Thug Or A Million Murders by Colonel James L. Sleeman
CHAPTER I. A RELIGION OF MURDER
"NINE hundred and thirty-one murders!" repeated the judge in
incredulous tones. "Surely you can never have been guilty of such a
"Sahib," replied the benevolent looking native standing before him,
in a quiet voice tinged with a note of pride, "there were many more,
but I was so intrigued in luring them to destruction that I ceased
counting when certain of my thousand victims!"
Were this fiction it would be extravagant, indeed unbelievable; but
that it is fact must surely compel the most skilled and ruthless
Chicagoan gun-man to feel the veriest amateur by comparison and to hand
the palm for murder to the Thug of India.
The judge was Sleeman, the celebrated Thug-hunter, and the native on
trial before him was the infamous Buhram, whose forty years of killing
had left a record of nearly two victims a month throughout that period.
Now under arrest, he had turned approver, or King's evidence, rather
than face death himself, and his interrogator was engaged in the
difficult task of wresting from him and others the centuries-old
secrets of Thuggee--that mysterious hereditary system of murder which
had blotted the escutcheon of India for over three hundred years.
Few people looking into that small court-house on that night in an
Indian hot-weather could have appreciated the immense issues of life
and death entrusted to that solitary Englishman, who had been
responsible for exposing this vile religion and was now engaged in its
suppression. Still fewer, looking at the mild and pleasant Thug on
trial, could have realised that he was a member of an organised band of
the craftiest assassins ever known, whose suppression was to prove a
gigantic and dangerous task. There was, however, nothing suggestive of
judge and accused on this occasion, for Sleeman was endeavouring to
worm out the secrets of Thuggee rather than try a man for his life. The
cross-examination, indeed, was in the nature of a conversation between
two fishermen, one trying to convince the other that he had caught an
abnormal sized fish. By this time the Thug appeared to Sleeman not so
much a murderer, as a man brought up in a faith which regarded the
killing of men as a legitimate sport, both praiseworthy and lucrative,
and though he spared no effort to bring these murderers to the gallows,
his feelings towards them were influenced by this point of view.
And so, in the stillness of that stifling court-house, the silence
broken only by the soft swish of the lazy punkah, the destiny of
millions of human lives was being determined, the net drawing closer
and closer, around an organisation that had exacted such heavy toll of
And if it were difficult to believe that the curtain was rising upon
so hideous a drama, it would have been still harder to appreciate that
this venerable native, with kindly face and white beard, had
encompassed the death of a whole battalion of men, not by means of the
ordinary weapons of assassination, but by the skilful use of the most
harmless weapon in the world, the ruhmal, or strip of cloth,
little bigger than a handkerchief. The use of this was not a question
of choice but of decree, for by the laws of the Thugs' satanic faith no
blood should be shed during the process of murder: in fact Thuggee
could not have existed for so long a time had its followers used knives
If the onlooker had hoped to find on the old Thug's countenance some
signs of remorse for a life spent almost entirely in treacherous
murder, he would have been doomed to disappointment, for the old man
positively beamed with pride and reminiscent delight while the story of
his ghastly past was drawn from him by skilful questioning, literally
smacking his lips when recounting some particularly atrocious deed
which had necessitated the exercise of great cunning and inhuman deceit.
"Do you never feel remorse for murdering in cold blood, and after
the pretence of friendship, those whom you have beguiled into a false
sense of security?" asked Sleeman, after one of these periods of
"Certainly not!" replied Buhram. "Are not you yourself a shikari
(hunter of big game), and do not you enjoy the thrill of the stalk, the
pitting of your cunning against that of an animal, and are not you
pleased at seeing it dead at your feet? So with the Thug who, indeed,
regards the stalking of men as a higher form of sport. For you, sahib, have but the instincts of the wild beasts to overcome,
whereas the Thug has to subdue the suspicions and fears of intelligent
men and women, often heavily armed and guarded, and familiar with the
knowledge that the roads are dangerous. In other words, game for our
hunting is defended from all points save those of flattery and cunning.
Cannot you imagine the pleasure of overcoming such protection during
days of travel in their company, the joy in seeing suspicion change to
friendship, until that wonderful moment arrives when the ruhmal completes the
shikar-- this soft ruhmal, sahib,"--here the
old man exhibited a strip of coarse yellow and white cloth, the. Thug
colours, "which has terminated the existence of hundreds. Remorse, sahib?
