10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. IT BECAME A MILITARY OUTPOST IN THE 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. INMATES WERE FORCED TO BUILD THEIR OWN PRISON.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. LIFE THERE WASN’T SO BAD.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. ODDS OF ESCAPE WERE SLIM.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. INMATES LIKED PLAYING SOFTBALL.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. GUARDS LIVED ON THE ISLAND WITH THEIR FAMILIES.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. IT WAS CLOSED FOR BEING TOO EXPENSIVE.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. NATIVE AMERICANS OCCUPIED IT IN PROTEST.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. YOU CAN TAKE A TOUR.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. It’s possibly the only such park that can lay claim to Al Capone once strolling its grounds. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry (via the wonderfully-named Alcatraz Cruises). Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. IT’S LITERALLY GONE TO THE BIRDS.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

15 Facts About the Bill of Rights

iStock.com/LPETTET
iStock.com/LPETTET

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, so let's celebrate by exploring the amendments that helped shape America.

1. IT OWES A LOT TO MAGNA CARTA.

Magna Carta
The seal of Magna Carta.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Some of the sentiments in our bill of rights are at least 800 years old. In 1215, King John of England had a serious uprising on his hands. For many years, discontentment festered among his barons, many of whom loathed the King and his sky-high taxes. On May 17, a rebellious faction led by Robert Fitzwalter captured London, forcing John to negotiate.

Their talks produced one of the most significant legal documents ever written. The King and his barons composed a 63-clause agreement which would—ostensibly—impose certain limits on royal rule. Among these laws, the best-known gave English noblemen the right to a fair trial. They called their groundbreaking peace treaty Magna Carta, or "The Great Charter."

The original version didn't last long, though. John persuaded Pope Innocent III to invalidate the document and, within three months, His Holiness did just that. The next year, King John's 9-year-old son, King Henry III, issued an abridged version of Magna Carta to appease the barons, and in 1225 enforced a new and revised Magna Carta. Today, citizens of the U.K. are protected by three of the 1225 version's clauses, such as the aforementioned right to a trial by jury.

Magna Carta's influence has also extended far beyond Britain. Across the Atlantic, its language flows through the U.S. Constitution. Over half of the articles in America's Bill of Rights are directly or indirectly descended from clauses in said charter. For instance, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that "private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation." Article 28 of Magna Carta makes a similar statement about the seizure of "corn or other goods."

2. ANOTHER BIG INFLUENCE WAS THE ENGLISH BILL OF RIGHTS.

An engraving showing the English Bill of Rights being presented to William and Mary (William III of England and Mary II of England), 1689.
An engraving showing the English Bill of Rights being presented to William and Mary (William III of England and Mary II of England), 1689.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Issued in 1689, this Parliamentary Act made several guarantees that were later echoed by the first 10 U.S. constitutional amendments. For instance, the English Bill of Rights forbids "cruel and unusual punishments" while ensuring the "right of the subjects to petition the king."

3. THE U.S. VERSION WAS CHAMPIONED BY AN OFT-IGNORED FOUNDING FATHER.

George Mason
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There's a decent chance that you've never heard of George Mason. By founding father standards, this Virginian has been largely overlooked. But if it weren't for Mason, the Constitution might have never been given its venerated Bill of Rights.

Back in 1776, Mason was part of a committee that drafted Virginia's Declaration of Rights. "[All] men," the finished product said, "are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights … namely the enjoyment of life and liberty." Sound familiar? It should. As everybody knows, Thomas Jefferson would write another, more famous declaration that year. When he did so, he was heavily influenced by the document Mason spearheaded.

Fast-forward to 1787. With the Constitutional Convention wrapping up in Philadelphia, Mason argued that a bill of inalienable rights should be added. This idea was flatly rejected by the State Delegates. So, in protest, Mason refused to sign the completed Constitution.

4. MASON FOUND AN ALLY IN THE "GERRY" OF "GERRYMANDERING."

portrait of Elbridge Gerry
NYPL, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At the convention, the motion to include a bill of rights wasn't made by Mason, although he seconded it. Instead, credit belongs to one Elbridge Gerry, who had also withheld his signature from the Constitution. He'd go on to become a notorious figure during his tenure as the governor of Massachusetts. A staunch Democratic-Republican, Gerry was governor during the blatantly partisan re-drawing of the Bay State's congressional districts. These days, we call this unfair political maneuver "gerrymandering."

5. THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A HUGE PROPONENT …

portrait of Thomas Jefferson
iStock.com/benoitb

The Sage of Monticello sided with Mason. Following the Constitution's approval, Jefferson offered a few comments to his friend James Madison (whom history has called its father). "I do not like … the omission of a bill of rights," he wrote. "Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth."

6. … AND SO WAS JOHN ADAMS.

John Adams
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Adams was away in Great Britain when the Constitution was being created. Upon reading its contents, he proclaimed that "A Declaration of Rights I Wish to see with all my heart, though I am sensible of the Difficulty in framing one, in which all the States can agree."

