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No secret cult of killers has ever murdered as many people as the Thuggee. Although no longer organized, lone-wolf assassins still practice the deadly craft of strangulation around the world.
Membership in the Thuggee was hereditary, and its practitioners were trained from earliest childhood to murder by the quiet method of a strong cloth noose tightened about the neck of their victims. This weapon, the “rumal,” was worn knotted about the waist of each member of the Thuggee. All deaths were considered a sacrifice to the goddess Kali, the “Dark Mother,” the Hindu triple goddess of creation, preservation, and destruction.
The Thuggee, also known simply as Thugs, traveled often in the guise of traders, pilgrims, and even as soldiers marching to or from service. On occasion the more flamboyant would pretend to be a rajah with a large retinue of followers. Each band of Thuggee had a small unit of scouts and inveiglers who would loiter about hotels and marketplaces gaining information regarding travelers and the weight of their coin purses. The inveiglers posed as travelers headed for the same destination as their intended victims. They would worm themselves into the confidences of their prey, pleading the old adage of safety in numbers.
The mass slaughters of large groups of merchants and travelers were usually committed during their encampment. Working in groups of three, one Thuggee would loop the rumah, the killing noose, around the victim’s neck, another would press his head forward, and the third would grab his legs and throw him to the ground. In the rare instance when an intended victim escaped the noose, he would run into scouts posted at the edge of the jungle: the Thuggee aimed at achieving a 100 percent mortality rate among their victims. In the 1830s this Indian secret society strangled upwards of thirty thousand people.
The Thuggee had a peculiar code of ethics that forbade the killing of fakirs, musicians, dancers, sweepers, oil vendors, carpenters, blacksmiths, maimed or leprous persons, Ganges water-carriers, and women. Despite the restriction against the murder of females, however, the presence of wives traveling with their husbands often necessitated the strangling of a woman to protect the secrecy of the society.
The one unbreakable rule of the brotherhood was the one prohibiting the shedding of blood. According to Thuggee beliefs, the goddess Kali taught the fathers of thuggery to strangle with a noose and to kill without spilling blood. All victims of the Thuggee were sacrificed to Kali, and the members of the secret society would have been greatly incensed by an accusation that they killed only for booty.
With the exception of small boys captured or spared during a raid, one had to be born into the cult in order to become an initiate. The minimum age for initiation into the society was ten; at eighteen, initiates were permitted to make their first human sacrifices to Kali. The female counterparts were members of a secret sect of Tantrists who believed that only by constant indulgence in wine, meat, fish, mystical gesticulations, and sexual licentiousness could a human ever achieve total union with Kali.
Although the Thuggee probably originated sometime in the sixteenth century, they were not uncovered by British authorities until about 1812. In 1822 William Sleeman, an officer in the Bengal Army transferred to civil service, was appointed by the Governor General Lord Bentinck to rid India of the society of stranglers. Fluent in four Indian dialects, Sleeman had been the British official who first confirmed the growing suspicion that the Thuggee were committing murders throughout all of central India. He was well aware that stopping them would be no easy task, for the members of the secret society were indistinguishable from the many bands of outlaws who infested the country’s roads—or from any of the travelers and merchants who were their victims.
By meticulously marking on a map the site of each discovered attack and by maintaining careful records of the dates, Sleeman was able to begin to predict the areas where the next mass murders were likely to take place. Between 1830 and 1841 Sleeman’s police captured at least 3,700 Thugs, breaking the back of the infamous secret society.
Trials of Thuggee brought out many ghastly facts. A band of twenty confessed that they had participated in 5,200 murders. An individual named Buhram, who had been a strangler for forty years, had the highest lifetime score to his discredit—931. When asked if he experienced any feelings of remorse or guilt, he answered sharply that no man should ever feel compunction in following his trade.
Five hundred of the apprehended Thugs were hanged, the rest imprisoned for life, except for fifty who received pardons for supplying valuable information used in destroying the secret society. Without exception, the condemned Thuggee went to their own deaths with the same lack of emotion with which they had murdered their victims. In many instances, their final request to the hangman was that they be permitted to place the noose around their own necks.
Although isolated cases of a Thug’s proficiency with a noose still arise in India and in other parts of the world, the stranglers who murdered in the name of the goddess Kali no longer exist as a secret society. The designation of “thug,” however, remains as a negative term applied to brutish criminals.