Chapter XLVI

By Mark Twain
From Following the Equator (1897).


If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

On the Train. Fifty years ago, when I was a boy in the then remote and sparsely peopled Mississippi valley, vague tales and rumors of a mysterious body of professional murderers came wandering in from a country which was constructively as far from us as the constellations blinking in space--India; vague tales and rumors of a sect called Thugs, who waylaid travelers in lonely places and killed them for the contentment of a god whom they worshiped; tales which everybody liked to listen to and nobody believed, except with reservations. It was considered that the stories had gathered bulk on their travels. The matter died down and a lull followed. Then Eugene Sue's "Wandering Jew" appeared, and made great talk for a while. One character in it was a chief of Thugs--"Feringhea"--a mysterious and terrible Indian who was as slippery and sly as a serpent, and as deadly; and he stirred up the Thug interest once more. But it did not last. It presently died again this time to stay dead.

At first glance it seems strange that this should have happened; but really it was not strange--on the contrary,. it was natural; I mean on our side of the water. For the source whence the Thug tales mainly came was a Government Report, and without doubt was not republished in America; it was probably never even seen there. Government Reports have no general circulation. They are distributed to the few, and are not always read by those few. I heard of this Report for the first time a day or two ago, and borrowed it. It is full of fascinations; and it turns those dim, dark fairy tales of my boyhood days into realities.

The Report was made in 1889 by Major Sleeman, of the Indian Service, and was printed in Calcutta in 1840. It is a clumsy, great, fat, poor sample of the printer's art, but good enough for a government printing-office in that old day and in that remote region, perhaps. To Major Sleeman was given the general superintendence of the giant task of ridding India of Thuggee, and he and his seventeen assistants accomplished it. It was the Augean Stables over again. Captain Vallancey, writing in a Madras journal in those old times, makes this remark:

"The day that sees this far-spread evil eradicated from India and known only in name, will greatly tend to immortalize British rule in the East."

He did not overestimate the magnitude and difficulty of the work, nor the immensity of the credit which would justly be due to British rule in case it was accomplished.

Thuggee became known to the British authorities in India about 1810, but its wide prevalence was not suspected; it was not regarded as a serious matter, and no systematic measures were taken for its suppression until about 1830. About that time Major Sleeman captured Eugene Sue's Thug- chief, "Feringhea," and got him to turn King's evidence. The revelations were so stupefying that Sleeman was not able to believe them. Sleeman thought he knew every criminal within his jurisdiction, and that the worst of them were merely thieves; but Feringhea told him that he was in reality living in the midst of a swarm of professional murderers; that they had been all about him for many years, and that they buried their dead close by. These seemed insane tales; but Feringhea said come and see--and he took him to a grave and dug up a hundred bodies, and told him all the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done the work. It was a staggering business. Sleeman captured some of these Thugs and proceeded to examine them separately, and with proper precautions against collusion; for he would not believe any Indian's unsupported word. The evidence gathered proved the truth of what Feringhea had said, and also revealed the fact that gangs of Thugs were plying their trade all over India. The astonished government now took hold of Thuggee, and for ten years made systematic and relentless war upon it, and finally destroyed it. Gang after gang was captured, tried, and punished. The Thugs were harried and hunted from one end of India to the other. The government got all their secrets out of them; and also got the names of the members of the bands, and recorded them in a book, together with their birthplaces and places of residence.

The Thugs were worshipers of Bhowanee; and to this god they sacrificed anybody that came handy; but they kept the dead man's things themselves, for the god cared for nothing but the corpse. Men were initiated into the sect with solemn ceremonies. Then they were taught how to strangle a person with the sacred choke-cloth, but were not allowed to perform officially with it until after long practice. No half-educated strangler could choke a man to death quickly enough to keep him from uttering a sound--a muffled scream, gurgle, gasp, moan, or something of the sort; but the expert's work was instantaneous: the cloth was whipped around the victim's neck, there was a sudden twist, and the head fell silently forward, the eyes starting from the sockets; and all was over. The Thug carefully guarded against resistance. It was usual to to get the victims to sit down, for that was the handiest position for business.

