Wendy S. Jakobson: John Jasper and Thuggee

"The Modern Language Review", Vol. 72, No. 3 (Jul., 1977)


OWARD Duffield, in an ar­ti­cle for The Book­man (Febru­ary 1930), pre­sent­ed the in­ter­est­ing the­o­ry that John Jasper, strange hero of Dick­ens’s The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, was a Thug. Ed­mund Wil­son en­dorsed this view in ‘The Two Scrooges’ in 1939. And the con­nex­ion be­tween the un­fin­ished novel and Thuggee has been main­tained ever since, as ev­i­denced by Angus Wil­son in his in­tro­duc­tion to the Pen­guin edi­tion of the novel pub­lished in 1974. Here he of­fers the the­o­ry of Jasper’s con­nex­ion with the fol­low­ers of Kali, but sug­gests no ac­cep­tance or de­nial of its re­li­a­bil­i­ty.

This paper pro­pos­es to re­ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence in those sec­tions of the novel that have been thought to sug­gest Thuggee, and to anal­yse this ev­i­dence to show that the au­thor can be seen to imply some other in­ten­tion. The the­o­ry is not prov­able ei­ther way be­cause of the un­fin­ished state of the novel, but, taken sec­tion by sec­tion, it does ap­pear to be an im­prob­a­ble one. The idea is im­me­di­ate­ly in­ter­est­ing and se­duc­tive, but, as with so many of the pro­posed end­ings to this novel, close ex­am­i­na­tion shows it to be less sat­is­fac­to­ry than hope­ful.

Ed­mund Wil­son de­votes no more than a long para­graph to the prob­lem, al­though his ref­er­ence to Duffield’s the­o­ry has been large­ly re­spon­si­ble for thir­ty-odd years of ac­cep­tance of the no­tion that ‘Mr Duffield has here shown con­clu­sive­ly that Jasper is sup­posed to be a mem­ber of the In­di­an sect of Thugs’. Mr Wil­son con­cludes the para­graph with the claim that Wilkie Collins’s The Moon­stone (1868) ‘seems to have in­spired Dick­ens with the idea of out­do­ing his friend the next year with a story of a sim­i­lar kind’ — even though Wilkie’s tale has noth­ing to do with Thuggee. Duffield’s ar­ti­cle, on the other hand, goes into con­sid­er­able de­tail, both about Thuggee and The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. The cen­tral clue is Jasper’s silk scarf worn on Christ­mas Eve to pro­tect his throat from the cold air. The il­lus­tra­tor, Luke Fildes, had no­ticed this; and, in a let­ter to The Times (3 Novem­ber 1905), he wrote that when he asked Dick­ens about the scarf he was told in con­fi­dence that it was to be used to stran­gle Edwin Drood. Duffield as­so­ci­ates this state­ment with Jasper’s dark looks, his opium habit, and the scat­ter­ing of ori­en­tal motif in the novel, con­sid­er­ing all this as sup­port for his the­o­ry of Thuggee. We are told the his­to­ry of Thuggee, of its ex­po­sure in India, and the ex­ten­sive strug­gle by the British po­lice to stamp it out. Then Duffield lists sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Thuggee and el­e­ments in Dick­ens’s tale: the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ances that oc­curred in India, and Edwin’s dis­ap­pear­ance; the de­vo­tion to de­struc­tion to which Thugs are sworn, and Jasper’s dec­la­ra­tion, in the Diary which he shows to Crisparkle, that he is de­vot­ed to Edwin’s mur­der­er (Chap­ter 16); the skills of hypocrisy so mas­tered by both Thug and Jasper; the prepa­ra­tion of buri­al place; and the ob­ser­va­tion of omens which Duffield finds sim­i­lar in Dick­ens’s novel to that pre­oc­cu­pa­tion among Thugs.

The Thugs were mem­bers of a sav­age broth­er­hood of mur­der­ers whose meth­ods were ex­posed dur­ing the British rule in India. in 1829 the Supreme Gov­ern­ment of India found them­selves at grips with a se­cret cult of ‘re­li­gious as­sas­sins’ among whom the craft of mur­der was sanc­ti­fied as an an­ces­tral rite. A spe­cial po­lice de­part­ment de­vot­ed to the sup­pres­sion of Thuggee was es­tab­lished, and the work was com­plet­ed only as late as 1904. Votaries of Kali, God­dess of De­struc­tion, the Thugs did not ‘mur­der’, but ‘sac­ri­ficed’ their vic­tims to their god­dess ac­cord­ing to a pre­scribed method. Howard Duffield ex­plains that ‘mur­der by a Thug was in­vari­ably a “mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance”. Trav­ellers who set out upon a jour­ney never reached their jour­ney’s end. Neigh­bours van­ished. Sol­diers on fur­lough failed to re­turn to the ranks. Noth­ing was ever known con­cern­ing a Stran­gler’s vic­tim, ex­cept that he was gone’ (p. 583). The num­ber of dis­ap­pear­ances grew to such pro­por­tions that the Gov­ern­ment was forced to un­der­take in­ves­ti­ga­tions which re­vealed facts so ab­hor­rent that, until they were proven be­yond a shad­ow of doubt, the Gov­ern­ment re­fused to admit the ex­is­tence of such crime.

