William Kogut and Robert Ripley

(Cross-posted from my Livejournal)

Robert Ripley was one of my favorite reads when I was young. It was sort of like StumbleUpon today, if you select “bizarre/oddities” as a subject. I couldn’t get enough of it. In those days, there was no Snopes, no Google, no Wikipedia – nothing really to check the veracity of Ripley’s discoveries – many of which were true, others… well, let’s say he was an entertainer more than a scientist. But I always remember this:


A CONDEMNED man, locked in a death cell in San Quentin prison, fashioned a deadly bomb from a deck of ordinary play­ing cards and blew himself into eternity. It was the most ingenious gallows-cheating device ever conceived in the brain of a doomed man.

William Kogut, an ignorant lumberjack of Polish descent, was sentenced to death for killing a woman with a pocket knife. Hope gone, he sat silently in his cell, thinking. The shadow of the’ noose dangled before him; he could hear the slow, dull tread of the thirteen footsteps ascending the stairs to the scaffold.Suddenly a light came into his lustreless eyes. Deliberately and methodically, William Kogut set to work. From the prison cot he wrenched a short piece of hollow tubing. I t was just the thing. Digging into his few possessions, he pulled forth a deck of ordinary playing cards. From the cards he tore out all of the red diamonds and hearts, and, reduced them to small bits. Everything was deathly quiet and the night was long. The eight other condemned men in adjacent cells knew nothing of what was taking place.

Kogut then took the small bits of colored cardboard to the wash bowl and soaked them in water. Then he took the soggy mass and tamped it into the piece of metal tubing as if he were loading a blunderbuss. A broom handle was next utilized in the construction of this strange bomb. The handle was pounded tightly into the end of the tube making the interior air-tight.

This diabolically cunning man knew that playing cards were made of cellulose – a fiber from which trinitrocellulose, a powerful ex­plosive, is made.

The bomb was now ready. Cautiously he took down a small combination oil heater and lamp and lighted it. Over the tiny flame he held the explosive mess, while steam and gas generated within the tubing. After a time the pipe grew hot. Everything seemed ready so he leaned over with his head close to his deadly toy.

How long he waited, no one knows.

Just as dawn tinted the grey prison walls, a terrific explosion occurred. It rocked the countryside for miles around, roused prison guards from their nearby homes, and tumbled prisoners from their cots.

Prison alarms were sounded, guards ran madly to their posts, thinking perhaps the blast might be a signal for a general prison break. Rushing to the condemned row, the excited guards stopped, utterly horrified, before the shattered cell of Number 1651.

The walls were dripping crimson.

William Kogut had cheated the hangman!

I got to wondering… true or false? Snopes records it as true, but describes the explosion as simple pressure of steam in a closed-up pipe sufficient to drive bits of playing card into Kogut’s skull, not the earth-shaking bang that splashed Kogut all over the walls and destroyed the cell to boot.

Barb Mikkelson wrote, “Kogut removed a hollow steel leg from his cot, tore several packs of playing cards into tiny pieces, and stuffed these bits into the pipe… He plugged one end tightly with a broom handle, and poured water into the other end to soak the torn cards. Then he placed his device on top of the kerosene heater… the heater turned the water to steam, adn when the pressure built up to a high enough level, the resulting explosion shot the bits of playing card out of the pipe with enough force to penetrate Kogut’s skull.”

Sciencepunk.com quoted an article in Gargles.net giving a bit more science behind the nitrocellulose angle. While I respect Snopes and the research that Ms. Mikkelson and her hubby do, usually in-depth and convincing, in this instance I tend to go with the science. If an open pipe is plugged on one end by a broom handle, and on the other end by soggy playing cards, I suspect any steam building up in an open pipe would pop the sodden mass out with some force, but not enough to penetrate a skull. The other scenario implies that the pipe was closed on one end, and tightly sealed with the broom handle on the other. In this case, chemical reaction or no, it’s conceivable that the explosion could have had enough energy to kill Kogut… but from what I can tell, the blast was more powerful even than that, and the nitrocellulose story is highly likely.

Only Kogut knows what went down, and the story has passed into the realm of barely verifiable lore… but it’s interesting to know that whatever the case, Ripley got this one right.

Verdict: Believe it!

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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