While I offer generous dollops of what I would term ‘good, healthy rumpy-pumpy’ in The Gin Lane Gazette, I don’t feel I strayed too far into the province of 18th-century sexual perversion, and I’ve been thinking recently that I should remedy this oversight. So, here goes….
If one were being kind, Frantisek Kotzwara (c.1750-1791) would be described as a mediocre composer at best. Born in Prague, he led a peripatetic life as a violist and double bassist in northern Europe, Ireland, and England. The only work he left to posterity that has been deemed to show any merit is the piano sonata The Battle of Prague, which he knocked out in the late 1780s, and became popular as a concert finale in the United States. The piece is mentioned by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rather more famous than Kotzwara’s musical endeavours, however, is the scandalous manner of his death.
In September, 1791, Kotzwara engaged the services of a prostitute called Susannah Hill, at premises in Vine Street, near Piccadilly. He quaffed an inordinate amount of brandy, gave Hill two shillings, and then asked her to slice off his penis, specifying that he was particularly keen that she should cut it in two. When the horrified Hill refused, he asked instead to be hanged by the neck for five minutes, as this would ‘raise his passions’, and gave her money to buy a cord. She assented, but a witness at her subsequent trial recounted how Hill had run into the street and screamed that she had hanged a man, but feared she had left him dangling for too long. She was right.
The musician had form where self-strangulation was concerned. He had visited a brothel on Charlotte Street on a previous occasion, and asked a girl there to do the same. He wanted to ‘possess’ the prostitute’s ‘lovely person with all the fullness of enjoyment’, and it seemed auto-erotic asphyxiation – as it would become known 200 years later – was the only way he was able to achieve an erection. (Stories of felons becoming erect as they dangled from the gallows have been doing the rounds since time immemorial.)
Prosecuting Susannah Hill at the Old Bailey was William Garrow (1760-1840), who wasn’t quite the fluffy philanthropist the BBC Drama Department would have you believe. He took a hard line. It was his contention that society should be protected from the corrupting influence of these kinds of ‘indecent stimulatives’, and that depraved women like Hill should feel the full weight of the law, especially as it was highly unlikely that she was unaware of the possible consequences of stringing up her punter. A character witness’s deposition about Hill’s respectability seems to have gone some way to assisting the accused, however, and she was acquitted by the jury.
The case engendered much public curiosity and discussion, which was sated to some extent by a publication called Modern Propensities; Or, an Essay on the Art of Strangling. This included memoirs of Susannah Hill, and an essay about the perversion practised by Kotzwara and others. It also contained details of the trial, the records of which had apparently been destroyed to protect the public from scandalous deviance, although some enterprising soul must have made a copy. By the following century, the prudish Victorians were characterising Kotzwara’s distasteful death purely as a case of ‘suicide’.
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