Dur­ing two-thirds of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the pe­ri­od spanned by the life of Charles Dick­ens, one of the out­stand­ing fea­tures of En­glish rule in India was this ef­fort to sup­press the Phan­si­gars, pop­u­lar­ly known as ‘Thugs’. The dis­cov­ery, his­to­ry, and sup­pres­sion of the Thugs was re­port­ed in Eng­land and Eu­rope with ex­cite­ment, and the gangs and their par­tic­u­lar meth­ods, not to men­tion the ro­man­tic tales and leg­ends that grew up around them, be­came com­mon knowl­edge, as is ev­i­denced in an ar­ti­cle in House­hold Words, pub­lished some twen­ty years after the es­tab­lish­ment of the spe­cial po­lice de­part­ment in India. Here the stran­glers are lam­pooned — and also an­gli­cized:’ “The Blue Blud­geon,” which is well known to be the ren­dezvous of the fa­mous Torn Thug and his gang, whose re­cent achieve­ments in the stran­gling line, by means of a silk hand­ker­chief and a life-pre­serv­er, used tourni­quet fash­ion, have been so gen­er­al­ly ad­mired of late.’ Sev­en­teen years later the in­ter­est in Thugs is still preva­lent, and an amus­ing ar­ti­cle in All The Tear Round in 1868 shows us how much the Thugs had cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of Eu­rope. A melo­dra­mat­ic vil­lain of lit­tle con­vic­tion in a novel en­ti­tled Le Dernier Mol de Ro­cam­bole by M. Pon­son du Ter­rail is mocked by the au­thor of the ar­ti­cle, who points out that ‘at the time when this novel ap­peared, Thugs were the rage in Paris. There were Thugs in the feuile­tons, there were Thugs on the stage, the ex­ploits of Thugs were record­ed in the pat­ter songs of the cafés-chan­tants. in ac­cor­dance with the pre­vail­ing fash­ion, the Thugs form no in­con­sid­er­able por­tion of the drama­tis per­son­ae of the Dernier Mot de Ro­cam­bole’.

Two other ar­ti­cles, both by John Lang, were pub­lished by Dick­ens. The first, ‘Wed­ding Bells’, is an ac­count of the mur­der of a young Brah­min bride by a fe­male Thug. The ten­der-heart­ed young woman takes pity on an old woman whom she pass­es on the road­side. Over­come by ill­ness and fa­tigue, the old woman calls upon the Almighty for aid. ‘But, mis­er­able as was her ap­pear­ance, she had quick bright eyes, and an in­tel­li­gent and pre­pos­sess­ing ex­pres­sion.’ The bride in­vites the hag into her bylee, or cov­ered car­riage, but when the pro­ces­sion ar­rives at its des­ti­na­tion ‘the young bride was dis­cov­ered a corpse. She had been stran­gled dur­ing the night, and the thin cord with which her life had been taken was still about her neck. She had fall­en vic­tim to a woman Thug… Her jew­els and gold­en or­na­ments, for which she had been mur­dered, had been taken from her per­son’. The other ar­ti­cle is a brief and straight­for­ward ac­count of the habits and cus­toms of Thugs whom Lang was able to ob­serve dur­ing a visit to Cal­cut­ta.’ Here Lang re­ports the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion he ex­pe­ri­enced ‘in con­ver­sa­tion with men who had each com­mit­ted his nine­ty or a hun­dred mur­ders — to see the fin­gers that had stran­gled so many vic­tims’ (p. 457). He com­ments on the good-na­tured man­ner in which the im­pris­oned Thugs acted out their meth­ods so that he should un­der­stand their ways, and how one of the chil­dren sought his ap­proval with the cry of’ “Was that good?”’ (P. 457).

We must re­mem­ber here that noth­ing was pub­lished in ei­ther House­hold Words or All the Tear Round with­out the bless­ings and ap­proval of Dick­ens him­self, who checked each pub­lished ar­ti­cle and read a large pro­por­tion of the manuscripts that came into his of­fices. It is like­ly that Dick­ens would have read Colonel Mead­ows Tay­lor’s por­trait of Ameer Ali, The Con­fes­sions of a Thug, which was pub­lished in 1839. This work evinced the com­ment from Black­wood’s Mag­a­zine that

the as­tound­ing dis­clo­sures rel­a­tive to the sys­tem of se­cret mur­der in India, called Thuggee, which have been brought to light dur­ing the last ten years, have so far pen­e­trat­ed the veil of ap­a­thy through which every de­tail re­gard­ing our In­di­an em­pire is too gen­er­al­ly con­tem­plat­ed in this coun­try, as to ex­cite a con­sid­er­able de­gree of cu­rios­i­ty in the list­less minds of gen­er­al read­ers, and even to form the sub­ject of a work, which — though most of those who have ca­su­al­ly pe­rused it have prob­a­bly sup­posed it a ro­mance, su­perin­duced on a slen­der sub­stra­tum of re­al­i­ty — is, in sooth, in al­most every in­ci­dent of its fiendish nar­ra­tive, ‘an ower true tale’.

The work is a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count, based upon the ac­tu­al life of one of these re­mark­able men. An of­fi­cer in India who had first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of these crim­i­nals, Mead­ows Tay­lor, wrote his novel at the sug­ges­tion of Bul­w­er Lyt­ton, who was in­ter­est­ed in the sub­ject him­self but did not have the nec­es­sary knowl­edge for a work of his own. Lyt­ton does use the idea of Thug mur­der as an el­e­ment of ‘A Strange Story’, pub­lished in All The Tear Round in 1861-2. One of the char­ac­ters in this tale is be­lieved to ‘be­long to that mur­der­ous sect of fa­nat­ics whose ex­is­tence … has only re­cent­ly been made known to Eu­rope’, and this man makes an at­tempt upon the hero’s life:

Be­fore I could turn, some dark muf­fling sub­stance fell be­tween my sight and the sun, and I felt a fierce strain at my throat. But… with one rapid hand I seized the noose be­fore it could tight­en too close­ly, with the other I tore the ban­dage away from my eyes, and, wheel­ing round on the das­tard­ly foe, struck him down with one spurn of my foot. His hand, as he fell, re­laxed its hold on the noose; I freed my throat from the knot, and sprang from the copse into the broad sun­lit plain.

