Howard Duffield: John Jasper — Strangler

First published at "In The Bookman", February 1930, pp. 581-588

A

mong the un­solved puz­zles of lit­er­a­ture, few are more in­tri­cate and fas­ci­nat­ing than "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". In­ter­rupt­ed by death when the novel was half writ­ten, Dick­ens left to his read­ers a rid­dle which is equal­ly baf­fling and al­lur­ing. The work was to have been pub­lished in twelve month­ly in­stal­ments. Only three were print­ed. Three more in manuscript were upon the au­thor's desk when he died. The thread was cut when only half the story was told. Edwin Drood was a boy­ish chap, en­gaged to be mar­ried to a school­girl. As their be­trothal was a tes­ta­men­tary pro­vi­sion of their par­ents, their love-mak­ing lacked ardor and the young peo­ple tugged at the teth­er. John Jasper, a cathe­dral choir­mas­ter, was Drood's uncle, and treat­ed him with an os­ten­ta­tious af­fec­tion. On Christ­mas Eve Edwin and a cer­tain Neville Land­less, with whom he had quar­relled, met in Jasper's room to ar­range a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. On Christ­mas morn­ing Edwin could not be found. The pivot of the story is this mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance.

From the out­set John Jasper takes the lime­light, as a study in crim­i­nal psy­chol­o­gy, the ex­po­nent of an idea which Dick­ens as­sert­ed was "very cu­ri­ous", "very strong", "not com­mu­ni­ca­ble" and "dif­fi­cult to work". It be­comes quick­ly ap­par­ent that the clue to the role for which Jasper is cast must be sought for in Ori­en­tal an­tecedents. The story is en­veloped in Ori­en­tal at­mo­sphere. All the im­puls­es which give it move­ment and di­rec­tion come out of the East. Sul­tans, Turk­ish rob­bers, cym­bals, scim­i­tars, danc­ing-girls and parad­ing ele­phants, like the fan­tas­tic fig­ures of an East­ern rug, are woven into the web of the nar­ra­tive by its in­tro­duc­to­ry sen­tences. The mo­ment the cov­ers are opened a waft of opium is re­leased, and every cri­sis reeks with opium fumes. The short prefa­to­ry chap­ter, which the au­thor orig­i­nal­ly des­ig­nat­ed as the "Pro­logue", and at the close of which, as he him­self says, he "touch­es the keynote", is whol­ly con­cerned with an East In­di­an opium den near the Lon­don docks, that great gate­way through which the life of the Ori­ent streams into Eng­land.

The oc­cu­pants of the den are a Chi­na­man and a Las­car. Its pro­pri­etress is a hag who is an opium ad­dict, and who "has opi­umsmoked her­self into a strange like­ness of the Chi­na­man". As he en­ters, Edwin Drood an­nounces, "I shall go en­gi­neer­ing into the East". In her first con­ver­sa­tion with her be­trothed, Edwin's fi­ancee drags in al­lu­sions to "Arabs, . . . and Fel­lahs, and peo­ple", to "Isis­es, and Ibis­es, and Cheopses, and Pharaohses", des­cants con­cern­ing the Pyra­mids and the Ori­en­tal trick of di­vin­ing the fu­ture by gaz­ing at a drop of ink in the palm of the hand. Mr. Sapsea, an auc­tion­eer, pompous­ly refers to "Pekin, Nankin and Can­ton", and pro­claims that he comes in touch "with Japan, with Egypt, with bam­boo and san­dal­wood from the East In­dies". Neville and He­le­na Land­less hail from Cey­lon, and the au­thor, after due con­sid­er­a­tion, en­dows them with a "mix­ture of Ori­en­tal blood". Sapsea harps on their "un-En­glish" ap­pear­ance. Edwin opens con­ver­sa­tion with Neville by pro­claim­ing that "he was going to wake Egypt a lit­tle", and in­ces­sant­ly al­ludes to that "part of the world in which Neville was brought up". A sneer­ing ref­er­ence to Ori­en­tal man­ners, in­ten­si­fied by a con­temp­tu­ous com­ment on Neville's "dark color", pro­vokes an angry col­li­sion be­tween the young men, which is a vital el­e­ment of the plot. One of the most promi­nent char­ac­ters has pinned upon him the grotesque title of "Tar­tar", a name as redo­lent of the East as a whiff of hashish.

