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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Firefighters

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None of us plan on leaving our irons on (or pressing the wrong button when microwaving popcorn, or finding our cat stuck in a tree), but it’s comforting to know the fire department is prepared for when we do. Firefighters serve everyone, but not many people know much about them beyond what they’ve learned from movies and TV. We spoke with a few members from departments around the country to see what goes on behind the action.

1. FIRES HAVE GOTTEN HARDER TO FIGHT.

You’d think that modern advancements would make firefighting easier, but that isn’t always the case. According to a study conducted by Underwriters Laboratories, newer homes burn eight times faster than those built between 1950 and 1970. One contributing factor is the increased popularity of open floor plans.

"The houses you see today, they’re all open," says Russ Wiseman, a career firefighter of 26 years from Seattle. "There are no doorways, nothing to contain the fire. It’s nice to live in; it’s just not great for firefighting." The open interior also adds more fuel to the blaze by allowing for faster airflow. (Consider that before tearing down the wall between your kitchen and your living room.)

Today’s homes are also furnished with more synthetic materials than they were 30 years ago. These substances burn fast, and they also produce an especially dangerous smoke. "Smoke from things like PVC pipe in plumbing, PVC in electrical wire, or any plastics burning are generally loaded with toxins," says Darren*, who has been volunteering as a firefighter for two years. "They can incapacitate or kill you in short order."

On top of that, the way modern houses are built has made structural failure a greater possibility than it ever was. "A lot of [today’s] buildings don’t depend on the math of a two-by-twelve; they depend on the geometry of a truss," Russ says. "These trusses are really strong when used in a certain way but they tend to fail much faster in a fire."

2. MOST CALLS AREN’T FIRE-RELATED.

Actual fire emergencies makes up just a fraction of most fire departments’ responsibilities. "We’re plumbers, electricians, psychologists, and mechanics—whatever we need to be," says Michael, a retired captain of 30 years who worked for a large fire department in the metro Atlanta area. He's currently working as a volunteer firefighter in his community and as an EMT for another department. "Broken pipes, electrical issues, fall down and can’t get up, medical alarm, weird smell, can’t light your water heater, car broken down … If the dispatcher doesn’t know who to call they send us," he says.

The majority of calls firefighters receive are actually medical, which is why there’s a great deal of overlap between firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). "Just about every firefighter working today is at least an EMT. Some are paramedics,” Michael says. "In a lot of communities, especially poorer communities, the citizens don’t have doctors. They use us and the emergency departments as their doctors." And yes, firefighters are also responsible for rescuing cats from treesthough that’s not as much of a problem as TV shows would have you believe.

3. THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU BROKE THE LAW.

Just because firefighters are uniformed government employees who turn up after you’ve (likely) done something stupid, that doesn’t mean they want to get you in trouble for it. "We get confused for law enforcement. Sometimes it can hurt us in our jobs," Michael says. "If we go out on a medical emergency call and illegal drugs are involved, our patients may not be forthcoming about what they took because they think we’ll arrest them."

And while some people are hesitant to talk for fear of the consequences, others over-explain for the same reasons. "When firefighters show up we don't care how your car got 20 feet off the road, managed to go airborne for 30 feet, and land in the middle of someone’s roof. We just want to get everyone out safely,” says Matthew Hagerty, a firefighter of nine years from Michigan. "We already know you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed; you don't need to explain that to us."

4. THERE ISN’T MUCH DOWNTIME.

Even on a "slow" day, firefighters don’t have much freedom to sit back and relax. "The perception that may have been at one time [about] guys sitting around playing cards has long been gone," Russ says. "The day’s pretty well-packed. It’s a challenge to get everything done these days."

Firefighters make time for non-emergency tasks when their schedule permits, which may include checking fire hydrants, conducting fire safety inspections, and completing training exercises. Even when they’re not out and about, there’s plenty to be done at the station as well. "People tend to think we are not working when they can’t see us," says Robert, a 12-year firefighter working in Connecticut. "We maintain our station and equipment. Just because you don’t see us doesn’t mean we aren’t working."

5. BUT THEY FIND WAYS TO HAVE FUN.

Being a firefighter is one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting jobs there is. Perhaps it’s for this reason that firefighters value the importance of having fun when they can. "I’ve never had a job where people had as good a time. … We just loved to laugh and make fun of each other," Russ says.

Though never a prankster himself, Russ recalls several pranks that department members would pull on each other back in the day. "They’d put the IV bag in the ceiling with the needle dripping down so it’d drip on someone’s head at night. Or they’d send a rookie for some fictitious tool on one of the rigs and they would look for hours … There’s a story of a guy who got this new car and was bragging about the mileage. When he wasn’t around they would put more gas in his car until he was getting close to 50 miles a gallon. Then they start siphoning gas out the next month."

In addition to the harmless pranks, there are also stunts that more closely resemble something you’d see in a fraternity. "There’s stuff you can’t even talk about," he says. We’ll let you use your imagination.