Never! Joy and elation, often!"
Such were the tales heard day after day during the suppression of
Thuggee, varying little in detail, and always characterised by a total
lack of feeling for the wretched victims. And Buhram, however vile, was
sincere in his belief that he had been engaged in work, not only
pleasurable and profitable, but, in addition, productive of great merit
in the hereafter. Buhram does not stand alone in his prowess as a Thug,
for several others ran him close in Thuggee history: Ramzam, for
example, with a total of 604, and Futty Khan, whose 508 victims in
twenty-one years, as compared with Buhram's 931 in forty years, would
have put him at the top of his profession had he not been captured.
In an age when tales of crime prove so attractive and bookstalls
groan beneath a wealth of imaginary horrors, these true tales of
Thuggee must surely appeal to those who prefer fact to fancy, and if
the strange history of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is of interest, the
actual dual personality of the Thug must surely be more so: that fiend
in human form, luring his victims to their doom with soft speech and
cunning artifice, committing the cold-blooded murder of every man he
met, saint or sinner, rich or poor, blind or lame, during his annual
holiday, and spending the remainder of the year as a public-spirited
citizen of seeming respectability.
Thug, from the Sanskrit root Sthag, to conceal, is pronounced
Tug, and Thuggee as Tuggee. It is a term often wrongly applied,
particularly in the United States, to bandits or hold-up men, who do
not attempt either concealment of their intention or strangulation. The
Thug was a murderer by hereditary profession, who sincerely believed
that he had a divine right to kill, and no other class of criminal
possesses the right to call itself by that name. Certainly not the
modern type, for, contemptible and horrible as the Thugs unquestionably
were, it is certain that they would be loud in their expression of
horror at the deeds of these despicable ruffians in Western countries.
However unscrupulous and treacherous the Thugs were, one thing at least
stands to their credit, that while they sometimes killed women--though
contrary to their faith-- they never maltreated them beforehand. The
taking of human life for the sheer lust of killing was the Thugs' main
object: the plunder, however pleasant, being a secondary consideration.
That robbery did not form the principal motive is clear from the fact
that they made little effort to ascertain the wealth of those they put
to death, and wretchedly poor men, their total worldly wealth less than
sixpence, constantly appear in Thuggee records as having been added to
the bag. The Thug, indeed, regarded his profession much in the same
light as the sportsman: no motive was required for the murders they
planned to commit; their prospective victims were unknown to them; and
it mattered nothing whether they were Hindu or Mohammedan, for the
Thugs had in their ranks members of both religions. All travellers were
fish for their net, and they watched their growing toll of human life
with exactly the same feeling of pride that the sportsman experiences
when making his entries in a game book.
Here was no body of amateur assassins, driven to crime by force of
circumstance, but men of seeming respectability and high intelligence,
often occupying positions of importance and responsibility in their
normal lives, secretly trained from boyhood to the highest degree of
skill in strangulation. Each Thug had his particular job to do: to one
fell the task of throwing the ruhmal around the victim's neck,
to others the task of seizing arms and legs and giving those scientific
wrenches and cruel blows at vital parts which ensured his being brought
down at the psychological moment. These arts were continually practised
by the Thug in his off-duty moments, fathers teaching sons this foul
work with parental pride, until all engaged in a Thuggee expedition
became so expert that they could strangle their victims with the
maximum of adroitness and in the minimum of time. Their art was carried
still further, for other Thugs were specially trained to bury and
conceal the murdered bodies with such skill that the ground beneath
which they rested appeared undisturbed. In the hey-day of the
organisation, these experts could bury the body within half an hour,
with such success that even the Thugs themselves could only find the
graves later by reference to landmarks.
The histrionic sense of the Thug was highly developed, many being
remarkably good actors, and if they detected the slightest suspicion on
the part of travellers they were attempting to ingratiate- themselves
with, they immediately departed and disappeared in another direction.
No sooner were they out of sight, however, than messengers were sent to
other gangs--for they quartered the ground like wolves--who caught up the
travellers, primed with any information that the first Thugs had
gleaned, and it was seldom that the quarry escaped death.
