Elephants are some of the most amazing animals on Earth. Their advanced social behaviors, remarkable intelligence, and adorable offspring prove that they have a lot more to offer than just sheer strength.

But hundreds of years ago in Asia, these giant beasts were thought of as massive, hulking brutes that should be best employed as nightmarish killing machines. And if you found yourself sentenced to death by elephant, you didn’t have a hope left in the world.

Execution by elephant was most common in India, but this brutal form of capital punishment was not uncommon in other parts of Southeast Asia. It occurred as recently as the 19th century.

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It later spread to Rome, Carthage, and other countries as a way of punishing mutinous soldiers to make an example out of them.

Elephants have a distinct advantage over other wild animals used in executions because they are intelligent, versatile, and able to be domesticated. In fact, elephants may be even more easily controlled than horses. An elephant can straight up crush enemy soldiers on command, whereas horses do not willingly trample people.

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Elephants can even be taught to prolong the suffering of their victims, crushing them more slowly or giving prisoners a quick, merciful death by smashing them quickly.

 These killer elephants were under the control of a driver called a Mahout. Rulers would often use a Mahout’s power to show mercy and grant reprieves at the last minute. Kings of Siam (now Thailand) would often make elephants simply roll convicts around the ground so as to avoid hurting them too badly.

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Similarly, it is said that the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great used this method to punish rebels, but they left with their lives. Sometimes, elephants were even used as a “trial by ordeal” of sorts, in which the condemned could be released if they managed to fight off the elephant.

Of course, elephants are more than just mindless weapons, and this was recognized by the same royal powers that used them for violent purposes. Elephants were—and still are, in some places—symbols of royalty.

6-execution by elephantWikipediaBeing in control of such an enormous, dangerous animal sent a message about how powerful and dominating these rulers were.

Elephants gave rulers such a mystique that they were seen as having moral and spiritual superiority.

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There’s also the intimidation factor that comes from knowing that someone could put you on the wrong end of an elephant’s foot if you make one false move.

The practice of execution by elephant was eventually ended by imperial Western powers who colonized these lands in the 18th and 19th century. While this has softened the image of these majestic animals, you still wouldn’t want to get on their bad side!

Share this strange and deadly part of history with your friends below. They’ll never look at elephants the same again!