Con­cern­ing the back­ground of John Jasper, who oc­cu­pies the cen­ter of the stage, Dick­ens in­ten­tion­al­ly left the read­er in ig­no­rance. A soli­tary re­mark as to per­son­al ap­pear­ance sug­gests an Ori­en­tal ori­gin: "He is a dark man with thick, lus­trous, well-ar­ranged black hair and whiskers, and he looks older than he is, as dark men often do". In­ci­den­tal­ly, he is shown to be fa­mil­iar with the lan­guages of the East for, when he lis­tens to the mut­ter­ings of the opi­um-drenched Chi­na­man and the Las­car, he rec­og­nizes them as "un­in­tel­li­gi­ble gib­ber­ish".

The re­veal­ing clue as to Jasper's per­son­al­i­ty is fur­nished by Dick­ens him­self. With sed­u­lous care he kept out of the story ev­ery­thing which might dis­close its cen­tral se­cret, but in a con­fi­den­tial con­ver­sa­tion with Luke Fildes, the il­lus­tra­tor of the novel, he made a state­ment which un­veils Jasper with startling clear­ness. In a let­ter to the Lon­don Times of Novem­ber 3rd, 1905, Fildes wrote that he had re­quest­ed Dick­ens to ex­plain a mat­ter which he did not com­pre­hend, and with­out an un­der­stand­ing of which he was un­able prop­er­ly to pre­pare his draw­ings. "I in­stanced," he writes, "the print­er's rough proof, where he (Dick­ens) par­tic­u­lar­ly dc­scribed John Jasper as wear­ing a neck­cloth of such di­men­sions as to go twice around his neck. I called his at­ten­tion to the fact that I had pre­vi­ous­ly sketched Jasper as wear­ing a lit­tle black tie around the neck, and I asked him if he had any spe­cial rea­son for the al­ter­ation of Jasper's at­tire; and if so,— I sub­mit­ted to him, — I ought to know. He (Dick­ens) ap­peared for the mo­ment to be dis­con­cert­ed by my re­mark, and said some­thing, mean­ing he was afraid he was 'get­ting on too fast' and re­veal­ing more than he meant to at that early stage. After a short si­lence, cog­i­tat­ing, he sud­den­ly said, 'Can you keep a se­cret.?' I as­sured him he could rely upon me. He then said, 'I must have the dou­ble tie. It is nec­es­sary, for Jasper stran­gles Edwin Drood with it'." That this ample "neck­cloth" was cen­tral- to Dick­ens's thought is cried aloud by Fildes's let­ter. The in­sist­ed sub­sti­tu­tion of that long black scarf, for the "lit­tle black tie"; his anx­i­ety, lest he might let into the open the very idea which he was so stren­u­ous­ly con­ceal­ing; his brood­ing si­lence; his de­lib­er­ate weigh­ing of the sit­u­a­tion; his ex­ac­tion of a pledge of ab­so­lute se­cre­cy; his stress­ing the piv­otal re­la­tion to the nar­ra­tive, of Jasper's neck-gear — "I must have the dou­ble tie. It is nec­es­sary" — his ex­pla­na­tion that Jasper is to stran­gle Drood with it, form a com­bi­na­tion of cir­cum­stances which pro­claim with cu­mu­la­tive em­pha­sis that Fildes's in­quiry went, like a probe, close to the heart of the "Mys­tery".