If the Thug had planned India itself it could not have been more conveniently arranged for the needs of his occupation.

There were no public conveyances. There were no conveyances for hire. The traveler went on foot or in a bullock cart or on a horse which he bought for the purpose. As soon as he was out of his own little State or principality he was among strangers; nobody knew him, nobody took note of him, and from that time his movements could no longer be traced. He did not stop in towns or villages, but camped outside of them and sent his servants in to buy provisions. There were no habitations between villages. Whenever he was between villages he was an easy prey, particularly as he usually traveled by night, to avoid the heat. He was always being overtaken by strangers who offered him the protection of their company, or asked for the protection of his--and these strangers were often Thugs, as he presently found out to his cost. The landholders, the native police, the petty princes, the village officials, the customs officers were in many cases protectors and harborers of the Thugs, and betrayed travelers to them for a share of the spoil. At first this condition of things made it next to impossible for the government to catch the marauders; they were spirited away by these watchful friends. All through a vast continent, thus infested, helpless people of every caste and kind moved along the paths and trails in couples and groups silently by night, carrying the commerce of the country--treasure, jewels, money, and petty batches of silks, spices, and all manner of wares. It was a paradise for the Thug.

When the autumn opened, the Thugs began to gather together by pre- concert. Other people had to have interpreters at every turn, but not the Thugs; they could talk together, no matter how far apart they were born, for they had a language of their own, and they had secret signs by which they knew each other for Thugs; and they were always friends. Even their diversities of religion and caste were sunk in devotion to their calling, and the Moslem and the high-caste and low-caste Hindoo were staunch and affectionate brothers in Thuggery.

When a gang had been assembled, they had religious worship, and waited for an omen. They had definite notions about the omens. The cries of certain animals were good omens, the cries of certain other creatures were bad omens. A bad omen would stop proceedings and send the men home.

The sword and the strangling-cloth were sacred emblems. The Thugs worshiped the sword at home before going out to the assembling-place; the strangling-cloth was worshiped at the place of assembly. The chiefs of most of the bands performed the religious ceremonies themselves; but the Kaets delegated them to certain official stranglers (Chaurs). The rites of the Kaets were so holy that no one but the Chaur was allowed to touch the vessels and other things used in them.

Thug methods exhibit a curious mixture of caution and the absence of it; cold business calculation and sudden, unreflecting impulse; but there were two details which were constant, and not subject to caprice: patient persistence in following up the prey, and pitilessness when the time came to act.

Caution was exhibited in the strength of the bands. They never felt comfortable and confident unless their strength exceeded that of any party of travelers they were likely to meet by four or fivefold. Yet it was never their purpose to attack openly, but only when the victims were off their guard. When they got hold of a party of travelers they often moved along in their company several days, using all manner of arts to win their friendship and get their confidence. At last, when this was accomplished to their satisfaction, the real business began. A few Thugs were privately detached and sent forward in the dark to select a good killing-place and dig the graves. When the rest reached the spot a halt was called, for a rest or a smoke. The travelers were invited to sit. By signs, the chief appointed certain Thugs to sit down in front of the travelers as if to wait upon them, others to sit down beside them and engage them in conversation, and certain expert stranglers to stand behind the travelers and be ready when the signal was given. The signal was usually some commonplace remark, like "Bring the tobacco." Sometimes a considerable wait ensued after all the actors were in their places--the chief was biding his time, in order to make everything sure. Meantime, the talk droned on, dim figures moved about in the dull light, peace and tranquility reigned, the travelers resigned themselves to the pleasant reposefulness and comfort of the situation, unconscious of the death- angels standing motionless at their backs. The time was ripe, now, and the signal came: "Bring the tobacco." There was a mute swift movement, all in the same instant the men at each victim's sides seized his hands, the man in front seized his feet, and pulled, the man at his back whipped the cloth around his neck and gave it a twist the head sunk forward, the tragedy was over. The bodies were stripped and covered up in the graves, the spoil packed for transportation, then the Thugs gave pious thanks to Bhowanee, and departed on further holy service.

