Thug Behram, also known as the King of the Thugs, was a leader of the Thuggee cult active in Oudh in northern central India during the late 18th and early 19th century, and is often cited as one of the world’s most prolific serial killers.
Thug Behram: The Most Prolific Serial Killer
Thug Behram was involved in up to 931 murders by strangulation between 1790 and 1840 performed with a ceremonial rumāl, a handkerchief-like cloth used by his cult as a garrote. Buhram was executed on January 1, 1840 by hanging, at the age of 75.
While Buhram is sometimes suspected of having committed 931 murders, James Paton, an East India Company officer working for the Thuggee and Dacoity Office in the 1830s who wrote a manuscript on Thuggee, quotes Buhram as saying he had “been present” at 931 cases of murder, and “I may have strangled with my own hands about 125 men, and I may have seen strangled 150 more.”
The English word ‘thug’ is in fact borrowed from the Hindi word ‘thag’ means ‘the con’. In that period, the thugs were covert members of a group, and the term ‘Thugee’ typically referred to an act of deceitful and organised robbery and murder.
In his childhood, Behram was quite shy and was quite reluctant to mix up with others. Later, he became friends to one of the notorious Thugs Syed Ameer Ali who was 25 years older than him. Ameer Ali is the only person who introduced Behram in the world of Thuggee and also made him the head of Thuggee.
According to sources, during his initial days of Thuggee, Behram was also accompanied by a female thug named Dolly, but, later on, both got separated. By the age of just 10, Behram had started killing and terrifying the people with his crimes. He started robbing and thugging as profession at the age of 25.
Buhram used his cummerbund or rumāl, with a large medallion sewn into it, as a garrote to execute his killings. With practised skill, he could cast the rumal so as to cause the medallion to tighten at the Adam’s apple of his victims, adding pressure to the throat when he strangled them.
The History Of The Thugs – The Deadly Dozen
Thugs were an organized gang of professional robbers and murderers and Thuggee refers to the acts of Thugs. They are said to have travelled in groups across the Indian subcontinent. There were numerous traditions about their origin. One recorded by D. F. McLeod traced it to some Muslim tribes formed from those who fled Delhi, the capital city of India, after murdering a physician. Another traced it to some great Muslim families who fled after murdering a favoured slave of Akbar the Great, the emperor of Hindustan (India).
These original Muslim Thugs spread Thuggee amongst Indian Rajputs, Hindus, Lodhis and Ahirs. According to other traditions by Thugs, they were Kanjars or descended from those who worked in the Mughal camps. Others have blamed the rise of Thugs on the disbanding of armies in employment of Indian rulers after the British conquest. Thugs are said to have operated as gangs of highway robbers, tricking and later strangling their victims.
However, the earliest known reference to the Thugs as a band or fraternity, rather than ordinary thieves, is found from the early 14th century when sultan (king) Jalal-ud-din Khalji had arrested 1,000 thugs and sent them in isolation.
How The Thugs Used To Kill Innocent People
The Thuggee units would resemble the physical appearance of travellers. Initially, they wore turbans and carried with themselves some kinds of baggage. Their attire as travellers would deceive peasants and royalty alike.
The methods used by Thuggee were meant to reap maximum loot without being caught. They did not accost travellers unless their own numbers were greater than the victims. They flattered travellers they met, which gave them a chance to assess what wealth their targets might have. Many of them avoided committing thuggee near the areas they lived, making discovering their crimes a difficult task. They often pretended to be either Hindu or Muslim to fool their victims.
To take advantage of their victims, the thugs would join travellers and gain their confidence spending a few hours or even days sometimes. This would allow them to surprise and strangle the travellers with a handkerchief or noose. They would then rob and bury their victims. This led to the thugs being called “Phansigar” which literally means “using a noose” in English. This term more commonly used in southern India.
They usually attacked in the evening. A common method used by them was to distract their targets while striking to strangle them from behind. In order to avoid suspicion, they avoided carrying more than a few swords. Sometimes they mutilated corpses of their victims to avoid detection. The corpses were then hidden or buried.
Weapons They Used
A leader of a Thuggee gang was called jemadar. They used a jargon known as Ramasee to disguise their true intentions from their targets. It was an unintelligible, yet meaningful language. Although strangulation was one of their most-recognized methods of murder, they also used blades and natural poisons.
The garrote is often depicted as a weapon of the Thuggee. Other evidences suggest that a kind of dagger called the ‘Katar’ was their personal status weapon. The Thuggee men wore this weapon proudly across their chests.
Early references to Thugs reported they committed their strangulation murders with nooses of rope or catgut, but later they adopted the use of a length of cloth that could be used as a sash or scarf, and thus more easily concealed. This cloth is sometimes described as a rumāl which is actually a head covering or kerchief.
A poison called datura, derived from a plant in the Nightshade family, was sometimes used by Thugs to induce drowsiness or stupefaction, making strangulation easier.
How It All Ended
During the 1830s, the thugs were targeted for eradication by the Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck, and his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman. They really did this and, as a result, the nuisance of thugs in India gradually decreased. British authorities had occasionally captured and prosecuted Thugs. In the process, the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was created in 1835. The campaign relied heavily on captured Thugs who became informants. These informants were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew.
By the 1870s, the Thug cult was essentially extinct, but the history of Thuggee led to the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871 in India. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department remained in existence until 1904 when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).