Suicide at San Quentin

San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest prison. It was opened in 1852 after being built by the same prisoners who were going to populate it. Hundreds of inmates have had their necks broken by hanging or, worse, painfully killed in a Hyrdogen Cyanide gas chamber. Inmates on death row would try to commit suicide but all of them failed, thwarted by the all-knowing surveillance systems in place, except one, William Kogut.

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William Kogut was brought to San Quentin State prison for the murder of Mayme Guthrie, a lady who ran a rooming house/gaming house/brothel. The motivation for the murder is not known but it was speculated that he killed her because of her alleged immoral ways. He mostly kept to himself and guards would notice him occasionally playing solitaire with a deck of cards that was provided to him by the prison. Nothing seemed amiss or strange about an inmate playing cards. After all, what was he going to do? Get a paper cut?

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The guards remained confident that nothing was amiss until October 9th, 1930, when a large explosion was heard in Kogut’s cell. The guards ran over to his cell and found only Kogut’s dead body sprawled on the floor and a note,

“Do not blame my death on anyone, because I fixed everything myself. I never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.”

After further investigation, It turned out that Kogut was never playing solitaire with his pack of cards. He was secretly cutting out the red hearts and diamond shapes and hiding them. He would then take those shapes to his room. Back in the 1930s, the red dye used on the pack of cards was made from nitrocellulose, an explosive chemical made from nitrate and cellulose. Kogut took off a hollow leg from his bed and stuffed all the hearts and diamonds cut outs into the bottom. Next he filled the hollow leg up with water from cell’s sink or toilet. Nitrocellulose reacts with water to create explosive energy. He then clogged up both ends of the make shift pipebomb and left it sitting there by the heating vents to speed up the reaction. After a little while, the bomb, the cell and Kogut all exploded, thus, ending his prison and death sentence.

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Some believe that Kogut acted out of remorse for his murderous act. Others believe that he was merely trying to die on his own terms and was too arrogant to let any one else kill him. Whatever his reasons, he definitely chose a very clever and unique way to get the results that he was looking for.

Maybe he was an ancestor of MacGyver?