Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Thugs and Poisoners

Lieutenant Brown had come on to Damoh chiefly with a view to investigate a case of murder, which had taken place at the village of Sujaina, about ten miles from Damoh, on the road to Hattā.[1] A gang of two hundred Thugs were encamped in the grove at Hindoria in the cold season of 1814, when, early in the morning, seven men well armed with swords and matchlocks passed them, bearing treasure from the bank of Motī Kochia at Jubbulpore to their correspondents at Bānda,[2] to the value of four thousand five hundred rupees.[3]


The value of their burden was immediately perceived by these keen-eyed sportsmen, and Kosarī, Drigpāl, and Faringia, three of the leaders, with forty of their fleetest and stoutest followers, were immediately selected for the pursuit. They followed seven miles unperceived; and, coming up with the treasure- bearers in a watercourse half a mile from the village of Sujaina, they rushed in upon them and put them all to death with their swords.[4]


While they were doing so a tanner from Sujaina approached with his buffalo, and to prevent him giving the alarm they put him to death also, and made off with the treasure, leaving the bodies unburied. A heavy shower of rain fell, and none of the village people came to the place till the next morning early; when some females, passing it on their way to Hattā, saw the bodies, and returning to Sujaina, reported the circumstance to their friends.


The whole village thereupon flocked to the spot, and the body of the tanner was burned by his relations with the usual ceremonies, while all the rest were left to be eaten by jackals, dogs and vultures, who make short work of such things in India.[5]


We had occasion to examine a very respectable old gentleman at Damoh upon the case, Gobind Dās, a revenue officer under the former Government,[6] and now about seventy years of age. He told us that he had no knowledge whatever of the murder of the eight men at Sujaina; but he well remembered another which took place seven years before the time we mentioned at Abhāna, a stage or two back, on the road to Jubbulpore.


Seventeen treasure-bearers lodged in the grove near that town on their way from Jubbulpore to Sāgar. At night they were set upon by a large gang of Thugs, and sixteen of them strangled; but the seventeenth laid hold of the noose before it could be brought to bear upon his throat, pulled down the villain who held it, and made his way good to the town.


The Rājā, Dharak Singh, went to the spot with all the followers he could collect; but he found there nothing but the sixteen naked bodies lying in the grove, with their eyes apparently starting out of their sockets. The Thugs had all gone off with the treasure and their clothes, and the Rājā searched for them in vain.


A native commissioned officer of a regiment of native infantry one day told me that, while he was on duty over some Thugs at Lucknow, one of them related with great seeming pleasure the following case, which seemed to him one of the most remarkable that he had heard them speak of during the time they were under his charge.


'A stout Mogul[7] officer of noble bearing and singularly handsome countenance, on his way from the Punjab to Oudh, crossed the Ganges at Garhmuktesar Ghāt, near Meerut, to pass through Murādābād and Bareilly.[8] He was mounted on a fine Tūrkī horse, and attended by his "khidmatgār" (butler) and groom. Soon after crossing the river, he fell in with a small party of well-dressed and modest-looking men going the same road.


'They accosted him in a respectful manner, and attempted to enter into conversation with him. He had heard of Thugs, and told them to be off. They smiled at his idle suspicions, and tried to remove them, but in vain. The Mogul was determined; they saw his nostrils swelling with indignation, took their leave, and followed slowly. The next morning he overtook the same number of men, but of a different appearance, all Musalmāns.


'They accosted him in the same respectful manner; talked of the danger of the road, and the necessity of their keeping together, and taking advantage of the protection of any mounted gentleman that happened to be going the same way. The Mogul officer said not a word in reply, resolved to have no companions on the road. They persisted—his nostrils began again to swell, and putting his hand to his sword, he bid them all be off, or he would have their heads from their shoulders. He had a bow and quiver full of arrows over his shoulders,[9] a brace of loaded pistols in his waist-belt, and a sword by his side, and was altogether a very formidable-looking cavalier.


'In the evening another party that lodged in the same "sarāi"[10] became very intimate with the butler and groom. They were going the same road; and, as the Mogul overtook them in the morning, they made their bows respectfully, and began to enter into conversation with their two friends, the groom and butler, who were coming up behind. The Mogul's nostrils began again to swell, and he bid the strangers be off. The groom and butler interceded, for their master was a grave, sedate man, and they wanted companions. All would not do, and the strangers fell in the rear.


'The next day, when they had got to the middle of an extensive and uninhabited plain, the Mogul in advance, and his two servants a few hundred yards behind, he came up to a party of six poor Musalmāns, sitting weeping by the side of a dead companion. They were soldiers from Lahore,[11] on their way to Lucknow, worn down by fatigue in their anxiety to see their wives and children once more, after a long and painful service. Their companion, the hope and prop of his family, had sunk under the fatigue, and they had made a grave for him; but they were poor unlettered men, and unable to repeat the funeral service from the holy Koran-would his Highness but perform this last office for them, he would, no doubt, find his reward in this world and the next.


