[being a continuation of a meditation begun earlier]
Parable #2: Benjamin Rush and Yellow Fever
Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793 was the largest in the history of the United States, claiming the lives of nearly 4000 people, nearly 10% of the entire population of the city. In late summer, as the number of deaths began to climb, 20,000 citizens fled to the countryside, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other members of the federal government (at that time headquartered in Philadelphia).
Into this stark landscape stepped a hero: Benjamin Rush, physician, public figure, signer of the Declaration of Independence. He mobilized medical efforts, orchestrated the construction of makeshift tent hospitals, and personally oversaw the treatment of hundreds, if not thousands of the stricken. He gave the city hope, when others offered nothing but stoicism, or despair.
His treatments were as heroic as the man himself. He favored bleeding, to the point of anemia, for a host of ailments, including Yellow Fever. To counter the “buildup of yellow bile,” he prescribed, calomel (mercurous chloride), as a purgative, and jalap, a powerful laxative. These sometimes caused his patients’ hair and teeth to fall out. “Rush’s pills,” otherwise known as “Thunderclappers,” remained popular for decades, and were carried on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Rush also formed the opinion that Africans were immune to Yellow Fever. At Rush’s urging, the support of Philadelphia’s free black community was enlisted by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and William Gray, men who had secured support to build the African Church the previous year. Philadelphia’s black community dedicated themselves to working with the sick and dying, as nurses, cart drivers, and gravediggers. Over 200 of those so enlisted died of the fever.
Let no one say that Rush was an evil man. He was, in fact, a very good man, a hero, using heroic measures in times that seemed to call for strong remedies. And his medicines were powerful; they just lacked efficacy. Indeed, they undoubtedly added to the death toll.
But there is magic in words like “strong,” and “tough,” and even “heroic.” Even today, advertisements for medicines often contain such power words, as if medical treatment were a form of armed combat. Who, after all, wishes to take a “mild,” medication, when “maximum strength” is available? And when death impends, will “heroic” treatment be ignored?
Parable #3: The Cult of Kali
The English word thug, meaning a violent criminal, comes from the Hindi word thag (and originally from the Sanskrit word sthaga), meaning a thief or villain. The original Thugs were bands of roving criminals in India who strangled and robbed travelers. It was said these gangs committed murder following precise religious rites to honor Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. However, although Kali is a Hindu goddess, there were said to be Muslim Thugs as well.
To further complicate matters, by the 19th century there were 40,000 people a year strangled in robberies, but by then many cases accredited to Thuggee were straightforward robbery with no religious significance.
In Confessions Of A Thug, written in 1837, Phillip Meadows described how the members of a band of Thugs specialized in different roles. There were the sothaees who lured travelers; the lughaees, who dug the graves in advance; and the bhuttotes, who killed. The victims were strangled with a scarf called a roomal. Although the book is fictional, Meadows based some of it on the evidence of a captured Thug called Ameer Ali.
A typical Thug killing was done by joining a group of travelers and entertaining and cooking for them so that the travelers were soon off their guard. At a pre-arranged signal (the code phrase was bring the tobacco) the Thugs would strangle the male travelers and take everything of value. The Thugs kept the valuables themselves and dedicated the corpses to Kali.
The history of the Thuggee is clouded and rife with speculation masquerading as fact. In the early nineteenth century, both the British Occupation Government of India and the East India Company were incredulous as to the very existence of such a cult. By 1830, however, owing largely to the single-minded efforts of one man, Captain William Sleeman, the British were conducting a policy of eradication. In the first four months of 1833, for example, Francis Curwen Smith, the Governor-General’s agent in the Saugor and Narbada Territories, tried 203 suspect Thugs. All were found guilty; 40 were hanged, 156 were sentenced to transportations for life and to be branded; five were given short sentences, and two died after trial while awaiting sentence. All of this was for the murder of 112 persons, only 56 of whose bodies were ever actually found.
Thugs never attacked English travelers, but the British government of India decided to eliminate them, and over 3000 Thugs were captured personally by Sleeman during the 1830s. 483 Thugs gave evidence against the rest, 412 were hanged and the rest imprisoned or rehabilitated. I can find no record of a finding of innocence in the trial of an accused Thug.
Responses to “Two More Parables”