Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

Death by Exploding Playing Cards – Podcast #34

My wife complained to me after my last podcast that I have been talking way too much about dead, rich women. Not sure why that is. I guess one story just leads to another in my mind. So, for this podcast, I am moving away from dead rich people to people who are just plain dead. And this is one that I assure you is truly bizarre.

Today’s story begins back on the evening of May 29, 1930. That was a Thursday, not that it has any significance to what I am about to tell you. What is important is that a woman named Mrs. Mayme Guthrie was slashed to death with a pocketknife in the kitchen of a San Mateo, California rooming house that she operated after a great struggle. Her husband Archie discovered the body but was never considered a suspect in the case.

Almost immediately one of her tenants, a Polish logger named William Kogut, was arrested for the murder. I was never able to figure out his actual age. When he was arrested, the press reported that he was forty years old. At his trial, the articles all said that he was either 35 or 36. Yet, when he died, almost all the newspapers claimed that he was 22. While he may have found the fountain of youth, it seems unlikely in this case. [Update: The California Death Index, 1905-1939, lists his age at the time of his death at 36 years.]

Kogut was totally smashed at the time of his arrest. He said that he was guilty and held the belief that he should be hanged for his crime. He was quoted by the District Attorney at the time, a guy named J.A. McGregor, as stating “It’s a life for a life and I think you fellows ought to hang me.”

At his trial, Kogut testified that he had absolutely no recollection of any of the events that occurred between the time Mrs. Guthrie first served him the alcohol and when he was ultimately taken into custody. He also claimed to have no recollection of having confessed to the slayings and pleaded not guilty.

Colorized image of William Kogut.
Colorized image of William Kogut. Original black-and-white image can be found on Find-A-Grave.

With his guilt nearly certain, the trial lasted just three days. Kogut’s lawyer argued for nearly an hour to give him a reduced sentence of life imprisonment instead of death. It took the jury of nine men and three women twenty-three hours to deliberate his case and became deadlocked on the life sentence vs. death recommendation. On Monday morning June 17, 1930, Kogut was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but a stay of execution was granted pending an appeal to the California State Supreme Court. He was transferred to death row, becoming prisoner number 1651 at San Quentin.

But Kogut had no intention of letting the state of California decide his fate. Facing an almost certain death from the hangman’s noose, Kogut decided that he wanted to go out on his own terms. And he did so in one of the most ingenious gallows-beating schemes ever, that is if you want to call suicide a gallows-beating success.

On the evening of October 19, 1930, a large explosion rocked Kogut’s prison cell and much of the surrounding area. Newspaper reports of the time claimed that it shook the warden’s home some 1000 yards away. Panic quickly ensued, alarms went off, and eight other men on death row were hurried from their bunks to safety.

The only injury was to Kogut himself and it was bad. Very bad. The explosion had destroyed his cell and the shrapnel ripped through the right side of his face and skull. It was clear that he would not survive very long. He was rushed to the prison hospital and remained unconscious for several hours until his death at 2:30 AM on October 20th.

So how did he do it? The prison had been extremely careful by not allowing any material into the prison that could conceivably be used to commit suicide. But sometimes one needs to think outside the box. In this case, it was into a box – into a box of playing cards.

But before I get to what Kogut did, I need to take a slight detour from our story to tell you about Nitrocellulose – the same stuff that is used to make guncotton. It was also an ingredient, when combined with camphor, in one of the first commercially successful plastics called celluloid, which was showing up in a wide range of products in the 1930s. If you stop and think about it, it is pretty scary to think that the same stuff that was used as a propellant for firearms and rockets could also be made in motion picture film, wound dressing, nail polish, and even faux billiard balls. The explosive nature of the nitrocellulose is the reason that early movies tended to burst into flames when placed for too long of a period near the hot projection lamp and also why early imitation billiard balls were known to explode upon impact. Today Nitrocellulose has been replaced by more stable plastics but is still used to make things like Ping Pong balls and guitar picks.

But, most importantly to this story, nitrocellulose was used at the time as a lacquer in playing cards, and its explosive nature was something that safecrackers were well aware of at the time. Somehow Kogut learned of this and decided to use the explosive nature of Nitrocellulose to his advantage.

It is believed that Kogut ripped up his playing cards into tiny pieces and then soaked them in water, ultimately squeezing the mixture into a pulp.

He then somehow managed to remove one of the hollow legs from his bed and sealed one end. Using a broomstick, he rammed the pulp tightly into the pipe, just like he was loading the muzzle of a musket. The other end was then tightly sealed off.

Kogut’s final step was to relight the lamp in his cell and place the pipe bomb into the flame. With his head lying close by, the pipe got hotter and hotter until the nitrocellulose exploded, and the damage was done.

Two suicide notes were left. The contents of one were never released to the public, but the other said “Do not blame my death on any one because I fixed everything myself. I never give up so long as I am living and have a chance but this is the end.” Clearly, Kogut knew that he didn’t have a chance.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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Raacho
Raacho
8 months ago

Just read about this man in the book “The Accidental Scientist” by Graeme Donald.

