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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-TWO:
Back in the 1920’s, London Zoo had two elephant experts; Sayed Ali and San Dwe. They lived on site, they loved their elephants, and - according to the zoo’s owners - everything was going swimmingly. That was until the night of Friday 24th August 1928, when Sayed was found beaten to death in his bed. But who would want to murder this little man, and what did it have to do with the most sacred of elephants?
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The location is marked with a red raindrop at the top end of the park to the left. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
MEPO 3/1640 - Murder of Sayaid Ali by San Dwe at Zoological Gardens, Regents Park, N.W, on 25 August, 1928 - https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1257682
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing in London Zoo, on the north-east corner of Regent’s Park, NW1; a short walk from the first two possible murders by the Blackout Ripper, the discovery of the strangely reverent body of ‘Renee’ Hanrahan and the scattered remains of the sex-pest who crept - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Established in 1828 as the London Zoological Society, London Zoo has provided education to the city’s citizens for almost two hundred years. It’s a wonderful place to experience animals beyond London’s persistently shagging foxes, scuttling buck-toothed rats and our famously deformed pigeons. As here, kids can giggle at the bright red butt-cheeks of baboons and go “oooh” at the large piles of poo.
London Zoo has thousands of animals; whether lions, tigers, camels, crocodiles, apes, fish, penguins, snakes, spiders and even Komodo dragons, but they don’t have elephants. With the last having left to live in at Whipsnade Safari Park in 2001, this ended a long traditional of elephants at the zoo.
Back in the 1920’s, London Zoo had two elephant experts; Sayed Ali and San Dwe. They lived on site, they loved their elephants, and - according to the zoo’s owners - everything was going swimmingly.
That was until the night of Friday 24th August 1928, when Sayed was found beaten to death. But who would want to murder this little man, and what did it have to do with the most sacred of elephants?
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 172: The Sacred One.
(Siren, bushes rustling). PC: “You? In the bushes. Identity yourself", San: “I’m San Dwe, elephant keeper”, PC: “Christ! What happened to you?”, San: “Four men… they try to kill me”. (Siren passes).
Imagine this. You’ve lived in a dark chaotic city your whole life. Sputtering trams cram the roads, tall chimneys belch plumes of smoke across the horizon turning the blue skies grey, and the only hints of nature are the trees in the parks, the horses pulling carts and you’ve never even seen a cow or a sheep.
Maybe in a book or a film you may have seen an image of an elephant, but this is impossible to imagine – as standing 8 and 13 feet tall, 10 to 16 feet long and weighing 5000 to 15000 lbs – an elephant is the largest land mammal on Earth. And suddenly there it is, in a 350-acre park in the heart of the city.
In many religions, the elephant is the symbol of wisdom, loyalty, love and luck, and they epitomise the spirit of the gentle giant. But to the average person, an elephant is a spectacle of wonder and awe.
In the 1920’s, the London elephants were celebrities; newspapers printed their names, postcards were adorned with their image and people could ride their backs, seeing further than many had ever seen.
Britain didn’t have the expertise to ensure that the elephants were well-cared-for, so the zoo hired the best man they could from one of the countries where the elephants roam free – India…
…and his name was Sayed Ali.
In 1922, having travelled 4500 miles by ship from Calcutta to Southampton, 26-year-old Sayed had left behind his wife and children to seek-out a better wage for their future. Back in India, he was just an animal trainer, but to millions of Londoners, Sayed was as much a spectacle as the elephants.
As a little man from foreign climes, Sayed exuded mysticism to the masses. Unlike the pasty locals, his skin was brown like the purest cane sugar, his robes were ornately stitched with intricate symbolism, like an Indian king he wore a mystical turban and he spoke in a strange language no-one understood.
Sayed knew that he was unique, and as a mahout who trained and drove the elephants, he earned £2 and 10s a week, but often as much as £5 (more than the average weekly wage) thanks to tips. He liked his job, he stood proud, he was well-regarded and he had become quite the local celebrity.