6. THINGS REALLY DO GET CRAZY AROUND A FULL MOON.

You may have heard an old wives’ tale about bizarre and dangerous things being more likely to happen during a full moon. People who work in emergency services don’t just believe this—they plan ahead for it. "If there’s a full moon out, we’re busier than heck. That’s not superstition. That’s an unwritten rule," Matthew says. "There was a full moon last week and I ran my butt off for three days in a row."

Matthew says the calls that come in during a full moon vary too widely to point to one specific cause. The examples he gave included car accidents and psychiatric issues, although there was no mention of werewolf encounters.

7. IT ISN’T WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE IN THE MOVIES.

A still from the movie Ladder 49, courtesy of Buena Vista.

Hollywood loves to show scenes of heroic firefighters racing through flaming buildings, but real firefighters say that if their work was accurately portrayed, there wouldn’t be much to look at.

"Most of the time we are working in low-to-zero visibility. TV and movies try to show you everything," Robert says. A lot of the "drama" firefighters experience in a burning building comes from making sense of their immediate surroundings. Matthew recalls one time he tried to climb a chair mistaking it for a staircase he’d just passed, and another incident when he stumbled over an open balcony and was convinced he’d fallen through the floor.

"There’s never pretty bright flames around to help you look for stuff," Russ says. "It’s hot. It’s incredibly smoky. It’s easy to get disoriented."

Another big aspect the movies always get wrong is the importance of a firefighter’s air pack. "I can’t count the number of times I see in movies and TV shows a firefighter running in and pulling someone out holding their own mask on the victim’s face," Matthew says. "While this looks heroic it’s really not realistic. You can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe yourself. They would be instantly overcome with heat, smoke, and poisonous fumes and would then need rescuing themselves."

8. YOUR SOUNDPROOF CAR MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

Next time you see someone wait too long to pull over for a fire engine, their fancy car may be to blame. Cars are better at keeping out sound than ever before, which can be a source of frustration for firefighters in a hurry. "The car companies spend millions advertising the fact that their cars are soundproof and have awesome sound systems. Unfortunately, that also cancels out the sirens and horns on the trucks," Michael says.

"Add to that people wearing headphones, talking on the phone, eating, and generally being distracted and they just don’t acknowledge us." So even if your car’s stereo system can reach 170 decibels, that doesn’t mean you need to prove it to the rest of us.

9.  THERE IS A (FRIENDLY) RIVALRY BETWEEN THE FIRE AND POLICE DEPARTMENTS.

The rivalry between local fire and police departments is another trope that’s often played up on-screen. But this idea has some basis in reality. "The rivalry is real," said Mike, who’s been a firefighter for four years, in his Reddit AMA. "I have respect for what they do, but our rivalry is based on who each other thinks is in charge [when called out to a scene]."

The NYPD and FDNY, which have more overlapping services than most city police and fire departments, are notorious for their historic beef. While this sometimes takes the form of friendly competitions, like the annual NYPD-FDNY charity hockey game, it's also been known to get violent—like when that same hockey game devolved into a straight-up brawl in 2014.

This competitive attitude is rarer in quieter, rural areas. Even in big cities, members from both departments know that ultimately they’re on the same team. "I guess I would liken it to military rivals," Robert says. "We like to tease each other but at the end of the day we fully support each other."

10. THEY HAVE TO PAY FOR THEIR OWN FOOD.

Earlier this year, a video was uploaded of what appears to be a man chastising a group of firefighters for having the nerve to go grocery shopping on his taxpayer dime. Yes, firefighters need to buy food to eat just like the rest of us, and they also dig into their own pockets to do so.

"We pay for all of our food at the station," Michael says. "Many citizens have made comments to me and my guys about 'What are we buying you for supper tonight?' when they see us in the store. I have to correct them and inform them that we buy all of our own food."

11. HANDLING THE HOSE NOZZLE IS A PRIVILEGE.

Ask a preschooler the best part about being a firefighter and they might tell you it’s getting to spray the hose. This is something the grownups find fun as well, and for that reason not everyone gets to do it right away. "The big thing is who gets to be on the nozzle. That’s the top position; that’s where a lot of the fun is," Matthew says. "So [when I was] this new kid straight out of college coming into the department, even though I had experience, if I touched that nozzle I’d basically be committing a cardinal sin."

Getting to drive the fire engine isn’t half-bad either. Rob says that as a firefighter, "there's a lot of work and training involved and there's an inherent risk of death or great bodily injury—but they let us drive a big red truck with a siren, so it all seems worth it for us." 

12. THEY DON’T ALL LIKE THE FACT THAT IT’S A BOYS’ CLUB.

Despite the fact that nearly half of female candidates pass the physical tests, less than 4% of today’s firefighters are women. This is something many people within the industry would like to see change. "I think a common misconception is that women aren’t or can’t become firefighters," Matthew says. "I would like to see this change as there are a lot of women that can do this job very well, and in some cases better than men."