'The Mogul dismounted—the body had been placed in its proper position, with its head towards Mecca. A carpet was spread—the Mogul took off his bow and quiver, then his pistols and sword, and placed them on the ground near the body—called for water, and washed his feet, hands, and face, that he might not pronounce the holy words in an unclean state. He then knelt down and began to repeat the funeral service, in a clear, loud voice. Two of the poor soldiers knelt by him, one on each side in silence. The other four went off a few paces to beg that the butler and groom would not come so near as to interrupt the good Samaritan at his devotions.


'All being ready, one of the four, in a low undertone, gave the "jhirnī" (signal),[12] the handkerchiefs were thrown over their necks, and in a few minutes all three—the Mogul and his servants—were dead, and lying in the grave in the usual manner, the head of one at the feet of the one below him. All the parties they had met on the road belonged to a gang of Jamāldehī Thugs, of the kingdom of Oudh.[13]


'In despair of being able to win the Mogul's confidence in the usual way, and determined to have the money and jewels, which they knew he carried with him, they had adopted this plan of disarming him; dug the grave by the side of the road, in the open plain, and made a handsome young Musalmān of the party the dead soldier. The Mogul, being a very stout man, died almost without a struggle, as is usually the case with such; and his two servants made no resistance.'


People of great sensibility, with hearts overcharged with sorrow, often appear cold and callous to those who seem to them to feel no interest in their afflictions. An instance of this kind I will here mention; it is one of thousands that I have met with in my Indian rambles. It was mentioned to me one day that an old 'fakīr',[14] who lived in a small hut close by a little shrine on the side of the road near the town of Morādābād, had lately lost his son, poisoned by a party of 'daturiās', or professional poisoners,[15] that now infest every road throughout India.


I sent for him, and requested him to tell me his story, as I might perhaps be able to trace the murderers. He did so, and a Persian writer took it down while I listened with all the coldness of a magistrate who wanted merely to learn facts and have nothing whatever to do with feelings. This is his story literally:


'I reside in my hut by the side of the road a mile and [a] half from the town, and live upon the bounty of travellers, and the people of the surrounding villages. About six weeks ago, I was sitting by the side of my shrine after saying prayers, with my only son, about ten years of age, when a man came up with his wife, his son, and his daughter, the one a little older, and the other a little younger than my boy. They baked and ate their bread near my shrine, and gave me flour enough to make two cakes. This I prepared and baked.


'My boy was hungry, and ate one cake and a half. I ate only half a one, for I was not hungry. I had a few days before purchased a new blanket for my boy, and it was hanging in a branch of the tree that shaded the shrine, when these people came. My son and I soon became stupefied. I saw him fall asleep, and I soon followed. I awoke again in the evening, and found myself in a pool of water. I had sense enough to crawl towards my boy. I found him still breathing, and I sat by him with his head in my lap, where he soon died.


'It was now evening, and I got up, and wandered about all night picking straws—I know not why. I was not yet quite sensible. During the night the wolves ate my poor boy. I heard this from travellers, and went and gathered up his bones and buried them in the shrine. I did not quite recover till the third day, when I found that some washerwomen had put me into the pool, and left me there with my head out, in hopes that this would revive me; but they had no hope of my son.


'I was then taken to the police of the town; but the landholders had begged me to say nothing about the poisoners, lest it might get them and their village community into trouble. The man was tall and fair, and about thirty-five; the woman short, stout, and fair, and about thirty; two of her teeth projected a good deal; the boy's eyelids were much diseased.'


All this he told me without the slightest appearance of emotion, for he had not seen any appearance of it in me, or my Persian writer; and a casual European observer would perhaps have exclaimed, 'What brutes these natives are! This fellow feels no more for the loss of his only son than he would for that of a goat'. But I knew the feeling was there. The Persian writer put up his paper, and closed his inkstand, and the following dialogue, word for word, took place between me and the old man:


Question.—What made you conceal the real cause of your boy's death, and tell the police that he had been killed, as well as eaten, by wolves?


Answer.—The landholders told me that they could never bring back my boy to life, and the whole village would be worried to death by them if I made any mention of the poison.


Question.—And if they were to be punished for this they would annoy you?


Answer.—Certainly. But I believed they advised me for my own good as well as their own.


Question.—And if they should turn you away from that place, could you not make another?


Answer.-Are not the bones of my poor boy there, and the trees that he and I planted and watched together for ten years?


Question.-Have you no other relations? What became of your boy's mother?


Answer.-She died at that place when my boy was only three months old. I have brought him up myself from that age; he was my only child, and he has been poisoned for the sake of the blanket! (Here the poor old man sobbed as if his heartstrings would break; and I was obliged to make him sit down on the floor while I walked up and down the room.)