But – as can be expected – his life was not as easy as Sayed made it look.
Giving elephant rides by day, his hours were long and exhausting. By night, he bathed, fed and watered them, he checked their pads for injury and slept when he could. As a Muslim, his prayer times were chaotic, and living in a country of pies and puddings, his stomach ached for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Given his prestige, you might expect him to live in modest comfort or luxury, but he was treated no better than an animal. Situated in the far north-western corner of the zoo – being perched between the screeching baboons on Monkey Hill, a caged orangutang, a rubbish incinerator and a steaming dung heap – he had a bed and tiny kitchen in a small two-roomed loft-space above the Tapir House.
His status of a minor celebrity had brought him some benefits, but the notoriety had also brought him danger. As a man who some feared as he looked different - with fascism on the rise – he was subjected to abuse, assaults and threats. And fearing the theft of all his savings, with his bedroom window barely a few feet from the Outer Circle (insert drunks, glass smashing “go home black man”, “bog off darky”), at night he would sit in a trembling darkened silence, having hid his money in a green padlocked box.
Worse still was the inclement British weather. Coming from a country of scorching hot summers, the incessant drizzle and grey gloom had taken its toll on his health. So when autumn came and the zoo closed, having bedded the elephants down, Sayed would return to Calcutta with a raging cold.
Like most jobs, it had its perks and pitfalls…
…only Sayed was not the only celebrity at the zoo.
In the summer of 1926, as part of the world tour by entertainment empresarios The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - having spent two years travelling from Burma to be exhibited in India and America - Pawah, a 10-year-old albino elephant would make its grand entrance at London Zoo.
Captured in 1919, this incredibly rare elephant was as pale as the whitest marble. Owned by Dr Saw Po Min of the Burmese Karen Zoological Society, to many cultures (like those in Burma and Siam), a white elephant wasn’t just unique; it was sacred, revered, a symbol of power and a blessing from God.
PaWah was a worldwide sensation and to ensure the well-being of this celebrity, the circus hired the best animal trainers and keepers, as alongside a team of ten, PaWah was accompanied by San Dwe.
Jokingly known by his English pals as ‘Sandy Wee’, although San was only 20-years-old when he arrived at London Zoo, he had an intuitive understanding of elephants. Described as a softly spoken man who was as humble as he was still, he wasn’t here to become famous, he was here to care for Pawah.
Dressed in a wrinkled suit and a crumpled hat, San was described as “one of the gentlest of fellows”; he didn’t drink, swear or raise his voice; he didn’t care for prestige, fame or riches; and he loved his elephants so much that – if they were sick – he would sleep beside them until they were healthy.
As a Burmese Karen Christian, his mild personality made him the perfect choice to be Pawah’s keeper, especially as the tour was not without controversy. Two years earlier, Buddhist monks had protested the circus, appealed to the government and – with their threats falling on deaf ears – they had warned that a curse would befall anyone who removed this sacred elephant from its homeland.
Seeing only pound signs, this mystical curse was ignored by the circus…
…and soon, a river of blood would come to London Zoo.
(Creaking door). San: “Sayed? Sayed? No”, PC: “Oh…Christ! Somebody get an ambulance”. (siren pass)
The late summer and autumn months of the North American tour had been a great success, with the audiences of New York and Chicago wowed by this miraculous beast. With each elephant and handler as healthy as when they had left, heading back to Burma, the curse had seemed like an empty threat.
In November 1928, the circus stopped off for two weeks in Regent’s Park. With Sayed having returned to Calcutta - coughing and sneezing being seized by his usual cold - as a baby elephant called Chang had been born, when Pawah headed home, the zoo asked San Dwe to stay on as the new keeper.
With the zoo closed, he only earned a modest wage for weening the baby elephant, but being keen to ensure the health and welfare of the others – off his own back - he cared for all of the elephants while Sayed was away; feeding, bathing and mucking them out. It was a job that he loved without complaint.
