‘In general, a cat burglar is a thief who intrudes into homes to steal personal property, getting their name from the idea that cats can be quiet and sneaky. Cat burglars are essentially thieves who are able to break into a home without being noticed’ – thus runs a definition on the internet. Madras city had just such a cat burglar in the 1920s and he gave the police in the city quite a run before finally being apprehended.
I first came across a reference to his (mis)deeds in S Balakrishna Shetty’s comprehensive work, The History of the Madras Police (Madras Police Department, 1959). ‘A cat burglar made his appearance in 1930,’ wrote Shetty. ‘He specialised in breaking into bungalows of well-to-do people, both Indian and European, by climbing up the drainpipe and in taking away the jewellery that found a ready market. He was the forerunner of a criminal called ‘Flannelfoot’ in England who was responsible for about 135 burglaries in the year 1937. The cat burglar committed 41 burglaries in the city with impunity. The police were baffled because he left no trace…’ Shetty gives us the bare bones of the story and I have ever since been on the lookout for details. And as always, it was the Chief who showed the way. One afternoon last year, or was it early this year I forget, I was asked by Mr Muthiah’s daughters Dolly and Chooty to come home and see if I wanted any books from his collection. I brought away quite a few and one among these was Crimes, Criminals and Courts, (Extracts from my Scrap Book) by E.L. Iyer, BA, Barrister at Law (printed at the Vavilla Press, 1940). This slim volume compiles the articles that the author had written over a decade in The Hindu. One among these is the story of the cat burglar.
He adopted several aliases but his real name was Kirubanda Veerakone and he was Sinhalese by birth. He married early, had a son, probably broke up with the wife and having left his child with a brother, became a ship’s hand. He found employment as a fireman in a German cargo boat and later as a stoker in a P & O steamer. In these jobs he travelled far and wide, taking in even Great Britain. His tenure on the ships made him an expert in handling ropes and climbing masts, skills that would stand him in good stead when he eventually took to burglary. In 1923, after three years at sea, he was discharged at Colombo without a job. He then drifted to Bombay where he tried his hand at various jobs and also had his first brush with crime, for he was awarded a month’s imprisonment under the Bombay City Police Act. On release he shifted to Bangalore, where he fell in love with a young Christian girl, declared his name to be PA Parreira and married her. To her family, he was a jewel merchant from Colombo who had to travel often in connection with his business. He was known to be a devoted husband.
There must have come a time when in the eyes of his wife at least he was no longer a jewel merchant for in 1924 Parreira was employed in a hotel in Bangalore and there committed theft in which act he was apprehended, charged, tried, and sentenced to three years imprisonment at Vellore Jail. Released in 1927, he embarked on his career as a cat burglar. In the words of EL Iyer, ‘Parreira was an undergraduate in crime when he entered the Vellore Jail but after a course of three years he emerged as an honours graduate’. Rather amazingly, he was fifty when he took to burglary that involved ‘climbing walls and running up creepers,’ an age that according to Iyer was when ‘Government servants usually succumb to sleeping sickness or begin to consider the question of commuting their pensions’.
Madras became Parreira’s favourite haunt, for it was then a city of vast distances and enormous garden bungalows. Within a short while of his release in April 1927, the city registered as many as ten thefts, all in bungalows. He had a routine – of travelling to Madras by second class, completing a burglary and then returning to Bangalore. A pattern was emerging – when he was in Madras, thefts in Bangalore abated and when he returned, the former city had a respite. When he extended his operations to cities in North India, both Madras and Bangalore had some peace. But these patterns were not obvious then, for the police in the various parts of India were not linked by communication.
Early in his career he did make one mistake – he tried to dispose off gold items stolen in Madras city at a pawnbroker’s in the Flower Bazaar area. The police were alerted and apprehended him. He was sentenced by the Second Presidency Magistrate to three months rigorous imprisonment, but the police did not suspect that he was the cat burglar they were after. On release he became cautious – he never sold his loot in the same city in which he had stolen it. His career prospered and he was soon operating in Karachi, Rangoon, Mandalay and Jodhpur! He was a true artiste and left behind some tell-tale signs – after each burglary, he would remain in an unoccupied part of the same house, smoking cigarettes and then early in the morning, would slip out, mingling with the city’s labour force that set out to work early. He was cheeky as well – on one occasion he saw a policeman whom he knew was on the lookout for him and having walked up to him asked for a match. Having lit his cigarette, he walked away! And he stole only what could be safely taken away in his pockets – heavy silver articles were always left untouched no matter how tempting they may have been. There were other aspects to his handiwork – no violence of any kind and he did not work with any known network of offenders. He was a solo performer.
In 1928, Parreira achieved what was his career best – ten burglaries in one night in Madras! But then, Nemesis was slowly catching up. The Crime Branch of the Madras Police was established in 1930 and with that began a painstaking effort of recording details of criminals. Shetty notes that ‘when a certain kind of crime occurs and information is required about the criminals who might have committed it, the modus-operandi index will facilitate narrowing down the search for offenders on the well-known principle that certain criminals adopt only characteristic methods to commit offences which are a sort of trademark with them. This was further subdivided to indicate the criminal of a particular modus operandi taking only property of a certain type.’ Parreira was a perfect example and therefore a sitting duck.
Before long, the Madras Police had established contact with their Bangalore counterparts and also with those in cities such as Calcutta, Bombay and Asansol! It was found that the description of goods stolen in Madras matched perfectly with what had been disposed off in Bangalore and elsewhere. Likewise, property from other cities worth Rs 20,000 had been sold to some ‘pseudo-respectable’ jewellers of Madras. And for the first time, based on patterns of lulls and outbreaks it was possible to identify in which city the cat burglar was operating. The credit for finally nabbing Parreira went to the Bangalore police but it was handsomely acknowledged that this happy conclusion would have never happened had it not been for the meticulous work done by the Madras Crime Branch.
On being arrested, Parreira feigned madness initially. But he soon realised the game was up and became very co-operative, even enthusiastic, in his retelling of all his adventures and escapades. He considered himself an artiste and took pride in relating all details, no matter however slight. The judges were however not impressed. He was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of six years in Madras and for four-and-a-half years in Bangalore for crimes committed in that city.
Thus ended one of the most colourful of careers in crime