The Death-Curse of the Great Hunter
There has been world-wide outrage after “Cecil,” a protected lion at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe was lured outside the park so that Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, who paid $50,000 for a hunt, could shoot him with a bow and arrow. The injured lion was tracked for 40 hours and then shot, beheaded, and skinned. Palmer, who protested that he thought it was a legal hunt, has gone into hiding and has been threatened with karmic retribution and worse.
We find an uncannily similar situation in this story from Ceylon in the 1840s. The story, titled “The Fate of Major Rogers: A Buddhist Mystery of Ceylon,” first introduces us to Major Thomas William Rogers, an officer and a gentleman whose hunting exploits, the author says, “no longer deserved the name of sport, but rather that of indiscriminate slaughter.” In a single year he killed over 500 antelopes, but his specialty was elephants. He was “never more happy than when he could send one of his five-ounce bullets crashing through the skull of a huge creature which, perchance, had roamed the forests for more than twenty decades. According to Sir J.E. Tennet, [author of The Wild Elephant in Ceylon, 1867] Major Rogers killed upward of 1,400 elephants, and was able to purchase his various commissions in the army from the proceeds of the ivory.”
The Singhalese, who, the author says, are “the most orthodox of all Buddhists,” looked upon Rogers’s exploits with abhorrence. “Their regard for elephants amounts almost to worship, and..no Singhalese will ever hurt an elephant, not even when he finds him destroying his rice-fields.”
And here begins the first part of the mystery:
That so inveterate a slayer of elephants as Major Rogers should become an object of terror to the Singhalese, and excite their utmost indignation, need not, thus, surprise us. They looked upon him as the ancient Hebrews would have looked upon one who had dared to penetrate to the ark of the covenant and desecrate the holy of holies. He was shunned like one stricken by a pestilence; no Singhalese would enter his service; his groom, cook, gun-bearers, etc., were Malays and Tamils, and whenever he passed through a native village on his hunting-trips, the people would fly to their huts in consternation; not so much on account of personal fear, but in order not to be near when the vengeance of heaven should fall upon his head, lest they themselves should not be spared by the outraged Devas. For that Major Rogers would be punished in a signal manner for his misdeeds was the firm belief of the Singhalese.
It was on a day in January, 1845, that a curious and portentous incident occurred. Rogers had invited a number of coffee planters from the Morowe Korle district, and was on the point of starting with these on an elephant-hunt, from the ancient village of Badulla, where, at that time, he had taken up his headquarters. The party of Europeans, numbering about eight, and followed by a retinue of Tamil coolies, was just passing the great pagoda, in the centre of a grove of sacred fig-trees, on the Minneria road, when Rogers’ attention was attracted by the appearance of an old Buddhist priest on the stone vestibule, who stood there, like a statue chiselled out of amber, fixing his calm eyes upon the major. There must have been something unearthly in that Oriental’s gaze, for it froze the very marrow of its victim. Those who witnessed the scene have repeatedly asserted in later years that the priest’s face wore a kindly aspect, and that his voice was melodious, yet to Major Rogers it seemed like a vision of Medusa, foreboding his doom.
‘The priest calmly stretched forth his right arm, pointed to the great elephant-hunter, and delivered himself of the following sentence: “White sahib, thine hour is drawing near; thou hast persisted in slaying the bodies and disturbing the souls of our sacred brothers; the measure of thine iniquities is full, and thou shalt be consumed by the lightning of heaven before thou canst raise thine accursed weapon for another act of sacrilege.”
These words, slowly and solemnly uttered by the venerable representative of one of the noblest and most philosophical creeds the world has ever known, profoundly impressed even the planters from Morowe Korle. As for Major Rogers, he sat on his horse like one in a trance; his eyes were still fixed on the spot where the priest had stood, even long after the latter had retreated into the temple, and it was only with difficulty that he could be prevailed upon to continue on his way.
The incident cast a gloom on the entire enterprise and spoiled the day’s sport. The major’s esprit had departed; he grew morose and taciturn, and no efforts on the part of his companions could restore his good humor. The party returned to Badulla without having fired a shot, and Major Rogers started the next morning for Colombo, “on important government business.”
