Thug Or A Million Murders by Colonel James L. Sleeman Preface


the good work of ridding India of Thuggee went forward in spite of every obstacle and by 184.0 Sleeman found himself able to say in his "Report on the Depredations committed by the Thug gangs":

"The only part of India in which there are any Thugs still at large and not entered in these lists are, I believe, the eastern districts of Bengal, where we have reason to believe that the crime still prevails to a small extent; and Midnapore where Captain Vallancey and Mr. Ewart have recently discovered some traces of an isolated colony. Measures are being taken to put down these associations should they, on further enquiry, be found really to exist. After trying long in vain to trace the murderers of the numerous travellers whose bodies have been found, Captain Vallancey succeeded in arresting a gang of twelve persons with the property of some travellers, whom they had recently murdered, upon them. Making a judicious use of the information of some of the party who volunteered their services as King's evidence, upon the usual conditions of exemption from the punishment of death and transportation beyond seas for all past offences, and having the advantages of the aid of a magistrate of great energy and sagacity in Mr. Ewart, and the support of an able commissioner in Mr. Mills, he has been enabled to effect the arrest and conviction of the whole of the gangs, with the exception of two members of no great note. At least so far as our present information extends these gangs are unconnected with any others, and these two are the only members of these gangs left at large." Captain Vallancey's report reads as follows:-- "During these two years (1837-39) I kept my parties constantly on the look-out on the roads, but without success, as the murders still continued. At length, in September last year, one of my parties met in this district a gang of twelve fellows calling themselves Pundah Brahmins, travelling the country with the consecrated rice of Jugurnath, but the property found upon their persons placed it beyond a doubt that they were the Thugs I was so anxiously searching for. Just at this period the attention of the magistrates of Cuttack was aroused to the fact that the Thugs had visited their district, as human bodies, partly decomposed, were discovered in four or five places along the roads; they offered rewards and exerted themselves to find out the perpetrators, but without effect. The would-be Brahmins I had apprehended, after mature enquiry, proved to be low caste Golahs, and inhabitants of a small village on the western border of the Pooree district. In a short time I succeeded in making some of them approvers and obtained a knowledge of their history.

"This colony had existed in the Pooree district for generations; they appear ignorant how the system of Thuggee came amongst them. The secret has been confined to their own clan, strangers never having been admitted; although I believe they are acquainted with other classes who carry on Thuggee. The initiated of this caste amount to forty-five but there are a dozen young hands ready to be admitted. These fellows have been most determined murderers; all castes were alike to them-->the.y spared neither sex. They had been for years protected by a petty independent Rajah, but of late years his exactions became so severe that they quitted his territory, and found shelter in the villages in which the body of them were arrested, under the protection of a revenue officer, who was well acquainted with their practices, and well paid for his protection; this man is to be brought to trial for his connection with the Thugs."

Sleeman ends this portion of his report with these words:

"I have now given you, in as brief a manner as possible, the history of those colonies of Thugs which I have been especially employed in suppressing. Hereafter my exertions are chiefly to be confined to the Cuttack district and I have some information which leads me to believe that, ere long I shall be able to trace out more colonies in that quarter. The day that sees this far-spread evil completely eradicated from India and known only in name, will greatly tend to immortalise British rule in the East. Except in the parts I have mentioned, and in Oudh, I believe the roads are now, from one end of India to the other, free from the depredations of Thug gangs; but there are many leaders and leading members of the old gangs still at large; and some of them may perhaps be in situations which enable them occasionally to destroy solitary travellers, though they have--for the most part I believe--found service with the military and police establishments of native chiefs. All these persons would return to their old trade and teach it to their sons and to the needy and dissolute of their neighbourhood, and thus reorganise their gangs, should our pursuit be soon relaxed. To prevent the system from rising again it will be indispensably necessary to keep up the pursuit for some years, till all those leaders and leading members of the old gangs die or become too old to return to their old trade. Under the pressure of this pursuit the Thugs will take to honest industry, seeing no prospect of being able to follow successfully that of their ancestors."

And how satisfactory it must have been for Sleeman and his small band of Thug-hunters to receive about this time the following two reports from among many of a similar nature:

"During the last twelve months no dead bodies have been discovered in the districts under my charge, which there was reason to believe were those murdered by Thugs. No instance has been brought to my notice during the above period of travellers or other individuals having been suddenly missed. I am happy to state to you that from the circumstances of no dead bodies having been discovered, which were not fully accounted for, in the district under my superintendence, I have every reason to believe that the system of Thuggee is entirely suppressed in those districts, and from the general observations of natives from other parts of the country I should say it was equally so throughout the Nizam's dominion.

