I have never heard of such atrocities, or presided over such trials, such cold-blooded murders, such heart-rending scenes of distress, and misery; such base ingratitude; such a total abandonment of the very principle which binds man to man; which softens the heart and elevates mankind above the brute creation … mercy to such wretches would be the extreme of cruelty to mankind … blood for blood.
F. C. SMITH, Agent to the Governor-General of India, Calcutta, 1832
In the year 1839, Queen Victoria, who had always been fascinated by the more Oriental reaches of her empire, received information that a novel was to be published, the main subject of which concerned an horrific account of an Indian secret society whose aim was the ritual murder and robbery of unwitting travelers. Summoning the publisher, Richard Bentley, to the palace, Queen Victoria demanded that page proofs be sent her immediately. Bentley acquiesced and the first few chapters of what would later become known as Confessions of a Thug by Colonel Philip Meadows Taylor – a colonial officer stationed in Hyderabad at the time of the Thuggee killings – were dispatched.
The story revolved around a character called Ameer Ali (said to be based upon a real-life criminal called Feringheea) who strangles his way to fame and fortune by killing a large number of women, a few of whom he falls in love with, a few of whom he doesn’t, but all of whom end up dead. Naturally, given the sensational subject matter and the exotic cruelty, from the moment the book was published it became a bestseller, enthralling the British reading public within the first few lurid pages. The book also catapulted the word ‘thug’ – from the Hindi word t’ag meaning deceiver – into the English language.
Although Queen Victoria might not have been aware of this group prior to publication of the novel, the Thugs, or Thuggee, had been mentioned in literature before, the earliest authenticated case being around 1356 in a passage from Ziya’ud-Din Baran’s History of Firuz Shah:
In the reign of that sultan, some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighborhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighborhood of Delhi any more.1
Before 1839 several mentions of the Thugs had also been made in England. John Fryer wrote of their existence towards the end of the seventeenth century and in 1833 George Swinton, the Chief Secretary to the Government of India, sent seven severed heads to Edinburgh for forensic examination. It was thought the heads all belonged to Thug members and after extensive tests were carried out the examiners concluded that each of the skulls revealed remarkable characteristics usually seen only in criminals. ‘The mass of the posterior and basilar regions is large,’ stated the report, ‘the coronal region is too small to enable the moral faculties to exercise sufficient restraint over the propensities; and hence the natural tendencies of the individuals were to selfish and immoral courses of action.’2 All of this guaranteed that the Thugs continued to fascinate Victorian England, particularly with stories of human sacrifices being made to the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali. Popular publications such as Blackwood’s Magazine and theQuarterly Review printed stories outlining everything then known about the cult of the Thugs, while the author Jules Verne mentioned the Thugs in his book Around the World in Eighty Days,2 but if anyone was in any doubt as to how far-reaching the news of this notorious sect was, the following account by Mark Twain should set the record straight:
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.3
This striking depiction of the goddess Kali clearly shows her famous necklace of skulls and girdle of severed arms, embellished here with a few recently-severed heads, but looking far more vigorous than the corpse-like creature often used to represent her.