An­oth­er au­thor who cen­tred a work upon Thuggee was Eu­gene Sue. Dick­ens had been en­ter­tained by Sue in Paris in 1847 and would have known, at least in part, his major work, The Wan­der­ing Jew (1844-3), which en­joyed great suc­cess. One of the high­lights of the work is a de­tailed ac­count of Thuggee, when one of the char­ac­ters trans­fers the prac­tice of the craft he learned in India to Eu­rope. It is also pos­si­ble that Dick­ens, with his fas­ci­na­tion for crime and crim­i­nal meth­ods, would have been fa­mil­iar with the re­ports writ­ten by Colonel Sir William Slee­man, of­fi­cer in charge of the sup­pres­sion of Thuggee in India. And in 1869, the same year that Dick­ens began The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, James de Mule, was pub­lish­ing a novel called Cord and C’reese, the sub­ject of which was an En­glish­man who was af­fil­i­at­ed with the Thugs, Eu­rope was be­wil­dered as well as fas­ci­nat­ed by what it learned from India; and learned ar­ti­cles at­tempt­ed to un­der­stand. One such ar­ti­cle dis­cussed William Sleer­nan’s Ra­maseeana (1836), an ac­count of the vo­cab­u­lary of the pe­cu­liar lan­guage used by the Thugs. The re­view­er sug­gests that ‘the sub­ject is one which must ex­cite the most acute feel­ings in the mind of every friend to hu­man­i­ty’ as the book re­lat­ed de­tails of ‘prob­a­bly the most ex­traor­di­nary or­ga­nized so­ci­ety of ruth­less vil­lains that ever ex­ist­ed on the face of the globe’.

The word ‘thug’ de­rives from the Hindi word thugna, to de­ceive, and it was on the par­tic­u­lar prin­ci­ple of de­cep­tion that the suc­cess of the Thugs de­pend­ed. It was es­sen­tial to their op­er­a­tions that the Thugs should pass as peace­ful cit­i­zens, and in­deed it was their skill in de­cep­tion that so as­tound­ed and in­ter­est­ed the British, Cap­tain James Slee­man, Sir William’s son, re­ports that the com­plex­i­ty of char­ac­ter pre­sent­ed by the Thug was ‘ut­ter­ly baf­fling to a stu­dent of psy­chol­o­gy’, for, as a gen­er­al rule, the Thug was a ‘good cit­i­zen and model hus­band, de­vot­ed to his fam­i­ly and scrupu­lous­ly straight when not on his ex­pe­di­tions’. It is just such a di­choto­my in the per­son­al­i­ty and life style of John Jasper that un­der­pins the enig­ma of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion: in Clois­ter­ham a re­spectable mem­ber of the Cathe­dral com­mu­ni­ty, and in Lon­don a fre­quenter of the seamy opium den of the Rad­cliffe High­way, he is also per­haps the mur­der­er of his nephew. It hap­pened among Thugs (much as it hap­pens in Clois­ter­ham) that if the dis­ap­pear­ance of trav­ellers ever aroused sus­pi­cion, such sus­pi­cion was apt to fall upon oth­ers than the re­spectable, well-man­nered, and in­of­fen­sive trav­eller that the Thug al­ways ap­peared to be. He was a well-to-do mer­chant trav­el­ling on busi­ness and sur­round­ed by his com­pan­ions and ser­vants. Gangs were di­vid­ed so that the Thug was in­con­spic­u­ous; roles were cun­ning­ly played; and, by the time sus­pi­cions were about, those con­cerned had long since scat­tered and had re­turned to their re­spectable homes and em­ploy­ments, to pose once again as pub­lic-spir­it­ed cit­i­zens, hus­bands, and fa­thers. A sim­i­lar­i­ty be­tween The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and this as­pect of the Thug’s mode of cov­er­ing his traces lies in the man­ner in which Jasper sees to it that sus­pi­cion is im­me­di­ate­ly cast upon Neville after Edwin’s dis­ap­pear­ance and never upon Jasper him­self, whose half-life is a se­cret in Clois­ter­ham. Jasper, who has built up his rep­u­ta­tion in the cathe­dral com­mu­ni­ty as a quiet, sen­si­tive, gift­ed, and re­spectable gen­tle­man, is able to set Neville up as a scape­goat, thus di­vert­ing sus­pi­cion that might fall upon him­self away to­wards the dark stranger, who is young, alien in colour and speech, whose back­ground is a mys­tery, and whose im­petu­os­i­ty and in­tegri­ty lead him into hasty, pas­sion­ate ac­tions eas­i­ly in­ter­pret­ed as vi­o­lent. Mrs Crisparkle's fear of and an­tag­o­nism to­wards Neville, and her faith in Jasper’s re­spectabil­i­ty, is a good barom­e­ter of the town’s opin­ion of both the men.

If Jasper is the mur­der­er, or in­tends to be the mur­der­er, of Edwin Drood, then this is per­haps why he re­quires the loy­al­ties of Mr Sapsea. In the Num­ber Plans to Chap­ter 4, Dick­ens notes that Sapsea should be con­nect­ed with Jasper, for ‘he will want a solemn don­key bye and bye’. We see how Jasper makes use of his don­key, in par­tic­u­lar, in Chap­ter 15, when Neville is way­laid, brought back from his walk­ing tour, and taken to the Mayor’s par­lour, where ‘Mr Sapsea being in­formed by Mr Crisparkle of the cir­cum­stances under which they de­sired to make a vol­un­tary state­ment be­fore him, Mr Jasper broke si­lence by declar­ing that he placed his whole re­liance, hu­man­ly speak­ing, on Mr Sapsea’s pen­e­tra­tion’. From here on­wards, Dick­ens em­ploys in­di­rect speech to demon­strate that Jasper’s fa­mil­iar­i­ty with the Mayor en­ables him to put words into his mouth, and to dic­tate the terms of Neville’s fate ac­cord­ing to his own plan. We are fur­ther tit­il­lat­ed by this odd as­so­ci­a­tion when Datch­ery comes to Clois­ter­ham and finds Jasper and Sapsea to­geth­er at the Gate House. Mrs Tope has told him that ‘he and Mr Jasper were great friends’ (Chap­ter 18) and we won­der what fur­ther uses Jasper may have for his don­key. Jasper’s friend­ship with Sapsea is a kind of bribery; sim­i­lar­ly, of­fi­cials and rulers in In­di­an vil­lages were some­times bribed by the Thugs, who some­times found them­selves hav­ing to use their ill-got­ten ru­pees to main­tain or pre­tend ig­no­rance if en­quiries were made.