To any­one fa­mil­iar with the habits and his­to­ry of the East, the dis­cov­ery that in a novel sat­u­rat­ed with Ori­en­talisms the chief char­ac­ter was to fig­ure as "A Stran­gler" is elec­tri­fy­ing. Dur­ing two-thirds of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the pe­ri­od spanned by the life of Charles Dick­ens, the out­stand­ing fea­ture of En­glish rule in India was the ef­fort to sup­press the Phan­si­gars, pop­u­lar­ly known as "Thugs", whose vic­tims were in­vari­ably stran­gled. Read in the Hght of this il­lu­mi­nat­ing fact, the pages of the Drood frag­ment are found to be bristling with in­ti­ma­tions that when Dick­ens told Fildes that a long black neck­cloth must be in the pic­ture, be­cause it was nec­es­sary for a stran­gling, he made known what he had so earnest­ly striv­en to hide, that in the lore of this Ori­en­tal cult of death was to be found the major clue to the mys­tery which he was weav­ing. The his­to­ry of the Stran­glers is a weird and grue­some chap­ter in the an­nals of crime. The bare con­cep­tion of such a guild of mur­der­ers is so ab­hor­rent and ap­pal­ing that until the most con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence had been se­cured the En­glish Gov­ern­ment re­fused to admit its ex­is­tence, and it was not until the be­gin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that its pres­ence as a can­cer­ous fac­tor in the so­cial life of India be­came def­i­nite­ly ac­knowl­edged. In 1829 the Supreme Gov­ern­ment of India es­tab­lished a Spe­cial Po­lice De­part­ment, known as "Thuggee and Da­coity", to fer­ret out and sup­press this sav­age broth­er­hood. An­nu­al re­ports were made to the British Par­lia­ment until 1904, when it was be­lieved that Thuggee had been fi­nal­ly wiped off the map.

The basal fact of the Drood story is a mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance, and it was the fre­quen­cy of "mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ances" (to quote the Po­lice Re­ports) which first ar­rest­ed the at­ten­tion of the Gov­ern­ment. Mur­der by a Thug was in­vari­ably a "mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance". Trav­ellers who set out upon a jour­ney never reached their jour­ney's end. Neigh­bors van­ished. Sol­diers on fur­lough failed to re­turn to the ranks. Noth­ing was ever known con­cern­ing a Stran­gler's vic­tim, ex­cept that he was gone. The whole story of a Stran­gler's crime is con­tained in Dick­ens's re­peat­ed words, "No trace of Edwin Drood re­vis­it­ed the light of the sun". The ros­ter of these "mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ances" be­came so sig­nif­i­cant­ly large as to de­niand ex­pla­na­tion, and the cur­tain lift­ed upon as re­pug­nant and ter­ri­fy­ing a spec­ta­cle as has ever been played in the drama of hu­man­i­ty. The Gov­ern­ment of India found it­self at close grips with a se­cret cult of "re­li­gious as­sas­sins". This craft of mur­der was sanc­ti­fied, and its prac­tice hal­lowed as a sort of an­ces­tral rite. A mem­ber of that order would be run­ning true to form if, as Jasper did, he wore a sur­plice over a mur­der­ous heart. A Stran­gler re­gard­ed him­self as a votary of Kali, the God­dess of De­struc­tion. Vic­tims were never "mur­dered", but al­ways "de­stroyed", as a sac­ri­fi­cial of­fer­ing to her. The fact that, in the Drood frag­ment, Dick­ens has re­peat­ed­ly used the- term "de­struc­tion" in a very pe­cu­liar and sin­is­ter sense, flash­es into light the thought that he is pic­tur­ing Jasper as an adept in this un­holy sect. When Jasper reg­is­ters a vow of vengeance, con­se­crat­ing his life to the pur­suit of the sup­posed mur­der­er of Drood, Dick­ens makes him say, "I de­vote my­self to his de­struc­tion". This is a very strange and a very sig­nif­i­cant fancy ex­pres­sion. The nat­u­ral state­ment would have been, "I will do all in my power to lead to his dis­cov­ery, or se­cure his ar­rest, or bring him to jus­tice, or in­sure his pun­ish­ment". When he couch­es his de­ter­mi­na­tion in the term "I de­vote my­self to his de­struc­tion", he is em­ploy­ing key­words in the vo­cab­u­lary of the Stran­glers. That Dick­ens was thor­ough­ly aware of the bale­ful pur­pose of this phrase­ol­o­gy and used it with set pur­pose is strik­ing­ly in­di­cat­ed by his se­lec­tion as a head­ing for that chap­ter in which he records this in­ci­dent of Jasper's ded­i­ca­tion of him­self as mis­sion­ary of "de­struc­tion"— the one word "De­vot­ed". To a Thug, that word could have but a sin­gle mean­ing. The pres­ence of this idea in Dick­ens's mind is made still more ap­par­ent by his de­scrip­tion of Jasper as en­dowed with an un­can­ny po­ten­cy of "de­struc­tion". Dick­ens writes that Jasper gazed at young Land­less, "as though his eye were at the trig­ger of a load­ed rifle" —"with a sense of de­struc­tive power so ex­pressed in his face" that his com­pan­ion, who was a thick-skinned and stony-heart­ed bump­kin, shiv­ered.