"(signed) H. dighton, Hyderabad, 5th August, 1840."


"I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of this day's date, requesting me to state whether the system of Thuggee is still carried on in the Nizam's territory, or if it has been already suppressed.

"In reply I beg to inform you that in the district entrusted to me by the Nizam's government, there does not appear any depredation of the Thugs, and to the best of my knowledge, I believe that during the last twelve months no travellers or other individuals were suddenly missed or fallen victims to them. I frequently get information from my several Naibs about the cases of murders caused from burglaries, etc., but not a single instance was shown from which it would appear to suppose that it had been done by the violence of the Thugs; and for this reason I have no doubt to believe that the Thuggee system in the Deccan must have been suppressed.-

"(signed) pestonjee merjee, Hyderabad, 5th August, 1840."

But although these reports were correct regarding the suppression of Thugs by hereditary descent, another and totally different class of Thug was discovered which had to be dealt with. Just as a log fire, apparently on the point of dying out, will suddenly blaze up, so Thuggee, when thought to be ending, flared up in quite an unexpected direction. The example of Europeans in the East has ever been a powerful factor for good or evil, and it is a curious fact that this particular type of Thuggee was started in 1802-03 by the example set by a soldier named Creagh, a private in a British regiment stationed at Cawnpore. He initiated three natives--Dhownkul Aheer, an artillery man, Suhiboo, a regimental cook, and one Gjunseya Bowryah-- into the peg-and-strap trick, a game then practised by rogues in England. To such purposes did these natives turn this simple swindling trick that there sprang up three separate gangs of Thugs skilled in its use, of which they were the leaders.

By 1848--eighteen years after operations for the suppression of Thuggee of the hereditary type had been begun --the Tushmabaz Thugs were discovered and found to number forty-seven, who resided about the cantonments of Cawnpore. They differed from the hereditary Thugs by killing for the sheer sake of money, but were similarly protected, and even encouraged in the practice of their horrid trade, by police and other Indians holding high positions. The following extract from a letter signed by J. Graham, Assistant General-Superintendent and Joint Magistrate, gives an account of these Thugs:--

" Agra, 5th July, 1848. In the course of my long experience I have never met with so debased and hardened a set of offenders. They do not pretend to any religious motives, and have none of the restraints or observances of the old Thug fraternity; but have sallied forth, under a false guise, resolved on getting money in any and every way; nothing loath to destroy life to effect that purpose; and I have not a doubt in my own mind that they have been the perpetrators of almost all the crimes that have abounded on the highways of the Dooab for some years, and that many more of their deeds will be developed now that I have been successful in bringing a case to conviction. A very serious feature of this investigation is the collusion of the police with these people. The fact is placed beyond doubt with regard to those at five towns that the police have, on occasions, received as high a rate as five rupees per diem and at Gullowgee, where some Tushmabazees were once arrested, they got free by a payment of twenty-four rupees. Had the police not winked at their proceedings, it would have been impossible for these people to have carried on their depredations for so long a time."

For further evidence of these Thugs we have also the testimony of Mrs. Fanny Parks, who returned to India in 1844 and thus describes them:

"Thuggee and Magpunnaism are no sooner suppressed than a new system of secret assassination and robbery is discovered, proving the truth of Colonel Sleeman's remark that, 'India is a strange land; and live in it as long as we may, and mix with its people as much as we please, we shall to the last be constantly liable to stumble upon new moral phenomena to excite our special wonder.' As anticipated, at least one set of new actors have to be introduced to the public, and these are the Tushmabaz Thugs. The Thugs formerly discovered went forth on their murderous expeditions under the protection of a goddess; the Tushmabazees have for their genius a European! Who in England would be prepared to credit that the thimble-riggers of English fairs have, in India, given rise to an association that, in the towns, bazaars and highways of these provinces, employs the game of stick-and-garter as the lure for victims destined to be robbed or murdered? Yet this is the simple fact.

