The Mark of the Beast

(notes edited by John McGivering with contributions on medical matters by Dr. Gillian Sheehan)


First published in the Pioneer on 12 and 14 July 1890, in the Pioneer Mail on 16 July and the New York Journal in July of the same year. It was collected in Life’s Handicap in 1891.

The story

Fleete, who knows little of India or Indians, gets drunk at the Club on New Year’s Eve, and on the way home desecrates a temple of Hanuman the Monkey God, by stubbing out his cigar on the image of the God. A priest, who is a leper, clasps Fleete to him, and bites him on the breast, leaving a livid mark. As another priest says when he leaves, Hanuman has not yet done with him.

Soon after, Fleete starts to behave like a man possessed, gnawing raw meat, grovelling in the earth of the garden, and howling like a wolf. The doctor thinks he is dying of rabies, but Strickland knows better. Only when he and the narrator have captured the leper priest and forced him by torture to remove the spell he has cast on Fleete, does the demented man return to sanity.

 Some critical comments

Norman Page (p. 105) quotes various contemporary reviewers, one of whom called this story ‘poisonous stuff’; another felt that the author had ‘stepped over the bounds of decorum’.
Knowles (p. 144) observes:

For pure horror, this tale is, perhaps, unmatched in English litrature…

Knowles also quotes another undated Athenæum:

…Mr. Kipling passes, as he occasionally does, the bounds of decorum, and displays a love of the crudely horrible in its disgusting details; but the fascination of the story is incontestable.

The Spectator took a similar view:

… this story may be curious, but it is also loathsome, and shows Mr. Kipling at his very worst.

The Pall Mall Gazette took a more moderate view and comments:

…As a tale of sheer terror (this story ) could not easily be surpassed.


Some sixty years later Charles Carrington (p.160) considers this tale and “At the End of the Passage” (earlier in this volume) to be:

two stories of horror and gloom which reflected his own mood of nervous exhaustion.

Edmund Wilson, however, (p. 177) takes a very different view, regarding “At the End of the Passage” and this story as harmless bogey tales for children compared with “A Madonna of the Trenches” and “The Wish House.” (Debits & Credits)

See John Coates, The Day’s Work, Kipling and the Idea of Sacrifice (Associated University Presses, 1997) p. 30, for an interesting examination of the story.

Also see KJ 318/15 for an important examination by Dr. Francis Jarman. [See also KJ 35/87, 73/1, 121/1, 128/11] [See also KJ 35/87, 73/1, 121/1, 128/11.

A dramatised version of this story was frequently played at the Grand Guignol in Paris (The Big Puppet-Show) – a theatre of the macabre from 1897 to 1962 – where, at one time, the success of a production was gauged by the number of people in the audience that fainted and were treated by the in-house Doctor.
Rabies and Leprosy

The medical background

Rabies and leprosy were not uncommon in India in Kipling’s day, and both figure in his tales and reports.

Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes:

Rabies or hydrophobia is a disease that affects animals and humans. The infection is transmitted in the saliva when a rabid animal bites another or a man. The infection spreads by the nerves until it reaches the spinal cord and the brain. This is slower than spread by the bloodstream. If a person is bitten on the face the incubation period is fourteen days approx., for a bite on a leg it may be several months before symptoms appear. But once symptoms appear the infected person or animal always dies. The main symptoms are terrific cerebral excitement and fury, spasm of the throat and inability to drink, and generalised convulsions.

A popular fallacy was that the infected person barked like a dog – this may have been the result of ‘hawking’ i.e. the persistent spitting out of saliva that couldn’t be swallowed. Another fallacy was that the person tried to bite his ,attendants – probably the spasmodic movements of the jaws, mouth and throat. The ordinary duration of hydrophobia is from 1 to 4 days before death puts an end to the suffering.

Treatment in Kipling’s time consisted of putting a tight bandage above the bite if on a limb, and cauterization of the bitten area. Louis Pasteur first successfully vaccinated a human being who had been bitten by a rabid dog, in 1885. Vaccination consists of repeated injections of increasing virulence at specified intervals for up to 90 days. This allows the person to gradually build up antibodies to the rabies virus so that by the time the infection reaches the spinal cord the patient has become immune. There is no ‘instant’ treatment for rabies. Nowadays cave explorers, botanists, and animal collectors, can avail of pre-exposue vaccine before going on an expedition where they might be bitten by a rabid animal. But, if they are bitten, they still need to be given post-exposure vaccine as well.

Rabies is also mentioned in “Garm – a Hostage” (Actions and Reactions) where Ortheris is worried that Garm would get rabies from a pi-dog.
In the Jungle Book it is said of Tabaqui the jackal that:

…Tabaqui, more than anyone else in the jungle, is apt tp go mad, and then he forgets that he was ever afraid of anyone, and runs through the forest biting everything in his way … madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature. We call it hydrophobia, but they call it dewanee – the madness – and run.

In a letter 7-8 July 1888, Kipling mentions seeing a man die from hydrophobia.


Leprosy is caused by Mycobacterium Leprae, an organism rather like that causing tuberculosis. It was discovered by a Norwegian, Hansen, in 1871 and is sometimes called Hansen’s Bacillus.
Infection appears to come from nasal discharges and ulcerating lesions. But intimate and prolonged contact is needed for infection to occur. Medical personnel working in leper colonies rarely become infected if they take the proper precautions.

The disease occurs in childhood or early life and may remain dormant for 20 years. The leprosy bacilli become widely distributed throughout the body. The main structures to be damaged are the skin, the peripheral nerves and the kidneys. There are two main forms of leprosy:

The Lepromatous form is characterised by the development of nodules in the skin, especially the face, hands and feet. These lesions may ulcerate and cause destruction of fingers, nose and ears with much disfigurement. These lesions may begin as circular spots or blotches of coppery hue, which much later take on a whiter appearance with loss of sensation in the affected skin. (Possibly the reason the leper was called ‘the Silver Man’ in ‘The Mark of The Beast’.

In the Tuberculoid form these is a gradual growth of solid lumps or tubercules under the skin. The infection spreads to the peripheral nerve trunks which can then be felt as thickened cords under the skin of the arm and leg. The affected areas become numb and liable to injury.

Often the first sign of the disease is a thickening of the lobes of the ears and of the skin of the forehead. The affected areas eventually ulcerate, the ulcers gradually eating away the flesh and bones so fingers and toes may be lost.

Leprosy was incurable when Kipling wrote “The Mark of The Beast”. But it was thought that the progress of the disease could be delayed by good food, fresh air and tonics. Chaulmoogra Oil was, for years, the standard medical treatment for leprosy.  gra oil !

Other references to leprosy occur in:

  • “In the Same Boat” (A Diversity of Creatures): Mrs Henschil’s mother was frightened by lepers three months before her daughter’s birth.
  • “Rahere”: …sat a leper and his woman, very merry breaking bread
    He was cloaked from chin to ankle – faceless, fingerless,obscene –
    Mere corruption swaddled manwise, but the woman whole and clean;
  • “The City of Dreadful Night” (Life’s Handicap); there is a sleeping leper ‘silvery white and ashen grey in the moonlight’.
  • Something of Myself; Kipling mentions inquiring into the number of lepers supplying meat in Lahore.

In the Middle Ages there were probably several diseases that went under the name of ‘Leprosy’. (Syphilis can cause similar sores).

Nowadays leprosy seems to be a disease of hot humid areas. But there is no definite correlation with climatic factors. Even where it is prevalent, the better off, who are on good diets, rarely contract the disease. [G.S.]

[J H McG/G.S.]

©John McGivering and Gillian Sheehan 2006 All rights reserved