At reg­u­lar in­ter­vals the Thugs would gath­er to­geth­er; they would fab­ri­cate a fea­si­ble ex­cuse to their wives for a jour­ney, and set out upon a voy­age, one from which they promised their fam­i­lies many rich­es. (Colonel Slee­man uses the word ‘ex­pe­di­tion’ con­stant­ly as he ex­plains the rit­u­al, just as Dick­ens re­peats the word when he de­scribes the ‘un­ac­count­able ex­pe­di­tion’ that Jasper makes with Dur­dles through the Cathe­dral in the moon­light in Chap­ter 12.) Trav­el in India was a te­dious busi­ness: the high­ways that tra­verse the plains be­came mur­der traps, par­tic­u­lar­ly among the groves of trees, or topes, plant­ed by well-wish­ers to cool and com­fort the voy­ager on his long way. Here, where trav­ellers had stopped to camp overnight, or to avoid the hottest part of the day, the Thugs would pre­pare their ground for mur­der. Some of the Thugs were specif­i­cal­ly trained as ‘in­vei­glers’, whose task it was to in­sin­u­ate them­selves into the in­ti­ma­cy and trust of trav­el­ling par­ties in order to strike their death blow be­neath the guise of mu­tu­al re­spect and at­tach­ment. Thugs often proved to be de­light­ful com­pa­ny, mas­ters at be­guil­ing a tire­some jour­ney with story and song. But they were also skilled and pa­tient in as­sess­ing their vic­tims, their habits and na­tures, and in await­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment for at­tack. Cer­tain­ly, Jasper’s skills as an ‘in­vei­gler’ are con­sid­er­able, par­tic­u­lar­ly when lie han­dles Sapsea, and Crisparkle and his moth­er. But when Jasper is with his vic­tim, Edwin Drood, it is hard to be­lieve that the in­tense, dog- like de­vo­tion for his nephew is no more than a show of love such as the Thug would demon­strate to­wards a stranger he met by chance upon the road.

Colonel Slee­man, and other re­porters like him, were sick­ened by the hard­heart­ed­ness of the Thugs. No re­morse was demon­strat­ed as they list­ed the hun­dreds of trav­ellers who had fall­en vic­tim to their wiles. Per­haps this at­ti­tude is less in­com­pre­hen­si­ble if seen in re­la­tion to the re­li­gious mo­tives be­hind the mur­ders. The Thugs were not com­mon crim­i­nals, lu­natics, louts who had a lust for blood: they were re­li­gious men who served their god­dess with a pas­sion­ate de­vo­tion, and a fa­nat­i­cal con­vic­tion that would ob­vi­ate the reg­u­lar guilt and com­pas­sion that could be ex­pect­ed of one who had not been ini­ti­at­ed into the rites of Kali. And per­haps this is the biggest stum­bling block of all to the the­o­ry of Jasper as Thug, not men­tioned, or ex­plained, by ei­ther Duffield or Ed­mund Wil­son: for Dick­ens would have had to work hard in­deed to con­vince the read­er that the cyn­i­cal John jasper, Lay Pre­cen­tor in a Chris­tian Cathe­dral, whose de­vo­tion to that faith is hard­ly ev­i­dent (par­tic­u­lar­ly by com­par­i­son with the de­vout fi­deli­ty of the Rev­erend Crisparkle), could be the lone­ly and con­stant wor­ship­per of Kali of India. Of course, Jasper may well have been in the East at some time in his life, but we do not know about this; if his dreams in the opium den are ac­tu­al mem­o­ries of the East, they do not have to be, for the dream in Chap­ter 1 in par­tic­u­lar an­swers to a tra­di­tion­al pat­tern of dreams in­flu­enced by opium found in the writ­ings of opium eaters such as Co­leridge and De Quincey; and if Jasper learned to smoke opium, there was no need for him to have learned the ad­dic­tion any fur­ther away from home than Lon­don’s east end.

Thug rit­u­al mur­der was car­ried out dur­ing a jour­ney un­der­tak­en for that spe­cif­ic pur­pose. We think of the con­cept of the jour­ney, not only in terms of Chap­ter 12 in which Dur­dles and Jasper ex­plore Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral in the moon­light, but also in terms of the ex­traor­di­nary state­ment that Jasper makes in the opium den in the last chap­ter, when he tells the Princess Puffer of the ‘dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous jour­ney’ that haunts his dreams (Chap­ter 23). But that both the rules of Thuggee and Dick­ens’s novel should have in com­mon the idea of a jour­ney can sure­ly be ac­count­ed no more than co­in­ci­dence. The ex­pe­di­tion through the Cathe­dral can hard­ly be com­pared with a jour­ney across the plains of India. Fur­ther­more, the ‘dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous jour­ney’ to which Jasper refers is a prob­lem in the novel, for we do not re­al­ly know what Jasper means. There is the sus­pi­cion that he is speak­ing in metaphoric terms: that the ‘jour­ney’ to which he refers is con­ceived as a con­cept of time. To as­sume that he refers to the ex­pe­di­tion made with Dur­dles in the Cathe­dral as a prac­tice run for the night of the mur­der is no more than an as­sump­tion. The words and their mean­ing re­main a puz­zle.

It was com­mon for Thugs to em­ploy an af­fec­ta­tion of love and con­cern for the com­pan­ions of their voy­ages; and here we re­mem­ber how Jasper charms his nephew, how con­vinced Edwin is of Jasper’s de­vo­tion, and the ex­ag­ger­at­ed words of en­dear­ment that are par­tic­u­lar­ly no­tice­able when nephew and uncle first meet in Chap­ter 2. Com­mon, too, was it to per­suade the vic­tim to leave his lodg­ing a lit­tle after mid­night upon the day of the mur­der, as Jasper may have done with Drood after he and Neville had re­turned from their walk to the river on Christ­mas Eve, the night of Edwin’s dis­ap­pear­ance, in Chap­ter 15. It was also usual for the vic­tim to he given opium in his food and drink, or to have it of­fered in a pipe, in order to lull his sens­es. The ques­tion here may be, does Jasper drug the wine lie of­fers to Dur­dles on their ex­pe­di­tion through the Cathe­dral in order to cal­cu­late the ef­fect it would have on his nephew when, and if, he takes him on a sim­i­lar jour­ney through the Cathe­dral to­wards his death? And we have to as­sume that Edwin and Neville are both drugged when they are the guests of the choir­mas­ter in the Gate House in Chap­ter 8, though here Jasper’s in­ten­tions are prob­a­bly to en­gen­der an­oth­er quar­rel be­tween the two young men, and to in­ten­si­fy their mu­tu­al an­tag­o­nism.