San Dwe had been the elephant trainer for seven months at London Zoo, across which time, this quiet and friendly man had made many friends and he was well-respected for his compassion and expertise.
Everybody loved San Dwe…
…everyone, except Sayed Ali.
On the surface, Sayed was always professional, a little man who stood tall and knew his place as the famous face of London Zoo. But having returned to Regent’s Park where he was known and respected, suddenly he had discovered that a young upstart had taken his crown as the elephant king.
In his eyes, he had worked so hard, and now everything had been stolen from him by this pretender.
As the elephant expert, he had been usurped by someone who didn’t just ride them, he could raise them. As another dark-skinned man, the exotic look of Sayed Ali was no longer unique. And with both men living on-site, in the two-roomed loft space above the Tapir House, San slept in the other bed.
For the owners of the zoo, it was win-win and everything seemed to be going tickety-boo. Sayed never showed his anger in public, he was too smart for that, but in private, he would make San’s life hell.
Believing these two “outsiders” would bond like brothers over their mutual love for elephants, nobody saw that (like oil and heat) San & Sayed were a combustible mix which was certain to spark or explode.
San was Burmese, Sayed was Indian. San was Christian, Sayed was Muslim. Set aside their difference in age and culture - hired to do the same job - San tried to make peace but Sayed wanted him out.
Seeing the elephants as his, Sayed took them all back. Seeing it as his main income, Sayed insisted that only he be allowed to drive the elephants, meaning that San earned less than half of what he did. Seeing ‘Chang’ also as his responsibility – even though he hadn’t the skill, the time and he wasn’t hired to do so – Sayed would raise the elephant calf himself, only in secret, San secretly oversaw its rearing.
Wanting to find his purpose and not cause trouble, San backed down and stayed out of Sayed’s way.
Which was easy to do when they were busy working, but impossible to do when they were alone.
Up a steep flight of stairs, stuck in a cramped little loft above the Tapir House, the two shared a small kitchen with a tiny table at which they never sat or ate together, a wood-burning hob on which they cooked separate meals, and in a bedroom barely 15 feet square, lay two single beds side-by-side.
Barely sleeping, they struggled to get an hour’s sleep-a-night, as not only were they annoyed by the other’s snoring, but also the baboons howling, lions roaring and through two pokey windows, drunks would stagger the Outer Circle, hurling abuse at the coloured men, and trying to break into the zoo.
No-one had ever seen them quarrel, but Sayed had made it his mission to oust San from his life.
In their dingy little room, Sayed had marked what was his, and where San could and couldn’t stand. To bring himself a little joy missing his home, San would play music, only Sayed insisted this stop. Being too passive to speak up or lash out, San never spoke of his anguish… except once, to the zoo’s stoker.
Three weeks before the murder, John Maycock had seen San sleeping in the elephant house. It made sense as he loved his animals, but with none of them sick at that time, when asked why he wasn’t in his own bed, San replied “I would sooner sleep with the elephants than Sayed”. Here he found peace…
…but in his own room, he found only persecution. We have only San’s word on this, but he said that seeing himself as vastly superior to this boy, Sayed, a Muslim would insist that San, a Christian, kneel at his feet and bow ten times before him, as if this opinionated elephant driver was a minor celebrity.
By the end of August 1928, life for San Dwe had become unbearable…
…and then, tragedy struck.
On Thursday 23rd August 1928, across the world, almost every newspaper ran with the headline that following its return to its native Burma, the albino elephant Pawah had died, aged just 10-years-old.
Having spent years raising this sacred elephant which many Burmese considered a deity, San was left broken man, lost and distraught. Gripped with immense guilt, once again, the Buddhist monks warning swept over him that a curse would befall anyone who removed the sacred one from its homeland.