Yet, though it seemed that ‘nobody believed’ in these tales, the exoticism of the stories nevertheless complemented the West’s romantic, overblown vision of Oriental life and what it meant to live on such a dark and terrible continent where an abundance of gods were worshiped, all of whom were, according to the politician and anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, in 1813, ‘absolute monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty.’ A little less than a decade later, Captain William Sleeman began making the first of his enquiries into the murder of several travelers whose bodies had been located in a series of shallow graves. They had all been strangled. It was Sleeman, in fact, who first alerted the Western world to the existence of India’s Thug cult, although his very staid and factual reports were soon reworked by the general press in order to satisfy their readers’ taste for the sensational. Victorian England thirsted for tales of dark and terrible deeds – especially those committed in the far-flung reaches of Empire. They thrilled to stories of Indian widows practicing suttee; the ritual of burning themselves to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres. In literature, stretching as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and nearly every inclusion of an Oriental character made mention of their criminal and sexually aberrant nature. The Oriental was to be mistrusted, treated with scepticism, kept at arm’s length, although in the same breath he was also painted as being highly alluring and mysterious – the type of person who, while plotting your murder, would simultaneously befriend you. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Captain Philip Meadows Taylor’s novel which Queen Victoria had been so eager to read:
Gradually my band arranged themselves around their new victims. All were at their places, and I eagerly looked out for the first scout who should give us intelligence that the bhil was ready. A strange feeling it is, Sahib, that comes over us Thugs at such moments: not a feeling of interest or pity for our victims, or compunction for the deed we are about to do, as perhaps you might expect to hear, but an all-absorbing anxiety for the issue of the adventure, an intense longing for its consummation, and a dread of interruption from passing travelers; and though I had become now callous in a great measure, still my heart was throbbing with anxiety and apprehension, and my replies to the Sahoukar’s witty and jolly remarks were vague and abstracted; my whole thoughts were concentrated upon the affair in hand, and it was not to be wondered at. He remarked on my altered behavior, and I rallied myself, and was soon able to amuse him as I had done before.
But at what point did fiction separate from fact? How much of Meadows Taylor’s sensational novel was based on truth? The answer is, quite a substantial part, for although the more exotic side of his story owes a fair amount to the novelist’s vivid imagination, nothing can really prepare one for the enormity of the Thug crimes. Setting aside the lurid nature of the murders themselves, the sheer number of Thuggee victims is astonishing – estimated at anything between one and three million over a period of 100 years – and underlines the fact that what was taking place in India during this period was a ‘religion of murder,’ a deep-rooted belief system that demanded blood be shed. At its center sat the Hindu goddess Kali.4
The name Kali derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘time’ or ‘dark’; but it is also supposed to mean Black Female, which is quite appropriate considering the nature of her influence. Cemeteries, blood and skulls are all associated with her worship, while in paintings she is represented as a black woman with an azure face, often streaked with yellow. Frequently her hair is braided with green serpents and she wears a long necklace of human skulls, a girdle of severed arms and worst of all, sometimes babies’ corpses as earrings (although these are supposed to represent infant mortality as opposed to the murder of infants.) In nearly all representations of Kali, her mouth is shown to be bleeding and her tongue is often poking out as if in some gesture of defiance. Kali’s eight arms normally brandish weapons or sometimes the severed head of a demon. Despite all this gruesomeness however, in southern India and in Kashmiri tradition, Kali is not an evil deity, but a curious kind of life force. Indeed her law-abiding devotees (as opposed to her murderous ones) have built a vast amount of beautiful poetry around her, often depicting the goddess as a tender, loving mother. To this end she has had temples built in her name, in particular in Kolkata, west Bengal, and in Kamakhya in Assam. All of the above is well documented, but in his book Thug, Or a Million Murders, William Sleeman’s grandson, Colonel James L. Sleeman, reveals how it was that Kali became linked with the Thuggee to the extent that she did.
According to Thug legend, there was a time when the world was pestered by a terrible demon whose main aim was to devour mankind. As fast as children were born so the demon ate them. Kali tried to put a stop to this murder by killing the demon with a sword, but every time she struck it and blood was spilt, up sprang a new demon, [ …] until the hellish brood multiplied to such a degree that she realised the impossibility of completing her task unaided. In this dilemma Bhowani [Kali] brushed the sweat from her arm and from it created two men, to each of whom she gave a strip of cloth, torn from the hem of her garment, and commanded them to strangle the demons, thus overcoming the blood difficulty. These legendary progenitors of Thuggee worked with such skill and vigor that soon all the demons were slain, and the goddess gave the ruhmal, or strip of cloth, as a reward for their assistance, bidding them transmit it to their posterity with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.5
James L. Sleeman then goes on to explain that although this perpetrated a ‘cult of murder,’ there were certain rules which had to be adhered to; for instance, it was unlawful to kill women or those suffering from leprosy. Fakirs were also off limits as were religious mendicants, goldsmiths, potters, dancers and musicians. Nevertheless, over a period of time, the Thugs slowly began to ignore these laws and soon any traveler, be they female or otherwise, was a potential Thug victim.
