research for this book, and holding
the letters from Ellen in my hand, written in sort of a shaky black fountain pen ink
on light blue heavy stationary was really one of the highlights of my professional
research career. And so I feel really honored and privileged to have had the chance
to find the story, courtesy of my advisor, and then have the opportunity to tell it
and share it with the bigger public.
That was Benjamin Cohen, professor of history. For more information about the University
of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu. And don't forget
to subscribe to Humanities Radio.