Why you should care
Suave, disciplined and ruthless — highwaymen don’t come more effective than Feringeea.
The Thugs made several efforts not to kill the young, beautiful Muslim woman, who they assumed was not carrying enough money to warrant the effort. But the woman’s “growing affection” for Feringeea — the gang’s handsome, high-caste Hindi leader — sealed her fate, says Mike Dash, author of Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult. “He had no interest in strangling her,” says Dash, but Feringeea could not allow their friendship to go any further. That night, deep in the jungle of southern Rajputana, the signal was given and the woman and her servants were murdered.
This young woman was only one of the hundreds of victims strangled by Feringeea and his gang of Thugs along the highways of central India in the first decades of the 19th century. Widen the net to include other Thug gangs and earlier eras, and the death toll could easily be between 50,000 and 100,000, estimates Dash.
Despite the word’s current boorish connotations, the Thugs of 18th- and 19th-century India were sophisticated criminals with a clearly defined modus operandi. The gangs, which varied in size from fewer than a dozen to five times that, would befriend groups of travelers and voyage with them for days or even weeks before strangling and robbing them. The Thugs’ standard methodology of “killing everyone you rob before you rob them,” says Dash, earned them a unique place in history.
Strangling someone to death with a rumal, or scarf, required a certain amount of skill.
And that’s before one delves into the intricacies of the process. Depending on the identity of their intended victims, the Thugs used a variety of personae and disguises (based on religion, caste and profession) to earn their confidence. And if a first attempt to fool them failed, the Thugs would often regroup and try again, using new tactics and different disguises.
Strangling someone to death with a rumal, or scarf, required a certain amount of skill. William Sleeman, the British administrator whose pioneering detective work eventually ended the practice of thuggee, describes it thus in 1839’s The Thugs or Phansigars of India: “One of the [Thugs] suddenly puts the cloth round the neck” of the victim and the other end of the cloth is seized by an accomplice. The rumal is drawn tight, the two Thugs pressing the head forward while a third Thug grabs the victim’s legs and throws him to the ground. “The man holding the legs of the miserable sufferer now kicks him in those parts of the body endowed with most sensibility and he is quickly dispatched.”
Depending on where they were and how much time they had, the Thugs would sometimes go to great lengths to dispose of the bodies of their victims, using a sacred pickax to dig deep graves. On other occasions, the corpses would simply be covered with bushes or tossed in a well. No matter the method, by preying on travelers far from home, the Thugs were able to ensure that victims were seldom identified and the perpetrators seldom caught.
Feringeea’s Thug career brought him swift success. Born in 1800 to a mother descended from nobility and a father who was a notorious Thug leader (his uncle was too), the handsome, articulate and determined Brahmin could probably have found other ways to make a living. Instead, he joined his first Thug expedition at age 10 or 11. (“What dad wouldn’t want his son to go into the family business?” asks Dash.) When his father was hanged for his crimes a year later, young Feringeea responded by leading a Thug expedition of his own.
Apart from a four-year stint in the British East India Company’s army — Thugs often joined the military when wars flared and it was harder to make a living on the highways — Feringeea was an active and highly successful Thug until his capture in December 1830. In the cold season of 1827–28 alone, Feringeea and his gang murdered 105 people (among them travelers, soldiers and merchants, not to mention “three pundits, a messenger, a fakir, two shopkeepers, an elephant driver and a bird-catcher”) in 32 different affairs.
Were it not for Sleeman’s pioneering campaign to rid India of Thuggee (his meticulous record-keeping and cross-checking would be impressive even by today’s standards), Feringeea would surely have gone on to kill and rob many more. By persuading members of each gang he apprehended to turn state’s witness, and corroborating all accusations from several sources, Sleeman was able to all but snuff out a centuries-old practice in less than a decade.
Sleeman had to work hard to catch Feringeea — his network of safe houses would have made El Chapo proud — but the Thug’s devotion to his family resulted in his eventual capture. Feringeea, who had an incredible memory and had at some point worked with most of the other important Thug leaders, was almost as deadly on the witness stand as he was on the highways of India.
After his imprisonment, Feringeea disappeared from the record and no one knows how or where he died. He was, however, immortalized in the exceedingly popular 1839 English novel Confessions of a Thug — Queen Victoria was a fan — and The Wandering Jew, an 1844 French novel. Since catapulting into the English language around 1827, the word “Thug” has undergone a gradual change in meaning (and lost its uppercase T). These days it signifies mindless, low-level violence, says Dash, “but Thugs like Feringeea used violence to an end and could turn it on and off.”
The thugs of today would never have made it into Feringeea’s gang. Thuggee may have been brutal, but it was always disciplined.