An unnamed artist created this image of Thugs in captivity in a prison in Aurungabad for the Illustrated Travels journal around 1860
By the nineteenth century, nearly 40,000 deaths were being recorded each year as a result of Thug activity, although by this time the religious significance of the slaughter had all but disappeared. Straightforward robbery was now the motive, clear-cut murder with the intention of stripping the victim of his or her valuables. Many Thugs grew rich on their spoils and became influential citizens whose veneer of respectability deflected suspicion. Indeed, when they weren’t committing murder the Thugs were model citizens who, Sleeman Jnr. points out, were more often than not, committed to their families, to the rearing of their children and to the supporting of their wives. To illustrate this, Sleeman Snr. recorded the case of an Englishman, Dr. Cheek, who employed a young Indian bearer to look after his children. The man was exceptionally good at his job, gentle and kind to the children and every year took one month’s holiday in order to visit his elderly mother. Later however, it was discovered that this man was a Thug and that while he was an exemplary employee for eleven months of the year, during the twelfth he devoted his time to strangulation.
William Henry Sleeman made meticulous investigations into crimes such as this, becoming an expert in the cult. Much of the information to which we are privy stems directly from his involvement with the hunting down and subsequent trial and execution of these villains. It was Sleeman Snr. who calculated the figure of 40,000 murders per year by patiently interviewing all the captured Thugs whom he quickly discovered belonged to several generations of the cult and of whose crimes his present-day prisoners were extremely proud.
It was family tradition and therefore this made it possible for Sleeman to calculate the number of murders which had been committed by the fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of his prisoners. One Thug in particular, by the name of Gholam Hossyn, believed his lineage stretched as far back as Alexander the Great and Sleeman recorded in some detail the type of rituals his prisoners’ ancestors performed before and after each killing.
A typical Thug murder, according to Sleeman, would have run thus: first of all a gang of Thugs (anywhere between 10 to 200 men) would befriend their prospective victim or victims by pretending to be merchants or soldiers traveling without weaponry in order to waylay any suspicions the target might harbor. The Thugs would then travel alongside their victims, cooking for them, assisting with campsite chores, telling them stories and generally acting in as courteous a manner as possible, until everyone felt at their ease. The journeys could take as long as two weeks or more for, as Sleeman Jnr. explains, ‘Sometimes they traveled long distances together before a suitable opportunity for treachery occurred; a case is on record where a gang journeyed with a family of eleven persons for twenty days, covering 200 miles, before they succeeded in murdering the whole party without detection.’6 The next step would normally take place at night, around the campfires while everyone was mingling together, telling each other stories, smoking, drinking and singing. This was the time when the Thugs would drug their targets and once the drugs had taken effect and at a pre-arranged signal – normally a code phrase such as ‘bring the tobacco’ – they would then whip out their ruhmals(handkerchiefs weighted with stones) and strangle their prey. The murders would be very swift, with the stones in the ruhmals breaking the victims’ necks. Afterwards the Thugs would dedicate the corpses to Kali and more often than not hold a sacrificial feast of consecrated gur(an unrefined sugar believed to increase the desire for Thuggee) which, or so legend would have it, once tasted would ensure a Thug’s dedication to murder for the rest of his life. The feast would carry on late into the night after which the bodies would be gathered together and buried before the thieves made off with their spoils.
The Thugs were also, according to Sleeman, highly superstitious, believing that Kali could communicate and express her wishes to them through the cries of wild animals. Lizards, jackals, crows, cranes and especially baby owls, were those to which they paid particular attention.
