Even after their leader was gone, the Thugs of India ruled the streets with a deadly hand.
For over three hundred years, roughly between the mid 1500’s and the mid 1800’s, travelers in Indian held an unspoken fear. Many knew someone who had gone missing on the roads in the darkest hours of the night. No one knew for sure what had happened to them. That fear drove travelers to stick together, seeking what safety they could find in numbers. But this was exactly what the Thugs wanted.
The Thugs were a secret cult that worshipped Kali, Goddess of Death. According to the Thugs, Kali’s favor came at the cost of regular payments in blood. The Thugs gave it to her. In all the centuries of their existence, few Thugs provided as much blood as Thug Behram.
Thugs like Behram gathered in small groups by the side of the road, waiting for travelers to pass by. When they did, the Thugs told them that they were traveling merchants or performers themselves and asked to join them. After all, there was safety in numbers. The Thugs then followed along with their victims, sometimes for days or even months, slowly gaining their trust. Often, other groups of Thugs would join the party along the way. When the Thugs felt the odds were in their favor, they would strike.
In groups of three, the Thugs would stalk through the camp. One man would grab the victim’s arms and another the legs. The third would then strangle the victim with a silk cloth. In a single, blood-soaked night, the thugs could kill hundreds of people this way.
Once the victims were dead, the Thugs would loot anything of value and carefully hide the bodies. The ultimate sacrifice to Kali complete, the thugs would go their separate ways. It was a pattern that repeated itself in the shadows of India for centuries.
No one knows exactly how many people met their end this way. But the life of Thug Behram– or at least what we know about it, which admittedly isn’t much– is a good example of how deadly even a single Thug could be.
British Library/ Wikimedia CommonsBehram was probably born sometime around the 1760’s in Northern India. Like many Thugs, he may have been born into the group. The murderous trade was often passed down from father to son. But little is known for certain about his life. What is certain is that Behram excelled in the life of a Thug.
Behram was a particularly gifted strangler. His preferred tool was the cloth sash he wore on his waist. Inside, Behram had sown a heavy medallion. Behram could throw this medallion around the victim’s Adam’s apple, allowing him to strangle them with deadly force.
Behram probably operated as a Thug for decades. But by the early 1830’s the golden age of the Thugs was crashing to an end. The British, who had colonized India, now turned their attention to the group under superintendent William Henry Sleeman.
Sleeman used a classic tactic against organized crime groups, granting certain Thugs immunity for their crimes if they informed against the others. Now, it was the Thugs that didn’t know who they could trust. Within a decade, a criminal organization that had lasted for centuries was destroyed.
One of the men caught in Sleeman’s web was Thug Behram. According to his testimony, Behram had personally strangled 150 people and had been present when hundreds more were killed. If true, that makes him one of the most prolific serial killers in history, though there are many different conflicting accounts regarding the number of people Behram killed, most given by Behram himself.
As for what happened to Behram, the accounts differ as well. Some say he was hanged, others that he was released in exchange for his testimony and simply disappeared. It’s hard to say how much of his story is really true. Like many of the things we know about the Thugs, the accounts of his life is probably a blend of truth and lurid fiction.
Until the end, the Thugs warned that the killings had been necessary, according to contemporary accounts. They were sacrifices to Kali to prevent her from destroying the world. But ultimately, Thugs like Behram were probably motivated more by simple greed than religion. And that greed drove them to commit some of the most horrific mass murders in history.