The Karikari: Mr Moon’s Suicide Machine

 moon's guillotine

In a previous post on auto-decapitation, I promised a fuller account of Mr. James A. Moon, who captured the imagination of the country with his ingenious suicide machine. This article was one of the first to give the particulars. As before, I warn:  Don’t try this at home. Or in a hotel.



From the Lafayette Journal, June 12.

On Saturday morning a gentleman named James A. Moon, who resides on a farm near the Farmers’ Institute, in Union Township, nine miles south of the city, registered at the Lahr House, and was assigned to Room No. 41, on the third floor. In asking for a room he said he wanted one in the rear of the house, abutting on the alley if possible. No especial attention was paid to the new guest at the house, except that the porters complained that his baggage was very heavy, and they had some difficulty in getting it to his room. The man went in and out the same as other guests, but on one occasion he remarked to Mr. Weakley, one of the landlords, that he was engaged in perfecting a patent of considerable importance. Several times yesterday the housekeeper tried the door of No. 41 for the purpose of having it cleaned up, but each time found it locked. About 5 o’clock in the evening, finding the door still locked, she went through the adjoining room, No. 40, which opens into No. 41, and there saw what she supposed was the dead body of man lying upon the floor. She gave the alarm and the first person to arrive upon the scene were Mr. Lance, a traveling man for a Cincinnati drug house, and Henry C. Tinney, of our city, who was visiting him. These gentlemen went to the room and found a man with his head completely severed from his body. The appliances which had been used to produce death were most wonderful and will stand in the history of suicides without a parallel. We shall attempt to describe them.

In the first place there was a beam, or more properly a lever, about seven feet long, made up of three sections, each a little over two feet long, fastened together with strong iron bolts. The base of this lever was composed of two pieces of lumber one inch thick and six wide, spread perhaps six inches apart. The next section was composed of two pieces of the same size, but considerably closer together. The last section was a single piece of the same size. At the small or upper end of the lever (or beam) there were bolted horizontally two pieces of iron, one inch thick, three inches wide, and sixteen inches long. At the lower end of these pieces of iron a broad-axe was bolted, whose bit or cutting edge was twelve inches wide. The two pieces of iron and the axe are estimated to weigh at least forty pounds. The other or butt-end of the beam was fastened to the floor by means of cross pieces; with heavy iron door hinges, securely screwed down. On the west side of the room a heavy bracket was secured to the wall, with a shelf upon which a candlestick was fastened. From the upper end of the beam a cord was run to a hook in the bracket, the beam being raised about six feet high and secured in that position by the cord to the hook in the wall. Where the cord was fastened at the wall on the bracket it was divided and a candle inserted between the strands, so that when the candle burned down sufficiently the two strands would come together and the cord would be burned in two. This was means adopted to insure the falling of the engine of destruction. Right under where the axe would fall a soap box was secured, screwed to the wall and floor, with the opening outward into the room, so arranged that the axe could come down in front of the box, the upper edges being bevelled to secure a straight stroke the implement. The axe, the irons in which it was clamped, and the timbers in the beam will probably altogether weigh a hundred or more pounds, to say nothing of the force of the fall, a distance of six feet or more.

After arranging the machine, the suicide laid himself down upon the floor at right angles with the modern guillotine, buckled a strap around his thighs, which was screwed down to the floor, buckled another around his body, which was similarly fastened to the floor, put both his hands inside his suspenders—lying, of course, upon his back—and placed his head inside the box above mentioned. The box was filled with cotton batting saturated with chloroform. To keep the chin out of the way, holes were made in each side of the box and a wooden rod ran through, upon which the chin rested. It is supposed that, having his machinery arranged to his satisfaction and the candle lighted, the suicide laid himself upon the floor, arranged the straps, applied the chloroform to the cotton, placed his head in the box, and calmly slept until the axe descended. To accommodate his neck, three narrow strips were screwed to the floor, which operated the same as a pillow, and gave a good foundation for the axe to fall into. When the candle burned down sufficiently the cord was burned off and the axe fell, completely severing the head from the body. The head remained in the box, while the blood flowed out upon the floor and accumulated in a great pool. The room is narrow, and half the man’s body lay under the bed. The physicians say that death must have ensued some time during the afternoon as no sign of decay were visible which generally happens very quickly this hot weather. The bed in the room had not been disturbed, and it is probable that he spent the night in perfecting his machinery of death. Not a nail was used, everything being put together with bolts and screws. To make sure against the possibility of the candle going out, a large piece of brown paper was fastened up against the transom leading into room No. 40. The lumber of which the machinery was made, together with the bolts and screws, was undoubtedly brought to the hotel in his trunk .The two pieces of iron and the axe were purchased at Beach’s hardware store Saturday afternoon, and taken to Harding & Son’s foundry, on Second Street, where the holes were drilled for the bolts that fastened them together. The chloroform was purchased in a two-ounce bottle from R. Schwegler & Brother’s drug store. At least the label upon the bottle bears that name.

