India's Infamous Thuggee Cult destruction-

Group of Thugs, 1863, photographer unknown.Legacy of the Raj or what India was when the British left in 1947

They were evil incarnate in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – which was briefly banned in India for alleged racism. Their name is the root of the modern English word ‘thug’. And a few centuries ago these bad boys were responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of travelers. Here's a look behind the myth at India’s mystery-shrouded Thuggee cult: bands of roving stranglers who robbed and killed many folks making their way unwittingly across the sub-continent.
History is quick to point out what nasty pieces of work these Thuggee types were; they’re even in the Guinness Book of Records, with over two million kills attributed to their deadly hands. There have been stacks of Western attempts to make sense of the phenomenon: pirates of the plains, brigands of Bengal – but buccaneer and bandit likenesses like these don’t do justice to the singularly sinister way in which the original Thugs went about their business.

Preying in pilgrims’ routes: many an unwary traveler got waylaid or worse. Ganges River at Haridwar landscape etching, 1858.
By appearing to be friendly fellow travelers, these deviously depicted devils would join and infiltrate the caravans people traveled in for safety. They often did so gradually over the course of long journeys, the less to arouse suspicion. Then, when they held a numerical or strategic advantage over their quarry, and were sure there was no escape, they would ruthlessly attack at a prearranged signal.
Equally crafty with their killing techniques, the Thugs garrotted their victims with a cloth handkerchief known as a rumal. This was so as not to shed blood – which would have been not only conspicuous but sacrilegious. They also killed under the cover of darkness and a sonic screen such as noise or music, before systematically disposing of the bodies in concealed burial sites.

Representations of thuggery: “Hindoo Thugs and Poisoners”. Drawing by W Cafester, Illustrated London News, 1857.
The extremely well organised character of their operation has led to the Thugs being described as a Mafia-esque criminal outfit. Thuggee incorporated different specialist roles into a loosely hierarchical structure. On the job there were equivalents to modern day figures like ‘hitmen’ and ‘lookouts’, and above these was the gang leader or boss in the shape of the jemadar.
Like La Cosa Nostra, Thuggee tended to be kept in the family, bonded together by a strong code of silence. And while some members may have been recruited from outside as comrades or apprentices – including the lucky spared children of victims – it seems that generally the mantle of Thugdom was passed down through the generations.
Major William Sleeman. Photo of William Henry Sleeman, 19th Century.
  British rulers decided to get rid of the Thugs in the 1830s, despite no attacks on British travelers, Sleeman was appointed to lead the clean-up act. Armed with a stiff upper lip and trailblazing new detective methods, he carefully mapped Thug activities, predicted their attacks, and aided by informants rounded up the whole rascal lot of them
 Sleeman was responsible for the imprisonment, transportation or hanging of thousands of men, though recent writers have criticised the legitimacy of the campaign. Some say it was a witch-hunt – an excuse for the British to go swashbuckling around India – or at least a spin on the stereotype of the fantastically fanatical native criminal. Colonial myths are riddled with contradictions about how widespread Thuggee was among Indian people; but a story that grabs you by the throat like this one just seems too good to be false.

Confessions Of A Thug

Front Cover
Rupa & Company, 01-Jul-2002 - Fiction - 547 pages
Confessions of a Thug is a tale of crime and retribution. Set in 1832 in India, the story lays bare the practice of the Thugs, or deceivers as they were called, who lived in boats and used to murder those passengers whom they were able to entice into their company

Confessions of a Thug - a crucial book 

An adventure story about Thuggees with a thuggee as its fascinating hero - or antihero. Taylor's book helped propel the still-continuing wave of popular western interest in the cult.
Philip Meadows Taylor: his stories of Indian life are surprisingly free of condescending western racial and cultural stereotypes.


Confessions of a thug (1839)[read on line]



Book written by W.H. Sleeman, the scourge of the Thuggees.

