Thursday 18 March 2021

'Hanged by a Harlot'; Frantisek Kotzwara (1740-1791), St Lukes, Old Street, EC1

In the 1790’s the parish clerk at St Lukes in Old Street neatly recorded baptisms and burials every month in one conscientiously kept register. He was more thorough than most, recording the date of birth not just the date of the christening and the occupation of the father as well as the names of both parents; far more information than you would normally expect in a parish register. For the burials he did not record the age of the deceased as was common practice elsewhere but simply noted that they were ‘a child’, ‘a woman’, ‘a man’ or, occasionally, ‘a lad’ or ‘a youth’. Very unusually though he did note a cause of death. In September 1791 there were 42 burials and parishioners generally seem to have died, as they did in most other months, of some sort of infectious disease. Twelve of them succumbed to consumption, nine, mainly children, died of convulsions, four of smallpox, three of fever and two of dropsy. Three children died because of their teeth and one is recorded as ‘peralitic’ (paralytic perhaps?). There is one ‘sudden death’ noted and one ‘decline’ but only three parishioners died because of their age. One entry leaps out though; on 6 September one Francis Kutzwara, ‘a man’, was buried and his cause of death recorded as ‘Hanged by a Harlot’.

František Kočvara was born in Prague in 1730, or maybe 1740, or perhaps 1750; no one seems to be completely sure. Biographical details are sketchy to say the least; everyone agrees that he was a musician and a composer and that he died by hanging but every other quoted fact about his life seems open to dispute. The first edition of the Oxford DNB (volume 31 1892) says that “he seems to have led a vagabond life in Germany and Holland previous to 1784, when he was attracted to England by the Handel commemoration in Westminster Abbey, in which he took part as a member of the band.” Other sources say he came to England in 1775, and that he may have lived in Bath in the early 1780’s. All sources say he was in Ireland in the late 1780’s and first published his most celebrated work, a sonata for piano, violin and violoncello entitled ‘The Battle of Prague’, in Dublin in 1788.  The DNB says that in Spring 1792 he was travelling on the continent and François-Joseph Fétis “then a boy of eight years old,” and later a well-known Belgian musicologist, “describes a visit which Kotzwara paid to his father at Mons. After Kotzwara had heard Fétis play a sonata of Mozart, he invited him to play at sight on the harpsichord his ‘Battle of Prague.’ Fétis's father accompanied him on the violin, and Kotzwara himself on the 'cello.”  Fétis’ recollection must be faulty as we know that Kotzwara had been buried in the churchyard at St Luke’s for at least 6 months by this time. The DNB also says that “he was very versatile, and played a great number of instruments with fluency if not distinction” and gives the following account of his death which is wrong in almost every particular; “he was, however, as dissipated as he was clever, and on 2 Feb. 1793 he was discovered hanging in a house of ill-fame in Vine Street, Covent Garden. He had been making experiments in hanging in the company of some half-drunken women, and his death was the result of an accident; the parties implicated were arrested, but were ultimately acquitted.” The DNB lists its sources as the Imperial Dictionary of Biography, Reissmann's Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon, Champlin's Cyclopaedia of Music, Grove’s Dictionary of and Brown's Dictionary of Musicians then goes on to say that “the five last-mentioned authorities all give the date of Kotzwara's death wrongly as 1791”(!)  Official records show that Kotzwara died on 2nd September; an inquest was held the following day by Coroner Thomas Prickard. The 18 men of the jury decided that one Susannah Hill, a single woman of the Parish of St Martin-in-the-fields “not having the Fear of God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the Inquisition of the Devil,”  had, with “a Certain piece of small Cord which she…then and there had hold in both her Hands about the neck of him the said Francis Kotzwara and into a certain Iron Staple in the Door Post in the Lodging Room or Apartment of her…being in Vine street…did put fix tie and faster and that she with the cord aforesaid…wilfully and of her malice forethought did hang suffocate and strangle…the said Francis Kotzwara [who] then and there died.”

