Weird History The Brutal History of Execution By Elephant  

Erin Wisti
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What is execution by elephant? It's exactly what it sounds like. Execution by elephant was a brutal form of capital punishment mainly practiced in Southeast Asia and India. Criminals, convicted of anything from war crimes to petty theft, were killed by elephants as punishment. Elephants were trained to violently stomp, bite, stab, and trample their victims to death. 

The practice began around 220 BCE and became widely used in parts of Asia. As the Asian method of elephant execution grew in popularity, it was adopted by the Romans. While it's unclear when the last execution by elephant occurred, the practice was phased out in the 18th and 19th centuries. The horrors of elephant execution – like other horrific torture and execution methods from the past – are a brutal part of history that are hard to forget. 

To Add Gore, Some Elephants Were Covered In Weapons


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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Given their massive size and strength, elephants could easily kill victims simply by stomping on them and/or throwing them. However, such straightforward brutality was apparently not always adequate for some rulers. To add even more pain to the execution method, elephants' trunks and hooves were often covered with knives and blades, which they would use to slice victims to pieces.

Elephants Would Sometimes Tear Victims To Pieces


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Photo:  YouTube

After visiting Dehli, India, in the 1300s, the renowned Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta recounted a particularly brutal incident of execution by elephant. This particular elephant had been taught to tear its victim to pieces. To help with this task, its hooves were covered in armor containing sharp knives.

According to Battuta, the elephant threw the accused in the air with its trunk. It then caught the man in its mouth and dropped him between its feet. It used the knives on its hooves to cut the man into pieces. Even more sinister? After the accused was dead, his skin was removed, and his flesh was fed to dogs.

Some Criminals Were Granted A Trial By Ordeal... AKA Fighting Off An Elephant


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Photo:  Publisher New York Ward/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

During the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century, execution by elephant was common. The condemned were not always killed by elephants, however. They were sometimes subjected to what was known as a “trial by ordeal.” If convicts could fight off an elephant, they were allowed to leave with their lives.

Once Trained, An Elephant Never Forgot How To Perform An Execution


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Photo:  Grant Eaton/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1850, after execution by elephant had been banned, British diplomat Henry Charles Sirr visited a former elephant executioner in Sri Lanka. The elephant had not executed anyone in 35 years. When the elephant's trainer commanded it to “slay the wretch,” however, the elephant wrapped its trunk around thin air, as if it was grabbing a human being.

The elephant proceeded to mime violently shaking its invisible victim before throwing them on the ground. It stomped its feet on the places where the person’s limbs would have been until the trainer told it to complete its work. At this point, the elephant placed one foot where the victim’s head would have been and another near the abdomen. Apparently, elephants really don’t ever forget.