Sleeman goes on to describe how members of the group would often be given specialized roles. According to him, new recruits to the cult would be given the role of scouts, or bykureeas, and once they had mastered this role they rose to the position of buriers of the dead, or lughas. Both roles were very important, but the top two jobs were as the holders of limbs (while the victim was being strangled) otherwise known as shumseeas, and finally the stranglers, or bhurtotes, the most highly regarded position of all. In fact belonging to the Thugs was like being part of an army in that it was a highly disciplined organization where everyone knew their place and role.
Fascinated by the nature of Thuggee, Sleeman interviewed hundreds of the Thugs in an attempt to understand their cult more deeply. In one interview, he asked the detainee how he could murder innocent men, women and children and then speak of these crimes with such nonchalance?
Sahib Khan: From the time that the omens have been favorable, we consider them as victims thrown into our hands by the deity to be killed, and that we are the mere instruments in her hands to destroy them; that if we do not kill them she will never be again propitious to us, and our families will be involved in misery and want.
Sleeman: And you can sleep as soundly by the bodies, or over the graves of those you have murdered, and eat your meals with as much appetite as ever?
Sahib Khan: Just the same, unless we are afraid of being discovered.
Sleeman, however, wasn’t the only Englishman fascinated by Thuggee. On April 28, 1810, Major-General St. Leger issued a directive from HQ Cawnpore to the effect that, ‘Several Sepoys [an Indian soldier in European service] proceeding to visit their families on leave of absence from their Corps have been robbed and murdered by a description of persons denominated Thugs … these murderers contrive to fall in with him [the traveler] on the road or in the Sarais … they first use some deleterious substance, commonly the seeds of the plant Duttora, which they contrive to administer in tobacco, pawn, the hookah, food or drink of the Traveler. As soon as the poison begins to take effect, by inducing a stupor or languor, they strangle him.’7
In the same year that St. Leger wrote this report, another mass murder also took place, this time on the road between Nagpur and Nerbudda. A large group of approximately 350 Thugs befriended a party of travelers, joining them on their journey between the locations mentioned above. Regaling their companions with stories and other entertainments, the Thugs easily manipulated their new friends into believing them to be nothing more than fellow travelers. With their defences down the travelers made easy prey. One night having eaten and drunk around the campfires, the Thugs rose up as one at a given signal and strangled their companions en masse. Rather than ritual murder for the purposes of religious worship, it was most certainly money that lay at the heart of this crime, for the Thugs made away with 17,000 rupees, a small fortune in those days and far and away a large enough sum to guarantee this crime stood out from numerous others. Twenty years later, the murder was still at the forefront of public consciousness, making it one of the very first that Captain William Henry Sleeman decided to investigate.
Born on August 8, 1788 in Stratton, Cornwall, to a military father, from a very young age William Henry Sleeman had always wanted to join the army. An able student, he had studied both Arabic and Hindustani in England before he went to work for the army of the Honorable East India Company in 1809. Initially Sleeman was posted to the 12th Native Infantry at Awadh before being appointed in 1819 as Junior Assistant to the Government Agent in the Saugor and Nerbudda Territories, during which time he continued to study Oriental languages and made it his duty to familiarize himself with the often confusing complexities of the numerous sects and cults of India. Sleeman became fascinated with the Hindu practice of worshiping the goddess Kali, Shiva’s consort, who it was said haunted burial grounds and fed off human blood.
In 1816, following the accounts given by Major-General St. Leger (of which Sleeman must have been well aware,) there appeared an article in the Madras Literary Gazette written by a Dr. Robert C. Sherwood who had also grown increasingly fascinated by tales of a mysterious society of assassins murdering travelers in the name of Kali. Sleeman’s resolve was set: his life’s work was to be the eradication of the Thuggee and despite initial reservations of his superiors, Sleeman was eventually appointed magistrate in charge of the Nursingpore District. Now he had the power to realize his dreams.