A rich merchant, for example, protected by an armed escort, would
meet on his journey some seemingly poor men, who would ask permission
to avail themselves of his protection. Being unarmed and few in number,
this request would be granted and the party would proceed together for
some days, the Thugs--for such they were--losing no opportunity of making
themselves pleasant and useful, until the combined party journeyed
together with a confidence born of friendship. Meanwhile other Thugs,
apparent strangers, but actually of the same gang, would day by day be
overtaken and allowed to join the party, this process being repeated
until at last the genuine travellers were out-numbered. Then the
opportunity would come when two or more Thugs stood unobtrusively
behind each traveller, waiting for the signal to kill. This was usually
"Tabac la ow" (Bring tobacco), whereupon the ruhmals were
instantly thrown round the necks of the victims who were strangled so
skilfully that they could neither escape nor fight for their lives. The
bodies were then cut about to prevent swelling upon decomposition,
which would raise the surface of the graves and so attract attention,
and carefully buried at beles (permanent murder places) selected
beforehand. These murders were planned with such forethought and
accurate calculation that often these graves were prepared many days
ahead. If there were people in the vicinity and it was dangerous to dig
the graves in the open, the Thugs did not scruple to bury the bodies
beneath their own tents, eating their food and sleeping on the soil
without a qualm!
Many devices were adopted by the Thugs to make their murders easier,
one favourite ruse being 'to feign sickness, the Thug selected for the
part pretending to be taken violently ill. Others would attempt to
succour him, but to no purpose--the pains growing increasingly severe.
It was then pretended that a charm would restore him, and the doomed
travellers were induced to sit around a pot of water, to uncover their
necks, and to look up and count the number of stars. Having, in their
superstitious folly, put themselves over so completely in the hands of
the Thugs, the ruhmals were about their necks in a trice and
they were strangled with dispatch. The Thug's repertoire of such tricks
was extensive, and he rang the changes according to the type of victim
he was after. The ruhmal with which the murders were committed
was some thirty inches in length, with a knot formed at the double
extremity and a slip knot eighteen inches from it, giving the Thug a
firm hold. After the victim had been brought to the ground, the slip
knot was loosened and the Thug then made another fold round the neck,
put his foot against it, and drew the cloth tight--to quote the words of
a Thug, "Just as if packing a bundle of straw."
In former times the Thugs declared that their goddess, Bhowani,
relieved them of the trouble of burying their victims by devouring them
herself; but, in order that they might not see her doing this--a nicety
not quite in keeping with her legendary character--she had strictly
enjoined them never to look back on leaving the scene of a murder. On
one occasion, however, a novice of the fraternity disobeyed this rule,
and, imitating Lot's wife, looked back and saw the goddess in the act
of feasting upon a corpse, which embarrassed her exceedingly, and as a
punishment she declared that she would no longer devour those whom the
Thugs killed. This was a great blow and they appealed to her mercy,
with the result that she graciously consented to present them with one
of her teeth for a pick-axe, with which she ordered them in future to
bury those whom they destroyed.
This was the legendary introduction of the sacred kodalee, which became the chief part of the ritual which preceded every Thuggee
expedition. In shape like an adze, five pounds in weight and seven
inches in length, it had one point, and was consecrated with special
devotion, after which it was called a kussee and given into the
charge of the shrewdest and keenest Thug of the gang. Its wooden handle
was thrown away the moment its use was ended, in order that the axe
could be carried in the waistbelt without being seen or creating
suspicion. During a Thuggee expedition the pick-axe was buried at
nightfall in a secure place, with its point facing the way the Thugs
intended to go next day, and they believed that, if another place would
give them better sport, the direction of the point would be found
changed in the morning. Formerly this kussee was thrown into a
well at night, and the Thugs firmly believed that it came up without
human help when summoned on the following morning. Ridiculous as this
sounds, Sleeman was often told with every evidence of sincere belief
that they had seen the sacred pick-axe rise from a well of its own
accord and come to the hand of its custodian. Some, indeed, stated that
they had seen several pick-axes of different gangs rise from the same
well simultaneously and go to their respective bearers! They further
believed that the sound made by the kussee in digging graves Was
never heard by anyone but a Thug: that it was more sacred than even
Ganges water or the Koran: and that a Thug perjuring himself by taking
a false oath upon it died within six days.