Not only did Dick­ens brand the Pre­cen­tor of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral with this hall­mark of the Ori­en­tal Stran­glers, but he has de­pict­ed him as a prac­ti­tion­er of every prin­ci­ple which is laid down in their sci­ence of death. The ini­tial re­quire­ment of their sys­tem was the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of them­selves with the most re­spectable class­es of the com­mu­ni­ty, pre­cise­ly after the fash­ion in which Jasper is in­tro­duced as hav­ing made for him­self a place of high re­gard among the Clois­ter­ham folk. Thugs be­came traders, farm­ers, men of busi­ness, even mem­bers of the learned pro­fes­sions. Com­mer­cial­ly, they were trust­ed. So­cial­ly, they were court­ed. It was of prime im­por­tance that they should pose as- good cit­i­zens and friend­ly neigh­bors, v En­glish of­fi­cers tes­ti­fy to hav­ing lived on ex­cel­lent terms with men whose af­fa­bil­i­ty and seem­ing in­tegri­ty were only a mask for the in­stincts and prac­tice of Thuggee. The lan­guage of the of­fi­cial records as to the fa­vor­able im­pres­sion in­vari­ably cre­at­ed by a Stran­gler is dis­tinct­ly re-echoed in the, de­tailed stress­ing of Jasper's so­cial stand­ing:—"so much re­spect­ed", "en­joy­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of hav­ing done won­ders as a music teach­er", "choos­ing his so­ci­ety and hold­ing such an in­de­pen­dent po­si­tion".

It was a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of Thuggee that the pre­lude to a mur­der should be the de­cep­tion of the vic­tim by pre­tend­ed kind­ness. So im­por­tant and im­per­a­tive was this step, that its prac­tice was as­signed to a group spe­cial­ly trained for this pur­pose, and known as "In­vei­glers". It was their treach­er­ous task to in­sin­u­ate them­selves into the in­ti­ma­cy of their un­sus­pect­ing prey to the end that they might strike the death-blow be­hind the shield of a rec­og­nized at­tach­ment. Dick­ens has "writ large" such a re­la­tion­ship be­tween Jasper and Edwin Drood.. Un­der­scored in the first pages, it is played up per­sis­tent­ly and con­sis­tent­ly through­out the story. Jasper was over-af­fec­tion­ate to Drood. He del­uged him with af­fec­tion. Clois­ter­ham's name for Edwin was "John Jasper's beloved nephew". The Dean re­marks, "I hope Mr. Jasper's heart may not be too much set upon his nephew". The Minor Canon, when told that a visit from Edwin was ex­pect­ed, says, "He will do you more good than a doc­tor, Jasper". Time and again Edwin protest­ed against being so per­pet­u­al­ly "mod­dley-cod­dleyed". The af­fec­tion with which Jasper over­load­ed Edwin was os­ten­ta­tious, al­most unc­tu­ous. Acts of kind­ness were su­per­abun­dant. Terms of en­dear­ment were em­ployed with stu­dious and ex­ag­ger­at­ed fre­quen­cy. Such be­hav­ior would seem to mark him, and would cer­tain­ly qual­i­fy him, as a Sothae, or In­vei­gler, in any cir­cle of Thugs.

