Saturday, 2 August 2014

Death by charcoal

‘I take back my word,’ cried Julien, springing to his feet; ‘I shall not appeal from the sentence of death, if by poison, knife, pistol, charcoal or any other means whatsoever, you seek to put an end to, or to endanger your life.’
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

I was momentarily taken aback by Stendhal's reference to charcoal as a tool of the would-be suicide. Only momentarily though - I soon had to ditch some delightfully daft images of sketching oneself to death.

Of course it's the carbon monoxide generated by burning the stuff in an enclosed space. What I didn't realise was that Stendhal's readers must have been familiar with charcoal as a painless way to go. Wikipedia suggests the charcoal exit has been popular in the Far East for some time.

In November 1998, a middle-aged woman in Hong Kong committed suicide using this method inside her small, sealed bedroom. As this method is not listed in Tsurumi's Complete Manual of Suicide from 1993, she may have invented it herself; she had a chemical engineering background.

In order to prevent charcoal burning, the Hong Kong Government replaced the traditional countryside charcoal barbecue with an electric grill. Some non-government organizationsworked with charcoal retailers to promote the message of "treasure your life" by putting "seek help" labels on the charcoal bags.

Obviously the subject has lots of scope for tasteless suggestions, especially now the issue of assisted dying has been raised again. 


Demetrius said...

Has there been cases of caravaners barbecuing inside in bad weather with closed windows being overcome with the fumes?

Macheath said...

The French emphasis on classical education probably meant that Stendahl's readers were familiar with the method from Roman history - Q Lucius Catulus, for one, and possibly Porcia Catonis (Shakespeare's Plutarch-derived graphic description of the latter 'swallowing hot coals' has served to distract anglophone readers for centuries).

Macheath said...

oops - Lutatius

Sackerson said...

D - I think I read of such a case last year or so.

James Higham said...

And if all switched to lekky, what would happen to the environment?

Scrobs... said...

Your vision of someone sketching themselves to death caused huge mirth here!

I thought you were going to write a paper on the ill-benefits of excessive barbecuing...

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - a few I believe, although caravans tend to be well ventilated.

Mac - I read somewhere that the Romans attributed the charcoal effect to fumes from freshly plastered walls. Not sure where though.

Sackers - apparently it's an easy way to go, although I would have though smoke would make it pretty unpleasant.

James - we'll only be able to electrocute ourselves on windy days.

Scrobs - government sponsored indoor barbecues?

Macheath said...

Re Romans, I think you are right, though I can't remember where either, though the effects were known by the middle ages.

The recently-documented effects of carbon monoxide - and retrospective forensic analysis - would almost certainly have been a talking-point during Stendhal's schooldays in the science-mad late 18th century.

Thinking about it, sketching oneself to death isn't really so far from the extreme aspirations of the Romantics - I'm sure Werther would have tried it if no pistol was available.