Often cited as a portrait of Kotzwara this is from the cover of an American edition of 'The Battle of Prague' and almost certainly not a likeness

One of the many rumours which surrounds this case is that the official court papers were destroyed to hush up the scandal caused by Kotzwara’s death. I found the Coroner’s papers with little difficulty and as for keeping the matter quiet, it was widely reported, in some detail, in the newspapers. This account of the trial of Susannah Hill appeared under the headline ‘A Singular Occurrence’ in the Hampshire Chronicle of Monday 12 September 1791;

A CASE of a most extraordinary nature was examined into at the public office in Bow-street on Friday night last.— it shews that, whatever may be asserted of the depravity of human passions, yet the most extravagant propensities may be. believed.

Susannah Hill was examined on suspicion of strangling Mr. Kotzwara, No. 35, Berwick-street; Soho. Being interrogated by MrAddington she gave the following account of herself. She was born at Frome, in Somersetshire and that about ten years ago, she came to London to get into service, and lived in various families. About three years ago, a young man, whose name is Fentum, persuaded her to leave her place, and live with him as his wife, which she did, in King-street, Drury-lane, and bore him three children. He then deserted her; and eight months ago, she took lodgings at No. 5 Vlne-street, Chandois-street, and walked the streets- for the purpose of obtaining a livelihood, like many other unfortunate women.

On Friday last, while she was fitting in the parlour-window, both of which apartments she rented, the deceased, whom to her knowledge she never saw before, passed the Window and came in, as the street door was open. He sat down, and asked if she would have anything to drink and she chose to have porter; but, as he said he preferred brandy and water, they had of that two sixpennyworths.

Mrs. Hill had been eating some beef for dinner, and the table was still covered with plates, knives, &c. Mr. Kotzwara was guilty at this time of some indecencies, rather in his own person than that of the prisoner; and, finding he could not accomplish what he desired, he expressed a wish that Mrs. Hill would castrate him; but she declined it. He then pulled open the bottom of his shirt, and shewed her many red scars on is breast and belly; which he said were the marks of cuts which women had made at different times by his desire.

Mr. Kotzwara requested Mrs. Hill to go out and purchase some beef and ham, for which he gave her two shillings; some porter, for which he gave her one shilling and a rope, for which he gave her a fourth shilling; adding; that he would have dinner with her and then she should hang him. Mrs. Hill accordingly purchased those articles but he complained that the rope was too small, and made her buy another. They went into the back parlour together; and, as there was not a more convenient place, he fastened the two cords, formed as one, in the bolt-catch of the door, which is not more than four feet and a half from the ground. He put the rope about his neck, and gave the woman a guinea upon condition that she would pull tightly and let him hang about five minutes, as he said that would satisfy his passion, arid women had often, done it to him. In less than five minutes she cut him down, and, as he appeared motionless, she washed his face with porter; then called for assistance; two surgeons were brought, but all their efforts were fruitless, for Mr. Kotzwara was dead.

Mr. Tapp, the deputy high Constable, and other witnesses, confirmed as much as it was possible for them to know of the woman's evidence, and particularly as to the height of the place on which he was hanged, and as to the scars on his breast, which appeared to have been done a long time ago. A young man said that the fruit woman who sits at Johnson's court, Charing-cross, told him that the deceased had been there, among the number of prostitutes who reside in that celebrated place, and had offered any of them two guineas to cut off his ears, but none of them would oblige him. One of them, however, ran a penknife through his ear, and, by his desire, many of them tied his legs together, and, rolled him in the kennel in the court. Mr. Addington, who entered  into this examination with an earnestness and minuteness that does him honour, was particular in enquiring if any one could, prove that a third person was in the room the time Mr. Kotzwara was hung up; but nothing of that kind appeared in evidence, and the magistrates observed, that, although it was a very lamentable and shocking case, yet, it was not proved that the woman had assistance, it was evident she alone could not hang the man against his will, and consequently she must be innocent. The unfortunate man was a German, and was a musician,' and very eminent in his profession. He came from Ireland about a year since, being engaged by Sir John Gallini for the Haymarket Opera-house, where he played the tenor the whole of the last season. The coroner and jury, after viewing the body, adjourned to a neighbouring public-house, and debated on their verdict till one o'clock in the morning, when they returned with a verdict— Guilty of murder, but not intentionally.