The "de­struc­tion" of a vic­tim by a Stran­gler was wrought in ac­cor­dance with a rigid rit­u­al of pro­ce­dure. Mur­der was never com­mit­ted until a buri­al place had been pre­pared. Cer­tain mem­bers of the band were cho­sen as a sort of com­mit­tee on graves. An out-of-the-vvay spot was care­ful­ly se­lect­ed in which the body could be in­stant­ly and se­cret­ly hid­den. So ex­pert were the Thugs in the con­ceal­ment of the dead that the places in which the bod­ies of their vic­tims were buried could sel­dom be dis­cov­ered, ex­cept by the con­fes­sion of the slay­er. Jasper is rep­re­sent­ed as an ex­pert in sepul­ture. Sound­ing the keys of the vaults, as if they were tun­ing forks; cul­ti­vat­ing Dur­dles, the tomb­keep­er of the Cathe­dral, as a com­pan­ion; con­tin­u­al­ly ram­bling through the do­main of the dead; ar­rang­ing a night-time pic­nic in the crypt, dur­ing which every nook and cran­ny in which a corpse might be con­cealed was ex­plored; tak­ing note of a near-by heap of lime in. which a body might be dis­in­te­grat­ed, Jasper no­tably per­formed this car­di­nal duty of a Thug.

The ob­ser­vance of omens was re­gard­ed by a Stran­gler as ab­so­lute­ly es­sen­tial, be­fore at­tempt­ing the "de­struc­tion" of his vic­tim. Upon the eve of an as­sas­si­na­tion, watch­ers scanned the sky and air and land­scape with pierc­ing vig­i­lance, search­ing for some token from the God­dess of De­struc­tion. An elab­o­rate code of such signs is cat­a­logued in the gov­ern­men­tal records of India. In a re­cent novel which vivid­ly de­scribes a mur­der by stran­gu­la­tion, a brace of An­gli­cized Thugs pref­aced their as­sault by an "un­ac­count­able ex­pe­di­tion" across the Scot­tish coun­try­side. For days their vic­tim had been with­in reach, but be­fore the at­tack could be made, the omens must be noted. Jasper, ac­com­pa­nied by the grave-dig­ger Dur­dles, made just such an un­ac­count­able ex­pe­di­tion to the top of the Cathe­dral Tower which has all the marks of an omen-hunt. It was un­der­tak­en at the prop­er time. The Christ­mas Eve party, which cir­cum­stances had de­not­ed as the mo­ment when Jasper must strike his blow, was at hand. The hour had come when it was nec­es­sary to con­sult the or­a­cle of "de­struc­tion", and as he and Dur­dles made a mid­night as­cent of the Tower they re­ceived one of the most aus­pi­cious to­kens known to Thuggee. Near the sum­mit, they heard "the chirp of some star­tled jack­daw or rook". At the next step, as they emerged upon the top, they were greet­ed with a view of "the river,, wind­ing down from the mists of the hori­zon". The call of a rook in sight of a river, known as "Julka­ju­ra", was the most fa­vor­able omen which could pos­si­bly be­fall. In the lore of the Phan­si­gar, the God­dess had spo­ken and had given to what­ev­er plan was in Jasper's heart her fright­ful bene­dic­tion. The pair of Stran­glers in the story re­ferred to above, dur­ing their ex­pe­di­tion through the fields heard the caw­ing of a rook as they caught sight of a river. "Sign and river!" cried the one to the other, in a kind of ec­sta­sy. "The sign of signs!" That same oc­cult token came to Jasper in the Tower. What he pro­posed to do was blessed by Kali. In the ear­li­est pages of the novel Dick­ens had called at­ten­tion to the rooks which were flut­ter­ing about the Cathe­dral Tower, and em­broi­dered the in­ci­dent with some clever and whim­si­cal no­tions. What was re­al­ly in the back of his head ;when he wrote that para­graph slipped into view as he pro­ceed­ed to say that on­look­ers might al­most fancy that the be­hav­ior "of the rooks was, a mat­ter of "some oc­cult im­por­tance". Ev­i­dent­ly he was so ob­sessed with the thought that the caw­ing of a rook in the Tower at the cri­sis of his story would be sur­charged with oc­cult im­por­tance, that the idea tinc­tured his ink and dripped from the point of his pen. The para­graph is most in­ge­nious­ly de­vised to hood­wink the read­er, but in its very ex­cess of cun­ning it seems to whis­per "If, by and by, the call of a rook is heard in the Tower, 'stop, look and lis­ten', for that will be a cry of 'oc­cult im­por­tance'". Those rooks in the sec­ond chap­ter were re­al­ly red her­rings. The Stran­gler was di­rect­ed by Thuggee rit­u­al to use but a sin­gle in­stru­ment of death, —a fold of cloth known as the "roomal". This strip of fab­ric had the sanc­ti­ty of a relic. It vyas re­gard­ed as a frag­ment of the gown of Kali. Or­di­nar­i­ly it was white or yel­low. Such col­ored stuffs in Jasper's pos­ses­sion would re­quire ex­pla­na­tion, Dick­ens there­fore pic­tures him, when he went up the postern stair to his ren­dezvous with fate, as pulling off "a great blac\ scarf and hang­ing it in a loop upon his arm". The hint as to color was given in the Kali mythol­o­gy, which re­lates that the gown of the God­dess was black; and that grim­ly sug­gest­ed "loop" is also dis­tinct­ly in­ven­to­ried in the Thugs' hand­book of mur­der. This stran­gling cloth was in­vari­ably worn as part of one's dress, ei­ther as a tur­ban or a gir­dle. Adapt­ing it to En­glish cus­tom, Jasper wore it as a neck­cloth, in the fash­ion of that old-time stock which Fildes was told he must put into the pic­ture, be­cause it was nec­es­sary for a stran­gling. That ne­ces­si­ty was cre­at­ed by the rules of Thuggee. If Edwin was to be done to death by an Ori­en­tal Stran­gler, he "must" be mur­dered in just that way.