The work, however, was very slow. Sleeman had to travel from one small town to the next hearing cases while at the same time methodically gathering information from those willing to talk. Not an easy task when the majority of people were far too frightened of the Thugs to stand as witnesses against them. Even then, as Sleeman wrote, he was still not convinced that the secret society of Thuggee even existed.
While I was in charge of the district of Nursingpore in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824, no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my being acquainted with it; nor was there a robber or thief of the ordinary kind in the district with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duty as magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of assassins by profession resided in the village of Kundelee – not four hundred yards from my court – and that the extensive groves of Mundesur – only one stage from me – was one of the greatest beles or places of murder in all India … I should have thought him a fool or madman.
As time passed, however, Sleeman began to assemble a detailed picture of Thuggee and its practitioners. Thuggee, he discovered, was primarily a hereditary system associated with Hindus and Muslims that transcended both religion and caste. Although the cult revolved around the fanatical worship of the goddess Kali, not all Kali devotees were Thugs. Sleeman estimated that there were at least 5,000 Thugs in India. The cult was obviously ancient, and Sleeman suggested that a cryptic mention by Herodotus of a people (the Sagartians) in central Asia proficient in strangling with a cord might possibly refer to a source of Thuggee more than two millennia earlier. The Thugs themselves believed that their activities were depicted in eighth-century cave temple carvings at Ellora, Maharashtra, but such carvings have never been found. What has been established is that during the Sultan of Delhi’s (Jalal-ud-din-Khilji) reign in the thirteenth century, approximately one thousand so-called Thugs were detained and afterwards deported from Delhi to Bengal. Sleeman worked tirelessly, gathering historical facts, interviewing suspects, and traveling from town to town listening to stories; yet it wasn’t until 1826 that he first had the opportunity to bring any of the Thugs to justice.
Ram Luckum Sein, a hereditary Thug of Bengal, is depicted here with his bodyguard in an illustration for the Illustrated News of the World magazine in 1858.
One day a group of thieves suspected of possessing a large number of stolen items were brought to the courthouse where Sleeman was working. Sadly for the prosecution, it was decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to hold the men and later that same day the group was released. Nevertheless, following an argument between two of the arrested men, one of them by the name of Kalyan Singh went to Sleeman begging for protection. In the ensuing interview Singh confessed that the group were Thugs and that they were planning yet another murderous escapade. Without hesitation Sleeman, together with a guard of mounted Sepoys, set off in search of their prey. Nor was it long before they found the men and put them under arrest. Once in custody Sleeman then interrogated one of the group, a man known only as Moti (Pearl) who finally confessed to having buried four victims in a spot near to where the group had been arrested. On returning to this location Sleeman found the bodies of three men and a young boy, all of whom had had their necks broken and their bodies pierced with knives so that the corpses wouldn’t bloat up. The following morning, more bodies were discovered, some of which were identified by neighboring villagers. But more appalling even than this – when the arrested Thugs were later interviewed it quickly became apparent that among their number were a government messenger and a police inspector. Sleeman realized to his shock that the Thug cult could count among its members not only ruffians and vagabonds, but also a fair quota of otherwise respectable citizens.
The Thug, Moti, also gave a highly detailed account of further crimes he had committed, in particular the murder of a high-ranking clerk and his family during 1823. The clerk had been traveling the Nagpur road when Moti and his gang befriended him. For a time the group all traveled together until one evening while everyone was drowsing off to sleep Moti wrapped his ruhmal round the clerk’s throat. The clerk struggled with his attacker and managed to shout out the word ‘Murder!’ before Moti killed him. Alerted by her husband’s cry, his wife ran from her tent, but was attacked by one of Moti’s gang and killed, as was her oldest child, while the youngest one, who was still just a baby, was thrown into its parents’ grave and buried alive. Horrific as this murder seems, it was only one of numerous such incidents. James Paton, an officer who also worked in India during this period, produced many startling watercolours depicting Thug crimes, pictures that included Thugs gouging out the eyes of their victims, and strangling and dismembering bodies before throwing them into graves. Paton was not, of course, present at any of the incidents he illustrated and his pictures must, therefore, be viewed as ‘imaginings’, but they do stand as strong testimony to the fear that Thuggee culture produced.