The Thug be­lieved his ac­tiv­i­ties to be rit­u­al mur­der done at the com­mand and under the guid­ance of the god­dess Kali. She had taught him his meth­ods and skills and she ex­pressed her con­tin­ued in­ter­est in his work through a se­ries of omens. The Thug was there­fore high­ly su­per­sti­tious, and be­lieved that the wish­es of Kali were con­veyed through the cries of cer­tain an­i­mals and birds. The river was also a sig­nif­i­cant omen in his wor­ship. Howard Duffield re­lates this as­pect of the rules of Thuggee to Dick­ens’s novel, and sees the ex­pe­di­tion with Dur­dles as pri­mar­i­ly a search for omens made at the ap­pro­pri­ate time. He points to the ‘chirp of some star­tled jack­daw or fright­ened rook’ heard near the sum­mit of the tower; their view from the tower showed them the ‘river wind­ing down from the mist of the hori­zon’ (Chap­ter 12). ‘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’ (p. 585).

Cer­tain­ly, even though one may be re­luc­tant to grant the role of ‘omen’ to the rooks, their role in the novel is some­times sin­is­ter and often am­bigu­ous. In the ear­li­est pages of the novel Dick­ens calls at­ten­tion to the rooks that cir­cle around the Cathe­dral (Chap­ter 2), and his de­scrip­tion of the Cathe­dral fre­quent­ly in­cludes some men­tion of ‘its hoarse rooks hov­er­ing about’ (Chap­ter 3). We hear the caw­ing of the rooks from Minor Canon Cor­ner (Chap­ter 6); also, when Rosa and Edwin say their farewells after their de­ci­sion to end their en­gage­ment, the rooks hover ‘above them with hoarse cries, dark­er splash­es in the dark­en­ing air’ (Chap­ter 12), and they ap­pear as a fear­ful warn­ing. When Christ­mas vis­i­tors come to Clois­ter­ham ‘the caw­ing of the rooks from the Cathe­dral tower, are like voic­es of their nurs­ery time’ (Chap­ter 14), and dur­ing the storm on Christ­mas Eve, ‘great ragged frag­ments from the rooks’ nest up in the tower’ are flung to the ground (Chap­ter 14). At the end of the work, the rooks join the pro­ces­sion into the Cathe­dral: in bizarre fash­ion they come from ‘var­i­ous quar­ters of the sky, back to the great tower; who may be pre­sumed to enjoy vi­bra­tion, and to know that bell and organ are going to give it them’ (Chap­ter 23). But can we re­al­ly be happy with the no­tion of rooks and river being omens sent forth by the god­dess of de­struc­tion? Rooks and rivers are fa­mil­iar ob­jects in the En­glish land­scape, and they are not un­fa­mil­iar im­ages in other works of Charles Dick­ens, where they have no su­per­nat­u­ral sig­nif­i­cance. The river is a con­sis­tent image in Our Mu­tu­al Friend and in Lit­tle Dor­rit; and when David Cop­per­field de­scribes Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral he re­mem­bers the ‘ven­er­a­ble cathe­dral tow­ers, and the old jack­daws and rooks whose airy voic­es made them more re­tired than per­fect si­lence would have done’ (David Cop­per­field, Chap­ter 39).

After con­sul­ta­tion of the omens, the day and hour for the start and di­rec­tion of the ex­pe­di­tion would be de­fined. This re­quired as much care and con­sid­er­a­tion as every other as­pect of the Thug’s plans, for the mo­ment of mur­der must be one in which time and po­si­tion had to co­in­cide ex­act­ly. Now, when Crisparkle vis­its Jasper with a plan for the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Drood and Land­less, he finds that Jasper is per­plexed by his pro­pos­al; Crisparkle re­gards this per­plexed face with some cu­rios­i­ty ‘inas­much as it seemed to de­note (which could hard­ly be) some close in­ter­nal cal­cu­la­tion’. When Crisparkle as­sures Jasper of his being able to an­swer for Neville’s in­ten­tions, ‘the per­plexed and per­plex­ing look van­ished’ (Chap­ter 10). It is doubt­less at this mo­ment that Jasper is con­firmed in his in­ten­tion to at­tack Edwin Drood on the night of Christ­mas Eve when both young men would be his guests.

One other slight sim­i­lar­i­ty be­tween the rules of Thuggee and the events of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood re­lates to the stip­u­la­tion that if a vic­tim of Thuggee was ac­com­pa­nied by a dog, the dog was to be killed lest the an­i­mal cause the dis­cov­ery of its mur­dered mas­ter’s grave. This brings to mind the mys­te­ri­ous dog that is found in a sketch that Charles Collins pre­pared for the novel. Dick­ens’s son-in-law was pre­vent­ed through ill health from ful­fill­ing the com­mis­sion to il­lus­trate this novel, and the task was taken over by Luke Fildes. Some of Collins’s work sur­vives, and an early sketch is of the Dean and Crisparkle, or per­haps Sapsea, talk­ing in the Street in Clois­ter­ham in the com­pa­ny of Mr Tope. At Sapsea’s feet is a small dog, but in two other sketch­es that we have of this scene the dog has been re­moved.’ Why is this dog drawn in in the first place, and why is it re­moved from the il­lus­tra­tion? The prob­lem is in­ter­est­ing, too, in the light of the dog that Dur­dles hears howl­ing a year ago at Christ­mas, when, hav­ing fall­en asleep in the Cathe­dral crypt, he was woken by ‘one ter­rif­ic shriek, which shriek was fol­lowed by the ghost of the howl of a dog: a long dis­mal woe­ful howl, such as a dog gives when a per­son’s dead’ (Chap­ter 12). When Dur­dles made en­quiries, no one else had heard the noise, and he was un­able to un­der­stand it.