As soon as the discovery was made the Coroner impanelled a jury, which proceeded to investigate the case. After sitting until 10 o’clock last night, the inquest adjourned until 8:30 o’clock this morning. The trunk of deceased was examined, but in it nothing was found except his boots, vest, coat, a brace, and three bits, a screw-driver, a wrench, some screws, and a few pieces of boards. Upon his person were a pocket-book containing a few dollars in money and some private papers, but nothing showing why he committed his singular self-murder… The remains were placed in charge of Undertaker Scudder who will to-day ship them to his family. 

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 15 June 1876: p. 2  

Accompanying the article above, which was reprinted in another Illinois paper, was this addendum, revealing some of Moon’s quirks/mental illness and his previous suicide attempts.


[Special to Chicago Tribune]

Lafayette, Ind., June 12. In the case of James. A. Moon the suicide, the coroner’s jury adjourned from last night to 10 o’clock this morning. The evidence showed him to have a sort of mania for inventions, patent rights, etc., more particularly in the line of apparatus for committing suicide. He had attempted suicide three times before, once while a member of the 16th Indiana battery, and twice since by chloroform. Some three years ago he was arrested for exposing his person, and became very angry, saying he was especially commissioned to preach the gospel to the sinners of Lafayette entirely naked. He owned a good farm, and upon it had a blacksmith, wagon and carpenter shop, and was considered a mechanical genius. He was a member of the Friends’ Society. The verdict of the coroner’s jury was that he died by his own hand, while labouring under temporary aberration of mind.

He said to his brother-in-law, not long since, that he could invent a machine for suicides that would take the head clear off much better than any ever used, and that he was going to do something that would make him notorious. On the sides of the decapitator he had written in pencil, “For sale or rent. Hari-kari. Patent applied for.” The instrument of death was removed to the undertaking establishment of C.S. Scudder, where people have crowded the room all day to get a sight of it.

Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 15 June 1876: p. 2  

Most subsequent articles report the name of the device as “kari-kari,” however, this account makes more sense. “Hari Kari/Hari Kiri” means literally “belly cutting,” and is, of course, a Japanese ceremonial suicide. I have also seen kari translated as “pure,” so if “kari-kari” was correct it might mean “pure cutting,” which seems more in keeping with Moon’s obsession with a machine that would take the head “clear off much better than any ever used.” As I mentioned in my previous post on novel executions, there were many articles about the torture and execution techniques of the Exotic East circulating in all newspapers. The terms “Hari-Kari” and “Kari-Kari” were also used in articles about politics, as in a congressman committed “political suicide.” This may be where Moon got the term.

One wonders who was to benefit from that “patent applied for.” The U.S. Patent Office says that “articles contrary to the public good are not patentable.”  Suicide was illegal at the time of Moon’s death, so a machine dedicated to enabling it, could not have been patented.  

This next article was written long after the fact and shows a few distortions that have crept in. It is useful in that it offers the historical perspective from an eye-witness. It is interesting to see that three decades later, Moon’s motivation is seen as a hunger for fame.




Thought to Make His Name Immortal by Dying by Means of Invention.

Indianapolis, Ind., July 21.  

The suicide of former State Senator and Circuit Judge Sellar at Crawfordsville, who ended his existence because his life had been a failure, brought out a story of a novel suicide this morning. In the group of men who were discussing the Sellar case were some two or three state officers and each related some experience touching the question under discussion. When several suicides had been referred to one of the state officers told substantially the following story:

“Sunday morning, June 11, 1876, I was stopping at the Lahr house in Lafayette, when one of the chambermaids rushed into the office, pale with fright, and said that the gentleman in room 41 had been murdered. A number of us went at once to the room, and there I witnessed a sight that will never fade from my memory. Strapped to the floor was the headless body of a man and the floor around was covered with clotted blood. His head had fallen into a box, which was partly filled with raw cotton, and a broad ax lay upon the edge of the box, upon which the head had evidently rested when the fatal blow was struck. Rigged up near the body was a strange mechanical device, and on one of the beams of this was printed in large letters, ‘Karikari. Patent applied for.’

