“An incredible skill in the art of strangulation”: the Phantom of the Opera’s “Punjab lasso”

The so-called “Punjab lasso” is the signature weapon of Erik, the charismatic, homicidal genius anti-villain of Gaston Leroux’s classic serial novel, The Phantom of the Opera (1909-1910).

Just as Leroux’s original story has frequently been re-interpreted for various media, so too has the Phantom’s weapon of choice, most frequently as a combination of lariat and hangman’s noose:

In the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the Punjab lasso seems to have been conflated with the famous Indian rope trick, as the weapon itself is apparently possessed of a magical force that allows it to rise into the air, strangling its victims.

What, though, did Gaston Leroux actually have in mind when he wrote of the Punjab lasso?

It may be that Leroux was inspired by les Etrangleurs, the “Stranglers”, whose evil deeds had earlier been described by the novelist Eugène Sue in his 1844/1845 serial The Wandering Jew. Sue himself had drawn inspiration from English reports of the Thuggee and Phansigari cultists of India, whose modus operandi included strangling their victims with a long silk scarf or sash known as a rumāl. Perhaps the most famous of these reports was Philip Meadows Taylor’s semi-factual Confessions of a Thug, first published just four years before Sue’s novel.

One method of operating the rumāl was to knot a heavy coin in one end of the scarf/sash, allowing it to be swung around the victim’s neck. As dramatically described by Sue:

(The Strangler) then took a long and thin cord which was encircled round his waist, at one of the extremities of which was a ball of lead, in shape and size like an egg. After having tied the other end of this string round his right wrist, the Strangler again listened, and then disappeared, groping his way along the tall grass in the direction of the Indian, who came on slowly, singing his plaintive and gentle ditty.

He was a young man, hardly twenty years of age, the slave of Djalma, and had the dark skin of his country. His waist was encircled with a gay handkerchief, which confined his blue cotton vest, and he wore a small turban, with rings of silver in his ears and round his wrists. He was bringing a message to his master, who, during the heat of the day, was reposing in this ajoupa, which was at some distance from the house in which he resided.

When he reached a point where the path divided, the slave, without hesitating, took that which led to the hut, from which he was then hardly forty paces distant.

One of those enormous butterflies of Java, whose wings, when extended, measure from six to eight inches across, and displaying two rays of gold, arising from a body of ultramarine, was flitting from leaf to leaf, and had just settled on a bush of gardenias within reach of the young Indian.

He ceased his song, stopped, put out his foot carefully, then his hand, and seized the butterfly.

At this instant, the sinister visage of the Strangler arose before him; he heard a whistling like that of a sling, and then felt a cord, thrown with equal swiftness and power, encircle his neck with a triple fold, and, at the same moment, the lead with which it was loaded struck him violently on the back of his head.

The assault was so sudden and unexpected, that Djalma’s attendant could not utter one cry — one groan.

He staggered — the Strangler gave a violent twist to his cord — the dark visage of the slave became a black purple, and he fell on his knees, tossing his arms wildly in the air.

The Strangler turned him over, and twisted his cord so violently that the blood rushed through the skin. The victim made a few convulsive struggles, and all was over.

Sue’s work served to popularise the mystique of the Thuggee assassin amongst French readers and may even have inspired some real-life copycat criminals. The infamous mugging technique known as the coup du Pere Francois (“Uncle Frank’s trick”) had been described in Parisian newspapers as early as 1898, and by the time Leroux’s novel was published, the notion of strangulation as a practiced skill had thoroughly pervaded French popular culture via the sensational exploits of the Apache street gangsters.

In describing the Phantom’s use of the Punjab lasso, Leroux wrote:

(Erik) had lived in India and acquired an incredible skill in the art of strangulation. He would make them lock him into a courtyard to which they brought a warrior — usually, a man condemned to death — armed with a long pike and broadsword. Erik had only his lasso; and it was always just when the warrior thought that he was going to fell Erik with a tremendous blow that we heard the lasso whistle through the air. With a turn of the wrist, Erik tightened the noose round his adversary’s neck and, in this fashion, dragged him before the little sultana and her women, who sat looking from a window and applauding.

Whereas the name of Erik’s weapon was translated into English as “lasso”, conjuring the image of a noose at the end of a rope, the only time Leroux himself uses the term “lasso” is in describing an implement hanging from an iron gibbet in the Phantom’s torture chamber. In the story, this mince lasso (“thin lasso”) is left by the Phantom himself so that his victims may choose to end their own lives through a kind of auto-asphyxiation.

When writing about the Phantom’s actual weapon of assassination, however, Leroux’s original French reads fil du Pendjab, which means “Punjab wire” or (probably more accurately, in this context) “Punjab cord”. Leroux also uses the term lacet du Pendjab, connoting a thin loop of cord. Therefore, and especially given that the Phantom is evidently able to use the weapon at some distance from his opponent/victim, whirling it through the air so that it creates a whistling sound before looping around his victim’s neck, it seems not improbable that Leroux was visualising the type of weighted strangling cord vividly described by Eugène Sue.

Leroux continued:

The little sultana herself learned to wield the Punjab lasso and killed several of her women and even of the friends who visited her. But I prefer to drop this terrible subject of the rosy hours of Mazenderan. I have mentioned it only to explain why, on arriving with the Vicomte de Chagny in the cellars of the Opera, I was bound to protect my companion against the ever-threatening danger of death by strangling. My pistols could serve no purpose, for Erik was not likely to show himself; but Erik could always strangle us. I had no time to explain all this to the viscount; besides, there was nothing to be gained by complicating the position. I simply told M. de Chagny to keep his hand at the level of his eyes, with the arm bent, as though waiting for the command to fire. With his victim in this attitude, it is impossible even for the most expert strangler to throw the lasso with advantage. It catches you not only round the neck, but also round the arm or hand. This enables you easily to unloose the lasso, which then becomes harmless.

This curious, though not impractical trick of self-defence might well have been Leroux’s own invention, but it is notably reminiscent of the advice offered by early 20th century French self-defence instructors, including Jean Joseph Renaud and Emile Andre, with regards to fending off Apache ruffians …

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