The death rubric of the Stran­glers di­rect­ed that the "de­struc­tion" of the vic­tim must be wrought by at least two as­sailants. Cap­tain Slee­man, Su­per­in­ten­dent of the Thug Po­lice, writes, "Two Phan­si­gars, are con­sid­ered in­dis­pens­able to ef­fect the mur­der of one man". For Jasper to un­der­take to stran­gle Edwin sin­gle-hand­ed was con­trary to the ac­cept­ed prac­tice, and the fu­til­i­ty of his en­deav­or is def­i­nite­ly fore­shad­owed. In the first con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Edwin and his be­trothed, Dick­ens rep­re­sents Rosa as in­ter­po­lat­ing a far-fetched dis­ser­ta­tion on Bel­zoni, the Ori­en­tal trav­eller, into their bad­i­nage. "There was Bel­zoni, or some­body," she said, "dragged out by the legs, half cho\ed with bats and dust. All the girls say, they wish he had been quite cho\ed. . . . But how can his legs and his chokes con­cern you?" Noth­ing in the story, as told to us, makes this prat­tle about "chokes" any­thing more than the whim­sy of a school­girl. But when thir­ty-five years later Fildes an­nounces that Dick­ens had con­fi­den­tial­ly ad­vised him that a piv­otal fea­ture of the plot was an at­tempt by Jasper to stran­gle Drood, those ap­par­ent­ly off­hand sen­tences wear an­oth­er look, and begin to shine with a strange light. Those "chokes" did con­cern Edwin, much more than Bel­zoni, and were not due to the "bats and dust" which, with such care­ful care­less­ness, are thrust upon the read­er's at­ten­tion. Those "half chokes", and that "not quite choked", carry one far deep­er into , Mr. Dick­ens's con­fi­dence than Luke Fildes ever pei­ietrat­ed.

