How A Death Row Inmate Constructed A Deadly Bomb From A Common Household Game

When Andy Dufresne tunneled out of Shawshank prison with nothing but a rock hammer and an oversized poster of Rita Hayworth at his disposal, the world watched in awe at his tactful display of acute planning and staggering patience. In 1962, when inmates Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin miraculously escaped from Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, it was later discovered that they used sharpened spoons, papier-maché, and a makeshift raft constructed out of raincoats to achieve their long-awaited freedom beyond the Rock (via History). Of course, both of those examples are from movies, but the latter is a true story. 

Let's take a look at another true story from behind prison walls — one that will probably never make it to the big screen, though it's not because it isn't incredible. The tale of 26-year-old William Kogut is as remarkable as it is tragic, and while the death row inmate did show astonishing expertise in his application of crude materials while incarcerated, it wasn't so he could escape the confines of prison — it was so he could die (per Snopes).

What happened to William Kogut?

According to Snopes, William Kogut was arrested for the murder of one Mayme Guthrie after cutting her throat and leaving her body to be found by the customers of the rooming house she oversaw. The court ultimately tried and convicted him of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to death, and Kogut was shipped off to the infamous San Quentin prison in California to await his day of reckoning before the hangman. However, the young man-turned-killer had no intention of handing his life over so easily, and he surmised that if he was going to die, he would do so on his own terms. 

On October 20, 1930, prison personnel rushed to Kogut's cell after a massive explosion from within sent a wave of harrowing thunder through the surrounding concrete walls and outside courtyard. Upon arriving at the scene, they found the inmate sprawled across the floor of his cell, bleeding profusely from his head. He was rushed to the infirmary, though nothing could be done to save him. According to an issue of the Healdsburg Tribune that came out shortly after his death, Kogut had sustained irrevocable head trauma after fashioning his own explosive device with a few simple materials. 

How did he make a bomb?

Over the years, playing cards have offered prison inmates a leisurely way to pass the time when there's little else to do, but William Kogut saw something far more valuable in them when he started hatching a plan to end his own life. According to the Healdsburg Tribune, his homemade bomb — ignited by a small heater — was "believed fashioned from a volatile mixture of torn playing cards and water placed in a hollow leg of his iron cot."

According to Snopes, the red ink used in playing cards back then was reputed to be especially volatile, so if you were trying to make a bomb out of anything at your immediate disposal, a stack of kings, queens, and jokers wasn't a bad place to start. Kogut reportedly plugged one end of the pipe bomb with a broom handle and placed his head against the open side as it heated up on a kerosene stove. The blast blew a hole directly through his head and took off one of his ears. "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," Kogut wrote in a personalized letter to the warden that was discovered near his body (via Snopes).