"The British had hardly gained possession of this territory before the seeds of the flourishing system of iniquity, brought to light almost half a century afterwards, were sowed in 1802 by a private soldier in one of His Majesty's regiments, stationed at Cawnpore. The name of this man was Creagh. He initiated several natives into the mysteries of the stick and garter, and these afterwards appeared as the leaders of as many gangs, who traversed the country gambling with whomsoever they could entrap to try their luck at this game. It consists of rolling up a double strap, the player putting a stick between any two of its convolutions, and, when the ends of the strap are pulled, it unrolls, and either comes away altogether or is held at the double by the stick, and this decides whether the player loses or wins. A game requiring apparently no peculiar skill, and played by parties cleverly acting their parts as strangers to each other--being even dressed in character--readily tempted any greedy simpleton to try his luck and show his cash. If he lost, he might go about his business; if he won, he was induced to remain with the gamblers, or was followed, and as opportunity offered, was either stupefied with poisonous drugs, or by any convenient method murdered.

"Many corpses found from time to time along the Grand Trunk Road, without any trace of the assassins, are now believed to have been the remains of the Tushmabazees victims; and distinct information has been obtained from their own members of murders committed by them. The merest trifle, it seems, was sufficient inducement to them to commit the crime, there being one case of three poor grass-cutters murdered by those miscreants in a jungle, merely for the sake of their trifling personal property. Indeed, these gangs seem to have been of a more hardened character than any other yet discovered, for their sole aim was gain, however it might be secured, without the plea of religious motive which regulated the proceedings of the other fraternities. Parties of them used to visit all the chief towns and stations of the Dooab and its neighbourhood, and established themselves in the thoroughfares leading to the principal cities. Under the guiset of gamblers, they were often brought to the notice of the authorities and subj'ected to trifling punishments due to minor offences; but this was the very thing that lulled suspicion as to their real character. They were constantly in the power of many dangerous acquaintances; but these were bribed to silence out of their abundant spoils. The police almost everywhere seem to have been bought over. In the city of Gwalior the headman got one-fourth of their profits; and in the British territory, five rupees a day has been paid as hush-money to the neighbouring district. Amongst their friends was the mess steward of a regiment at Meerut, the brother of one of their chiefs, and an accomplice. Gold and silver coin, and ornaments of pearl and coral, formed part of the remittances that used to be sent to their headquarters at Cawnpore. Indeed, they seem to have carried on a very safe and lucrative business, until the magistrates of Boolundshuhr and Cawnpore pounced upon them in the beginning of this year."

Although the Tushmabaz were not members of the Thuggee clan of antiquity--indeed, they were mere nouveaux riches as compared with aristocracy--their toll of human life must have been considerable, and the ignorance of their existence which persisted for so long a period is remarkable testimony to their secrecy.

So far the suppression of Thuggee has been looked at from the point of view of the Thugs themselves, and it will not be amiss, therefore, to include the following appreciations from responsible people of the period.

In "The History of India," James Grant says:

"To Captain W. H. Sleeman was assigned the task of punishing and suppressing these gangs as fast as they could be discovered. That officer organised a body of sepoys as a detective police at Saugor--the headquarters of the commission. Arrests were then made; others were invited to turn approvers; link after link was added to the chain of evidence; the whole of the nasty network was exposed and, amid the gangs, the work of retributive debt went on unsparingly; and in many instances they hanged themselves! And now happily Thuggee as an organised fraternity of assassins no longer exists in British India."

The following extract is from "The King Emperor and his Dominions," 1911:

"The most terrible crime of Thuggee was practically suppressed by the energetic action of a department formed for the purpose of dealing with it during the Lieutenant-Governorship of Lord William Bentinck and under the command of Major (afterwards Major-General Sir William) Sleeman.

"Information concerning these remarkable criminal associations was first brought to the notice of the English authorities at Fort St. George by Dr. Richard C. Sherwood and Captain Sleeman as early as 1816. Phansigars, or stranglers, had been apprehended shortly after the siege of Seringapatam, in 1799, but it was not until the capture of Feringeea, afterwards immortalised in Eugene Sue's famous work, 'The Wandering Jew,' that the widespread and dangerous character of these associations was disclosed. This arch villain was laid by the heels by Major Sleeman, and to this extremely able and intrepid officer of the Bengal Army was entrusted the task of stamping out Thuggee in the dominions under the British control. The special department formed for the suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity remained in operation up to the year 1884, but its main task was achieved in the first ten years of its existence under the leadership of its heroic commander (Sir William Sleeman). The difficult task was accomplished and to-day, though crimes of violence occasionally occur, Thuggee--as an organised system of theft and murder-- is only a memory of the past."