By Merle Harton, Jr.

On Wednesday, a week ago, my friend Gavin tried to kill himself. He's a nice guy with a keen intellect and good sense of the creative, and it was his excellent use of these attributes that led him to the clever suicide method he chose. He wanted the deed to be clean and efficient. Everything in its place, like his apartment.

He did his research. The gun was too messy: you couldn't be sure that a shot to the head would yield immediate death, and he wasn't keen on the gun-barrel-in-the-mouth technique, although that's usually a sure thing. He thought about the shotgun, but he imagined the horror at the splatter on the walls of his living room. He considered using the shotgun outside, but he wanted to be sure that his body would be found, and he wasn't comfortable with the thought that his body would end up lying in the sun for several days, the bloating feed bag of scavengers. Similarly, he discounted throwing himself under a train or in front of a fast car or truck.

Poison was out. You had to ingest it (drink it, chew it, swallow it) and that meant contending with the metabolic system and he wasn't much of a chemist, anyway, and that itself ruled out the injection. He wanted this to be a sure thing. Well, there was gas, but his accommodations were all electric, so that didn't make his list either. He didn't favor electrocution, so he moved on to other ideas.

He thought hard about using carbon monoxide and he could use his car and a hose for that, but he decided against it because he wasn't sure that it would be foolproof and he had a fear of waking up in the hospital still alive but brain damaged. He also didn't like the smell of car exhaust.

And then there was the knife and the many ways he could cut himself to get a good arterial bleed. It had to be a good bleed, because we have the clotting factor and the blood flow has to be sufficient to get past that. The wrist slash would hurt too much; he wasn't sure that his aim would be good enough for him to cut his own carotid artery, even with the aid of a mirror, and he couldn't picture himself fumbling with a sharp knife trying to do something as important as killing oneself. Plunging a knife or ice pick into the heart might work, but he really had a problem with the pain part, so that too was scratched off his list.

The bridge suicide was also ruled out. Gavin lived in a village in rural New York. There aren't any really tall bridges in rural upstate New York and he thought he might talk himself out of it if he took a plane to San Francisco. There were the gorges in Ithaca and high bridges in the Hudson Valley, but for this deed he wanted to be sure that it would be a success, that he would actually die and not end up with fractures and brain damage at the bottom of a long drop. There was, of course, the Empire State Building, or any of the other really tall structures in the big cities, but he hated the thought of the mess he would make on the sidewalk below, and he couldn't be sure that he wouldn't land on a person walking below. He wanted this to be a suicide, not manslaughter. Drowning was scratched from his list because he disliked the pain of not breathing. For several reasons, then, Niagara Falls was out.

He thought hanging might work for him-after all, many famous criminals were dispatched using that death method. As it happened, he had an aesthetic objection to that method, effective though it might be.

As he was cutting lettuce for his salad one evening about two months ago, he thought of the ideal method: Guillotine. Actually his first thought was the axe, and as he calculated in his head how he might axe himself to death, he hit upon the guillotine. It was clean and quick and ensured death. It was painless, or at least he thought that it would be painful for no more than a moment or so, and he could do the deed in his apartment, without much residual mess. Perfect. The guillotine is basically an angled knife suspended and dropped onto the neck, severing the head completely. He thought: Wasn't Saint Paul beheaded? Perhaps there is something to this guillotine thing. France made it famous, but it was last used for execution there in 1977. Gavin believed that he could revive it as a suicide machine.

So he set about building the guillotine. Or rather he set about finding a kit for it. The Internet yielded up several. He bought a kit for $295 from a company in New Orleans. It came in a large box, about the size of a seven-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree. Out of the box, it came with a large frame made from a recycled window sash, a super-sharp blade fashioned out of surplus plowshare, a narrow bench without padding, lower lunette (a notched block for the neck), and a basket made in Guatemala (for the head). The rope, to release the blade, was Indian hemp. It took him a week to assemble it, tightening everything with surgical steel bolts. I only got to see the thing last weekend, after it was all over.

But here's what happened. He erected the guillotine and set about testing it. He figured that the closest thing to the thickness and density of the human neck was a pineapple. He bought three of these at the supermarket and tried out the device on the heavy fruit. The first one only cut a quarter of the way through. He tried that again and again, each with the same result. So he figured he needed a heavier blade. The height was almost seven feet, but with the blade installed the distance between knife and his neck was only three and a half feet, since the stand had the victim lying less than two feet from the floor. That was enough to chop lettuce, but it wouldn't be sufficient to cut a pineapple, or a human neck. He couldn't increase the height, giving the blade greater acceleration, so he decided to put weights on the blade's frame. He hammered in two large nails and hung up two 10-pound weights from his workout weight set. That did the trick. With those weights hanging on the blade frame, he successfully cut straight through the other two pineapples. That gave him confidence and he set about deciding on the date for his own execution-his suicide, that is. That would be Wednesday.

Everything was set up. He wore comfortable khakis and a collarless cotton shirt. He came to the event wearing socks with no shoes. In order to make sure that the guillotine wouldn't fail him, he hung up another set of 10-pound weights on the nails. He was showered and his hair was clean and combed. He laid a plastic sheet and bath towels all about the device and beneath the basket; he then stretched himself out on the narrow bench, placing his neck in the notched channel of the lower lunette, directly below the weighted blade.

He stared down into the basket made in Guatemala and pulled the hemp rope. Apparently he yanked too fast and that jarred the blade frame and the extra weights he had put up dropped off the nails and fell straight down on his head, knocking him out.

When Gavin was revived, he couldn't remember why he had set up this device and forgot all about the suicide. He pondered the device for a few days, and then pushed it off to the side and decided it would be good for slicing lettuce, cabbage, and pineapples. He still has a headache, but he can live with that.

Copyright © 2006 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved