The highest criminal record: who killed two million people

Kyrylo Danylchenko

Until the mid-19th century, thousands of travellers disappeared on the roads of India every year. Some fell victim to robbers, but most were killed by members of the Thuggee sect. Worshippers of the goddess Kali believed that murder guaranteed them a good reincarnation.


English word thug, meaning lad, vagrant or criminal, derives from the name of the Thuggee sect. Indians called its members thugs, meaning swindlers, because they would gain the trust of travellers before killing them. Thug Life was the life principle of the rap star Tupac Shakur.

Kali is the Indian goddess of death, secret murder and massacre, the wife of the creator god Shiva. She holds a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other. A necklace of skulls completes her image. The priests of the goddess preached that only regular sacrifices would prevent Kali from destroying humanity.

The Thugs knew three ways of worship: strangulation, dagger stabbing, or poisoning. The killers had their own dialect and system of techniques. They have even earned the mention in the Guinness Book of Records for their effectiveness. However, custom forbade them to kill women, children, fakirs, musicians, lepers, and Europeans. The Europeans did not appreciate the courtesy. To suppress the sect, the British colonizers launched large-scale repressions.

To ensure the victims' death, the stranglers would pierce their eyes before throwing the bodies into a well. Drawing by an unknown Indian artist. Source: British Library
Thug stranglers and poisoners. The Illustrated London News, 1857 /
Thugs. Illustration from Harper's Weekly, 1857 /

Mass destruction method

Thug poisoners hid the poison in jewelry and smeared it on the victim’s exposed body parts whenever they could. Daggerers practiced quick stabs to the temple or back of the head so that less blood would flow from the body. Abundant blood spilling meant problems for the killer in the next circles of reincarnation.

The pinnacle of Thuggee art was strangulation with a rumal, a silk handkerchief weighted with coins. Legend says, Kali used rumal to wipe her face while fighting demons. To prevent the silk from cutting the skin and shedding blood, the fabric was oiled.

The Thugs usually worked in groups, joining merchants and caravans under the guise of travellers. Sometimes they walked together for hundreds of kilometers before slaughtering a merchant at night in a hidden place. Dogs and pack animals were killed, too. The bodies were thrown into wells or buried, and bonfires were made on the graves. The victims were supposed to disappear, to go missing.

Thugs strangle a traveller. Drawing by an unknown Indian artist, 1829-1840. Source: British Library

Thug Behram (1765-1840) was suspected by the British authorities of more than 900 stranglings. According to the interrogation report, he confessed to 125 murders and 150 cases of complicity.

Gentlemen versus stranglers

No one knows exactly how many people died at the hands of the Thugs, as the time of the sect’s origin is unknown. According to various estimates, between 70,000 and 2 000 000 people were killed over several hundred years. It went so far that the fanatics’ arsenal included methods against strangulation and dagger stabbing, because colleagues met each other on the roads too often.

The colonial administration of the British Empire was ready to turn a blind eye to the strange Indian beliefs, except for those that interfered with trade. In 1824, the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, declared war on the Thugs. Colonel William Henry Sleeman was the most productive in this fight. Having captured one murderer, he got testimony against the entire gang. Sleeman used both carrots and sticks: he promised the prisoners leniency, gave financial assistance to their families, took hostages, arranged confrontations, identified victims, and analyzed caravan routes. His efforts led to the arrest of 3,266 Thugs over six years. 483 of them testified, 412 were hanged, and the rest were sent to exile or hard labor.

By the early 1870s, the sect was defeated.

Capture of the Thug Rundheer Singh. The Illustrated London News, 1852 /
Thugs in the Aurangabad prison. Illustration from Le Tour du Monde, 1869 /

Under close supervision

The British were inspired by this experience. In 1871, they passed the Criminals Tribes Act, a law on ‘criminal castes’. All unwanted people were assigned to these groups, such as Indians who defended their land from railroads. All men from the ‘criminal castes’ had to visit the police station regularly and could be arrested without a warrant. Correctional settlements appeared, precursors to concentration camps.

Repressions helped to overcome the wave of killings, but the descendants of the Thugs are still living in India. In several Indian states, they sacrifice roosters or dogs to Kali. Almost every year, there are reports of murders that look eerily similar to ritual killings.