Interesting If True - Episode 78: The Elephant In the Room
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that slaps… I dunno, I work at a high school and this was some new slang I learned and am probably using incorrectly.
I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is:
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that the Descendants are a band. Apparently.
Round Table and Beer
The round table this week… is that we’re back in the studio and can finally have another beer together.
Soulcraft Brewing: Raspberry porter
- Aaron: 8
- Shea: 8
I’m not sure what the impetus to do a story on female gangsters was but I found myself in an internet hole filled with awesome stories of female gangsters that made some pretty big waves in their day, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring them back into the light and entertain you all with some badass ladies.
We could start with some more contemporary women such as Griselda Blanco, recently played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2017’s Cocaine Grandma. Griselda has a terrifying and bloody story complete with torture and hired hits during the heyday of cocaine use in the 70/80’s. But I was feeling something a bit less bloody and a whole gang of women sounded cooler than just one angry bloodthirsty drug queen. I went back pretty far in history to find a notorious syndicate run exclusively by working-class women.
PICTURED -Top row, left to right, Alice Diamond, “Queen of Thieves”; Maggie Hughes, deputy; Laura Partrdige; bottom row, left to right, Bertha Tappenden; Madeline Partridge, Gertrude Scully.
One all-female gang ruled part of the gangland underworld for almost two centuries, the 40 Elephants. Definitive records show that the Elephants operated between 1873 and the 1950s, but there is some evidence to suggest that the gang’s origins can be placed as early as the end of the 18th century. The gang’s name is not as cryptic as it may sound: the number
is a rough estimate of its membership and the choice of animal is due to two factors: that they all lived around the Elephant and Castle pub in Southwark, and – more significantly – on leaving shops with their stolen goods under their clothes, the sheer volume of garb made them look like elephants. Only women were allowed to be members and they were almost all exclusively from a working-class background; they rejected the jobs that people like them were condemned to do and instead, similarly to the suffragette movement, they took matters into their own hands. However, instead of fighting for the right to vote, the Elephants wanted something more immediate: financial independence. They would steal clothes and jewelry, sell them on for far less than they were worth, and distribute the earnings amongst their community, providing their families with a lot more than they could otherwise hope to.
<figure class="aligncenter"><figcaption>Photographs from a 1916 article in Popular Mechanics show the garments shoplifters wear to make their work easier. Via/ Internet Archive</figcaption></figure>
Many a husband lounged at home while his missus was out at work, and many an old lag was propped up by a tireless shoplifting spouse. Some of these terrors were as tough as the men they worked for and protected,”
<meta charset="utf-8"/>Brian McDonald
Said Brian McDonald, who uncovered details of the criminals when researching for his new book, Gangs of London. Cool aside, Brian found the 40 Elephants so cool that he wrote an entire second book on them alone, Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants.
The all-female Forty Elephants – or Forty Thieves – worked alongside the notorious Elephant and Castle gang, a sprawling, powerful army of all-male smash-and-grab artists, burglars, receivers, hard men, and crafty villains operating across south London. The Forty Elephants, in contrast, was a tightly run, neatly organized collection of cells, whose operations extended across London and into other cities. The gang was first mentioned in newspapers in 1873, but police records suggest it had existed since the late 1700s. Dressed in specially tailored coats, cummerbunds, muffs, skirts, bloomers, and hats sewn with hidden pockets, they mounted raids on London’s West End shops, where they plundered goods worth thousands of pounds.
The girls benefited from prudish attitudes of the time by taking shelter behind the privacy afforded to women in large stores”.
They became so well known in London that panic erupted when they were seen near high-class shops. The gang’s response was to branch out, expanding their enterprise to country and seaside towns.
In the 20th century, they used high-powered cars to outrun the police. If they were stopped, they were found to be clean: the goods were spirited away to cars driven by male members of the team. When working in other towns, they would use trains, depositing empty suitcases at railway stations which they filled with booty for the return trip.
The Forty Elephants also used blackmail to turn a profit, seducing upper-crust men only to extort them afterward, sometimes using this method to call in favors and avoid convictions. Many were said to be as tough as any man when threatened. On the other hand, the ladies were also known to throw the best parties, spending opulently in bars in pursuit of the flapper lifestyle of the 1920s, as well as the glamorous elegance and champagne cocktails depicted in the 1930s movies.