"Half choked" vic­tims were suf­fi­cient­ly fre­quent to have em­balmed them­selves in the Thug vo­cab­u­lary. To quote from their dic­tio­nary of evil, "bisul purna" meant "to be awk­ward­ly han­dled in stran­gling; to have the roomal round the face or head in­stead of the neck". "Bisul" is de­fined as "a per­son in­tend­ed to be killed, on whom the roomal falls un­to­ward­ly, ei­ther on his head or face". "Jy­waloo" de­scribes a per­son left for dead, but af­ter­wards found to have life in him. This sin­gu­lar ref­er­ence to Bel­zoni shows that Dick­ens had clear­ly in mind the in­ten­tion of rep­re­sent­ing Jasper as only "half chok­ing" Edwin in his unas­sist­ed as­sault upon him, an idea for which there is abun­dant au­thor­i­ty both in his­to­ry and in the court records; and it may be fair­ly claimed that he had laid the ground for such a frus­trat­ed at­tack by se­lect­ing the only kind of an at­tempt at mur­der which per­mit­ted it. A thrust with a dag­ger, a shot from a pis­tol, a pinch of poi­son in a wine glass—these would have meant cer­tain death.

Had Dick­ens lived to re­late what hap­pened on the night of Edwin's mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance, the tale would in all like­li­hood be a repli­ca of much that is in­scribed on the po­lice blot­ters of the "Thuggee and Da­coity" De­part­ment. To quote a sin­gle entry: "The Stran­glers con­trive to keep com­pa­ny with their vic­tim, and watch for an op­por­tu­ni­ty to de­stroy him. This they some-times cre­ate by per­suad­ing him to quit his lodg­ing place, a lit­tle after mid­night, pre­tend­ing it is near day­break; or by de­tach­ing him from his com­pan­ions, lead him under var­i­ous pre­tences to some, soli­tary spot. In the de­struc­tion of their vic­tims they first use some dele­te­ri­ous sub­stance, which they con­trive to ad­min­is­ter in food or drink. As soon as the poi­son be­gins to take ef­fect by in­duc­ing a stu­por or lan­gour, they stran­gle him to pre­vent his cry­ing out. . . . The deed is com­plet­ed on the brink of a well, into which they plunge the body". To those fa­mil­iar with the Drood story, such a mem­o­ran­dum reads like a sce­nario for the Clois­ter­ham af­fair. But it is ac­tu­al­ly a para­graph from "Gen­er­al Or­ders by Major Gen­er­al St. Leger, Com­mand­ing the Forces, Head­quar­ters, Cawn­pore, 28 April, 1810". It is print­ed in full in Cap­tain Slee­man's book. The Thugs, which was wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed in Eng­land, and could not have es­caped the at­ten­tion of any writ­er in­ter­est­ed in the sub­ject of stran­gling. A Phan­si­gar motif would be pe­cu­liar­ly al­lur­ing to Dick­ens. The mys­tery which cloaked the very ex­is­tence of this mur­der guild, the weird psy­chol­o­gy of its mem­bers, the- un­can­ny dex­ter­i­ty with which they wrought at their fiendish craft, would strong­ly ap­peal to one so tem­per­a­men­tal­ly at­tract­ed by the melo­dra­mat­ic el­e­ments of human ex­pres­sion and who was such a keen and con­stant ob­serv­er of their ex­pres­sion in crim­i­nal­i­ty. Dur­ing Dick­ens's en­tire life­time. Thuggee was a topic which was more or less con­stant­ly in the air. The re­ports of Cap­tain Slee­man, Su­per­in­ten­dent of the force or­ga­nized for the sup­pres­sion of the Phan­si­gars, were em­bod­ied in a vol­ume which stirred and star­tled all Eng­land about 1835. The Ed­in­burgh Re­view de­vot­ed a lead­ing ar­ti­cle to the sub­ject in 1837. A lit­tle later Mead­ows Tay­lor, a high po­lice of­fi­cial in per­son­al touch with all the facts, pre­sent­ed them in the guise of a novel, en­ti­tled The Con­fes­sions of a Thug. This book had an im­mense vogue. De Quincey men­tions it in his es­says. Its com­po­si­tion was sug­gest­ed by Bul­w­er-Lyt­ton, Dick­ens's lit­er­ary com­rade, who de­clared that ig­no­rance of the sub­ject alone pre­vent­ed him from de­vot­ing his own pen to its treat­ment.