Codi Preston D.
Codi Preston D.
3 months ago

The story is actually even more complicated than that. 20 or 25 something years ago, I was reading “88 Men and 2 Women”, which was a book written by a famous San Quentin State Prison warden named Clinton T. Duffy. The title refers to the 88 Men and 2 Women he had to execute in the gas chamber when he was warden from 1940 to 1951. He was an associate warden for a time in the 1920s and 1930s. Before 1938, all executions were by hanging. Among executions he had to witness was the 1930 execution of child killer Gordon Stewart Northcote, whose execution reenactment was shown in the movie “The Changeling” in 2009. The actor who plays him does a great job of reenacting how Northcott screamed, cried, and begged for his life while being dragged up the 13 steps to the hanging platform. Duffy was against the death penalty, and I am too. I’m also a Republican. But I’m against the death penalty for multiple reasons. I know a 85 year old who was a Florida State Prison warden who had to electrocute 3 inmates in the electric chair. This almost destroyed him and he felt really guilty about it. He now testifies against the death penalty in murder trials as a defense witness.

At any rate, I went on a tangent. So, it’s Storytime. What I wanted to say was that the Kogut suicide was even more complicated and eerie. In Duffy’s book, he talks a little about William Kogut’s life. Both him and his father were Polish lumberjacks from Butte County, near Oroville. One day when Kogut lost a huge amount of money gambling, playing cards, his dad (who was a thrifty and frugal man) said “If you don’t stop gambling with playing cards and losing money, the ace of spades will kill you some day”. One day he killed Mrs. Guthrie, as you mentioned. Duffy mentions everything you mentioned. But there is one last thing that you didn’t mention (that was mentioned in the book).

That is, after William Kogut had committed suicide, after he died, his body was autopsied. The coroner / medical examiner took out his brain, and…. guess what? The ace of spades from the cards he put into the pipe bomb was found embedded deep into his brain. Kogut’s father’s prediction ended up becoming true. The ace of spades did indeed kill Kogut. Ironic and sad twist of fate.

But don’t take my word for it, read the book to see for yourself. After all, I’m just a 47 year old who looks like he is 22, and has Classic Autism and ADHD. And I’m emotionally and socially like a 4 1/2 year old preschooler. Actually there are nonautistic actual 4 year olds who have better social skills than me and can decipher nonverbal facial cues better than me. I have a college degree in Geography though, and I took a Criminal Justice class on the death penalty and capital crimes. I did my 15 page long term paper on Caryl Chessman, who was supposedly the Red Light Bandit from 1948 who was executed in 1960 after a then unheard of 8 stays of execution. I talked about why he shouldn’t have been executed. I got an A on the paper (and in the class), in Spring 2000 at Stanislaus State University (aka CSU Stanislaus) in Turlock, California.

Take care

Codi Preston D. from the San Francisco Bay Area / San Jose region

Codi Preston D.
Codi Preston D.
Reply to  Steve Silverman
2 months ago

Hi Steve!! I didn’t even realize you had responded to me till now. You’re welcome as far as to your thanks to me contributing my memory as to what I read. And, yes, you did find it! Good job looking that up! It was ironic in a sad way, that Kogut’s dad’s prediction came true – that the ace of spades killed him.

I was also mentioning about Gordon Stewart Northcott. In the movie The Changeling, which was directed by Clint “Make My Day” Eastwood, the actor that plays Northcott, Jason Butler Harner, looks very eerily similar to what Northcott actually looked like in real life. I knew a true crime author named James Jeffrey Paul who wrote a biographical book on Northcott called “Nothing Is Strange With You”. Sadly, my friend James (he was a friend of mine on Facebook and I also talked to him by phone) passed away of a heart attack a few years ago. He was only 51 (or maybe he was 52?). Much too young. Also Northcott’s execution was mentioned in great detail in “88 Men and 2 Women”, the book by Duffy. Even if you thought Northcott deserved to die, watching Northcott get hanged was traumatic to Duffy and he became a staunch death penalty opponent. You can’t undo seeing an execution. I always wondered about witnesses to seeing a guillotining in France, which was legal until 1981 (the last execution was in 1977). I don’t know what’s worse – having your head chopped off, or being a witness to an execution like that and seeing someone’s head roll into a basket under the guillotine and carrying that barbaric memory of the beheading the rest of your life till you pass away. You can’t undo seeing something like that. Most people have enough unpleasant memories in their lifetime, and don’t need to watch an execution to add more unpleasant memories.

I was an assistant co-host at Preschooler Storytime for 3 to 5 year olds for 16 consecutive years at one of my local libraries, with my now retired 66 year old children’s librarian friend, until 2020, when COVID 19 shut down the library. I occasionally read the kids books, but more often I led the children singing and dancing to different children’s songs and oldies songs from the 1950s to 1980s. We even had sock hops at the library auditorium during holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween). I provided music during these events. I positively impacted the lives of thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of preschoolers. Both me and my librarian friend also had a incredible knowledge of oldies music.

Thanks for writing. Take care.

– Codi Preston D.

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