Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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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 that are just plain dead. And this is one that I assure you is really 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.

William Kogut
William Kogut. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the September 6, 1930 publication of the Oroville Mercury Register.

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.

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


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