A dark sign, one ominous card to trump them all. The Ace of Spades is widely known to mean death. But why did this meaning leap from the tables of fortune tellers into common culture? It didn’t. We instilled death into the Ace, and did some dark things with it.

 

Honestly can’t remember if it was “Home Improvement” or “I Love Lucy” that introduced me to the concept. My family watched both quite a lot during my 90s childhood. Both had the same broad plot. Protagonist pulls Ace of Spades, their life is danger for the rest of the episode. Hilarity ensues.

 

Tim:

Ha! Ace of spades. Read it and weep. [Randy shakes his head] What?

 

Randy:

It’s the death card, Dad. [Randy smiles at Brad]

 

Tim:

Yeah, right. Let me deal those. Cut them like a man. [Grunts] Ohh! [Tim shuffles the cards] Ohh! Ohh!

 

Randy:

O.K. [Tim starts snapping his fingers]

 

Tim:

We’ll see it now. Cars, cash, big home, boats. [Randy counts off 4 cards]

 

Randy:

Death. [Randy shows Tim the ace of spades again]

 

Brad:

Double death.

Though this doesn’t explain why. There are many theories, and perhaps all play a part in it’s folklore.

 

Gaming Rules

In many games, the Ace of Spades ranks higher than all other cards. Nothing can beat it, like death itself.

 

Dead Man’s Hand

Two pair, black eights and aces. This was the hand held by Wild Bill Hickok when shot dead. However, by the time this happened in 1876 the Ace of Spades was already widely known as an omen of death.

 

The Seasons

Some say the deck of 52-cards represents our year, 52 weeks and 4 seasons. Winter would be the darkest, coldest time, represented by the suit of spades. Putting the Ace at the end, finalizes the year, period, end, done.

 

Bury

Diamonds, money. Heart, love. Spades, dig. One very large spade big enough for a grave.

 

Nothing can beat it, like death itself.

However there is one definitive period in time that tied the Ace of Spades to Death by law. In fact, it was the King’s decree.

In the 17th century, playing cards were seen as a sin. Previously outlawed all together, then allowed just for the 12-days of Christmas, King Charles I struck a deal to make them legal. He taxed them. Cards were placed under a sin tax, like alcohol and tobacco.

For import into America, cards would receive a stamp, on the ace after taxes and duties were paid. However, after attempts were made to bypass this protocol, they held that Ace all together.

In 1765 hand stamping was replaced by the printing of official ace of spades by the Stamp Office, incorporating the royal coat of arms. (Wikipedia)

This is why the Ace of Spades is different than all other cards. Opposed to a round rubber stamp, the entire card was printed separately. Today, we simply keep the tradition alive.

51-card decks were imported. Once duties were paid, the Aces were released. This deterred those from simply not paying, they would have unusable packs.

Forgery was a capital offense.

In 1805 one Mr. Richard Harding was caught with a set of counterfeit Aces. According to law he was hanged until dead.

This is most likely the origin, if you will. Why the Ace was given so much power and status. The Crown instilled death into the pack of cards, literally.

While the King first imposed the death law onto the Ace, it was American troops that dabbled with it in the form of black magic.

Troops in Vietnam assumed the Vietcong feared the Ace of Spades, due to their French influence and the French ties to cards and card reading. Aces were brought in bulk. Troops carried them to scare the enemy away, even going as far to place on their kills. Warning others.

Seen as form of psychological warfare, it was also pure black magic. Troops, with malicious intent, used a sigil to elicit a fear to cause an outcome. Whether you believe in such things is irrelevant. The act itself is basic, traditional folk-magic in practice.

death card5
While frankly, the design of the vietnamese Death Card is pretty bad ass, the design changed and evolved throughout today. In the wars of the Middle East, both aces and full decks of cards are made both with death and the enemies face. Used mostly now to encourage and entertain soldiers, many of them are flat out ugly. Not showing, moving on.

In a game it may give you sense of victory, one solid hand you’ll know you win, just a matter of when. To others is may spark of a bit of fear, and to some, no reaction at all. Safe to say we all know the Ace as a sigil, a symbol of something we can’t escape.