Over seventy years later the grandson of Sir William Sleeman
conducted tests in India which resulted in the introduction to the
British Army of the entrenching tool carried by troops during the Great
War. By a curious coincidence, and unknown to him at the time, this
tool was almost identical in character with the kussee of the
Thug, and while the latter had helped in the murder of countless
thousands of people, the former saved innumerable lives.
In dealing with the beliefs of Thugs we have fortunately the
advantage of documentary proof in the shape of the actual evidence of
Thugs themselves, just as it was recorded a hundred years ago. It would
seem incredible, otherwise, that anyone could genuinely possess such
fantastic faith; but that the Thug did so is made manifest in these, as
witness the following authentic conversation between Sleeman and the
"And you really believe that Bhowani sends you these signs to warn
you of danger and guide you to your booty?"
"Can we--can anybody--doubt it? Did she not in former days, when
our ancestors attended to rules, bury the bodies for us and save us the
trouble, and remove every sign by which we could be traced?"
"You have heard this from your fathers, who heard it from their
fathers; but none of you have ever seen it, nor is it true."
"It is true, quite true; and though we have not seen this, we have
all of us seen the sacred pick-axe spring in the morning from the well
into which it had been thrown overnight, and come to the hands of the
man who carried it at his call; nay, we have seen the pickaxes of
different gangs all come up of themselves from the same well at the
same time, and go to their several bearers."
"Yes; and you have all seen the common jugglers by sleight of hand
appear to turn pigeons into serpents, and serpents into rabbits, but
all know that they do it by their skill, and not by the aid of any
goddess. The man who carried your pick-axe is selected for his skill,
and gains extra emoluments and distinction; and no doubt can, in the
same manner, make it appear that the axe comes out of itself when he
draws it out by his sleight of hand."
(with great energy): "What! Shall not a hundred generations of
Thugs be able to distinguish the tricks of man from the miracles of
God? Is there not the difference of heaven and earth between them? Is
not one a mere trick, and the other a miracle, witnessed by hundreds
assembled at the same time?"
"Sahib Khan, you are more sober than Nasir, have you ever seen it?"
Sahib Khan :
"On one expedition only. During an expedition that I made Imam Khan
and his brother carried the pick-axes, and I heard them repeatedly in
the morning call them from the well into which they had thrown them
overnight, and I saw the pick-axes come out of themselves from the
well, and fall into their aprons, which they held open thus" (here he
described the mode).
"And you never saw any of your own gangs do this?"
"Never. I have Thugged for twenty years and never saw it."
"How do you account for this?"
"Merely by supposing that they attend more to omens and regulations
than we do. Among us it is a rule never to kill women; but if a rich
old woman is found, the gang sometimes get a man to strangle her by
giving him an extra share of the booty, and inducing him to take the
responsibility upon himself. We have sometimes killed other prohibited
people, particularly those of low caste, whom we ought not even to have
This admission is of interest, because the Thug invariably accepted
their failure to observe the rules of their goddess as a reason for the
downfall of Thuggee.
"Does Mahomet, your prophet, anywhere sanction crimes like yours:
the murder in cold blood of your fellow creatures for the sake of their
"Does he not say that such crimes will be punished by God in the
"Then do you never feel any dread of punishment hereafter?"
"Never; we never murder unless the omens are favourable; and we
consider favourable omens as the mandates of the Deity."
"But Bhowani, you say, has no influence upon the welfare or
otherwise of your soul hereafter?"
"None, we believe, but she influences our fates in this world, and
what she orders in this world, we believe that God will not punish in
"And you believe if you were to murder without the observance of
the omens and regulations, you would be punished both in this world and
the next, like other men?"
"Certainly; no man's family ever survives a murder; it becomes
extinct. A Thug who murders in this way loses the children he has, and
is never blessed with more."
"In the same way as if a Thug had murdered a Thug?"
"Precisely; he cannot escape punishment."
"And when you observe the omens and rules, you neither feel a dread
of punishment here nor hereafter?"
"And do you never feel sympathy for the persons murdered--never
pity or compunction?"
(with great emphasis): "Never."
"And when you see or hear a bad omen, you think it is the order of
the deity not to kill the travellers you have with you, or are in
"Yes; it is the order not to kill them, and we dare not disobey."