The Report shows that the travelers moved in exceedingly small groups-- twos, threes, fours, as a rule; a party with a dozen in it was rare. The Thugs themselves seem to have been the only people who moved in force. They went about in gangs of 10, 15, 25, 40, 60, 100, 150, 200, 250, and one gang of 310 is mentioned. Considering their numbers, their catch was not extraordinary--particularly when you consider that they were not in the least fastidious, but took anybody they could get, whether rich or poor, and sometimes even killed children. Now and then they killed women, but it was considered sinful to do it, and unlucky. The "season" was six or eight months long. One season the half dozen Bundelkand and Gwalior gangs aggregated 712 men, and they murdered 210 people. One season the Malwa and Kandeish gangs aggregated 702 men, and they murdered 232. One season the Kandeish and Berar gangs aggregated 963 men, and they murdered 385 people.

Here is the tally-sheet of a gang of sixty Thugs for a whole season--gang under two noted chiefs, "Chotee and Sheik Nungoo from Gwalior":

"Left Poora, in Jhansee, and on arrival at Sarora murdered a traveler.

"On nearly reaching Bhopal, met 3 Brahmins, and murdered them.

"Cross the Nerbudda; at a village called Hutteea, murdered a Hindoo.

"Went through Aurungabad to Walagow; there met a Havildar of the barber caste and 5 sepoys (native soldiers); in the evening came to Jokur, and in the morning killed them near the place where the treasure-bearers were killed the year before.

"Between Jokur and Dholeea met a sepoy of the shepherd caste; killed him in the jungle.

"Passed through Dholeea and lodged in a village; two miles beyond, on the road to Indore, met a Byragee (beggar-holy mendicant); murdered him at the Thapa.

"In the morning, beyond the Thapa, fell in with 3 Marwarie travelers; murdered them.

"Near a village on the banks of the Taptee met 4 travelers and killed them.

"Between Choupra and Dhoreea met a Marwarie; murdered him.

"At Dhoreea met 3 Marwaries; took them two miles and murdered them.

"Two miles further on, overtaken by three treasure-bearers; took them two miles and murdered them in the jungle.

"Came on to Khurgore Bateesa in Indore, divided spoil, and dispersed.

"A total of 27 men murdered on one expedition."

Chotee (to save his neck) was informer, and furnished these facts. Several things are noticeable about his resume. 1. Business brevity; 2, absence of emotion; 3, smallness of the parties encountered by the 60; 4, variety in character and quality of the game captured; 5, Hindoo and Mohammedan chiefs in business together for Bhowanee; 6, the sacred caste of the Brahmins not respected by either; 7, nor yet the character of that mendicant, that Byragee.

A beggar is a holy creature, and some of the gangs spared him on that account, no matter how slack business might be; but other gangs slaughtered not only him, but even that sacredest of sacred creatures, the fakeer--that repulsive skin-and-bone thing that goes around naked and mats his bushy hair with dust and dirt, and so beflours his lean body with ashes that he looks like a specter. Sometimes a fakeer trusted a shade too far in the protection of his sacredness. In the middle of a tally-sheet of Feringhea's, who had been out with forty Thugs, I find a case of the kind. After the killing of thirty-nine men and one woman, the fakeer appears on the scene:

"Approaching Doregow, met 3 pundits; also a fakeer, mounted on a pony; he was plastered over with sugar to collect flies, and was covered with them. Drove off the fakeer, and killed the other three.

"Leaving Doregow, the fakeer joined again, and went on in company to Raojana; met 6 Khutries on their way from Bombay to Nagpore. Drove off the fakeer with stones, and killed the 6 men in camp, and buried them in the grove.

"Next day the fakeer joined again; made him leave at Mana. Beyond there, fell in with two Kahars and a sepoy, and came on towards the place selected for the murder. When near it, the fakeer came again. Losing all patience with him, gave Mithoo, one of the gang, 5 rupees ($2.50) to murder him, and take the sin upon himself. All four were strangled, including the fakeer. Surprised to find among the fakeer's effects 30 pounds of coral, 350 strings of small pearls, 15 strings of large pearls, and a gilt necklace."

