Episode 53 - A Little Bit of Man Jerky - AKA Pepperami Leggy-ami (Serial Killers Week)
Updated: Apr 17
I promised myself I wasn’t going to do an eccentric Brit today, and I haven’t! Hooray! Look at me go. I’ve decided instead to travel to India today, and I’m dividing my time into two stories – because I’m going to look at some of India’s most infamous historical assassin and murder cults.
One is a whole crew of badass and very murderous women, the second is a tribal tradition so brutal an entire Government department was set up to root them out of India, and so well known in their time that they gave us the word Thug. So it doesn’t get much more violent and murderous than that!But to start with, I’m taking us back to the third Century BC and a semi-mythical group known as the Visha Kanyas. And their story is a proper superhero origins story, which we mostly know about from an ancient treaty on politics called the Arthashastra, written by a guy called Chanakya.
He was the Prime Minsiter of India during the reign of Chandragupta, the first leader of the Maurya Empire, from 340-293 BC.And this guy was a genius when it came to meddling. Because he knew that there was only one weakness that every rival Indian leader had that he could exploit. And that was cricket. Quick game of 20/20, bonk over the head with a ball, jobs a good’un... Or maybe it was girls. So he created the Visha Kanya movement. They were essentialy beautiful young girls raised from a young age to perform two roles. Firstly, to break up enemy alliances by creating love triangles, and secondly, by assassination. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few Bollywood soap operas about these women.
The breaking up alliances thing was easy – when she was of age, probably about 12 realistically – a Visha Kanya would be sent out to seduce an enemy of the emperor. Once he was well and truly besotted with her, she would sneak off and seduce his allies. Once they were besotted with her as well, she would deliberately leave clues and hints to ensure that the men all found out that the love of their life had been stolen away from them. And by all accounts, in a time of warring and incredibly vain young prices, this worked really pretty well. We’ve all seen drunken blokes kicking off in a curry house, it’s a whirlwind of flying boonahs, vomited up kingfisher and drunken haymakers. At least in Manchester.
The second part of their job was a lot less pleasant – for everyone involved. The Visha Kanya’s were trained to poison their enemies; sometimes with their very presence alone. Because they were raised to be immune to every conceivable poison. And this really is pretty unpleasant. The emperor’s men fed the assassins on a diet of microdosed poisons and antidotes as they were growing up; enough to make them very, very unwell, but with any luck, not enough to kill them. In fact the name Visha Kanya is sanscrit for poisoned maiden. The process was called Mithridatism, and most of the girls put through this ordeal of constant poisoning did, in fact, die from it.
This meant, though, that for the few who survived, by the time they were old enough to go out and seduce their way into the courts of their enemies, they were absolutely lethal. They could poison food or wine, take the first bite or sip to encourage their prey that it was safe, and then let them die. They could even, legend has it, kill them through bodily contact alone and never be spotted or even suspected.
In fact, there’s even a legend that Aristotle warned Alexander the Great about being seduced by Indian beauties due to the risk of their being assassins – in fact one legend even has it that Alexander was finally killed by one of these girls given to him as a gift by the defeated Indian King Porus, presumably shortly after he… absorbed… his empire. Which is a pun which worked far better in audio form, for those who haven't listened yet.
The catch is… There’s no evidence for any of this. Whilst the cult is mentioned in detail in the Arthashastra, there’s no actual verifiable evidence of them. An awful lot of folk tales – there are literally hundreds of deaths blamed on them over the years - but no credible account of one being captured or identified or the fate of the movement. Were they real? Well, there was quite possibly a state sanctioned group of female assassins and spies, that makes total sense. But literal poisoned maidens? Hmmm…Although what I will say is that having travelled extensively in India, the locals are very good at adapting to poisons which would kill most outsiders. As can be proven every time you eat food from a market stall or service station there. Or accidentally drink the tap water. If anyone can adapt to a multitude of deadly poisons, it’s people in India.
So, that’s story number one. Story number two is from another altogether less picky group of assassins, who wreaked havoc on India from the 13th to the 19th Centuries. They were a cult or tribe known as the Thugees: They were absolute arseholes, and they are where we get the word Thug from today. Incidentally, Thugee is Sanskrit for deceiver – which is exactly what they did.
The Thugees were basically a cult – often called the world’s first true mafia organisation - which grew out of Muslim refugees in the 1300s. Various stories say that they were once a great family, pushed out of one of the major Indian cities after a murder, and forced to survive in the countryside. Their first mention is in a book called History of the Firuz Shah by a guy called Ziya-Ud-Din Barani, dating back to around 1356, which states that they were born of a group of around 1000 men exiled from Delhi in 1290 – Other interpretations say that the group wasn’t formalised until Britain came along and got rid of the armies and personal bodyguard units of many of the local rulers who capitulated, leading to a huge number of organised, military-trained but noble and well-educated men with murderous intent stalking the countryside. Either way, their methods didn’t change much over the course of 500 years.
