Historically, public hangings were a festive occasion for Londoners. A rowdy and drunken mob followed the procession through the streets from the prison to Tyburn, pelting the convicted criminals with rotten vegetables. Executions drew large number of spectators. It was a profitable day for publicans, pie merchants, pickpockets, whores, and broadside sellers. At the place of punishment there was a lot going on. The condemned person was allowed to make a ‘gallows speech’. Then a prison chaplain would urge the criminal to repent in a final prayer. The hangman appeared, the noose was adjusted, and a bag drawn over the criminal’s head. The horse would be lashed to move the cart and leave the criminal hanging in the air. There was another, less reported aspect that may have contributed to the excitement.
Seventeenth century observers at public executions noted that some male victims developed an erection and occasionally ejaculated when being hanged.
This post-mortem erection (angel lust) has been attributed to pressure on the cerebellum created by the noose. This is a different mechanism from that of auto-erotic asphyxia which seeks to increase arousal by restricting the oxygen supply to the brain by tightening a noose around the neck. In 1990, the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction published an influential New Report on Sex. It describes auto-erotic asphyxia as ‘the deliberate reduction of oxygen to the brain – temporary suffocation. The belief is that it enhances orgasm, but no research has ever verified this effect’.
Journalist and translator Pierre-Antoine Le Motteux [Peter Anthony Motteux] was born on 25 February 1663 in Rouen into a Huguenot family. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes on 18 October 1685, Motteux took up residence in London. He was made an English citizen on 5 March 1686. An able man, Motteux established himself rapidly in his adopted country, soon securing himself a place at the centre of its literary culture. He made his literary début as the editor and publisher of the Gentleman’s Journal (1692/4), a general magazine modelled on the Mercure Gallant. The journal contained poetry, literary and theatrical criticism, songs, enigmas, tales, burlesques, translations, essays, and scientific discoveries of the time. It has been called the ‘first English magazine’. One of its issues (October 1693) was devoted to ‘Pieces written by Persons of the Fair Sex’.
Motteux’s greatest literary successes were his translations of the works of Rabelais and of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1700/03). His version of the latter work was widely admired throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for its lucidity and wit (although future translators would be far more critical of his effort). He was also active in the 1690s and early 1700s as a dramatist and librettist. During this period he produced a series of occasional poems, songs, prologues, and epilogues. Among his miscellaneous works, A Poem in Praise of Tea (‘the Nectar of the Gods’) published in 1701, is the best known. His literary output declined considerably in his later years. From around 1705 he traded in East Indian merchandise and works of art. The last activity was the principal occupation of his final decade, and his ‘India warehouse’ in Leadenhall Street, City of London, became a fashionable meeting place. On his fifty-fifth birthday, in good health and full of life, he donned his famous scarlet cloak, and went out on the town. He picked up Mary Roberts, a prostitute, and after some dalliance returned to her bordello at Star Court, near Temple Bar, where he died in February 1718 from assisted erotic asphyxia.
Based upon contemporary case notes, the medical case of Motteux’s demise has been reconstructed by later researchers. By contrast, the court case dealing with the death in London of an immigrant musician towards the end of the eighteenth century hit the headlines. Composer and double bass player František Kocžwara was born in Prague about 1750. He seems to have been an itinerant musician in Germany and the Netherlands, but had moved to England by 1775. He lived in various places, including London and Bath. In 1783 he travelled to Dublin, where he played violin in the band at the Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar. While in Ireland he composed his most popular work, The Battle of Prague: a favorite sonata for the piano forte, with an accompaniment for the violin & bass (op. 23). His compositions are mainly piano works and chamber music for piano and stringed instruments. He had returned to London by May 1791, as he played in the Concerts of Ancient Music and the Handel commemoration in Westminster Abbey that month. Kocžwara is more famous for the spectacular manner of his death than for his musical output. On 16 September 1791 prostitute Susannah Hill was tried at the Old Bailey for the composer’s murder. At her trial, she described how, on 2 September 1791 at a house of ill repute in Vine Street, near Piccadilly, Kocžwara had drunk a great deal of brandy and asked to be hanged in order to raise his passion. When she cut him down minutes later he was dead. She was accused of his murder. However, the case was dismissed at the Old Bailey and she was acquitted.
In the historical literature males have figured more prominently than females (although various such cases have been reported), beginning with the death of Kocžwara. In medical science, however, erotic asphyxia was not defined for another two hundred years. The death of the Czech composer led forensic psychiatrist Park Elliott Dietz in Auto-Erotic Fatalities (1983) to suggest the term ‘Koczwarraism’ for behaviour utilizing asphyxial augmentation of the sexual response. The theme was touched upon in literature much earlier. In the same year as the composer’s death, Marquis de Sade published his notorious novel Justine which includes a graphic description of an episode of sexual asphyxia. In James Joyce’s Ulysses (chapter 12) Bloom explains ‘scientifically’ why hanged men undergo sexual erections at the moment of execution. Strangling oneself or others for erotic pleasure is depicted in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and features in In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese film of the notorious Sada Abe story, first shown in 1976. Both book and film were received with a sense of shock. The novel was originally published in Paris in July 1959 by Maurice Girodias, founder of the Olympia Press. Because of American obscenity laws, a complete edition by Grove Press did not follow until 1962. The film also generated fierce controversy during its release. In general, auto-erotic asphyxia has remained a taboo subject. It is one of social history’s better kept secrets.