The Bizarre Death of František Kocžwara

František Kocžwara (a.k.a. Frantisek Kotzwara) definitely earned his place in the history of classical music with masterworks such as The Battle of Prague and assorted other works.   But what he is best remembered for today is the, well, bizarre, nature of his death.

Believed to have been born around 1730 in the city of Prague (which was then part of Bohemia), he made a modest name for himself as a classical violinist and virtuoso double bassist.   There is surprisingly little known about him except that he played in symphony orchestras across Europe.   Given his technical skills with the violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, bassoon, fortepiano, and cithern, finding an orchestra position was never hard and also gave him the contacts he needed to produce many of his own musical compositions.   His musical works aren't that well-know today except for his Battle of Prague Sonata published in 1788.   220px-Battle_of_Prague_pub_byGraupner_Boston_19thc[1]Even though he wasn't a witness to the actual Battle of Prague in 1757, he likely heard numerous stories from firsthand witnesses and, working with these stories, he created one of the most beloved pieces of battle music of the late 18th century.   Not only was it a favourite in drawing rooms across the Continent, but Mark Twain even mentioned the piece in some of his books.   Part of the appeal of the sonata was the flexible score that allowed a wide range of different instruments to be used to imitate the sounds of battle, something that resonated with audiences in a pre-sound effects era.  

Despite Kocžwara's success, he s rarely put down roots in only one place for long.  And yet, in 1791, the year that he met his unnatural death, he was living in London and working at the King's Theatre.  Along with his own performances, his Battle of Prague sonata was a frequent favourite there as well.   But it became an even bigger favourite after the bizarre events of September 2, 1791 became public knowledge.  

According to the later testimony of Susannah Hill, the prostitute who played a central figure in Kocžwara'a death, she had never met him before he came to the Soho house where she lived and practised her trade.   Asking her if she had anything to drink, Kocžwara  gave her money to buy brandy and food.   Following her return, he and Hill retreated to a back room where "several acts of the grossest indecency passed."   

Things became even more bizarre when the composer reportedly asked Hill to castrate him.  While Hill was an experienced worker in the sex trade, this definitely exceeded her comfort level.   After she refused, he then asked her to hang him for five minutes to "raise his passions."  He even gave her money to buy the cord though she had difficulty finding one large enough.   Instead, she bought two small cords which she  fastened around her client's neck. Kocžwara then tied himself to the back parlour door and knelt as close to the floor as possible to suspend himself completely.   

As for Susannah Hill, she had no idea what her client was trying to accomplish.  While autoerotic asphyxia is better known today, this was a more innocent time.    Following  instructions,Hill let him hang for the full five minutes before cutting him down.  Which was when her client promptly slumped to the floor, either dead or unconscious.  After failing to revive him, Hill panicked and ran to her neighbours for help.   Finally, a local publican brought in a surgeon who tried bleeding Kocžwara (this counted as emergency medical care in those days) before declaring him dead.  Police were then called in and promptly arrested Susannah Hill for her admitted role in Kocžwara's death.

Hill went on trial at the Old Bailey two weeks later.   While prosecutors had some difficulty deciding on a charge, they eventually went with criminal manslaughter on the grounds that she assisted Kocžwara's suicide.   Though rumours were certainly flying by that time, the actual details of the case was even more lurid.  Not to mention providing an interesting window into some of the more extreme erotic practices that were becoming available at the time.   Since there seemed to be no question that Hill had simply gone along with what her esteemed customer requested, the presiding judge threw out the case and she was allowed to go free. The judge then ordered all court records destroyed, supposedly to avoid a public scandal.

Whether the records were really destroyed or not, broadsheets outlining Kocžwara's bizarre death became extremely popular. both as a criminal case and because of the bizarre sexual overtones.   One broadsheet, titled "Modern Propensities, or An Essay on the Art of Strangling", ran to forty-six pages with most of those pages being devoted to the presumed effects of hanging on sexual arousal (though carefully worded to avoid censorship).  While the anonymous author provided some information of Susannah Hill's case, the pamphlet seemed to be more about enticing readers and drumming up interest in autoerotic practices.   The pamphlet even quoted the notorious thief-taker and criminal Jonathan Wild who discovered that even hanged criminals "evinced certain emotions and commotions, which . . . proved that all flesh must die to live again."  

Still, while František Kocžwara's strange death represents one of the first recorded cases of death by its kind, the notion that hanging can produce erotic stimulation wasn't new even then.   Since the 17th century, clinically supervised hanging had been used as a medical remedy for erectile difficulties and stories of visible erections being seen in hanged criminals were common enoug.   In the same year that Kocžwara died, the Marquis de Sade's notorious novel, Justine, was published.   Featuring a main character who was briefly hanged to achieve orgasm, the novel helped introduce even more curiosity seekers to the presumed erotic  benefits of mild strangulation.   

According to reports, there were enough fans of this particular fetish that "Hanged Men's Clubs" could be found in some places despite the strict morality of the Victorian era.  In these clubs, the wealthy and respectable could hang themselves in discreet surroundings and under careful supervision.   The autoeroticism often featured bondage and, at times, cross-dressing, to heighten the sexual pleasure involved.  While the occasional "accident" occurred leading to serious injury or death, the families of the victims could usually be counted on to conceal the truth any way they could.  Bribing doctors to sign death certificates attesting to death from "natural causes" was rarely difficult.

But autoerotic asphyxiation was hardly limited to the 18th and 19th century.   Even today, accidental deaths linked to autoerotic practices aren't that uncommon.   Though most victims are males in their twenties, cases have ranged from the very young to the very old.   There also seems to be a disturbing media trend at work with copycat deaths following media stories about asphyxiation.  All in all, this is one particular legacy that František Kocžwara probably didn't anticipate.



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