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