The Dark History of Elephant Execution Methods in Asia

The weight of punishment

Grant Piper

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(Public domain)

Humans are no strangers to cruel and unusual punishment. History is riddled with new and interesting ways to torture, maim, and kill one another. Today, there are laws and norms that attempt to prevent people from being especially awful to one another. But that was not always the case.

For thousands of years, one of the most poignant punishments administered in Asia was death by elephant. Elephants were commonly used to kill and maim people who were found guilty of particular crimes. Some crimes that could doom you to be killed by an elephant include treason, murder, and adultery. Elephantine execution was often a public spectacle and used to send a message to other would-be criminals or conspirators.

Unlike other strange punishments in history, execution by elephants was common and widespread. It was practiced from Vietnam to India and from Sri Lanka to Iraq. Anywhere that elephants were common, they were used to execute people.

Execution by elephant was used for a number of reasons. It was easy. It was symbolic. And, perhaps most importantly, it was effective.

The Punishment

(Rupeshsarkar — Own work / CC BY 4.0)

The primary method of execution via elephant was done by tying someone to a stake. The stake would be put in a field, an arena or in a circle of people handling the elephants. People would gather around, and then the elephants would be prodded into running around. The person (or people) tied to the stake would then subsequently be trampled underfoot. It would not take long for the elephants to complete the job.

The average Asian elephant weighs between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds which is three to four times as much as a large horse. As you can imagine, having the force of four large horses trampling someone would make sticky work of them.

There are some accounts where particularly skilled elephant handlers could goad their elephants into using their trunk or tusks to toss people into the air before having them trampled. The elephant would grab the stake and throw the…

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Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.