And they were horrible methods. The Thugees would travel the Indian countryside in gangs of 10-200, befriending travellers they met along the way. They would often be accompanied by children or in disguise as mystics and doctors in order to gain the trust of their victims. Then they would walk with them over the course of several days, earning their trust. They would wait until the travelers reached a place the gang knew was safe for a murder – places passed down from generation to generation and known as a Bele; famed for being good places to dispose of a body, or make a death or being eaten by a crocodile look like an accident.
One night as the victim slept, one of the gang would start to play music to conceal the crime and signal to their friends. Other Thugees would then garrote their victims using scarves or ropes, with one acting as a lookout, one acting as a murderer, several to carry their loot and a couple more to very carefully bury or dispose of the body in such a way as no trace of their victims would ever be found. And they really were a family affair – membership of the tribe was hereditary – passed from father to son, with marriages between robber-bands commonplace. Alternatively, you could study to become a Thugee in a similar way to studying to be a beggar in big Indian cities today – they set up schools where gurus taught the basics and examined pupils on their aptitude to murder. Quite often, if the parents of a group of travelers were killed, the kids would be adopted into the tribe and raised as their own.
And they were brutal. No-one was spared, from traders to pilgrims to farmers. The only real people they had any level of respect towards were each other, and other Thuggee families, who kept a respectable distance from each other most of the time.
So, how effective were they are serial killers? Well, according to the 1979 Guinness book of records, they killed up to 2 million people in their history. Other estimates which take a different look at when they really became a professional killing society as opposed to just bands of disparate robbers put their real start date at the 1680s – anything before that was practice, and gives a figure of around 50,000. In the 19th century they were so prolific yearly totals were kept by the government of their atrocities. In fact, an entire division was set up by the British Authorities in order to try and hunt down these cultists.
The British first discovered them at the beginning of the 19th Century and spent the next decade launching full-scale military interventions against any Thuggee communities they found and executing every one they came across, before finally realising that they weren’t fighting a thousand separate groups but one organised tribe with feelers and subdivisions across the whole country. As a result, the British set up the Thuggee and Dacoity department under Colonel William Sleeman in 1830, a full-scale secret service dedicated to infiltrating the Thugee tribe, capturing and turning informants, and tracking their actions to the top of the tree – it was an intelligence operation which was a century ahead of its time. In fact, it lasted until 1904 and is the forefather of the current Indian police intelligence service. Even then, the Thugees managed to resist by swapping names and identities, so one leader would apparently be killed only to reappear somewhere else months later. In the end, though, the British simply wore down the tribe and they slowly broke up into independent roving bands of robbers and, eventually, melted away.
Ironically the Thugees never targeted the British specifically because they didn’t want to be cracked down on, leading to British travelers becoming beacons for any Indian wishing to travel safely between cities – an Englishman walking the roads would be surrounded by people clinging to them for safety.
So, overall, pretty bad people. However, one man alone, a leader known as Thug Behram, is considered the world’s most prolific serial killer – at least if you take his own claims as gospel. According to manuscripts following his capture, he pleaded guilty to involvement 931 murders between 1790 and 1830, having strangled 125 men himself. In fact, he used a special scarf with a medal sewn into it which he was so skilled at using he could lasso his victims so the medallion caught their Adam's apple, crushing their windpipes as he reeled it in. Which really is pretty murderous, even by serial killer standards. Unsurprisingly, he was hanged in 1840.
Interestingly, however, there is a theory that despite a mountain of evidence about them, the Thugees were actually completely made up, a product of the British government in India invented as a ruse to send troops where they otherwise didn’t belong and subdue local tribes and militia in the countryside. It’s a view which has gained a bit of traction, but there’s a whole lot of evidence that these people did, actually, exist. If they didn’t, it would be one of the greatest conspiracies in history.
Serial killers; what a topic. I wanted to avoid the macabre societal rubber-necking approach to this topic;
· “ooooo you know that Ted Bundy, you’ll never guess what he used to do”
· It’s an odd topic that some people find fascinating; some people really seem to get off on it
o Personally my repulsion at horrendous acts of cruelty that make people suffer is far greater than the catharsis or pleasurable morbid curiosity of murder stories
· So, I’ve avoided serial killers who preyed on normal members of the public, and I’ve found someone who killed other criminals. Moral dilemma solved!
Viagra in the water
· We told about this song by an American lady and the band, Four Bitchen’ Babes are American too, so can I suggest that we honour American music by doing this in the style of Billy Ray Cyrus?
o Let me warm up
o Weirdly, listening to Achy Breaky Hart is my way of understanding why people like finding out about serial killers, it’s painful, horrible, has led to so much suffering and yet I can’t stop myself from listening.