It was not long before the story of Major Rogers’ strange adventure became known among the European residents of the island, and to his annoyance he was frequently questioned about it, in a jocular way, by thoughtless and inconsiderate friends. At the Army and Navy Club in Colombo, for instance, he would be greeted in something like the following style: “Hello, Rogers! See you’re still alive and sound; the lightning hasn’t got you yet. You’re all right, old boy, threatened people live long.” Rogers never relished such allusions to his weird experience; he was like a changed man, and an expression of pain would steal over his handsome features whenever the subject of elephant-hunting was broached…
Growing weary of Colombo, after a two months’ residence, he tried the refreshing atmosphere of Kandy, located high in the central mountains, the loveliest spot, perhaps, in this terrestrial Eden. But even this wonderful city could not dispel his gloom; her ancient palaces and pagodas repelled him, and for the first time he looked with indifference upon the marvellous artificial lake of the Singhalese kings, which, five years earlier, had risen upon his vision like a fairy-dream of the Hesperides.
Almost eight months had elapsed since the Badulla incident, and it seemed as if Rogers had at last broken the spell which the priest’s prophecy had cast over him. He thought of his rifles and of the great jungles of Ouvah; an irresistible longing seized him for his familiar hunting-grounds, and he almost wondered how he could have managed to exist so long away from them. Moreover, news came to Kandy of a rogue-elephant having recently killed two bullock-drivers near Badulla, and that settled it. Within less than a week after his resolution, he had succeeded in organizing a hunting-party of Kandian residents and planters from Kaduganawa,[Kadugannawa] and a gayer cavalcade never proceeded along the Nawalapitya [Nawalapitiya] road than that led by Major Rogers in the early part of September, 1845. His heart was light, and once more he seemed like the Rogers of old; he was bound for his favorite jungles.
It was on September 9 that the great hunt was to commence, in the dense palmetto-brakes, which extend from the foot of Adam’s Peak to the mountains of Newera Ellia. An army of drivers had been sent out to locate the game, and Rogers and his party started from Badulla before dawn, in order to reach the second government rest-house before the heat should become oppressive. From this point the jungle was to be entered, and a path leading in a southeasterly direction was to be followed for about eleven miles, to a little swamp, where the first beaters would be stationed and the camp was to be fixed.
A sumptuous lunch had been previously ordered at the resthouse and everything augured well…While the last of [luncheon] was being washed down with the favorite brandy and soda, and several members of the party were preparing for a short siesta, a low rumbling sound, as of distant thunder, struck the ear, and, before the lapse of another ten minutes, one of those vehement tropical rain-torrents was upon them, for which Ceylon is noted, and which are as sudden in their appearance as in their complete cessation and dispersal. The rain came down in sheets, and the sky grew dark and darker, while a cannonade commenced in the clouds, which would have appalled any one but an old Ceylon resident. Long flashes of lightning illumined the landscape at intervals, yet Major Rogers was in excellent spirits.
“We shall have a glorious time at the swamp to-night,” he shouted, “this will clear the atmosphere and give our trackers a chance.” In less than a quarter of an hour the rain ceased to fall, and the sky began to brighten visibly. “I think we can start pretty soon,” said Rogers, “I’ll just go out and see how things look.”
And out he went on his last errand; he never returned, nor uttered another word, for, thirty seconds later, Major Rogers was a black, unrecognizable mass. A flash of lightning had struck him with terrific force, before he got to the centre of the highroad in front of the bungalow, and had almost carbonized every particle of flesh, down to his bones. His hour had come at last.
A remarkable coincidence, the reader will conclude, yet a mere coincidence. Among the myriads of human beings who inhabit this planet, such things must, at times, occur, and stranger ones are on record. Thousands are annually killed by lightning, and why should it not once happen that among these there be one whose death had been thus foreshadowed? Look at the innumerable cases in which similar prophecies and predictions have been proved false. Such was also the writer’s opinion when he first learned the curious details of the fate of Major Rogers.
