A deck of cards is a strange and wondrous thing; literally an item of infinite possibilities. There are more ways to shuffle a deck of cards than there are atoms on Earth! It is unlikely that any person will ever see the same shuffled pattern in their lifetime, even though the cards themselves don’t change. Each card and the deck itself is full of interesting tidbits, stories, and facts; and one of the most intriguing is that of the Suicide King.
Playing cards arrived in Europe from China in the late 14th century. The decks then were uneven in number and design until about 1567when a Frenchman called Pierre Marechal began to standardize the look and number of the cards. Marechal’s designs are widely regarded as the predecessor to our modern Anglo-Saxon decks. But as it happens with designs that are copied or remade, elements change and move, and in no design is this more prominent than in the design of the King of Hearts.
The King of Hearts, like all face cards, is purported to be modeled on great rulers; and in Hearts’ case, that ruler is said to be Charlemange, aka Charles the Great, first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Modern historians now dispute the origin of this information in a “which came first the card image or the association” way; claiming that the image has been so obscured by time and copying it is now impossible to tell.
The earliest depictions of His Majesty contain the majority of recognizable elements we know today: belt, crown, patterned cloak held in a visible hand. From the late 15th century to the modern age there are three major features that morph into the figure of today’s card: his moustache, the weapon, and its placement. In those first images, His Majesty is shown with a full beard and moustache holding aloft a battle axe. This image persisted over several iterations of the deck until approximately the 16th century Spanish version in which the moustache begins to disappear, but the battle axe remained. Over more centuries, as the versions begin to merge and standardize, the beard grows smaller and the moustache disappears entirely, and while the weapon changes hands and shape in some versions, it remained a battle axe. Around 1800 the battle axe became a sword, and the placement changed from over his head to disappearing behind his head.
It would be super satisfying if these changes were accompanied by a magnificent story, right? Creepypasta Wiki (referenced below) gave one: a full account of Charlemanges’ mental illness, his final heartbreaking days, and ultimate suicide by sword... It is a fantastic story! It is also absolute fiction. Easily debunked, but a fun read.
So, what is the truth behind these changes? Simple printing error. Kinda anticlimactic, huh? But it is the only offered explanation anywhere, and we are left to presume that the nickname evolved over time and took its place in our lexicon. Today, the Suicide King is one of the most frequently called ‘wild cards’ in poker, is a popular title in other media for the image it projects.
Every time a deck of cards is shuffled a different pattern emerges, but the Suicide King will always be a part of that pattern. Give him a little extra care the next time you hold him, he got where he is by accident.