§ I actually don’t think Billy Ray Cyrus is responsible for the song though, I think it’s his mullet, much like an Alien from the Aliens films,
· Mango mango man, I want to be a mango man
o He listens to us in the car because he finds that we SOOTHE HIS ANXIETY
§ LOOK WHERE YOUR GOING
§ WATCH OUT, THERE’S A BADGER
§ USE YOUR INDICATORS
o He also thought out Episode about laugher was a bit pants.
§ Well, the Emperor won’t be very happy, if he hears about this
Before telling you who I am going to talk about, I would like to do some scene setting:
Van Diemen’s Land, early 19th century, crims everywhere, lots of not very top blokes
· Van Diemen’s Land is the original name of Tasmania, the island of the south east coast of Australia. It was called this until 1853. The Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, had discovered Tasmania in 1642 and it was first circumnavigated in 1799.
· For the first half of the 19th century, Tasmania (as I’ll now call it) was Australia’s preeminent penal colony. In the region of 70,000 convicts were sent there.
o Individuals convicted of less serious crimes were made to work for free settlers whereas the more serious criminals were locked up in a prison like the one at Port Arthur.
o This prison was like the Australian Alcatraz
o Rather amusingly, a convict once tried to escape by dressing up a kangaroo and hopping toward freedom. However, the guards, who were starving, just tried to shoot him for food.
§ And I’m going to come back to humans eating other humans shortly.
Let me introduce Alexander Pearce, and Irishman transported to Australia for stealing six pairs of shows.
· The primary sources are unclear as to whether Pearce had 6 pairs of feet, that piece of information is lost to history.
· Listeners who are conjuring images in their head of the story that I am about to tell, you are free to imaging Pearce with as many legs as you wish.
o Like a centaur, or perhaps a millipede
· After committing other minor crimes in Tasmania, Pearce was transferred to Macquarie (mc quarry) Harbour Penal Station which was in the arse end of nowhere, on the island of fuck knows, just off the continent of how the hell did we get here?
· On September 20th 1822, Pearce escaped with 7 other convicts who had been cutting down trees as part of their penal work. One of them, Greenhill, happened to have an axe and so announced, much in the same way as Gary Glitter, that he was the leader of the gang. His right hand man was a chap called Travers.
· 15 days into the escape, listeners might want to recall some of our other episodes that have highlighted how useless Europeans were when they found themselves needing to survive in the Australian wild, the group were getting a bit peckish
o Rather than look for food the traditional way, you know, the way humans have survived for hundreds of thousands of years, and how our hominid ancestors survived for millions of years, you know, hunting and gathering, perhaps a spot of fishing for mindfulness, maybe whacking a kangaroo over the back of the head? Or using a Tasmania devil as a whisk to cook up some scrambled emu eggs, they decided to draw lots to see who would be eaten first.
§ I’m putting it out there; they seemed rather keen to eat each other.
§ Perhaps this is why they were living in a penal colony, not the brightest bunch
§ On the other side of the world, Charles Babbage was developing early computers.
· Dalton is duly eaten; he was a flogger so not an unpopular choice
· Another chap, Bodenham also seems to have been eaten at this point
· A few of the gang seemed a bit put off by this act and so ran off on their own; they all died
· This left four, Pearce, axe-wielding Greenhill, his mate Tavers and a chap called Mather.
o I don’t imagine there was too much trust between the 4 of them having demonstrated their willingness, albeit by drawing lots, of eating each other.
§ The alternative to drawing lots would have been a vote based on who looked the tastiest; how very uncivilised.
o Mathers seems to have gone next
o Then Tavers fell ill from a tiger snake bite and was duly eaten after 5 days of suffering, with an axe.
· Then there were 2
o Much like the culmination of a thriller movie, it came down to the great stand-off between two antagonists, De Niro and Pacino in Heat.
o Pearce stole the axe one night, bopped Greenhill over the head and had him for breakfast. Neither of them had been sleeping much.
· Eventually Pearce made it to a sheep station where he bumped into an old friend, another escaped convict who was part of a sheep stealing ring
o Alright mate! How are you!?
o Oh not too bad, bit peckish, haven’t eaten anything but humans for about a month now, could really do with some fibre
· It wasn’t long before Pearce was caught and sent back to Macquarry prison
o He had told his story to a few people but he wasn’t believed.
· Within a year, he escaped again with a young convict called Thomas Cox,
o Cox didn’t taste like apples when Pearce quite quickly decided to eat him.
o In fact, when Pearce was caught by authorities, he had parts of Cox’s body in his pockets, you know, a bit of man jerky, a pepperami leggy army.
o Pearce actually had proper food on his person when he was found
o The area around where Pearce was found was searched and the body of Cox was discovered, mid way through being butchered for meat
o It’s quite possible that Pearce wasn’t actually a full psychopath, because he actually gave himself up to authorities and according to some accounts, was appalled by the act of butchering Cox for food
· Pearce was hung on 19th July 1824.
o Hobart Town Gazette; he doesn’t look much like a cannibal!
o "laden with the weight of human blood, and believed to have banqueted on human flesh".