Rit­u­al ob­ser­va­tion also at­tached to the buri­al or dis­pos­al of the vic­tims. Mur­der was not at­tempt­ed until a buri­al place had been des­ig­nat­ed and pre­pared, and gravedig­gers were a se­lect group of spe­cial­ly trained men, as were the in­vei­glers and stran­glers. So ex­pert were the Thugs in con­ceal­ing the dead that the ground be­neath which the bod­ies rest­ed ap­peared undis­turbed, and the buri­al places could not be dis­cov­ered un­less the slay­ers them­selves re­vealed their where­abouts. Some­times even the Thugs could find the graves only by ref­er­ence to land­marks. All this makes ex­cel­lent ma­te­ri­al for de­tec­tive novel writ­ing and, turn­ing back to Dick­ens’s novel, we re­call that much has been made by crit­ics of the care­ful prepa­ra­tions for the dis­pos­al of the corpse. It is said that Jasper’s fas­ci­na­tion with Dur­dles’s skills in find­ing out where peo­ple are buried re­sults from the need to find a suit­able place for Edwin’s corpse that would be safe from such skills of de­tec­tion. It is also thought that the men­tion of quick-lime in Chap­ter 12 is a hint to the read­er to un­der­stand that the body will be de­stroyed by lime. An­oth­er pro­pos­al is that Jasper will hide his nephew’s corpse in Mrs Sapsea’s tomb where Dur­dles’s men are said to have left some rub­bish, in­dis­tin­guish­able from Edwin’s body. If Jasper was con­cerned to de­stroy or con­ceal the body, this would be a nat­u­ral com­pul­sion, and how far we can as­sume that Dick­ens would have been bor­row­ing from Thug rit­u­al in his con­cen­tra­tion on this part of the mur­der is du­bi­ous. Where crit­ics are con­vinced that the body is de­posit­ed in Mrs Sapsea’s tomb they not only dis­agree with the be­lief that the body is burned in quick-lime, but they also for­get that when Dur­dles is talk­ing to Jasper about the tomb he is not demon­strat­ing at the tomb it­self but is using the tomb as an hy­po­thet­i­cal ex­am­ple be­cause it had been talked about that evening: ‘Not re­al­ly Mrs Sapsea?’ Jasper asks as Dur­dles be­gins to ex­plain the work­ings of his skills; ‘Say Mrs Sapsea. Her wall’s thick­er, but say Mrs Sapsea’ Dur­dles replies (Chap­ter 5). So there is enough dis­pute about the text it­self with­out hav­ing to apply the rules of Thuggee to add to the mud­dle.

The rit­u­al at­tach­ing to buri­al in Thug cus­tom is, more than any other as­pect of their meth­ods, de­signed to pro­tect them from dis­cov­ery. So would any mur­der­er have to cover his tracks. Al­though we may as­sume (and it is only as­sump­tion) that Jasper’s in­ter­est in Dur­dles is to be able to as­sess ex­act­ly how he works so that the spe­cial knowl­edge he pos­sess­es can be coun­ter­act­ed, and al­though the men­tion of the quick-lime may be a point­er that Jasper will de­stroy his vic­tim’s body in this lime, this does not make John Jasper a Thug. For, after all, Or­lick plans to burn Pip’s body in the lime kiln so that noth­ing would be left of his corpse to be­tray his mur­der­er (Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, Chap­ter 53), and Or­lick is never sus­pect­ed of being a Thug, nor is he. Fur­ther, if Jasper kills his nephew, Thug or no Thug, he will have to se­crete the body in some way that will not be­tray the killer. All mur­der­ers have the same prob­lem!

In Thug rit­u­al the killing it­self re­quired the prac­tised use of ‘the most harm­less weapon in the world, the ruh­mal, or strip of cloth, lit­tle big­ger than a hand­ker­chief’.’ This slip of cloth had the sanc­ti­ty of a relic, being re­gard­ed as a frag­ment of the gown of Kali, and or­di­nar­i­ly was white or yel­low; it was usu­al­ly worn as a part of one’s dress, per­haps as a gir­dle or scarf. Its use was not a mat­ter of choice, but of de­cree, for by the laws of Thug faith no blood could be shed dur­ing the mur­der. The mas­ters of the skill also took pride in know­ing that their vic­tims were dead be­fore they hit the ground. This made them some­thing other than stran­glers, for stran­gu­la­tion is a slow pro­cess. The knot of the ruh­mal was placed against the throat of the vic­tim in such a way as to exert pres­sure on the carotid sinus, caus­ing a sym­pa­thet­ic paral­y­sis and sud­den death, so that death was not by stran­gu­la­tion but by an in­hi­bi­tion of the ner­vous cen­tre.

On the eve of the sup­posed mur­der, Jasper pro­tects a ten­der throat with ‘a large black scarf of a strong close-wo­ven silk, slung loose­ly round his neck’. When he ar­rives home in the evening, he ‘paus­es for an in­stant in the shel­ter to pull off that great black scarf; and hang it in a loop upon his arm. For that brief time, his face is knit­ted and stern. But it im­me­di­ate­ly clears, as he re­sumes his singing, and his way’ (Chap­ter 14). Duffield con­sid­ers that al­though the ruh­mal would nor­mal­ly be a pale colour, that it is here a black scarf is in ac­cord with the fact that the gown of Kali is usu­al­ly por­trayed as being black. It is also true that a mem­ber of the cathe­dral com­mu­ni­ty could not rea­son­ably wear a pale-coloured scarf ‘both with his singing robe and with his or­di­nary dress’, but Duffield does not offer an ex­pla­na­tion for the length of the scarf: the long looped scarf would be too cum­ber­some and large a piece of ma­te­ri­al for a Thug to han­dle. (The ruh­mal is or­di­nar­i­ly about thir­ty inch­es in length. A knot was formed at the dou­ble ex­trem­i­ty and a slip knot eigh­teen inch­es from it, giv­ing the Thug a firm hold.) Fur­ther, would Dick­ens have been so inat­ten­tive to de­tail as to make the ruh­mal, known to be of the spe­cif­ic thir­ty inch­es in length, a long black silk scarf that could not as eas­i­ly be ma­nip­u­lat­ed?