Rambles and Recollections of an Indian OFFICIAL

 By William Sleeman


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Group of Thugs.gif
Group of thugs ca. 1894.
Founded Before 1356
Named after Hindi word for thief
Founding location Central India
Years active ~450 years
Territory India
Ethnicity Indian
Criminal activities Murder, robbery
Thuggee (Hindi: ठग्गी or ṭhagī; Urdu: ٹھگ‎; Sanskrit: sthaga; Sindhi: ٺوڳي، ٺڳ; Kannada: "thakka"), also known as tuggee or simply thugs, were organized gangs of professional assassins who traveled in groups across India for several hundred years. They were devoted to Kali, a Hindu goddess associated with violence, sexuality, and more recently, empowerment.[1] They were first mentioned in the Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī (English: History of Fīrūz Shāh) dated around 1356.[2] In the 1830s they were targeted by William Bentinck, along with his chief captain William Henry Sleeman, for eradication. They were seemingly destroyed by this effort.[1][3] According to some estimates the Thugs murdered 1 million people between 1740 and 1840.[4]
The Thugs would join travellers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by tossing a handkerchief or noose around their necks. The killings were performed in honour of the Hindu goddess Kali and were very ritualistic.[1] They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies. This led them to also be called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India.[5]
The term Thuggee is derived from Hindi word ठग, or ṭhag, which means thief. Related words are the verb thugna, to deceive, from Sanskrit स्थग sthaga meaning cunning, sly, fraudulent, dishonest, scoundrel, from स्थगति sthagati (English: he conceals).[6] This term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers is popular in South Asia and particularly in India.
The story of Thuggee was popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language.



Origin and recruitment

The earliest recorded mention of the Thugs as a special band or fraternity, rather than as ordinary thieves, is found in the following passage of Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356):
In the reign of that sultan (about 1290), some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.
—Sir HM Elliot, History of India, iii. 141.
Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, in what would now be termed a criminal underclass. The leaders of long-established Thug groups tended to come from these hereditary lines, as the gang developed into a criminal 'tribe'. Other men would get to know a Thug band and would hope to be recruited, in the way that one might aspire to join an elite regiment or university: they were the best operators in "the business" and, like a regiment or college fraternity, once in the group, there was a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. The robbery became less a question of solving problems of poverty and more a profession, like soldiering.
Sometimes the young children of the travellers would be spared and groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of children would help allay suspicion. A fourth way of becoming a Thug was by training with a guru, similar to an apprenticeship for a guild or profession, during which the candidate could be assessed for reliability, courage, discretion and discipline.[7]

Modus operandi

Watercolour by an unknown artist from the early 19th century purporting to show three thugs in the process of strangling the traveller: one holds the feet, another the hands, while a third tightens the ligature around the neck.

A sketch by the same artist purporting to show a group of thugs stabbing the eyes of three travellers they have recently strangled, preparatory to further mutilation and deposition in the well.
Thuggee is described as a cult of people engaged in mass murder. The modus operandi was to join a caravan and become accepted as bona-fide travellers themselves. The Thugs would need to delay any attack until their fellow travellers had dropped the initial wariness of the newcomers and had been lulled into a false sense of security, gaining their trust. Once the travellers had allowed the Thugs to join them and disperse amongst them - a task which might sometimes, depending on the size of the target group, require accompaniment for hundreds of miles - the Thugs would wait for a suitable place and time before killing and robbing them.
There were obviously variations on this theme. When tackling a large group, a Thuggee band might disperse along a route and join a group in stages, concealing their acquaintanceship, such that they could come to outnumber their intended victims by small, non-threatening increments. If the travellers had doubts about any one party, they might confide their worries to another party of the same Thuggee band. The trusted band would thus be the best placed to deal with these members of the caravan at the appropriate time, but might also be able to advise their colleagues to 'back off' or otherwise modify their behavior, to allay suspicion.
The killing place would need to be remote from local observers and suitable to prevent escape (e.g., backed against a river). Thugs tended to develop favored places of execution, called beles. They knew the geography of these places well—better than their victims. They needed to, if they were to anticipate the likely escape routes and hiding-places of the quicker-witted and more determined of the travellers.
The timing might be at night or during a rest-break, when the travellers would be busy with chores and when the background cries and noise would mask any sounds of alarm. A quick and quiet method, which left no stains and required no special weapons, was strangulation. This method is particularly associated with Thuggee and led to the Thugs also being referred to as the Phansigars, or "noose-operators", and simply as "stranglers" by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would strangle one traveller. The Thugs would then need to dispose of the bodies: they might bury them or might throw them into a nearby well.[7]
The leader of a gang was called the 'jemadar': this is an ordinary Indian word and was used as the rank of an Army Junior Commissioned Officer. However since it also came to be used for sweepers (scavengers), the rank was changed to Naib Subedar. An English equivalent term might be 'the Boss' or 'the Guv'nor' (Governor).
As with modern criminal gangs, each member of the group had his own function: the equivalent of the 'hit-man,' 'the lookout,' and the 'getaway driver' would be those Thugs tasked with luring travelers with charming words or acting as guardian to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place.
They usually killed their victims in darkness while the Thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. If burying bodies close to a well-travelled trade-route, they would need to disguise the 'earthworks' of their graveyard as a camp-site, tamping down the covering mounds and leaving some items of rubbish or remnants of a fire to 'explain' the disturbances and obscure the burials.
One reason given for the Thuggee success in avoiding detection and capture so often and over such long periods of time is a self-discipline and restraint in avoiding groups of travellers on shorter journeys, even if they seemed laden with suitable plunder. Choosing only travellers far from home gave more time until the alarm was raised and the distance made it less likely that colleagues would follow on to investigate the disappearances. Another reason given is the high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. This was a sophisticated criminal elite that knew its business well and approached each 'operation' like a military mission.

