This seems like such a simple thing ... the one card in the deck that's different than all others. How much can be said about just this one card? Well ... that's what I thought when I first started looking into this but it turns out that this one little card of the pack of 52 has quite an interesting past. The story touches upon all types of intesting topics including royalty, religion, heresy, satanism, heraldry, taxation, death, counterfeiting, advertising, war, psychology and art. Below is a cobbled together history of this unique card.
Early card designs did not typically use indexes on them. Their rank was defined by the number of suit symbols that appeared on the cards or by the imagery itself for court cards. Early card designs were often commissioned sets that represented a royal court ... or the structure of society. Clearly the King, Queen and any other royal court figures would rank higher than a lowly three card ... or the two card ... and especially the one card (the ace). In some historical packs the ace is completely missing ... and in others it's not considered a high ranking card. Some references to the Ace include it as part of the Court ... and yet others discuss it as part of the series of index cards ... although in almost all cases the Ace either was marked w/ a single letter 'A' or one instance of the respective suit symbol.
There are some religious references to the Ace being the highest ranked card in the pack from the 'Soldiers Almanac, Bible, and Prayerbook' in which a Richard Middleton ... facing punishment for using a pack of cards in a church service was known to say in response to his accusers while holding an Ace from his pack in his hands: "When I see an Ace, it reminds me that there is only one God; and when I look upon a Two or a Three, it reminds me of the Father and Son; the later of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost...". It's said that these events and associations between card rank and issues of God's emminance resulted in claims that any game that does not rank the Ace highest are games of satan.
In some cases it appears to be the region or specific card game that would define the importance of the Ace ... and clearly in the later card history the popular card game of Poker defined the Ace as the top ranked card. So it's possible that many different factors contributed to the contemporary view of the Ace being the top card ... religious, regional, specific game, etc.
Once playing cards became popular in America and the local governments took notice there were either bans instituted against their use ... or there were taxes levied against their manufacture or importation. The Ace of Spades was often used as the card that would carry the revenue stamp indicating the tax was paid on that deck of cards. The tax revenue stamps often appeared on the deck wrapper as well. There were often very strict fines and penalties for selling un-taxed cards ... or even worse ... forging the revenue stamp itself.
There are many stories of individuals who attempted to forge the Ace of Spades w/ it's tax revenue stamp ... one Mr. Richard Harding who was nabbed w/ thousands of counterfeit stamped Aces ... was tried and convicted of 'forging, fabricating, and counterfeiting the legal stamp of the Ace of Spades'. Forgery (as a second offense) was elevated to a capital crime in England in the mid 16th century. The early 18th century yielded a more stringent policy toward forgery making it punishable by death (ouch).
Mr. Harding was unfortunately hanged for his offence in 1805. This could be construed as an early instance of the association of the Ace of Spades as the 'death card'.
The Ace of Spades and it's aura about being the 'death card' really came to it's maturity during the Vietnam war. Officers serving in Vietnam would regularly leave behind 'death cards' in the jungles of Southeast Asia. They were left behind in the jungle and in suspect villages during patrols and raids. It was said that the presence of an Ace of Spades could cause the enemy to retreat.
Prior to the United States being involved in the region, the French had occupied Indo-China. In French fortunetelling with cards the ace of spades predicted death and suffering when it was accompanied w/ a ten and a nine. Interstingly ... if you ended up w/ the Ace of Spades oriented right side up, it would indicates profit in consequence of a death that is to say, an inheritance or legacy. If the Ace is accompanied by the Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten of Clubs, there will be a large increment of money.
The 'death card' in a Tarot deck is sometimes confused w/ the 'death card' reference associated w/ the regular Ace of Spades card in a normal deck of cards. Many people believe that they have the same meaning ... or their meanings derived from one another. The interesting thing is that there not only is no real connection between the Death Card in the Tarot deck and the Ace of Spades as a 'death card' ... but in fact the death card in Tarot doesn't really signify death (to the querent). Simply put ... it could signify a form of renewal or transformation.
The Ace of Spades has always served some special purpose in a deck of cards. Early in card history it was often used to identify the maker of the cards ... a practice that continues to this day. It served as a signifigant means of revenue for many governments. In times of war this card takes on a psychological role with it's aura of death and misfortune. It's even been used as an metaphor for the trinity. And finally, the Ace of Spades ... and it's cousin The Joker have been the subject of countless artistic interpretations and presentations.