In 1847 Eu­gene Sue en­ter­tained Dick­ens in Paris at the mo­ment when his re­cent­ly writ­ten The Wan­der­ing Jew was at its merid­i­an. One of the high lights of that book is a de­tailed ac­count of Thuggee. Fore­most among its char­ac­ters was a Stran­gler who prac­tised in Eu­rope the fell craft he had ac­quired in India. The French au­thor was fa­mil­iar with Cap­tain Slee­man's re­ports, for the name of his Phan­si­gar vil­lain is copied from its pages. Dick­ens could not have been in touch, with Sue at just that time with­out com­ing to some ex­tent under the spell of the Ori­en­tal clan of as­sas­sins, any more than a writ­er of nov­els at the pre­sent day could be the guest of John Galswor­thy and re­main in­dif­fer­ent to the for­tunes of the Forsytes. In 1857, writ­ing of an epi­dem­ic of gar­rot­ing which had bro­ken out in Lon­don, Dick­ens him­self refers to the cu­rios in the British Mu­se­um which il­lus­trat­ed the art of stran­gu­la­tion as prac­tised by the Thugs. An Amer­i­can novel, called Cord and Creese, cen­tered upon a mys­te­ri­ous mur­der by an En­glish­man who had be­come af­fil­i­at­ed with the Thugs, and which, in sim­i­lar­i­ty of in­ci­dent, no­tice­ably par­al­lels the Drood story, was pub­lished and wide­ly read upon both sides o£ the At­lantic in 1869, the year in which Dick­ens began to spin the "mys­tery" of his final plot. In that same year, the' nov­el­read­ing world was gripped by The Moon­stone, that mas­ter­piece of Wilkie Collins, Dick­ens's lit­er­ary friend, which is a tale of three Hindu devo­tees, mem­bers of an Ori­en­tal cult, who went skulk­ing around Eng­land on a se­cret mis­sion which cul­mi­nat­ed in mur­der. The lit­er­ary at­mo­sphere in which The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood was cra­dled was dense with a kind of germ for which Dick­ens's imag­i­na­tion was ge­nial soil, and which would in­evitably fruc­ti­fy into a story es­sen­tial­ly akin to The Moon­stone", which novel, it is worth not­ing, con­tribut­ed, al­most ver­ba­tim, at least one cru­cial para­graph to the Drood nar­ra­tive. A con­spir­a­cy of cir­cum­stances seemed to thrust upon Charles Dick­ens, as a ready-to-hand theme for his final bit of pen-work, the ma­lign ac­tiv­i­ties in Eng­land of one whose an­tecedents in the Far East linked him with the most sub­tle and ab­hor­rent fra­ter­ni­ty of crime known to his­to­ry.

BOOKS CON­SULT­ED FOR THIS AR­TI­CLE

  • The Thugs or Phan­si­gars of India; by Sir W. H. Slee­man. CAREY & HART, Philadel­phia, 1839.
  • Confes­sions of a Thug, by Mead­ows Tay­lor: R. BENT­LEY, Lon­don, 1839.
  • The Wan­der­ing Jew, by Eu­gene Sue. RICHARDS. 1845.
  • The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, HARPERS, i860.
  • Cord and Creese, by James de Mille. HARPERS, 1869 
  • The Moon­stone, by Wilkie Collins, HARPERS, 1873.
  • Fol­low­ing the Equa­tor, by Mark Twain, HARPERS, 1897.
  • At the House of Dree, by Gor­don Gar­diner, HOUGHTON MIF­FLIN, 1928.
  • The Bagshot Mys­tery, by Oscar Gray, MACAULAY, 1929.