Use of garotte

The garotte is often depicted as the common weapon of the Thuggee.[8][9] It is sometimes described as a Rumāl (head covering or kerchief), or translated as "yellow scarf". "Yellow" in this case may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow.
Most Indian males in Central India or Hindustan would have a puggaree or head-scarf, worn either as a turban or worn around a kullah and draped to protect the back of the neck. Types of scarves were also worn as cummerbunds, in place of a belt. Any of these items could have served as strangling ligatures.

Death toll

Estimates of the total number of victims vary widely, depending on the author's idea of the length of existence of the Thugs (for which there are no reliable sources). According to the Guinness Book of Records the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths, while British historian Mike Dash estimates that they killed 50,000 persons in total, based on his assumption that they only started to exist 150 years before their eradication in the 1830s.
Yearly figures for the early 19th century are better documented, but even they are inaccurate estimates. For example, gang leader Behram has often been considered the world's most prolific serial killer, blamed for 931 killings between 1790 and 1830. Reference to contemporary manuscript sources, however, shows that Behram actually gave inconsistent statements regarding the number of murders he had committed.[10]
While he did state that he had "been present at" 931 killings committed by his gang of 25 to 50 men, elsewhere he admitted that he had personally strangled around 125 people. Having turned King's Evidence and agreed to inform on his former companions, furthermore, Behram never stood trial for any of the killings attributed to him, the total of which must thus remain a matter of dispute.[10]

British suppression

The Thuggee was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s.[7] The arrival of the British and their development of a methodology to tackle crime meant the techniques of the Thugs had met their match. Suddenly, the mysterious disappearances were mysteries no longer and it became clear how even large caravans could be infiltrated by apparently small groups, that were in fact acting in concert. Once the techniques were known to all travellers, the element of surprise was gone and the attacks became botched, until the hunters became the hunted.
    Col. William Sleeman                  
(1788 - 1856)

Lord William           Bentinck                
(1774 - 1839)                         
Governor General of India                                                      
Civil servant William Henry Sleeman, superintendent, 'Thuggee and Dacoity Dept.' in 1835, and later its Commissioner in 1839.
Reasons for success included:
  • the dissemination of reports regarding Thuggee developments across territorial borders, so that each administrator was made aware of new techniques as soon as they were put in practice, so that travellers could be warned and advised on possible counter-measures.
  • the use of King's evidence programmes gave an incentive for gang members to inform on their peers to save their own lives. This undermined the code of silence that protected members.
  • at a time when, even in Britain, policing was in its infancy, the British set up a dedicated police force, the Thuggee Department, and special tribunals that prevented local influence from affecting criminal proceedings.
  • the police force applied the new detective methodologies to record the locations of attacks, the time of day or circumstances of the attack, the size of group, the approach to the victims and the behaviours after the attacks. In this way, a single informant, belonging to one gang in one region, might yield details that would be applicable to most, or all, gangs in a region or indeed across all India.
The initiative of suppression was due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who captured "Feringhea" (also called Syeed Amir Ali, on whom the novel Confessions of a Thug is based) and got him to turn King's evidence. He took Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told him the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done it.[11]
After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman started an extensive campaign involving profiling and intelligence. A police organisation known as the 'Thuggee and Dacoity Department' was established within the Government of India, with William Sleeman appointed Superintendent of the department in 1835. Thousands of men were either put in prison, executed, or expelled from British India.[7]
The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured Thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s, the Thug cult was extinct, but it led to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Although it was repealed upon independence of India, the concept of criminal tribes and criminal castes is still prevalent in India.[12][13] The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).