Thugs were se­cret­ly trained from their youth to the high­est de­gree of skill in stran­gu­la­tion; three men ac­count­ed for each vic­tim, and each had his par­tic­u­lar job to do, as in all as­pects of the Thug rit­u­al, which by its na­ture was in­ter­de­pen­dent with­in the group. To one of the three men fell the task of throw­ing the ruh­mal around the neck, the sec­ond man seized the arms and legs, and a third would some­times ad­min­is­ter blows at vital parts to bring down the vic­tim at the psy­cho­log­i­cal mo­ment. The art de­mand­ed con­stant prac­tice and fa­thers taught sons, gurus in­struct­ed young men, until all who were en­gaged on a Thuggee ex­pe­di­tion be­came ex­pert enough to carry out the var­i­ous as­pects of the en­deav­our with ease, skill, and speed. Each man would take up his place be­side the vic­tims, await­ing a sig­nal which would in­di­cate the mo­ment for at­tack, and some­times the pe­ri­od be­tween at­tack and the com­ple­tion of the buri­al would be no more than thir­ty min­utes.

Some Thugs prid­ed them­selves on an abil­i­ty to stran­gle sin­gle hand­ed. ‘This, how­ev­er, was so rare that it was es­teemed the most hon­ourable dis­tinc­tion to as­cribe to a Thug, who was then con­sid­ered to have con­ferred a dig­ni­ty upon his fam­i­ly which en­no­bled him in the eyes of his fel­lows for many gen­er­a­tions.” If Jasper is a Thug, then he would be a rare and gift­ed one, for his at­tempt upon his nephew’s life would of ne­ces­si­ty be made sin­gle hand­ed. But a prob­lem at­ten­dant upon prov­ing Jasper’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Thuggee lies in just this method of mur­der. It has been made clear that the stran­glers were as­sist­ed in their killing by two other men, and that to at­tempt a mur­der sin­gle hand­ed re­quired in­or­di­nate skills; it is hard to be­lieve that Jasper was pos­sessed of these skills. We could more eas­i­ly be­lieve it of the pow­er­ful and agile Tar­tar, or of the Rev­erend Crisparkle for whom phys­i­cal fit­ness is as im­por­tant as re­li­gious de­vo­tion and in­tel­lec­tu­al pur­suits; but Dick­ens gives us no in­for­ma­tion about any such phys­i­cal prowess in the choir­mas­ter, save that he suf­fers from in­di­ges­tion, faint­ing fits, a grey pal­lor, and poor ap­petite. And, more than this, he is too young. Al­though Jasper is ob­vi­ous­ly an En­glish­man, versed in the habits, lan­guage, faith, and cus­toms of his coun­try, this would not Count against his hav­ing been cap­tured as a boy by a group of Thugs (as did some­times hap­pen) and trained into their sacra­ments. On the other hand, to have ac­quired the skills and knowl­edge of a Thug ex­pert enough to at­tempt stran­gu­la­tion sin­gle hand­ed would have de­mand­ed many more years of adult­hood than Jasper’s twen­ty-six, if he is also to have be­come so well in­te­grat­ed into the alien cul­ture of En­glish provin­cial life. In Chap­ter 2 Dick­ens is quite clear as to Jasper’s age: he writes that ‘Mr Jasper is a dark man of some six-and-twen­ty’ and in the manuscript Jasper is given as some ‘five or six-and-twen­ty’ years. Also in this chap­ter, Edwin Drood points out that there are only half a dozen years or so be­tween them. Of course, Dick­ens could ma­nip­u­late his fic­tion at will, and such an ob­jec­tion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­clu­sive, but even Colonel Mead­ows Tay­lor’s fic­tion­al­ized and ro­man­tic hero, who sev­er­al times per­forms the stran­gling of a vic­tim sin­gle hand­ed, is given the ma­tu­ri­ty of some thir­ty to thir­ty-five years and an in­ten­sive train­ing from pu­ber­ty to the prime of his man­hood.

An­oth­er of the es­sen­tial rules of Thuggee was that the mur­der of a party of trav­ellers was not to be at­tempt­ed un­less the whole group was killed. No one could live to be a wit­ness to their rites. This is rel­a­tive to Jasper’s fury when he dis­cov­ers Deputy lurk­ing about the Cathe­dral after the ex­pe­di­tion made with Dur­dles. The sight of the boy so arous­es his fury (‘so quick­ly roused, and so vi­o­lent, that he seems an older devil him­self’ (Chap­ter 12)) that we re­al­ize that Jasper’s cries of ‘He fol­lowed us to-night, when we first came here!’ and ‘He has been prowl­ing near us ever since!’ (Chap­ter 12) are mo­ti­vat­ed by a dread­ful anx­i­ety lest the boy has ob­served his move­ments. But whether this anx­i­ety is re­lat­ed to the laws of Thuggee, or to the nat­u­ral fear of a crim­i­nal that there has been a wit­ness to his ac­tions is a moot point! We sus­pect that Deputy’s sharp eyes and his an­i­mos­i­ty to­wards Jasper will tell against the choir­mas­ter in the end, but is Jasper’s anger a re­sult of being nat­u­ral­ly afraid of being watched, or a re­sult of his being a Thug and there­fore de­sirous to pro­tect his crime from being wit­nessed? The dis­tinc­tion would seem hard­ly to be there. There are a few ac­counts of vic­tims hav­ing sur­vived stran­gu­la­tion; and this may sug­gest the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a fail­ure on Jasper’s part to com­plete his task. We re­mem­ber, for ex­am­ple, the doc­tor who es­capes from the ruh­mal in Lyt­ton’s tale of ‘A Strange Story’, re­lat­ed ear­li­er.

