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 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

iStock.com/fotojagodka
iStock.com/fotojagodka

People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
iStock.com/konmesa

If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
iStock.com/elthar2007

As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
iStock.com/Leesle

Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
iStock.com/EcoPic

Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
iStock.com/WhitcombeRD

Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
iStock.com/photomaru

As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
iStock.com/AlexRaths

For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
iStock.com/ser-y-star

When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
iStock.com/Mr_Fu

Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
iStock.com/Fotosmurf03

Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

10 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history. 

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad, as well as the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain said Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood playmate whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” he wrote in Autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." 

However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain admitted it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn. In August 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884. 

4. Like Huck, Twain changed his view of slavery.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up. 

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and housed Frederick Douglass.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. A PENIS DRAWING ALMOST RUINED THE BOOK.

Twain, who ran his own printing press, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants. 

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.

7. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." 

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote. 

8. The end of the book is often considered a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

9. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachussets in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist.

In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offensive word with “slave.” Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with “hipster.” The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

10. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as librarian wrote Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply: 

DEAR SIR:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. 

If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

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