"Do your wives never reproach you with your deeds?"
"In the South we never tell our wives what we do lest they should
disclose our secrets."
"And if you told them, would they not reproach you?"
"Some would, and some--like those of other Thugs who do tell
them--would quietly acquiesce."
"And be as affectionate and dutiful as the wives of other men?"
"The fidelity of the wives of Thugs is proverbial throughout India."
"That is among Thugs?"
"And the fear of the ruhmal operates a little to produce
Sahib Khan :
"Perhaps a little, but there have been very few instances of women
killed for infidelity among us."
Now Nasir and Sahib Khan, the two approvers, proceed to give the
opinion of the Thug regarding the possibility of Thuggee being
suppressed, doubt having been expressed on this point at an earlier
stage of the proceedings.
"Do you think that Thuggee can ever be suppressed in the Deccan?"
think it never can."
"I do not say it never can. I say only that the country is very
large and in every one of the five districts there are hundreds of
Thugs who are staunch to their oaths and attentive to their usages;
that the country is everywhere intersected by the jurisdiction of
native chiefs who cannot be easily persuaded to assist."
"Assist! (contemptuously). Why, when we go into their districts
after a Thug, we are every instant in danger of our lives."
Here Nasir speaks as an approver, employed in giving away his
brother Thugs, and somewhat sore at his former colleagues being so
"And you think that all these obstacles are not to be overcome?"
"That is, you think an institution formed by Bhowani cannot be
suppressed by the hand of man?"
"Certainly I think so."
"But you think that no man is killed by man's killing? That all who
are strangled are strangled in effect by God?"
"Then by whose killing have all the Thugs who have been hung at
Saugor and Jubbulpore been killed?"
God's, of course.''
"You think that we could never have caught and executed them but by
the aid of God?"
"Then you think that so far we have been assisted by God in what we
"And you are satisfied that we should not have ventured to do what
we have done unless we were assured that our God was working with us,
or rather that we were the mere instruments in His hands?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then do you not think that we may go on with the same assurance
until the work we have in hand is done; until, in short, the system of
Thuggee is suppressed?"
"God is almighty."
"And there is but one God?"
"One God above all Gods."
"And if that God above all Gods supports us, we shall succeed?"
"Then we are all satisfied that He is assisting us and, therefore,
hope to succeed, even in the Deccan?"
"God only knows."
"If God assists, you will succeed, but the country is large and
favourable, and the gangs are numerous and well organised."
This interrogation took place before the operations for the
suppression of Thuggee were half-way through, and it is obvious that
these Thugs were very doubtful about the possibility of its complete
destruction. And yet, such was the indomitable character of the small
body of British officials charged with this duty, that within seven
years of this date Thuggee had ceased to exist in India.
The next extract illustrates the Thug's idea of the sanctity of
"When you have a poor traveller with you, or a party of travellers
who appear to have little property, and you hear or see a very good
omen, do you not let them go in the hope that the virtue of the omen
will guide you to better prey?"
"Let them go--never, never" (with great emphasis).
"How could we let them go? Is not the omen the order from heaven to
kill them, and would it not be disobedient to let them go? If we did
not kill them, how should we ever get any more travellers?"
"I, have known the experiment tried with good effect--I have known
travellers who promised little, let go, and the virtue of the omen
"Yes, the virtue of the omen remains, and the traveller who has
little should be let go, for you are sure to get a better."
(evidently a die-hard!): "Never, never! This is one of your
Hindustanee heresies. You could never let him go without losing all the
fruits of your expedition. You might get property, but it could never
do you any good. No success could result from your disobedience."
"Certainly not! The travellers who are in our hands when we hear a
good omen must never be let go, whether they promise little or much;
the omen is unquestionably the order, as Nasir says."
"The idea of securing the goodwill of Bhowani by disobeying her
order is quite monstrous. We Deccan Thugs do not understand how you got
hold of it. Our ancestors were never guilty of such folly."
On reading through this to-day, the conversation might be that of
members of a parish meeting discussing a rule connected with the
village pump. And yet these mild, quiet, and venerable natives had
between them encompassed the murder of thousands of inoffensive people.
