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Playing Cards With Death

Ever hear the one about the prisoner who commited suicide with a deck of playing cards? I know, it sounded like an urban legend to me too, but this one actually happened. Try this story out during your next Halloween party -- it works especially well if you have a deck of cards to shuffle while telling it.

Many people don't realize that playing cards can be lethal. They certainly seem harmless enough, don't they? The guards on death row at San Quentin State Prison must have thought so, because they allowed the prisoners to have decks of playing cards in their cells. What they hadn't counted on was the creativity of one desperate man.

That man, William Kogut, had been convicted of the throat-slashing murder of Mayme Guthrie, a woman who ran a boarding house in Oroville, California. It's possible that Ms. Guthrie's establishment also doubled as a gaming hall and brothel. If so, it may explain why Mr. Kogut was there, and offer some possible motives for his attack on Ms. Guthrie.

Whatever the reason, William Kogut found himself awaiting execution for murder in October of 1930. Not content to let the state carry out his sentence, Mr. Kogut decided to take matters into his own hands. He devised a plan to commit suicide, in his cell, using a hollow bedpost, several decks of cards and a length of broomstick.

A bit of history here around this time, playing-card manufacturers used a rather volatile ink to mark the red cards (the hearts and diamonds). While it's not certain what compound went into that ink, nitrocellulose is certainly one possibility. Nitrocellulose is found in many common products including inks, plastics, smokeless gun powder and flash paper.

Mr. Kogut removed one of the hollow bedposts from his cot. He then tore up the decks of playing cards and stuffed them into the post. Plugging one end of the post with the broomstick, he filled the other end with water, which would have made the card pieces expand and, possibly, released the nitrocellulose from the red ink. He then wrote a brief note to the warden.

"Do not blame my death on anyone," he wrote, "because I fixed everything myself. I never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end."

With that, he placed the crude pipe bomb he had made on the heater next to his bed. He then lay down with his head against the open end of the pipe, and waited for the end to come. Whether from the pressure of steam building up inside the pipe, ingnition of the nitrocellulose in the red ink, or some combination thereof, the bomb eventually exploded with enough force to send bits of playing card through Mr. Kogut's skull, killing him.

As you may have guessed, playing card manufacturers no longer use such volatile compounds in their inks. While I'm not positive, I would imagine that the prisoners at San Quentin still have access to playing cards. William Kogut, as far as I can determine, is the only person ever to have commited suicide in this grisly, yet highly inventive fashion. 


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