Execution by elephant was a common method of capital punishment in South and Southeast Asia, and particularly in India. Asian elephants were used to crush, dismember, or torture captives in public executions. The animals were trained and versatile, both able to kill victims immediately and to torture them slowly over a prolonged period. Employed by royalty, the elephants were used to signify both the ruler's absolute power and his ability to control wild animals.
The sight of elephants executing captives attracted the interest of usually horrified European travellers, and was recorded in numerous contemporary journals and accounts of life in Asia. The practice was eventually suppressed by the European empires that colonised the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. While primarily confined to Asia, the practice was occasionally adopted by Western powers, such asRome and Carthage, particularly to deal with mutinous soldiers.
Elephants are widely reported to have been used to carry out executions in southeast Asia, and were used in Burma and Malaysia from the earliest historical times as well as in the kingdom of Champa on the other side of the Indochinese Peninsula. In Siam, elephants were trained to throw the condemned into the air before trampling them to death. Alexander Hamilton provides the following account from Siam:
For Treason and Murder, the Elephant is the Executioner. The condemned Person is made fast to a Stake driven into the Ground for the Purpose, and the Elephant is brought to view him, and goes twice or thrice round him, and when the Elephant's Keeper speaks to the monstrous Executioner, he twines his Trunk round the Person and Stake, and pulling the Stake from the Ground with great Violence, tosses the Man and the Stake into the Air, and in coming down, receives him on his Teeth, and making him off again, puts one of his fore Feet on the Carcase, and squeezes it flat.
The journal of John Crawfurd records another method of execution by elephant in the kingdom of Cochinchina (modern south Vietnam), where he served as a British envoy in 1821. Crawfurd recalls an event where "the criminal is tied to a stake, and [Excellency's favourite] elephant runs down upon him and crushes him to death.