After a murder the Thugs held a sacrificial feast of consecrated gur, unrefined sugar, which they believed not only increased their
desire for Thuggee, but also made them callous to the suffering of
their victims. It was a favourite saying of Thugs when standing their
trial for life, that if anyone tasted this gur he would become a
Thug for the rest of his life.
When Sleeman asked Feringeea, who had strangled a beautiful young
woman, if he had not felt pity for her, he replied: "We all feel pity
sometimes, but the gur of the sacrifice changes our nature. It
would change the nature of a horse. Let any man once taste of that gur and he will be a Thug although he knows all the trades and has
all the wealth in the world. I never wanted food: my mother's family
were opulent, her relations high in office. I have been high in office
myself and became so great a favourite wherever I went that I was sure
of promotion; yet I was always miserable while absent from my gang, and
obliged to return to Thuggee. My father made me taste of that fatal gur when I was yet a mere boy; and if I were to live a thousand
years, I should never be. able to follow any other trade."
To attain to the office of strangler a Thug had to serve on several
expeditions during which he acquired by slow degrees the requisite
insensibility to finer feelings. At first a novice was almost always
shocked or frightened, but after a time he lost all sympathy with the
victims. Recruits were first employed as scouts (bykureeas), then as buriers of the dead
(lughas), then as holders of limbs (shumseeas), and finally, if entirely satisfactory for such
promotion, as stranglers (bhurtotes), the highest office of all.
Like a good regiment, it was their system, their discipline and
strictness of rules which enabled the Thug to hold out for so long a
period. When a novice felt he had sufficient experience, he would beg
the most experienced and reliable Thug of his gang to act as his gooroo and instruct him in the art of strangulation. If his request
was granted, they then awaited a victim of not too great bodily
strength for the first murder.
Although the law of Thuggee decreed that women should not be
murdered, fear of discovery compelled the Thugs to break this law
frequently, for few large parties of travellers consisted only of men,
and to allow any possible witness to escape would have been a suicidal
policy; but though many cases are on record where very young girls were
saved and later married to Thugs, they were never maltreated. To quote
Sleeman: "No Thug was ever known to offer insult, either in act or
speech, to women whom they were about to murder." So even the callous,
cold-blooded Thug set a higher standard in this respect than the
youthful criminal of to-day!
The Thug was superstitious to a degree and believed that the wishes
of Bhowani were expressed by the appearance or cries of certain animals
and birds, from which they drew an omen and learnt her will. Ranging
from jackals to lizards, from crows to cranes, so many and varied were
the omens that a Thug's life during a murder expedition must have been
one of continual anxiety.
The most astounding fact about the Thug is that, as a general rule,
he was a good citizen and model husband, devoted to his family, and
scrupulously straight when not on his expeditions, presenting a
complexity of character utterly baffling to a student of psychology. It
was, indeed, essential to the safety of their criminal operations that
they should pass as peaceful citizens. Their opportunities were great,
for communications in India were then both difficult and dangerous and
vast amounts of treasure were carried long distances by road by
disguised treasure-bearers or escorted by armed guards. A rich merchant
and his attendants, for example, would leave Calcutta for Poona and
would, in the normal course of events, remain unheard of until his
return home, perhaps six months later. A month after leaving Calcutta
the whole party might be murdered and the booty divided among the Thugs
concerned, who then scattered. In such a case there was not the
slightest fear of the murder becoming known until many months later,
when for the first time, the disappearance of the party of travellers
would be remarked. By the time suspicion was aroused and enquiries
made, it would be almost impossible to discover where and when they had
disappeared, for the Thugs responsible had long since returned to their
seemingly respectable homes. Not only had they left no trace behind of
their foul deed, but they concealed their trail by every art and craft,
and with ill-gotten rupees bribed officials, police and villagers, in
whose territory the murders had occurred, to maintain an air of stolid
ignorance if enquiries were made.
It is not, therefore, extraordinary that Thuggee remained a mystery:
rather, it is remarkable that it was ever brought to light and
eventually suppressed, and it is small wonder that it continued to
exist for over three hundred years. And it is but right when British
rule in India is so unfairly challenged and so unworthily attacked,
that the extinction of this ancient religion of murder should be
represented as yet another jewel in the crown of Empire.
CHAPTER II. THE ORIGIN AND CUSTOMS OF THUGGEE