Friday, November 30, 2012

Killer Cards

Don’t ask me how exactly I came upon this story. Was up late the other night doing some scribbling and ended up pursuing one of those weird associative sequences of click-throughs that can take a person to unexpected places online.

I believe the sequence began on Wikipedia where I was looking up an actor who’d popped up in a movie I had playing on the teevee in the background as I worked. Eventually I ended up on a kind of unsettling “list of unusual deaths” throughout history. (And yes, now that I think of it, the late great Vic Morrow was sadly a link in that causal chain.)

In any case, one of the deaths described on that page involved a fellow named William Kogut, and after reading that entry I switched over from passive clicking to active searching to learn a little more about his demise.

This Kogut’s unusual death came while serving a death sentence at San Quentin. Kogut had been imprisoned for having murdered a woman who ran a brothel in California. Some of the stories about him note the woman may have been running a gaming hall, too. And some also speculate that the murder had been motivated by some sort of moral outrage on Kogut’s part regarding his victim’s line of work.

The year was 1930. Kogut wiled away his time in prison playing solitaire, something the guards had noticed but to which they hadn’t really bothered to pay much heed. Then came a day in early October when an explosion surprisingly rocked Kogut’s cell, killing the inmate.

A somewhat defiant-sounding suicide note was found in which Kogut mentioned how he’d “never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.” An investigation soon followed, turning up the ingenious method of Kogut’s bomb-making.

It was discovered that Kogut had torn out all of the hearts and diamonds from decks of playing cards. The way the story goes, the red dye used to print the cards contained a flammable compound called nitrocellulose, something once used in a lot of products like film, flash paper, plastics, and so on.

Apparently Kogut had removed the hollow leg from his bed, put the hearts and diamonds inside, added water, closed up the ends, set the sucker near a heating vent, and laid down with his head right beside it. The water then reacted with the nitrocellulose (the process sped up by the heat), thereby creating the explosion that ended his life.

Like I say, this is a story that appears in many versions on the web, including over at the site where we get a confirmation that this urban legend-sounding tale is in fact true. I have no idea what sort of processes are employed to print and coat cards these days, but I’m going to guess that today’s cards no longer involve potentially flammable compounds. From what I’m reading about nitrocellulose, lots of accidents and safety concerns led to its disuse around mid-century. Others with a greater interest in such things may know more about it.

The story reminded me of Tom Robbins’s novel Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) which I read ages ago. That was the one with the cover that looked like a pack of Camels. There’s a character in there -- the Woodpecker of the title -- who is a bomber, and in fact the “hearts and diamonds bomb” is one of the methods described and which I think he uses.

More searching uncovers a similar story being told in an episode of the Spike series 1000 Ways to Die, a show focusing on the subject unusual deaths. There they refer to a different convict, Floyd O’Malley, imprisoned at Joliet in 1938, using a similar method to fashion a bomb using playing cards in an attempted jailbreak. The plan goes awry, however, with O’Malley accidentally killing himself in the process, thereby giving the show’s makers an excuse to title the segment after a grisly pun, “Poker Face.” (Tend to believe the O’Malley story is probably a fiction, actually, based largely on the Kogut one which likely happened.)

The stories are ghastly enough, but there’s something extra horrorshow about the idea of ripping the hearts and diamonds out of cards like that, isn’t there? Little holes like sad eyes peering out of the deck, the pile of hearts and diamonds resembling drops of blood...

And the poor, useless deck... already murdered!

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