7. AT FIRST, JAMES MADISON THOUGHT THAT IT WOULD BE USELESS.

James Madison
National Archive/Newsmakers

From the onset, this future president admired the principle behind a bill of rights. Still, he initially saw no point in creating one. Madison explained his position to Jefferson in October 1788, writing, "My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights … At the same time, I have never thought [its] omission a material defect." But Madison eventually changed his tune. After becoming a congressman in 1789, he formally introduced the amendments that would comprise the current bill of rights.

8. BEFORE HE COULD INTRODUCE THE BILL OF RIGHTS, MADISON HAD TO DEFEAT JAMES MONROE.

James Monroe
James Monroe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Madison won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after running against the man who would become his Oval Office successor. Both candidates acted with civility: While on the campaign trail, they regularly dined together and even shared sleeping quarters.

9. CONGRESS PASSED 12 AMENDMENTS, BUT TWO WERE LATER EXCLUDED.

Declaration of Independence signatures
iStock.com/fstop123

Originally, Representative Madison presented 19 amendments. On August 24, 1789, the House green-lit 17 of them. That September, the Senate made some heavy edits, trimming these down to an even dozen, which the states then looked over. In the end, numbers three through 12 were approved and collectively became our Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

10. AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT GOT ONE OF THOSE AXED AMENDMENTS RATIFIED IN 1992.

Bill of Rights
iStock.com/leezsnow

Better late than never. The second proposed amendment would have restricted Congress' ability to give itself a pay raise or cut. No law that tweaked the salaries of its members would take effect until after the next Congress had begun. Sensible as this idea sounds, the amendment wasn't ratified by the required three-fourths majority of U.S. states. So, for 202 years, it was stuck in limbo.

Enter Gregory Watson. His rollercoaster-like journey with the dormant proposal began in 1982. Then a student at the University of Texas, Watson was researching a term paper when he discovered this Congressional Pay Amendment. As he dug deeper, the undergrad found that it was still “technically pending before state legislatures.”

So Watson mounted an aggressive letter-writing campaign. Thanks to his urging, state after state finally ratified the amendment until, at last, over 38 had done so. After a bit of legal wrangling with Congress, on May 20, 1992, the constitution was updated to include it as the 27th (and most recent) amendment. (Watson, by the way, got a C on that term paper.)

11. SOME OF THE ORIGINAL COPIES WERE PROBABLY DESTROYED.

Original Bill of Rights
National Archives and Records Administration, WIkimedia Commons // Public Domain

During his first term, President Washington and Congress had 14 official handwritten replicas of the Bill of Rights made. At present, two are conspicuously unaccounted for.

One copy was retained by the federal government while the rest were sent off to the 11 states as well as Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had yet to ratify. Subsequently, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Georgia all lost theirs somehow. It's believed that the Empire State's was burned in a 1911 fire while Georgia’s likely went up in smoke during the Civil War.

In 1945, a long-lost original copy—experts aren't sure which—was gifted to the Library of Congress. Forty-nine years earlier, the New York Public Library had obtained another. Because it's widely believed that this one originally belonged to Pennsylvania, the document is currently being shared between the Keystone State and the NYPL until 2020, when New York will have it for 60 percent of the time and Pennsylvania for the rest.

12. NORTH CAROLINA'S COPY MAY HAVE BEEN STOLEN BY A CIVIL WAR SOLDIER.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865.
General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the spring of 1865, Raleigh was firmly under the control of pro-Union troops. According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's office in that city, "Sometime during the occupation, a soldier in Gen. William Sherman's army allegedly took North Carolina's copy of the Bill of rights [from the state capitol] and carried it away."

Afterward, it changed hands several times and eventually came into antique dealer Wayne Pratt's possession. When the FBI learned of his plan to sell the priceless parchment, operatives seized it. In 2007, the copy went on a well-publicized tour of North Carolina before returning to Raleigh—hopefully for good.

13. THREE STATES DIDN'T RATIFY IT UNTIL 1939.

amendments
iStock.com/zimmytws

To celebrate the Constitution's 150th anniversary, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia formally gave the Bill of Rights the approval they'd withheld for well over a century.

14. THE BILL OF RIGHTS'S LEAST-LITIGATED AMENDMENT IS THE THIRD.

1st amendment at Independence Hall
iStock.com/StephanieCraig

Thanks to this one, soldiers cannot legally be quartered inside your home without your consent. Since colonial Americans had lived in fear of being suddenly forced to house and feed British troops, the amendment was warmly received during the late 1700s. Today, however, it's rarely invoked. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has never based a decision upon it, so the American Bar Association once called this amendment the "runt piglet" of the constitution.

15. BILL OF RIGHTS DAY DATES BACK TO 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Central Press/Getty Images

On November 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged America's citizenry to celebrate December 15 as "Bill of Rights Day" in honor of its anniversary:

"I call upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate."

"It is especially fitting," he added, "that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn."

This story first ran in 2015.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

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