Nineteenth century Britain saw the beginning of the mass media at its best and worst: novelists like Charles Dickens could become household names serializing their novels, a careless journalist could nearly inspire a pogrom by linking the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders to London’s Jewish population. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ was, like today, the ethos of the popular press; and if one of the many, many groups under the British Empire’s boot-heel could be demonized in the process, then all the better.
The ‘Thugs’ of India were one such group, but they may have deserved the scorn: they are alleged to have killed anywhere between fifty thousand and two million people during a reign of terror that lasted hundreds of years. Operating all over the Indian sub-continent, the loosely organized fraternity of Hindus and Muslims were a feared and often respected ‘gang’, ‘tribe’ or ‘cult’ depending on who you asked. Operating alone or in groups, they would infiltrate caravans of traders or befriend travelers. Once they were trusted, they would strike, strangling a target with an easy to conceal garotte like a scarf or turban. The targets would be killed in remote areas, away from the rest of their group, while other Thugs would distract the larger group with music and dancing. A grave would have already been dug, so the Thugs’ targets would seem to simply disappear – eaten by wildlife or lost in the forest. By the time the disappearances became suspicious, it would be too late: the Thugs would outnumber them or could disappear with as much loot as they could carry.
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