San Dwe would never fully admit to having murdered Sayed Ali, but it was believed that it was with this news that Sayed had taunted him. San was not a violent man, but playing on his grief…
…by the next night, something would make him snap.
Friday 24th August 1928 was a barmy British summer’s day, as a hot sun baked the ground. In Regent’s Park, kids squealed in the ponds, lads played football in field and giving rides upon the back of a five-ton beast sat Sayed – all majestic in his turban and robes, like the king of elephants upon his throne.
At the elephant house, San was bathing ‘Chang’. Seeing the little calf splashing in the cool water always make him smile, but unable to feel anything but grief and anger, his cheeky face was ashen and cold.
San had always been a Christian with strong moral beliefs. Only now, he had murder on his mind. With Chang clean, fed and ready for bed, San kissed his baby elephant, either saying goodnight or goodbye.
At 5pm, Herbert Moss, a labourer working in the yard beside the Tapir House stored his tools in the stoke hole “I had a good mind to lock them away, but I decided not to, I thought they would be safe”. At 7:50pm, San was seen by Harold Ward, a zoo keeper passing that same spot. No-one saw San take the tools, but by the morning, a sledgehammer and a pickaxe would be found drenched in blood.
At 9pm, Sayed had a cup of tea in the canteen and returned to his home at the Tapir House.
Giving an eye-witness statement to the police, San would state: “I lay reading till about half past ten when Sayed put out the light and stood at the window. He said ‘come and look, look, English, one by one’. There was men standing by the fence under our window. He said they were like animals. (Insert drunks, glass smashing “go home blackie”, “bog off darky”). Sayed told them to leave, an Englishman shouted back “shut up you black man, shut up”. After this talk, I went to sleep. Sayed was not in bed”.
San would stick to his alibi throughout the trial, only the evidence was against him. Both stokers in that neck of the zoo heard nothing that night – no shouts, no screams, no noise – the zoo was calm. Even Douglas Stewart who was exercising a wolf said the wolf detected no-one, which it would have.
According to San “I lay on the bed reading a book. Sayed locked the door at the top of the stairs. He always did so when he came in after me”. And with the day over, the two men quietly went to sleep.
Awoken about midnight, San Dwe would not sleep for very long, and yet Sayed Ali would sleep forever.
(Breaking door, smashing, noise). Smashing open the stairway door, San: “I was awakened by a light on the bed. Sayid said ‘who are you, what do you want?’. I roll off the bed underneath. I heard Sayid’s noise very big, then a cry”, as Sayed was bludgeoned in his bed with the thick steel of workman’s tools.
San: “I took some of my blankets and jumped out of my window”. Sliding down a banked tiled roof and landing in a priest’s hedge behind a six-foot railing, he was barely a few feet from the Outer Circle. “I thought I would call out, but I cannot breathe. I cannot run. I creep, I call out and a policeman come”.
Passing by, PC’s Evans and Bussey raced to his aid. (Bushes rustling). PC: “You? In the bushes. Identity yourself", San: “I am San Dwe, elephant keeper”. The little man was clearly petrified, dressed in just his pyjamas, he had cuts to his feet, gashes to his hands, and with foam frothing at his mouth he muttered incoherently – “don’t let them kill me”. PC: “Christ! What happened to you?”, San: “Four men, they try to kill me”. (Siren passes). PC: “What about your mate?”, San: “I think he is dead”.
Alerted by the two Constables rattling the gate and ringing the bell, the zoo’s Assistant Superintendent Charles Hicks who lived on-site let them in, as they cautiously escorted San back to the Tapir House. And being unable to walk unaided, as he kept passing out, PC Evans had to carry San in his arms.
Something horrific had truly taken place…
…only the crime scene didn’t make any sense.
As Detectives Askew, Henstridge and Oxland arrived at the zoo, they were unable to speak to a single witness who had heard a scuffle or scream, and oddly, the animals weren’t restless or agitated.