It was said that a group of them could strip a store in just an hour, secreting away valuables in their many pockets. However, the group was also extremely fond of fur coats, the wearing of which became their particular penchant. It has been said that the girls didn’t wear their plunder, instead preferring to wear high fashion bought outright with the profits of their stolen goods. Wearing the stolen goods was actually against the rules, known as the “Hoister’s Code.” This included not drinking the night before a job, not wearing the clothes you had stolen, and never helping the police. Loyalty was of paramount importance as members were frequently arrested and police would try and turn tricksters into lifetime informers. Fictional alibis would be supplied by fellow gang members and money put aside for families when members were sent to prison.
The way the Elephants operated is they were broken down into cells of four or five and allocated a patch where they would operate for a time. Members would observe their target clothes and jewelry shops, paying attention to when staff went on breaks and when inexperienced attendants were on duty.
Trainee hoisters were used as decoys – distracting shop assistants and store detectives by acting suspiciously, like taking items close to the doorways as if they might steal them, insisting they just wanted to examine them in the light when challenged.
Well-known veteran thieves were also used for this purpose as they would be followed around by security while their lesser-known accomplices were stowing jewels and silks in hidden pockets secreted in their dresses.
The alternative for nearly all of the members of the Forty Thieves would have been extreme poverty and/or a life of prostitution. This would have been particularly true for the 19th-century members of the gang as class divisions in London during the 1800s meant there was almost no chance of rising from poverty without considerable help.
<figure class="aligncenter"><figcaption><meta charset="utf-8"/>Alice Diamond</figcaption></figure>
The most notorious leader of the Forty Elephants was Alice Diamond, who was also known as Diamond Annie for her sparkly rings which helped her punches pack a mighty wallop. Diamond Annie’s leadership began in 1916 and under her the group flourished, often evading the police with supreme efficiency. Many of the girls were caught and tried for small acts of theft -often without being linked to any larger gang activity- with many of the girls returning to the gang after their sentences were served.
In the period between the World Wars, Diamond Annie served as the Queen of the Forty Elephants. But, Annie’s reign came to an end when she was sentenced to prison time after having turned on a former member. Diamond Annie would go on to die relatively young at the age of 55 from multiple sclerosis, has been the madame of her own brothel after leaving the gang.
The gang was taken over by Lillian Rose Kendall, a flapper doll if ever there was one! The Forty Elephants were active into the 1950s when increased store security and sleeker clothing made shoplifting much more difficult. However, the gang left behind a legacy of violence and trickery that is still quite shocking today.
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Thugs, gangsters, mobsters, they all paint a picture of some less desirable individuals but also some highly romanticized professions. Bonnie and Clyde, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, all elicit ideas of freedom and stick it to the man, even though all these people were oftentimes violent killers and thieves. Though today for our second half I doubt you will be romanticizing the thugs we talk about, more specifically the Thuggees, history’s most notorious and deadly criminal cult. Before we begin I implore you to either put on your brown pants or diaper up as a lot of the information I am going to share with you is quite terrifying. This is Huggies and Thuggees.
The name Thug, Thuggee, or Tuggee is derived from the Sanskrit, sthag, and Pali, thak. This means to hide or conceal, but mainly secret concealment. Thugs were Hindu and Muslim Indians whose Thuggee cult was based on the worship of the goddess, Kali. Kali is the destructive and creative mother goddess in the Hindu religion. Kali is the fierce aspect of Devi, the supreme goddess who is fundamental to all Hindu deities.
Kali is most often characterized as black or blue, partially or completely naked, with a long lolling tongue, multiple arms, a skirt or girdle of human arms, a necklace of decapitated heads, and a decapitated head in one of her hands. She is often portrayed standing or dancing on her husband, the god Shiva, who lies prostrate beneath her.
In the early 1800s in India, a secret society existed that seemed straight out of a horror movie. Imagine an evening along a country road in Bengal. A group of travelers, maybe 50 in all, settles down for the night. There are bandits on the roads, so everyone travels in numbers. Most are merchants or pilgrims, and many carry money and valuables. In the wee hours of the morning—responding to a signal only they understand—some of the men rise from their beds, moving stealthily in groups of three.
