Hearts and Diamonds Bomb

Chapter 54 of Tom Robbins' 1980 novel, Still Life with Woodpecker, describes a fantastic "hearts and diamonds bomb".

Take a deck of ordinary playing cards, the old-fashioned paper kind, cut out the red spots and soak them overnight like beans. Alcohol is the best soaking solution, but tap water will suffice. Plug one end of a short length of pipe. Pack the soggy hears and diamonds into the pipe. One pre-plastic playing cards, the red spots were printed with a diazo dye, a chemical that has an unstable, high-energy bond with nitrogen. So you've got nitro, of sorts, now you'll be needing glycerin. Hand lotion will work nicely. Glug a little lotion inot the pipe. To activate the quasi-nitroglycerin, you'll require potassium permanganate. That you can find in the snake bite section of any good first-aid chest. Add a dash of the potassium permanganate and plug the other end of the pipe. Heat the pipe. A direct flame is best, but simply laying the pipe atop a hot radiator will turn the trick. Take cover!

In the context, most readers dismiss this as whimsy, But the hearts and diamonds bomb and the other bombs Robbins describes are real. Similar bomb recipes appear in William Powell's The Anarchist Cookbook, and underground weapons manual.

What Robbins calls the "jug band bomb" is a working homemade bomb. It is a glass jug containing a few drops of gasoline. The jug is capped and turned around so the gasoline coats the inner surface and evaporates. A few added drops of potasium permanganate solution make the gasoline vapor/air mixture all the more explosive. The bomb is detonated by throwing or forcibly rolling against a wall.

Whether the hearts and diamonds bomb would work is debatable. Robbins makes certain substitutions in the usual recipe: hand lotion rather than pure glycerin, a snakebite nostrum rather than a potassium permanganate solution of known strength.

Assume then that pure glycerin and potassium permanganate are used. You might get a bomb by mixing diazo compounds with glycerin and potassium permanganate. The question is how much diazo dye could be extracted from red card spots.

The staff historian for the U.S. Playing Card Company admitted hearing of the bomb stories but was not aware of any working bomb having been constructed. In any case, the main problem with the recipe is that there is nothing "ordinary" about old-fashioned paper playing cards. Effectively all cards are now plastic coated.