“The dead man was James A. Moon, and he had taken a room at the hotel on the preceding Friday evening. It was at first supposed that a murder had been committed, but a little investigation demonstrated the fact that  Moon had deliberately planned his own death, and had determined that it should be brought about by an invention of his own. He was 35 years of age and was a crank on mechanical construction. From the time he was 15 he and his father had worked upon divers’ impossible problems, among them being that of perpetual motion. Moon always contended that he could make a machine that would eclipse anything ever invented for taking human life, and it is said that he once went to Europe to study the guillotine and improve upon it. His ‘Karikari,’ as he termed the machine, was the result of years of study, but he was the only one that ever died by it.

“Coupled with his fanatical mechanical genius, which he inherited from his father, it is said that he inherited a suicidal mania from his mother’s side of the family. His mother committed suicide and so did two or three other members of her family. Moon himself had twice before attempted to take his own life. Once he crawled into a hay rick and was nearly smothered to death when found. Again, he made the attempt at another hotel in Lafayette with morphine, and by a curious coincidence the number of the room was 41, the same as that at Lahr House in which his body was found.

The inquiry set on foot developed these facts: On the Friday preceding the finding of his body he was at home and was apparently cheerful. During the day, however, he had his beard shaved off, and from the barber shop he went to a hardware store and purchased two heavy bars of iron. He had purchased a broad ax some days before, and this he had ground to a razor edge. He purchased three ounces of chloroform and then left home with a trunk containing the things he had purchased and a framework for his machine. He went to the Lahr house and was shown three rooms before he found one to please him. This was located on the third floor and was one of the most secluded in the house.

“’Karikari’ was an ingenious device and was so well constructed that the expected end was perfectly accomplished. The two bars of iron had been fastened to the broad ax to insure a sufficient weight when it should fall upon its victim. This was mounted on a beam, the other end of which was fastened to the floor. A hook had been screwed into the wall and the suspended as was held in place by a cotton cord which was fastened to the hook. Immediately under the hook Moon had placed a small shelf, and on this he set a candle which extended up above the cord, but which burned the string in two when the candle shorted to it. When the string was severed the ax, weighted by the two bars of iron, came down upon the box on which Moon had placed his neck.

“Everything indicated the utmost deliberation and care, and the plan must have been studied out months before it was carried into execution. After placing the machine in position Moon lay down upon the floor, his head in such a position that it would fall into the box when severed from his body. Before doing this, however, he strapped his legs to the floor by means of staples on either side, when he lay down he drew another strap across his breast, fastening it with a buckle and thus preventing the possibility of moving in his sleep. The cotton in the box into which his head was to fall was saturated with the chloroform and he inhaled the fumes at once and was no doubt soon asleep. The candle burned down to the string, severed it and the ax fell and his head was severed from his body. The calculations were precise in every respect, and so completely was the head severed from the body that not a ligament was left to join it to the trunk. There can be no question but Moon wanted to demonstrate the utility of the machine, as well as to put an end to his own life, there is little doubt that he believed that someone would eventually patent ‘karikari,’ and, that his own memory, as the man who had demonstrated its perfection, would be perpetuated by the act.”

Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 22 July 1901: p. 4 

The sensational suicide story was reprinted all over the country, even in The New York Times. Most papers printed in full that copious and loving description of the infernal machine as if they were happy to share the instructions for the benefit of humanity. After all,  “The appliances which had been used to produce death were most wonderful and will stand in the history of suicides without a parallel.”

Some articles added one last paragraph with some personal details:  

Mr. Moon was well known in this city. He owned a fine farm near the Farmers’ Institute, and leaves a wife and four children. He served with Capt. Haggard in the Sixteenth Indiana Battery during the war, and was a gallant soldier. Upon his farm he had a blacksmith, wagon, and carpenter shop, and was considered a mechanical genius, though he never learned any trade—a sort of “jack at all trades and good at none.” New York Times 15 June 1876

That last sentence seems most unfair.

Not having much of a knack for DYI, I was more interested in the small, human-interest details of the story:

The deceased asked for a room overlooking an alley and looked at three before finding one that suited him. The porters complained that his luggage was very heavy. The device was marked “for sale or rent.” No nails were used. The chloroform was purchased in a two-ounce bottle from R. Schwegler & Brother’s drug store. Moon fastened brown paper over the transom so no gust of air would accidentally blow out the candle.

He thought of everything. Except, possibly, his wife and four children.

Mr Moon’s story is found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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