It it curious, the little effect that time has upon a really interesting circumstance. This one, so old, so long ago gone down into oblivion, reads with the same freshness and charm that attach to the news in the morning paper; one's spirits go up, then down, then up again, following the chances which the fakeer is running; now you hope, now you despair, now you hope again; and at last everything comes out right, and you feel a great wave of personal satisfaction go weltering through you, and without thinking, you put out your hand to pat Mithoo on the back, when-- puff! the whole thing has vanished away, there is nothing there; Mithoo and all the crowd have been dust and ashes and forgotten, oh, so many, many, many lagging years! And then comes a sense of injury: you don't know whether Mithoo got the swag, along with the sin, or had to divide up the swag and keep all the sin himself. There is no literary art about a government report. It stops a story right in the most interesting place.

These reports of Thug expeditions run along interminably in one monotonous tune: "Met a sepoy--killed him; met 5 pundits--killed them; met 4 Rajpoots and a woman--killed them"--and so on, till the statistics get to be pretty dry. But this small trip of Feringhea's Forty had some little variety about it. Once they came across a man hiding in a grave-- a thief; he had stolen 1,100 rupees from Dhunroj Seith of Parowtee. They strangled him and took the money. They had no patience with thieves. They killed two treasure-bearers, and got 4,000 rupees. They came across two bullocks "laden with copper pice," and killed the four drivers and took the money. There must have been half a ton of it. I think it takes a double handful of pice to make an anna, and 16 annas to make a rupee; and even in those days the rupee was worth only half a dollar. Coming back over their tracks from Baroda, they had another picturesque stroke of luck: "The Lohars of Oodeypore " put a traveler in their charge for safety." Dear, dear, across this abyssmal gulf of time we still see Feringhea's lips uncover his teeth, and through the dim haze we catch the incandescent glimmer of his smile. He accepted that trust, good man; and so we know what went with the traveler.

Even Rajahs had no terrors for Feringhea; he came across an elephant- driver belonging to the Rajah of Oodeypore and promptly strangled him.

"A total of 100 men and 5 women murdered on this expedition."

Among the reports of expeditions we find mention of victims of almost every quality and estate.

Also a prince's cook; and even the water-carrier of that sublime lord of lords and king of kings, the Governor-General of India! How broad they were in their tastes! They also murdered actors--poor wandering barnstormers. There are two instances recorded; the first one by a gang of Thugs under a chief who soils a great name borne by a better man-- Kipling's deathless "Gungadin":

"After murdering 4 sepoys, going on toward Indore, met 4 strolling players, and persuaded them to come with us, on the pretense that we would see their performance at the next stage. Murdered them at a temple near Bhopal."

Second instance:

"At Deohuttee, joined by comedians. Murdered them eastward of that place."

But this gang was a particularly bad crew. On that expedition they murdered a fakeer and twelve beggars. And yet Bhowanee protected them; for once when they were strangling a man in a wood when a crowd was going by close at hand and the noose slipped and the man screamed, Bhowanee made a camel burst out at the same moment with a roar that drowned the scream; and before the man could repeat it the breath was choked out of his body.

The cow is so sacred in India that to kill her keeper is an awful sacrilege, and even the Thugs recognized this; yet now and then the lust for blood was too strong, and so they did kill a few cow-keepers. In one of these instances the witness who killed the cowherd said, "In Thuggee this is strictly forbidden, and is an act from which no good can come. I was ill of a fever for ten days afterward. I do believe that evil will follow the murder of a man with a cow. If there be no cow it does not signify." Another Thug said he held the cowherd's feet while this witness did the strangling. He felt no concern, "because the bad fortune of such a deed is upon the strangler and not upon the assistants; even if there should be a hundred of them."

There were thousands of Thugs roving over India constantly, during many generations. They made Thug gee a hereditary vocation and taught it to their sons and to their son's sons. Boys were in full membership as early as 16 years of age; veterans were still at work at 70. What was the fascination, what was the impulse? Apparently, it was partly piety, largely gain, and there is reason to suspect that the sport afforded was the chiefest fascination of all. Meadows Taylor makes a Thug in one of his books claim that the pleasure of killing men was the white man's beast-hunting instinct enlarged, refined, ennobled. I will quote the passage:








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