As they ascended the thin wooden stairwell, the first thing they noticed was an absence of light, as above their heads an electric light should have illuminated the way, only the bulb was missing.
Shining a torch through the darkness to guide the way, at the top of the stairs, entry had clearly been made by bashing the bloodstained door wide open with a heavy tool, possibly a sledgehammer. Only, with both men having been awoken in their sleep by two torches shining in their eyes, why didn’t they hear the door being broken, and how did the blood from inside the room, end up outside of the door?
Inside, the small dark room was in chaos. Only it didn’t look like the chaos of anger, it looked staged. A washing line of clothes was snapped, the bed was slightly askew and a window was open; only having supposedly fled in panic, San had the presence of mind to take two blankets, a scarf and his door keys.
Moments after his murder, the padlock to Sayed’s green trunk had been smashed and the contents scattered. Only his life savings; £50 in notes and a savings book of £60 (roughly £7000 today) was left.
Examining the scene, the police could identify no other fingerprints except for Sayed and San’s. Both electric bulbs were spotted in the hedge, smashed, where he had fallen. A pick-axe and sledgehammer was left on Sayed’s bed. And although he had fled, the hands of San Dwe were dripping with blood.
Sayed’s still warm body was found in his bed. Lying on his left-hand-side, with his bed-sheets up to his waist and no defensive wounds to his hands, it was clear that when he was attacked, he was asleep.
With the walls spattered and his bed saturated with blood, as the right-hand-side of his head had been battered-in with the sledgehammer – being still sticky with matted hair –his skull had caved in and all that remained was a gaping wound between his right ear and eye, which protruded at odd angles.
With at least eight hard swings, considerable force had unleashed three fast blows to his head, four to his chest and one to the right arm, and - although it was hard to see among the swelling mass of red - three deep puncture wounds were found to his torso, having been made with a pick-axe.
Sayed Ali was taken to Hampstead General Hospital but he was declared dead on arrival. (End)
Committed to the psychiatric ward of St Pancras hospital, San was hysterical and had to be restrained, ranting “a white man came into my room, he called Sayed a bloody bugger, and hit him with a pickaxe”, sticking to his alibi – as full of holes as it was – that they had been attacked by robbers or racists.
The next day, at Albany police station, he gave a statement admitting “I know Sayed is dead, everyone will say I kill him” and “if you ask me if I like Sayed, I say ‘no, I don’t like him’”. And yet, he would say nothing about the abuse and the bullying he had endured before and following the death of PaWah.
On 27th November 1928, at The Old Bailey, 22-year-old San Dwe pleaded not guilty to murder.
As was his legal right, he gave no evidence to back-up his alibi that they had been beaten and robbed by unknown assailants, and – although many character witnesses described him as “a good peaceful man” - he gave no testimony as to how Sayed had tormented him to the point where he had snapped.
On 28th November, having retired for twenty minutes, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In a one-sided trial, the jury would never be given the option to find him guilty of murder by diminished responsibility or manslaughter owing to mitigating circumstance. This was little more than a cowardly attack on a defenceless man in his sleep, by a foreigner with brown skin who spoke a strange language.
To many, Pawah was simply a celebrity elephant, a freak of nature and a spectacle of wonder. But to San Dwe, this a sacred albino elephant was as rare as angel’s breath and as precious as God’s word. As the crown jewel of his native country, this elephant (who he had loved) was his responsibility, and having ignored the monk’s warning of a curse upon those who remove it from its homeland, now it was dead… and his fault. San was a man in grief, but to the jury, he was a man with blood on his hands.
On Saturday 15th December 1928, San appealed his sentence, he confessed that his alibi was false, he admitted to being bullied, and with the judges agreeing that this was a case of religious persecution by a Muslim upon a Christian, King George Vth commuted his death sentence to life in prison.
Having served his sentence, San Dwe returned to Burma and the job he loved as an elephant trainer.
** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards".
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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