Since Jasper may fail in his at­tempt to carry out the Thug rit­u­al to its suc­cess­ful end, the fail­ure is an­swered for by the Thug su­per­sti­ti­tion that only evil could be­fall a Thug who mur­ders a man in pos­ses­sion of gold at the time of the mur­der. Un­known to Jasper, Edwin Drood is car­ry­ing the gold ring set with di­a­monds and ru­bies that was given to him by Mr Grew­gious as a be­trothal ring for Rosa. The young peo­ple’s ar­range­ment that they should break off their en­gage­ment de­cides Drood against giv­ing the girl her moth­er’s ring and it is like­ly that he car­ries it with him in his breast pock­et on Christ­mas Eve. Jasper knows that the watch and pin is the only jew­ellery Edwin wears, and these are re­moved and found in the Weir a few days later by Crisparkle; the gold ring is not with them. But, not sur­pris­ing­ly, there is con­flict­ing ev­i­dence about the rules of Thuggee. This su­per­sti­tion about gold, record­ed by Ed­ward Thorn­ton in his Il­lus­tra­tions of the His­to­ry and Prac­tices of the Thugs (1837), is con­tra­dict­ed by the in­for­ma­tion of­fered by Colonel Slee­man who gives a long list of Thug plun­der, and this in­cludes any­thing under the sun, and very fre­quent­ly gold. Money was not the ob­ject of the mur­der (it was a re­li­gious duty to please Kali) hut the Thugs were ir­ri­tat­ed if their vic­tims were poor and had cost them a lot of time and trou­ble to en­trap. Fur­ther­more, are we not re­luc­tant to be­lieve that the gold ring, with its ro­man­tic as­so­ci­a­tions with the past, is ac­tu­al­ly no more than an omen that dis­rupts Jasper’s well made plans?

It can be seen that the de­tails of sim­i­lar­i­ty be­tween the rules and prac­tices of Thuggee and The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood are in­ter­est­ing, and it is not to be won­dered at that Howard Duffield could write that ‘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’ (p. 583). Nor is it sur­pris­ing that he con­clud­ed that part of the mys­tery of the un­fin­ished novel could be ex­plained in terms of Jasper’s being a Thug. But al­though the ev­i­dence is in­ter­est­ing, it can­not be con­sid­ered more than that, and cer­tain­ly is not con­clu­sive.

But, fi­nal­ly, the real ob­jec­tion to this in­ter­est­ing and imag­i­na­tive red her­ring must be that to have im­posed the rules of Thuggee upon John Jasper in order to ex­plain some of his ex­traor­di­nary ac­tions would not be in ac­cor­dance with Dick­ens’s meth­ods and habits. Writ­ing of the same char­ac­ter in the same novel, crit­ics have de­vot­ed con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to whether John Jasper is a mes­merist or not, and in the same way (lie feel­ing is that this idea is also un­sat­is­fac­to­ry.1 Where the theme of opium is so ex­plic­it, that of mes­merism is mere­ly im­plic­it, if it is there at all; so with Thuggee. To ex­plain Jasper’s re­mark­able and hyp­not­ic per­son­al­i­ty in terms of an­i­mal mag­netism is to re­duce its power as an artis­tic cre­ation; and to mod­i­fy the ‘ro­mance’ of the crime de pos­sion which the mur­der of Edwin by his uncle would be, to fit in with the ‘ro­mance’ of the Thugs of India, is prob­a­bly to make a false, and fur­ther­more a re­duc­tive, equa­tion. That which is fas­ci­nat­ing in John Jasper is sure­ly not the mech­a­nism of mes­merism, or the as­so­ci­a­tion with the East but, rather, his ex­traor­di­nary com­plex, mys­te­ri­ous, and in­ter­est­ing psy­che. We have seen that it is the psy­chol­o­gy of crime it­self that so riv­ets Dick­ens’s at­ten­tion, from such char­ac­ters as Quilp and Sikes in the early nov­els, up to Bradley Head­stone and now Jasper in the later ones, Here is no deus ex machi­na; such me­chan­i­cal aids are to be scorned in the world cre­at­ed by Dick­ens’s fer­tile imag­i­na­tion. John Jasper is a jeal­ous man, jeal­ous of the in­ter­est­ing life that Edwin Drood will live when he goes abroad, and jeal­ous, ag­o­niz­ing­ly jeal­ous, of the bride that Edwin will take with him. Jasper is also a frus­trat­ed, bored, and lone­ly man; he guards a se­cret of deca­dence and im­moral­i­ty from the petty gos­sip of Clois­ter­ham’s small, cen­sor­ing com­mu­ni­ty. In­tel­li­gent, gift­ed, and suf­fer­ing, the vil­lain need not also be a Thug and a mes­merist for his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion to con­vince us. The enig­mat­ic per­son­al­i­ty it­self, its du­al­i­ty and dis­tress, is at the cen­tre of Charles Dick­ens’s in­ter­est.


1. The most re­cent pro­po­nent of Jasper as a mes­merist is Fred Ka­plan in his de­tailed "Dick­ens and Mes­merism: The Hid­den Springs of Fic­tion" (Prince­ton, New Jer­sey, 1975), where it is shown that Jasper ‘has been given a full ar­ma­ment of mes­mer­ic weapons: the power of his music, eyes, hands, touch, voice, pres­ence’ (p. 131). Ka­plan claims that ‘states of mes­mer­ic trance are fre­quent in Edwin Drood’ and that ‘through some mech­a­nism that was to have been ex­plained in the final sec­tions of the book, un­doubt­ed­ly Jasper was to have been re­vealed as self-mes­mer­ized, through some ve­hi­cle, per­haps music or opium’ (pp. 153-4).