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The instrument of death

As unlikely as this must sound, playing cards have been used at least once as an instrument of death.

William Kogut had been sentenced to death for the murder of Mayme Guthrie, but had no intention of allowing the state to decide the time and circumstances of his death. On October 20, 1930, prison guards of the San Quentin State Prison found Kogut’s body in his cell, a note found near the body read: “Do not blame my death on any one because I fixed everything myself. I never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.

He decided to commit suicide using only the rudimentary tools available to him in his prison cell. First of all, Kogut procured several packs of playing cards – a fairly innocuous possession, even in a prison. He began by tearing up several packs of playing cards, giving particular focus to obtaining pieces with red ink (at the time, the ink in red playing cards contained nitrocellulose, which is flammable and when wet can create an explosive mixture), and stuffed them into a pipe. He probably scraped the red ink off more than 20 decks of cards to get enough nitrocellulose. He then plugged one end of the pipe firmly with a broom handle and poured water into the other end to soak the card pieces. He then placed the pipe on a kerosene heater next to his bed and placed the open end firmly against his head. The heater turned the water into steam and eventually enough pressure built up inside the pipe to make it explode, killing him. Alternavively, he might have ignited the pipe bomb by striking the metal leg cap, as the glycerin would ignite if shaken enough. Someone reported that he languished for 2-3 days in the infirmary before dying.

Many web pages report that the resulting explosion shot the bits of playing cards out of the pipe with enough force to penetrate Kogut’s skull.


In the 1930s, a substance called nitrocellulose was cropping up in all sorts of places, and still does now. Nitrocellulose is unstable, and decomposes easily, releasing nitric acid. This nitric acid further decomposes nitrocellulose, leading to a self-catalysing reaction. Nitrocellulose is also quite flammable, and when wet forms an explosive mixture. As Kogut lay his head down to rest, the warmth from the heater accelerated the reactions taking place within his improvised pipe bomb. Soon the concoction reached a critical state and exploded, killing Kogut instantly.

Nitrocellulose, when mixed with cardboard, forms nitramidine, a low-order explosive. Nitramidine is notoriously unstable, so it seems plausible that a small pipe bomb could be improvised using it.


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