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Natacha Tormey




EXCERPT of 'Cults: A Bloodstained History'

Posted by Natacha Tormey on 28 August, 2014 at 10:40

Chapter 5




Have you ever wondered where the term ‘thug’ comes from? Today we think of a violent person, but its true origin dates back to the thirteenth century when a group of criminals, known as thugs, terrorised the population of India over an extended period. In Hindi, the word thuggee represents the acts of theft and murder that these criminals carried out, which earned them that infamous title.

   It is hard to assess just how long the thugs were in operation as their existence was only fully uncovered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when India’s occupying British government decided to launch an investigation into a phenomenon that was taking place in rural areas throughout the country. A number of travellers had gone missing in the past few years and, after collecting data from several regions, it appeared that these disappearances had been going on much longer than they had initially thought.

   The reason these crimes had gone undetected was because they had occurred in so many different locations at a time when communication was not all that efficient. No connection was ever made and, in most cases, the missing persons were assumed to have fallen victim to thieves on their travels, a regular occurrence in this poverty-stricken nation.

   The British would not have been so concerned had all the disappearances consisted of lone travellers or vagabonds as it was expected that, in such a poor country, opportunists were prepared to kill for just about anything. But entire caravans of travellers, containing at times large numbers of people, seemed to be vanishing without a trace. As further reports came in, they feared that whoever was behind the crimes may be far more dangerous than they realised.

   Clearly, theft was not the villains’ sole motivation. Had it been, they could have simply restrained their victims and taken their spoils. But it seemed that they were taking their time to kill their victims and hide their bodies. In most instances, those who disappeared were never seen again, dead or alive, which forced investigators to presume that all those who were missing had been murdered.

   By the early 1830s, the data they had collected brought them to the realisation that the numbers were far higher than they could have possibly imagined, with thousands of disappearances in the past decade alone. They also noticed that a secretive group called ‘thugs’ was regularly mentioned in reports and testimonies.

   The British Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentnick, requested that a taskforce be set up with the mission to uncover the workings of this group of thieves. They called it ‘The Thugs Department’. As they collected witness testimonies, they discovered that what appeared to be a cluster of rogue gangs was, in fact, an organised network of highly trained criminals who operated in separate clans all over the country. The taskforce also realised that this was not a new trend; the thugs appeared to have been functioning for thousands of years, although there were no means of determining just how long they had been active. What they did know was that these groups consisted of professional, disciplined assassins who preyed on innocent families and tradesmen that they had selected as targets. They were extremely organised, with clever tactics that had been developed over the centuries, and they appeared to be active in many locations around the country.

   It would not be an easy job for the British. The thugs had survived for so long due to their ability to mask their identities and integrate into regular society without attracting suspicion. They were so secretive that even their wives and relatives often had no inclination whatsoever of their involvement in the group. Even though society in India at that time was divided into strict castes that did not mix, the thugs’ membership group included men from all social levels. United by a mysterious bond, street vendors worked hand-in-hand with wealthy merchants and bankers. It was even rumoured that relatives of the Indian royal family were involved.

   British civil servant William Sleeman was a stern, middle-aged man from Cornwall, who had been working on the taskforce since its creation. He had been one of the first to insist that the issue was greater than the British government initially wanted to admit. Unlike the majority of his colleagues, he was genuinely fascinated with India and its culture; he had studied its religious and social complexities and spoke fluent Hindi. He was a highly intelligent man who used investigation techniques that were unheard of at that time, such as profiling and using information gathered from previous attacks to predict the location of the next one. He increased military presence in key areas and publically announced that they were prepared to offer ‘king’s evidence’ status to those who wished to break their silence and denounce their brothers in crime. By coming forward and agreeing to testify, they would escape the death penalty. It was an irresistible offer to a handful of thugs, who promptly handed themselves in.

   Once arrested, they appeared to be more than willing to not only co-operate, but also give up their brothers in crime. At first, Sleeman was suspicious of this, particularly because of their deceitful nature; eventually, however, he realised it was their undying belief in fate that was behind their actions. They were convinced that their destiny, and that of their colleagues, had been decided long in advance and, hence, to betray their identities would not change it either way.

   Once Sleeman had several prisoners, he was able to piece together their hidden world of gruesome murders and dark rituals. He began by questioning one man, Feringhea, who was the head of a thug gang. After he convinced him to turn king’s evidence, Feringhea gave up the names of his gang members and led Sleeman to a mass grave hidden in a mango grove. To his horror, the grave contained nearly 100 bodies at various stages of decomposition.

   There was a snowball effect from there; with each arrest came more confessions and the names of additional thugs were revealed. Mass graves were uncovered across the country and, as they exhumed the bodies, they discovered something that they found deeply disturbing. Although they now knew that they were dealing with a large network of criminals, they were baffled when a comparison of crime reports from different locations concluded that all the victims had been killed in exactly the same manner: by strangulation. It seemed very strange that a band of thieves would choose a method of killing that required more time and physical effort than simply using a knife or machete. But, more importantly, no regular gang of thieves would all use an identical method of killing unless there was a very sinister reason for it.


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