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April 2, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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A Sordid History of the Strangle

You are watching a tacky, ‘50s, B-grade adventure film. The camera pans over a cityscape of minarets and building blocks of sand. It cuts to a poorly designed restaurant set; our hero, the intrepid white explorer, realizes he is being cheated at poker. He up-ends the table and draws his guns. Suddenly, a menacing white actor in Arab/Indian/Mexican/Generic-bronze-complexioned-bad guy face paint swoops in behind him. He lifts those filthy hands, those diabolic claws of sand and proceeds to clamp, choke and strangle our hero’s lush white throat. Oh, dear.

In light of the recent death-by-strangulation of Pakistan’s cricket coach Bob Woolmer, a consideration of the history of the art of strangulation would be a worthy cause. And, let’s face it, most students would rather read about brutal murder than another billion dollars worth of student debt. Strangulation is commonly used for four purposes: fun, suicide, murder and justice. The ‘just’ form of strangulation is hanging. Hanging is the process of putting down a convicted criminal by means of suspension on a rope above the ground, usually snapping the neck if done quickly enough. If not, the executed person will choke to death from lack of blood and oxygen. Hangings in New Zealand were initially carried out by fellow convicts, who could receive good behaviour merit points for agreeing to the deed. Prison guards tended to shirk the duty, as executioner guards were the always the most loathed and hounded screws in the joint.Of New Zealand’s eighty-five hanged, a disproportionate number were Maori – partly due to the severity of Pakeha juries against Maori, but also because many tribes initially saw execution as a much more honourable punishment than a stint in jail. The only woman to be lawfully strangled in our country was Minnie Dean – the notorious child-farmer who looked after infants for cash, but had a terrible tendency to stick hat-pins through their heads. Largely due to Christian opposition to the practice, the lawful hanging strangulation of convicted killers was abolished in New Zealand in 1960 (only after many National MPs crossed the floor to support Labour on the matter). The last man to be hanged was William James Bolton in 1957, who had poisoned his wife. Strangely, given that Christian groups were behind abolishing legal strangulation, the only political party to seriously campaign for its reinstatement has been Christian Heritage. Strangling other human beings by means of state-sanctioned hanging is often regarded by audiences as a dehumanising processes.

Furthermore, it can have unintended effects upon viewers – in The Naked Lunch, William Boroughs salivates over the hanging of a sweet young boy using a piece of red silk; when the boy’s neck snaps, he comes all over the execution stage – much to the writer’s junk-veined delight.

Sexy Strangulation and Sex Crimes

The fun form of strangulation is, of course, erotic or auto-erotic asphyxiation – the sudden splurge of orgasm brought about by a lack of oxygen in one’s head. In November 1997, INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence was found dead in his room at the Sydney Ritz-Carlton, while on a promotional tour for his latest album Elegantly Wasted. While he was, indeed, wasted at the time (the result of mixing Prozac with alcohol and the white lady), his death was anything but elegant. A belt found at the scene, coupled with the lack of a suicide note and other anecdotal evidence, suggests he was wringing his own neck while ‘pulling up on the purple-headed gristle thistle’, as it were. And (according to that psychic on the X-Files), auto-erotic asphyxiation is the worst way to go. But far more common than this is the use of strangulation as a form of personal assault. While any self-respecting murderer would distance themselves from their actions by using an impersonal murder weapons such as gun, atomic bomb or frightfully sharp slice of mango – some resort to the passionate, involved and very personal strangulation – either by hand (manual strangulation) or rope-like implement (ligature strangulation). The most notorious case of ligature strangulation is that of the Boston Strangler, who killed 11 women between the summer of 1962 and the beginning of 1964. However, the Boston Strangler is similar to the ancient Greek poet, Homer – not only did investigators never find him, but they are not even certain if he was a single person nor not. The victims were linked as they were all single women strangled in their apartments with articles of clothing (often their panties or stockings). Since not one victim showed signs of having barred entry from the strangler, they are presumed to have known him or wanted him in their rooms. While a number of men have confessed to the crimes, they are all generally regarded as being glory-hugging bullshit artists. The case remains open to this day.

Manual Strangulation and the Fate of Bob Woolmer

Manual strangulation is the application of one’s fingers to the throat of another; the squeezing of another’s throat so tight that it cuts off the head’s supply of both blood and oxygen. This action gradually brings about a tissue hypoxic state – the lack of an adequate supply of oxygen in the blood of one tissue region (in this case, the brain). Manual strangulation is most commonly carried out by men upon women. This is partly because such an act requires a large physical disparity between the choker and the chokee. Hence, male on female strangulation is easier than male on male, female on female, or female on male strangulation (all of which tend to require the aid of a rope or other article). But it is also partly because this is simply the way the world is. Despite being of the male variety of human, Pakistan’s strangled cricket coach, Bob Woolmer, appears to be a victim of manual strangulation. Since Jamaican forensic pathologists have found no marks upon the former English cricketer’s neck, they believe it unlikely that the killer wielded a rope or cord. However, unlike the bulk of male on female strangulations – which take place with the choker and chokee standing face to face – Bob was most likely strangled from behind; face to face strangulations usually result in wee disc-shaped bruises to the neck. And these Bob lacks. A forensic pathologist who has worked in Jamaica told The Guardian that Mr. Woolmer was most likely choked by a man trained in the fine art of strangulation, perhaps using the Carotid Sleeper hold. In the Carotid Sleeper, the choker hooks his forearm around the chokee’s neck from behind, closing off the carotid artery and oxygen flow to the chokee’s head. The hold takes some 20 to 30 seconds but Woolmer – who already suffered from a dicky ticker – most likely underwent a fatal heart attack during this time. Since no accidental bruising occurred, The Guardian’s guest pathologist believes the choker had been well trained. The forensic pathologist also believes that Bob Woolmer was not killed by a Jamaican. “Strangulation is a very personal way of killing someone and in the Jamaican context, it would be unusual because guns are so widespread.”

The pathologist believes the mode of death suggests a close, personal reason for assault. Isn’t that touching?

However, before we write off the possibility of a local killer, it is worth noting the connecting between Rastafarianism (Jamaica’s major religion) and assault to the head. Bob Marley sings of how, “by the rivers of Babylon”, he sat down and wept. These lyrics are lifted from Psalm 137, which concludes (in the King James translation) with the line “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

So, given that Mr. Woolmer was killed on an island where the major religion and most famous dead celebrity both have a link to the promotion of murder by manual attack to the head, a local connection cannot be entirely written off.

This is, of course, idle (and perhaps hostile) speculation. By the time you pick up this article, the guilty party behind the strangulation of Bob Woolmer may already be known. And I will look very stupid. But, for what it’s worth, I believe that Mr. Woolmer was strangled by a bad 1950s B-grade actor in Pakistani face paint. He probably rolled his eyeballs in a demonic manner as he carried out the deed; perhaps he even made Dakka-Dakka noises. For who else would a third world match-fixing syndicate send to do its dirty work?

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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