But the story has a sequel, which no coincidence-hypothesis will explain, and which is so strange that it may well be doubted whether anything of a similar character has ever come within the experience of man. The news of Rogers’ tragic death created the utmost sensation in Ceylon, as the story of his encounter with the Buddhist priest, six months earlier, was known to all the European residents. For a long time it formed the chief topic of discussion on the island, and numerous were the theories, comments and opinions advanced in reference to it. The Singhalese did not manifest the least surprise at this appalling termination of the elephant-hunter’s career; ‘to them it was not unexpected, as they had been thoroughly convinced that something of this nature was bound to happen.
Rogers’ body was taken to Newera Ellia, [Nuwara Eliya] and there buried in the little cemetery of the European colony. Newera Ellia is the sanatorium of Ceylon: a cluster of beautiful villas, in the midst of the loveliest scenery, seven thousand feet above the sea level. Here rich merchants of Colombo and Point de Galle, eminent government officials and wealthy planters have erected fairy bungalows, surrounded by luxurious gardens, where they take refuge from the heat of the lowlands, at times when a “change” is deemed necessary.
Rogers having been one of the most popular men on the island, the Europeans subscribed for a tombstone, which was duly placed on his grave, and on which the principal events of his life and his sad end were briefly recorded. The stone had been there barely two months when the residents of Ceylon were startled by the news that it had been struck and seriously damaged by lightning. And, what is still more marvellous, lightning struck that stone at least a hundred times within the next thirty years.
The writer, to whom this part of the story appeared utterly incredible, and who suspected some trick on the part of the Singhalese, visited Newera Ellia in the month of July, 1876. Starting early from Peradenia, and riding through the Ramboda Pass, he did not reach the famous sanatorium till after sunset, taking up his quarters at the only hotel there, kept by one Hawkins, an old Scotchman. The cemetery was within three hundred yards of this place. After supper the writer and his host, who proved an exceedingly well-informed as well as kindly gentleman, repaired to the verandah, where comfortable easy-chairs were inviting for siesta. Cigars were lighted and soon the topic of Major Rogers’ tombstone was in order.
“Young man,” said Hawkins—the writer having strongly expressed his doubts as to the genuineness of the lightning business—”wait until to-morrow morning! I have lived in Newera Ellia thirty-six years, and never, before Rogers’ burial, has lightning, to my recollection, struck in that cemetery. Now it occurs on an average three or four times a year, and it invariably selects the tombstone of Rogers.”
The writer was indeed impatient to behold that wonderful stone, and, at an early hour the next day, found himself in front of it.
“What do you call this,” said Hawkins, who was present, “does this look like man’s handiwork?”
“Indeed not,” the writer replied, lost in astonishment, for here were the clear and unmistakable proofs of lightning’s action. The stone, a huge slab, about nine feet long, five feet wide and ten inches thick, placed flat on the grave, had been cracked in at least a dozen places, and evidently by lightning, while the peculiar furrows of lightning were visible all over it. As one well acquainted with lightning-marks on rock surfaces, the writer, after a careful examination of the slab, feels thoroughly justified in stating that they are genuine.
Now where is the clue to this mystery? Major Rogers’ tombstone is in no way peculiar, or different from the other tombstones in the Newera Ellia cemetery. It is composed of the same garnetiferous gneiss (the prevailing rock of the central mountain region of Ceylon), and the grave which it surmounts is neither higher nor lower than the other graves. There is absolutely nothing which, from a scientific standpoint, would account for the reason why lightning should persistently have selected the spot where the charred remains of Ceylon’s famous elephant hunter were interred forty-nine years ago. The Arena, Vol. XI, 1895
This astonishingly ripping yarn was written by one Heinrich Hensoldt, Ph.D. Although there is some corroboration on a Sri Lankan tourism site, I wondered who Dr. Hensoldt was and did he have his facts straight? I can do no better than direct you to this biography of the author—I do not think that we can, in good conscience, call him a gentleman. However, there are indications that he got the basics, if not the fine details, of Major Rogers’s story correct. Any eye-witnesses to a lightning strike at the grave? Or debunkers of the tale? (Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com)
Given the doctrine of reincarnation and karma, I didn’t think Buddhists issued curses. But one wonders if some Zimbabwean N’anga is even now preparing a spirit image to hunt down the great Minnesotan hunter.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.