The discovery of the Thuggee was one of the main reason why the Criminal Tribes Act was created. Of a Government Report made in 1839 by Major Sleeman of the Indian Service, Mark Twain wrote:[11]
There is one very striking thing which I wish to call attention to. You have surmised from the listed callings followed by the victims of the Thugs that nobody could travel the Indian roads unprotected and live to get through; that the Thugs respected no quality, no vocation, no religion, nobody; that they killed every unarmed man that came in their way. That is wholly true—with one reservation. In all the long file of Thug confessions an English traveller is mentioned but once—and this is what the Thug says of the circumstance: "He was on his way from Mhow to Bombay. We studiously avoided him. He proceeded next morning with a number of travellers who had sought his protection, and they took the road to Baroda."
We do not know who he was; he flits across the page of this rusty old book and disappears in the obscurity beyond; but he is an impressive figure, moving through that valley of death serene and unafraid, clothed in the might of the English name.
We have now followed the big official book through, and we understand what Thuggee was, what a bloody terror it was, what a desolating scourge it was. In 1830 the English found this cancerous organization embedded in the vitals of the empire, doing its devastating work in secrecy, and assisted, protected, sheltered, and hidden by innumerable confederates —big and little native chiefs, customs officers, village officials, and native police, all ready to lie for it, and the mass of the people, through fear, persistently pretending to know nothing about its doings; and this condition of things had existed for generations, and was formidable with the sanctions of age and old custom. If ever there was an unpromising task, if ever there was a hopeless task in the world, surely it was offered here—the task of conquering Thuggee. But that little handful of English officials in India set their sturdy and confident grip upon it, and ripped it out, root and branch! How modest do Captain Vallancey's words sound now, when we read them again, knowing what we know:
"The day that sees this far-spread evil completely eradicated from India, and known only in name, will greatly tend to immortalize British rule in the East."
It would be hard to word a claim more modestly than that for this most noble work.
—Chapter xlvi, conclusion.


Colour lithograph of Kali
  Thuggees as worshippers at a shrine to Kali
The patron deity of the Thuggee was the Hindu Goddess Kali (or Durga), whom they often called Bhavani[14] or Bhowanee.[15] Many Thuggees worshipped Kali but most supporters of Kali did not practise Thuggee.
Sahib Khan, the Deccan strangler, 'knew Ram Sing Siek: he was a noted Thug leader - a very shrewd man,' who also served with the Pindaris for a while and was responsible for the assassination of the notorious Pindari leader Sheikh Dulloo. It is important to note here that the word "Sing" is used by various denominations among Hindus, for example Hindu Rajput's and Thakur's use the word "Sing" as part of their name. Such usage by Hindu groups should not be confused as Sikhs. Sikhs use the word "Singh" distinct from the word "Sing" that is used by Hindu Groups. "[16]

Thuggee viewpoint

Thuggee trace their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija; however, their foundation myth departs from Brahminical versions of the Puranas. Thuggee consider themselves to be children of Kali, created out of her sweat. This is similar to the way Kali was created from aggression and willingness to fight for Durga.[17]
According to some sources, especially old colonial sources, Thuggee believe they have a positive role, saving humans' lives. Without Thuggee's sacred service, Kali might destroy all the human kind:
  • "It is God who kills, but Bhowanee has name for it."
  • "God is all in all, for good and evil."
  • "God has appointed blood for her (Bhowanee) food, saying 'khoon tum khao', feed thou upon blood. In my opinion it is very bad, but what she can do, being ordered to subsist upon blood!"
  • "Bhowanee is happy and more so in proportion to the blood that is shed."[15]
In contrast, Dash states that they did not have a religious motive to kill and that the colonial sources were wrong and prejudiced in that respect.

21st century revisionist views

In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Woerkens suggests that evidence for the existence of a Thuggee cult in the 19th century was in part the product of "colonial imaginings" — British fear of the little-known interior of India and limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants. For a comparison, see Juggernaut and the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Krishna Dutta, while reviewing Mike Dash's Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult in The Independent, argues:[18]
In recent years, the revisionist view that thuggee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion.
In his book, Dash rejects scepticism about the existence of a secret network of groups with a modus operandi that was different from highwaymen, such as dacoits. To prove his point Dash refers to the excavated corpses in graves, of which the hidden locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. In addition, Dash treats the extensive and thorough documentation that Sleeman made. Dash rejects the colonial emphasis on the religious motivation for robbing, but instead asserts that monetary gain was the main motivation for Thuggee and that men sometimes became Thugs due to extreme poverty. He further asserts that the Thugs were highly superstitious and that they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, but that their faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs. He admits, though, that the Thugs had certain group-specific superstitions and rituals.