They reach for a sleeping man, and two of them hold him down. A third one takes out a belt from his waist and strangles the man. This is done to the whole group until all of them, except the attackers, are dead. If someone tries to run, he is killed by the pickets who are stationed especially for this purpose. The valuables are taken, and the dead bodies are dumped in a secluded spot nearby. This was the typical MO for the Thuggees, also called Phansigar.
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Thuggee had been around since at least the 14th century. Over the centuries, the dark brotherhood murdered possibly a million or even 2 million people. In 1830 alone, they’re estimated to have killed 50,000. One thug strangler admitted to 900 murders over a period of 40 years.
The strict rules of secrecy kept the group hidden. People were admitted to the Thuggee cult by inheritance. Generally, a father in the cult would initiate only one of his sons into the cult. Wives had no knowledge of how their husbands earned money. The thugs lived a respectable life in their communities. They communicated through secret signs and a secret language called Ramasee. They could plot the murder of an intended victim right in front of him without the victim getting any inkling of it. They offered their victims to Kali as sacrifices and were rewarded by her in the form of permission to keep the loot. She also directed that there should be no bloodshed. They were very superstitious and were very attentive toward signs and omens.
The Thug preference for strangulation might have originated in a quirk of the law under the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India from the 1500s. For a murderer to be sentenced to death, he or she must have shed the blood of their victim. Those who murdered but did not shed blood might face imprisonment, hard labor, and paying a penalty—but they would not risk execution.
According to colonial sources, Thugs believed that they played a positive role in saving human lives. Without the Thugs’ sacred service, Kali might destroy all mankind:
- “It is God who kills, but Bhowanee has [a] name for it.”
- “God is all in all, for good and evil.”
- “God has appointed blood for [Bhowanee’s] food, saying ‘khoon tum khao’: feed thou upon blood. In my opinion it is very bad, but what can she do, being ordered to subsist upon blood!”
- “Bhowanee is happy and more so in proportion to the blood that is shed.”
As a well-organized club, everyone played a part in the fraternity’s activities. Thugs who were too old or infirm to perform the travel and ritual attacks on travelers served as guides, spies, supply providers, and more. Because of the closeness, secrecy, and discipline of the Thug organization, they were rarely, if ever, suspected of any wrongdoings. They were recognized by many as normal law-abiding citizens and went unmolested for centuries, free from suspicion or persecution by both Hindu and Muslim authorities. However, there were average persons, especially travelers, who were well aware of the dangers presented by the strange Thugs.
We will never know the extent of the murderous activities of the Thugs. The accomplishment and secrecy of such large numbers of deaths caused by Thuggees was a result of the Thug’s well-organized and highly secret fraternity. Greatly aiding Thuggee’s success was the lack of any central authority powerful enough to put an end to Thug’s ritual murder. The great Mughal Empire that ruled the Indian subcontinent for centuries had lost power and fragmented into many independent and semi-autonomous kingdoms who collectively could not contend with the Thuggee threat.
<figure class="alignleft"><figcaption>William Sleeman</figcaption></figure>
The end of the Thuggee cult started in the 1820s. An ex-army officer, William Sleeman, was appointed by the British government to get to the root of the disappearance of people. Sleeman carefully plotted the times and places of thug attacks and was able to predict where new ones would occur.
He started putting undercover agents among the travelers. This prevented the attacks, and many thugs were caught alive. Some of them refused to talk, but some others thought that Kali had abandoned them and revealed whatever they knew. A minimum of 3,700 thugs was captured by the Indian authorities between 1830 and 1870, and it is believed that the Thuggee cult was no more in the business.
Now just because they were gone doesn’t mean they were forgotten. The thuggee mysteries lived on in pop culture in film and literature for many years. I’m sure you all remember 1980’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the blood cult were Thugs, there is even a character based on William Sleeman.
Here in the United States, the word thug has long been a staple in rap lyrics. According to the invaluable site Rap Genius, “thug” appears in either the name of the artist or in the lyrics of over 4,800 songs. And Tupac Shakur famously had “Thug Life” tattooed across his abdomen.
I’m Shea and this week I learned that the Earth is 70% noncarbonated water, therefore, it’s technically flat, but before we go I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my favorite co-host, Aaron.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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