Sleeman was the antidote, a one-man Victorian crusade, battling against overwhelming odds although in 1828, with the appointment of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck as Governor-General of British India, he was finally afforded some moral support. Despite his exhaustive endeavors against the Thuggee, Sleeman still found time for a little romance in his life and in 1829 he married Amélie de Fontenne whom he had first met on Mauritius.
Aside from his private life, week after week Sleeman aggressively pursued his mission of arresting Thug members, initially incarcerating them in Saugor Jail, until he began to find ‘approvers’ among them; men who would act as informers and point Sleeman in the direction of their victims’ graves. In exchange, these approvers would have their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Suddenly, Sleeman was receiving a flood of information and every week more and more trials were held, with more and more executions for those found guilty.
Doctor Spry, the governor of Saugor Jail, relates the fate of one group of convicts, who were to be put to death on the following morning:
The night was passed by these men in displays of coarse and disgusting levity. Trusting in the assurance that, dying in the cause of their calling, Bhawani would provide for them in Paradise, they evinced neither penitence nor remorse. Stifling their alarm with boisterous reveling, they hoped to establish in the minds of their comrades, who could hear them through the wall, a reputation for courage, by means which at once proved their insincerity and belied their fortitude. Imagine such men on the last night of their existence on earth, not penitent for their individual errors, or impressed with a sense of the public mischiefs to which they had contributed, not even rendered serious by the dismal ordeal which in a few hours was to usher them into an unknown world, but singing, singing in the condemned cell, and repeating their unhallowed carols while jolting along in the carts that conveyed them to their gibbets!
The above account is just one of many detailing the numerous executions resulting from William Sleeman’s arrests. It is believed that during the 1830s and 1840s Sleeman, together with seventeen loyal assistants and over 100 sepoys, captured and subsequently prosecuted approximately 3,000 Thugs of whom 470 were put to death by hanging. The others were either transported to different provinces or were imprisoned for life. But there was one name which kept cropping up in interviews with the ‘approvers’ that both fascinated and concerned Sleeman above all others: the name of Feringeea.
Feringeea was said to be the Prince of Thuggee, the jewel in the tainted crown of Kali’s bloodthirsty cult. Knowing that in order to eradicate Thuggee altogether, Feringeea had to be arrested, Sleeman sent out a large party of sepoys to track him down only to be disappointed when they returned without their quarry. Instead, they arrested Feringeea’s mother, wife and child. This was a clever move, for a few days later Feringeea turned himself in and immediately begged to turn ‘approver.’ His offer was accepted and for long days and nights Sleeman interviewed this chief of Thugs, eliciting huge amounts of information on the nature of his crimes. But even Sleeman had his limits and, although he had proved to be stalwart in his campaign against terror, eventually either the pace of the work, or the nature of it, began to take its toll. In 1849 he was moved to a different post; this time as Resident in Awadh. Even here, however, Sleeman’s health suffered until, in 1854 he was told that if he didn’t leave India, he would undoubtedly die. Taking his doctor’s advice, he and his wife set sail on board the Monarch in January 1856, but as the ship approached the coast of Ceylon, Sleeman’s health deteriorated and on February 10 he died.
Almost as a tribute to the massive effort he had expended in pursuit of the Thugs, others stepped forward to carry on Sleeman’s work until, having been more or less suppressed, the 600-year-old cult (possibly with far older links) of Thuggee eventually disappeared altogether. It was not a sad downfall, although given that one man was almost single-handedly responsible for it, it was perhaps a surprising one. In many ways Captain William Sleeman should be regarded as a true Victorian hero, battling as he did against one of the most evil secret societies ever known.