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Crushing by elephant

The use of elephants in crushing those condemned to death was ubiquitous throughout south and southeast Asia for over 4,000 years of recorded history, and perhaps before that. The Romans and Carthaginians also used this method on occasion.

For many centuries elephants were also used by militaries, and death under the foot of an elephant was commonplace for deserters or prisoners as well as for military criminals.

As a rule, the elephant would step upon the head of the condemned. In the most common procedure, the execution elephant was trained to place its enormous foot gently upon the condemned's head. At this point, those who had accused the condemned would be brought forward and allowed to look beneath the elephant's foot to confirm the identity of the prisoner. They could then either recant or confirm their accusations. Typically, the condemned would scream and beg for witnesses to recant, but few ever did, as it often would mean trading places with the condemned since perjury was commonly considered to be a capital offense. Once the confirmations were made, the mahout, or elephant driver, would give the command, and the elephant would press down with its immense weight, bursting the condemned's skull and then crushing the head completely flat.

However, on occasion the death would be made even crueler by either having the elephant drag the condemned through the streets before the execution (usually by a rope attached to the elephant's leg), or through the use of an elephant that was trained to crush limbs first, and then the chest, often with excruciating slowness.

Most rajahs kept execution elephants for the purpose of death by crushing and the executions were often held in public to serve as a warning to any who might transgress. Toward that end many of the execution elephants were especially huge, often weighing in excess of 9 tons. The results were intended to be gruesome and, by all accounts, were. Adding to this horror was the fact that some tyrants in the long history of this form of execution even included children among those condemned.

Although it was common in South Asia for rulers to use elephants as executioners, one Mogul Emperor in particular, Akbar (1547-1605), used his favorite elephant as a judge, as well as an executioner. While ruling in the city of Agra from 1570-1585, Akbar came to believe that his favorite royal elephant could discern by instinct who was guilty of an offense and who was innocent. As a result, thousands of people during those 15 years, who were suspected of even minor offenses, were staked out before the great royal elephant and had to watch in horror as it was coaxed to step on them.

The great majority of suspects were crushed to death, but on occasion the huge elephant would refuse. If that happened, the suspect was immediately released because, as Akbar noted, there was now clear proof of innocence!

Records of most executions by this method have been lost over the years, or in many instances, no records were kept. The British maintained the richest source of documentation during their long rule of India. Records show that the British continued using execution by elephant well into the twentieth century, partly as an instrument of terror, and partly because it was their practice to maintain local customs and methods wherever possible.

Methods also differed greatly from region to region. Records from one region show that the condemned was placed inside of a canvas bag so that he would not have to watch what was about to happen. The elephant would then trample the bag flat with the condemned inside. In another, the condemned was forced to watch the elephant slowly approach from a great distance, its gigantic feet coming ever closer. In some instances, the condemned was buried up to his neck and the elephant would then approach and step on his head. In others, the condemned was required to place his head on an elaborate pedestal that contained fountains on its sides so that his brains and viscera would gush freely for spectators to watch when the elephant pressed down with its huge foot.

The last person to be officially executed in this fashion was put to death in India in April, 1947. The execution took place in Bikaner. The executioner was a state elephant named Hawai that weighed just over 8 tons and which had, under British rule, put over 150 thieves and murderers to death beneath the crush of its huge foot.