St Luke's, Old Street, with unusual steeple designed by Hawksmoor. 

The details of Kotzwara’s botched attempt at erotic auto-asphyxiation have never been entirely forgotten but they reached a wider public in 1984 when an article entitled The sticky end of Frantisek Koczwara, composer of “The Battle of Prague” by William B. Ober appeared in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Ober had followed up a reference in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians entry on Kotzwara to an anonymous written pamphlet published for the author by J. Dawson of Red Lion Street in 1791, Modern Propensities; or, an Essay on the Art of Strangling &c illustrated with several Anecdotes, with Memoirs of Susannah Hill and a summary of her trial… The 48-page booklet consists of an essay on the aphrodisiac effects of strangulation, the supposed memoirs of Susannah Hill (the tone of which can be judged from the opening line ‘Love has made so many wretches, that young people cannot be too frequently warned of its dangers.’) and an account of her trial which follows, word for word at times, the account given in the newspapers. A frontispiece shows a well-fed and curly haired Kotzwara sitting on the floor of Susannah’s apartment holding a bottle and a rather delicate glass with a satisfied smile on his face. Susannah, showing ample cleavage, busies herself adjusting the cord wrapped around his neck and attached to the door handle. The essay on the art of strangulation credits the discovery of the erotic effects of asphyxiation to the Ordinary of Newgate who was always present at executions to minister to the spiritual needs of the condemned. Seeking to save their souls “he often prevailed upon those under his Spiritual care to appropriate to charitable uses such residues of ill gotten property as remained with them at the approach of dissolution” but “as from the great and instructive experience of his office, he had frequent causes to doubt the veracity of his flock, he never failed to look sharp at their breeches pockets, even to and after the last convulsive struggle of life.” It was whilst examining the breech pockets of hanged men that he discovered that four fifths of them “were scarcely suspended between heaven or earth. or in other words launched into eternity, than they evinced certain emotions and commotions, which agreeing with the lines in our title page proved that all that liveth must die to live again.” Having observed the “invariable effect of strangulation” upon his charges, the ‘half emasculated’ Ordinary felt compelled to try it out for himself and confirmed that throttling inevitably produced “titulation in the generative organs”, the blood, impeded in its regular route, rushing to “animate and invigorate the machinery of procreation”.

Most on-line accounts of the case claim that Kotzwara tried to get Susannah Hill to castrate him by offering her a shilling. In the version of the trial given in Modern Propensities the text says that after drinking brandy and water in her sitting room “they went into a back room, where several acts of the grossest indecency passed, in particular he pressed her to cut off the means of generation and expressly wished for it to be cut in two.” The newspaper version of this scene is slightly more explicit saying that Kotzwara “was guilty at this time of some indecencies, rather in his own person than that of the prisoner; and, finding he could not accomplish what he desired, he expressed a wish that Mrs. Hill would castrate him.” Presumably Kotzwara was masturbating and was unable to either achieve an erection or to reach a climax. If this is correct his suggestion that Susannah castrates him seems more likely to be a joking expression of frustration than a perverse sexual request. In most modern retellings Kotzwara is also having intercourse with Susannah when he dies and she only realises he is dead when they finish copulating!  In the contemporary accounts Kotzwara offers her a guinea to pull the cord tight for him and leave him hanging for five minutes, an offer too good to refuse as there seems to have been no suggestion of her having to have sex with him.  In 1970 music critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote an article on Kotzwara for the New York Times, discussing his remarkable death and concluding;  

The “unfortunate—if not lamented” Koczwara lived on through his “Battle of Prague,” a work that for some 50 years far exceeded the Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes in popularity. But none of the sweet young ladies who strummed the battle piece, with expression, knew anything about the life and death of Franz Koczwara, which, under the circumstances, was just as well.

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