Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Fifty Shades of history or 'Don't try this at home: the cautionary tale of an 18th century gentleman'

(Illustration dated 1752 from the Library of Congress)
It's 2012 and the world has just discovered sex courtesy of EL James's best-selling 'mummy porn' adventure Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, for those who are feeling a bit jaded after all the hype devoted to this bonkbuster, here's a shocking sex scandal from history that reveals that S&M was already alive and well in the 18th century...

London, February 1791: prostitute Susannah Hill welcomed an unusual visitor into her room at a 'house of ill repute' in Vine Street, Westminster. Above the ordinary class of streetwalker receiving customers against a wall in an side street or in rooms rented by the hour, Susannah was working at a brothel and would have been healthy (for the moment) and more secure than her less fortunate sisters.  
She would have been intrigued by Frantisek Kotzwara, a Czech composer visiting London. Perhaps while they dined, he entertained her with stories of his home country, and she calculated how quickly she could make her two shillings out of the 61-year-old, and have him out of the door, ready for the next punter. Perhaps, he gulped down his food, nervously anticipating the request he was about to make to this strange, hired woman.
As a seasoned metropolitan whore Susannah would have had customers with quirks before; those who wanted a light birching, those who preferred to look rather than touch or even to slip on her stockings. But it's unlikely that she would ever have been asked to cut off a man's testicles before. Kotzwara handed Susannah two shillings, and perhaps he went so far as to beg her to mutilate his genitals which she sensibly refused to do.

'A painful pleasure...'
By now Susannah must have been regretting inviting in this gentleman who had turned out to be so foreign in all senses of the word and, eager to be rid of him, she allowed Kotzwara a seemingly less dangerous pleasure. The composer tied a ligature around the door handle, fastening the other end to his neck, slowly strangling himself while he had sex with Susannah.
As Kotzwara's spasms slowed, Susannah must have realised that her customer had just experienced the throes of death rather than orgasm. We don't know what she did next. Perhaps her landlady heard her screams and came to her aid - as a prostitute and vulnerable to violence from customers she is unlikely to have been alone in the house. Whether or not she sought them out first, the officers of the law came to Susannah's lodgings and arrested her for murder.
Susannah was tried for Kotzwara's murder at the Old Bailey. The victim being foreign and sexually peculiar, the jury sympathised with the traumatised young harlot and acquitted her. The court records on the case were allegedly suppressed, and, as I discovered, they are not to be found in the Old Bailey records. 
Sadly Kotzwara is now more famous for the bizarre manner of his death, than his music and some academics have even tried unsuccessfully to rename erotic asphyxiation 'Kotzwarraism'.

There is a Wikipedia entry on Kotzwarra, which mentions more about the manner of his death than his musical career and in 1984 William B Ober published an article jauntily entitled, 'The Sticky End of Frantisek Koczwara' in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.

Readers who enjoyed this post might also like a fascinating piece by historian Fern Riddell (author of a forthcoming Victorian Guide to Sex) on her blog Vice and Virtue 

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