Question.—Had you any children before?


Answer.—Yes, sir, we had several, but they all died before their mother. We had been reduced to beggary by misfortunes, and I had become too weak and ill to work. I buried my poor wife's bones by the side of the road where she died; raised the little shrine over them, planted the trees, and there have I sat ever since by her side, with our poor boy in my bosom. It is a sad place for wolves, and we used often to hear them howling outside; but my poor boy was never afraid of them when he knew I was near him.


'God preserved him to me, till the sight of the new blanket, for I had nothing else in the world, made these people poison us. I bought it for him only a few days before, when the rains were coming on, out of my savings-it was all I had. (The poor old man sobbed again, and sat down while I paced the room, lest I should sob also; my heart was becoming a little too large for its apartment.) 'I will never', continued he, 'quit the bones of my wife and child, and the tree that he and I watered for so many years. I have not many years to live; there I will spend them, whatever the landholders may do—they advised me for my own good, and will never turn me out.'


I found all the poor man stated to be true; the man and his wife had mixed poison with the flour to destroy the poor old man and his son for the sake of the new blanket which they saw hanging in the branch of the tree, and carried away with them. The poison used on such occasions is commonly the datura, and it is sometimes given in the hookah to be smoked, and at others in food.


When they require to poison children as well as grown-up people, or women who do not smoke, they mix up the poison in food. The intention is almost always to destroy life, as 'dead men tell no tales'; but the poisoned people sometimes recover, as in the present case, and lead to the detection of the poisoners. The cases in which they recover are, however, rare, and of those who recover few are ever able to trace the poisoners; and, of those who recover and trace them, very few will ever undertake to prosecute them through the several courts of the magistrate, the sessions, and that of last instance in a distant district, to which the proceedings must be sent for final orders.


The impunity with which this crime is everywhere perpetrated, and its consequent increase in every part of India, are among the greatest evils with which the country is at this time affected. These poisoners are spread all over India, and are as numerous over the Bombay and Madras Presidencies as over that of Bengal. There is no road free from them, and throughout India there must be many hundreds who gain their subsistence by this trade alone. They put on all manner of disguises to suit their purpose; and, as they prey chiefly upon the poorer sort of travellers, they require to destroy the greater number of lives to make up their incomes.


A party of two or three poisoners have very often succeeded in destroying another of eight or ten travellers with whom they have journeyed for some days, by pretending to give them a feast on the celebration of the anniversary of some family event. Sometimes an old woman or man will manage the thing alone, by gaining the confidence of travellers, and getting near the cooking-pots while they go aside; or when employed to bring the flour for the meal from the bazaar. The poison is put into the flour or the pot, as opportunity offers.


People of all castes and callings take to this trade, some casually, others for life, and others derive it from their parents or teachers. They assume all manner of disguises to suit their purposes; and the habits of cooking, eating, and sleeping on the side of the road, and smoking with strangers of seemingly the same caste, greatly facilitate their designs upon travellers. The small parties are unconnected with each other, and two parties never unite in the same cruise.


The members of one party may be sometimes convicted and punished, but their conviction is accidental, for the system which has enabled us to put down the Thug associations cannot be applied, with any fair prospect of success, to the suppression of these pests to society.[16]


The Thugs went on their adventures in large gangs, and two or more were commonly united in the course of an expedition in the perpetration of many murders. Every man shared in the booty according to the rank he held in the gang, or the part he took in the murders; and the rank of every man and the part he took generally, or in any particular murder, were generally well known to all. From among these gangs, when arrested, we found the evidence we required for their conviction—or the means of tracing it—among the families and friends of their victims, or with persons to whom the property taken had been disposed of, and in the graves to which the victims had been consigned.


To give an idea of the system by which the Government of India has been enabled to effect so great a good for the people as the suppression of these associations, I will suppose that two sporting gentlemen, A at Delhi, and B in Calcutta, had both described the killing of a tiger in an island in the Ganges, near Hardwār[17] and mentioned the names of the persons engaged with them.


Among the persons thus named were C, who had since returned to America, D, who had retired to New South Wales, E to England, and F to Scotland. There were four other persons named who were still in India, but they are deeply interested in A and B's story not being believed. A says that B got the skin of the tiger, and B states that he gave it to C, who cut out two of the claws. Application is made to C, D, E, and F, and without the possibility of any collusion, or even communication between them, their statements correspond precisely with those of A and B, as to the time, place, circumstances, and persons engaged.


Their statements are sworn to before magistrates in presence of witnesses, and duly attested. C states that he got the skin from B, and gave it to the Nawāb of Rāmpur[18] for a hookah carpet, but that he took from the left forefoot two of the claws, and gave them to the minister of the King of Oudh for a