Here's a horrifying fact. Trained elephants were once used to torture an execute people. Some of the earliest references come from the Bible. The latest came in the 1800s.

In The Surgeon's Daughter, a novel by Sir Walter Scott, the villain seduces a pure young Scottish girl, gets her to elope with him to India, and tries to sell her into slavery. This being the worst thing a man could possibly do at the dawn of the Victorian era, the villain had to suffer an uncommonly gruesome fate. He was killed by being pressed slowly to death by an elephant.

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Scott didn't get this idea from his imagination. He was told about death by elephant from Colonel James Ferguson, a military friend of his who had served in India. Execution by elephant was an uncommon, but unforgettable, punishment for nearly two thousand years. Romans and Greeks who visited the eastern Arabian Peninsula and Southern India mentioned witnessing these executions. Travelers, from rabbis to Muslim scholars, mention the execution in their memoirs. The last mention of it came in the 1800s, around Scott's time.

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It was popular in life for the same reason it was popular in literature. It left an impression. Accounts of how the executions took place vary, but they all involve an elephant handler carrying out the local potentate's orders.

The elephants could trample haphazardly or slowly press someone's limbs to death. Some people mention executions by goring with the tusks, or by being tossed up in the air and allowed to land back on the ground. Occasionally accounts describe someone being torn limb from limb, or dragged behind an elephant until death. Some elephants even got accessories. Witnesses mention spiked shoes, or special fittings on the tusks to make them sharper and more deadly.

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One of the twists of an execution was that it didn't actually have to be an execution. Some people were granted mercy, but only after a good scare. A command from the keeper could cause the elephant to bring its foot down, and gently roll the victim around the floor without hurting them.

Now elephants are more in danger from us than we are from them. They've even gained a cuddly image - gentle giants on land the way whales are gentle giants in the sea. Granted, they only became fearsome executioners because humans had trained them to be, but given these displays, it's not surprising that they weren't always viewed as benign.

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Image: Fotokunst Kollmann

[Sources: Jumbo, The Ivory King, The Travels of Ibn Battuta.]