Popular culture


  1. ^ a b c "Tracing India's cult of thugs". 3 August 2003. Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^
  3. ^[dead link][better source needed]
  4. ^ Rubinstein, W. D. (2004). Genocide: a history. Pearson Education. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0-582-50601-8.
  5. ^ R.V. Russell; R.B.H. Lai (1995). The tribes and castes of the central provinces of India. Asian Educational Services. p. 559. ISBN 978-81-206-0833-7. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  6. ^ Thugs 1902 Encyclopædia Britannica'.Pali-sthag
  7. ^ a b c d Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  8. ^ Richard James Popplewell (1995). Intelligence and imperial defence: British intelligence and the defence of the Indian Empire, 1904-1924. Frank Cass. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7146-4580-3. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  9. ^ Lois H. Gresh; Robert Weinberg (4 April 2008). Why Did It Have To Be Snakes: From Science to the Supernatural, The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 104–107. ISBN 978-0-470-22556-1. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  10. ^ a b James Paton, 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add. Mss. 41300
  11. ^ a b Twain, Mark; Produced by David Widger (18 August 2006). "Following the Equator" (ASCII). EBook. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 27 February 2011. "This file should



"Death of Dhoondiah" (an engraving, 1839), hunted down by Wellesley in 1799; the story was recounted in 'Romantic History of Dhoondiah: An Oriental Bandit, the Greatest Robber the World Ever Knew. Who Styled Himself King of the Two Worlds! And Who Brought to the Fields His Twenty Thousand Men, Ravaged Cities and Towns, Laid Provinces Under Contribution, and Was Finally Pursued With a Large Army, and Killed By the Duke of Wellington [=Wellesley]....' by C. Frank Powell (1840's)


  Thugs distract their victim. Description:  (Whole folio) Coloured drawing of two Thugs pointing upwards to the sky to distract their victim, whilst another creeps up behind ready to strangle him. 


 Thugs strangling a traveller. Description:  (Whole folio) Coloured drawing of thugs strangling a traveller on the floor."


"Hindoo thugs and poisoners.-- from a drawing by Mr. W. Carpenter, Jr.," from the Illustrated London News, 1857; 

"A party of thugs, in India," from 'Harper's Weekly', 1857
"The Kalee-poojah [feast] of the Thugs," from Harper's Weekly, 1858

"Thugs in prison at Aurangabad," a print from 'Le Tour du Monde', Paris, 1869

"Thugs in prison at Aurangabad," a print from 'Le Tour du Monde', Paris, 1869
Thug prisioners demonstrate their technique for strangling a victim
Three Thug prisioners demonstrate their
technique for strangling a victim


Thug Behram (or Buhram), of the cult in India known as the Thuggee cult, is deemed as the world’s most prolific serial killer. In many instances it is said that he murdered some 931 victims by strangulation. He turned his of murder into a 40 year career as a serial killer between the years of 1790-1830. Victims were strangled using his cult’s ceremonial cloth, rumal, the Hindi term for handkerchief.
It was later said that Behram was merely present during the 931 murders as he was the leader of the Thuggee cult. The gang was comprised of some 25 to 50 men in whom half a dozen of those men lived for the strangulations.
Behram’s statements have never been verified and Thug never went to trial for any of the murders due to the fact of having turned King’s Evidence and agreed to inform on his companions.
A second account of a Thug Behram confession has him confessing: “I may have strangled with my own hands about 125 men, and I may have seen strangled 150 more”.
Leader of a gang of Thugs in Avadh, India, who confessed to participating in 931 individual murders and to having personally strangled approximately 125 men.
:Confessions of a Thug, p.79. "My Second Victim"
Thug Behram (or Buhram), of the cult in India known as the Thuggee cult, is deemed as the world’s most prolific serial killer. In many instances it is said that he murdered some 931 victims by strangulation. He turned his of murder into a 40 year career as a serial killer between the years of 1790-1830. Victims were strangled using his cult’s ceremonial cloth, rumal, the Hindi term for handkerchief.
It was later said that Behram was merely present during the 931 murders as he was the leader of the Thuggee cult. The gang was comprised of some 25 to 50 men in whom half a dozen of those men lived for the strangulations.
Behram’s statements have never been verified and Thug never went to trial for any of the murders due to the fact of having turned King’s Evidence and agreed to inform on his companions.
A second account of a Thug Behram confession has him confessing: “I may have strangled with my own hands about 125 men, and I may have seen strangled 150 more”.
Leader of a gang of Thugs in Avadh, India, who confessed to participating in 931 individual murders and to having personally strangled approximately 125 men.

[the] dependable Indian journal estimated that the two rivers, Nerbudda and Sutlej, witnessed 10,000 murders annually. This was a century ago, when Thuggee was being slowly throttled and when every opportunity existed for ascertaining the true facts; hence it is quite clear this was considered a conservative estimate. Now the area defined by this journal represents less than one-fourth of India, so, as Thuggee extended throughout that continent, it may safely be assumed that that on this basis alone forty thousand people fell to the Thug ruhmal every year, possibly in its heyday fifty thousand would be nearer the mark. [50,000 a year

A Retired Thug A Retired Thug.