America’s first known woman firefighter, a slave named Molly Williams, became a part of the Oceanus Engine Company #11 nearly 200 years ago. Women have been working as firefighters ever since, and there were even two entirely female-staffed departments in Illinois for part of World War II. 

13. THEY’RE A FAMILY.

After working together in high-pressure situations for shifts lasting up to 24 hours, it doesn’t take long for members of the department to form a tight bond. "Some guys become very close. We truly become a family," Robert says.

Michael recalls the dynamic in his own department: "We meet each other’s families, have birthday parties for our kids when we have to work, share holiday meals. We talk about each other’s lives, the older guys trying to give advice to the younger guys. Guys will tell each other things that we wouldn’t tell our wives or families," he says. "We see and experience things on this job that the average citizen wouldn’t be able to handle, but since we all see and experience the same things, we can talk about it."

*Name has been changed.

All photos courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield
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Everyone’s favorite lazy, lasagna-loving cat made his debut 40 years ago, but Garfield is still just as popular today. The comic strip spawned a TV show plus a number of video games, feature films, books, and, of course, holiday specials—not to mention one very memorable car window craze. We sat down with Garfield creator Jim Davis to nail down a solid list of 20 things you might not know about the wisecracking feline.

1. JIM DAVIS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO FOCUS THE STRIP ON JON.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I ran some early ideas at a local paper,” Jim Davis tells Mental Floss, “to see how I felt about it and I called the strip Jon. It was about him, but he had this wise cat who, every time, came back zinging him. He always had the great payoff. At the time, I worked for T.K. Ryan—the cartoonist for Tumbleweeds—and I showed it to him and told him how every time I got to the punch line the cat zings him. And T.K. said, 'Well, what does that tell you, Jim?'" he laughs. “The strip must be about the cat. Go with it.”

2. JON WAS A CARTOONIST IN THE VERY FIRST COMIC STRIP, BUT IT WAS NEVER REALLY MENTIONED AGAIN.

“I didn’t want to tread on the fact that Jon’s a cartoonist because my biggest fear was getting a little too inside," Davis says. "That it would be a little too easy for me to write. I didn’t want to lose the readers just for my own enjoyment, or for a handful of peers. Also, I purposely gave him a job right off the top for the reason that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never explained what Ozzie did for a living. Nobody ever knew because he was always in the house with Harriet and Ricky and David. Just hanging around. So I thought I would give Jon a job right off the top to avoid being asked what he does for a living in interviews.”

3. GARFIELD WAS NAMED AFTER DAVIS'S GRANDFATHER, JAMES A. GARFIELD DAVIS ...

... who was named after President James A. Garfield. That’s quite a connection. Now just imagine a fat, wisecracking, lasagna-eating cat as the President of the United States of America. (Sounds like a dead-ringer for William Howard Taft!)

4. GARFIELD IS SET IN DAVIS'S HOMETOWN OF MUNCIE, INDIANA, BUT THAT'S ALSO MOSTLY LEFT UNSAID.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I would like for readers in Sydney, Australia to think that Garfield lives next door,” Davis says. “Dealing with eating and sleeping, being a cat, Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old. It gives me a lot more latitude for the humor for the situations.” The farm that Davis grew up on reportedly had 25 cats, several of which he based the Garfield character on.

5. DAVIS MAINTAINS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER GARFIELD'S FINAL PRODUCT, BUT HE NO LONGER DRAWS THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.

“I’m sitting here working on the writing right now,” he says. “I see gags and I work with assistants on the strip and stuff like that. We do roughs and it all filters through me so that it has one voice. We all get together occasionally in the same room and draw and work on shapes of fingers and gestures and expressions and things like that so that if any one of us draws it, you can’t tell which one did it.”

6. HE REGRETS AT LEAST ONE LICENSED GARFIELD ITEM.

According to Slate, Garfield merchandise brings in $750 million to $1 billion annually. Davis’s creation has been adapted and licensed more times than anyone could probably count, and of all of those items, there's one that Davis isn't thrilled with. “A few years ago there was a Zombie Garfield,” he says. “It was really gnarly and I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun.' So I did it and it sold okay. It was really interesting. But then I looked at it later and I go, ‘It did nothing for the character’s advancement.’ I figured I just did it because it was cool and everybody was doing it at the time. I just didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling after doing it. But those T-shirts go away," he laughs.

7. GARFIELD HOLDS THE GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR BEING THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY SYNDICATED COMIC STRIP.

Garfield is syndicated in more than 2500 newspapers and journals. The cat also has more than 16 million fans on Facebook. That’s one seriously popular feline.

8. GARFIELD'S CHARACTER DESIGN HAS CHANGED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS.

There's one constant, though: The fat cat has always been—and will always be—fat. “If he lost weight, that would effectively end Garfield as we know it,” Davis says. “Garfield sends a healthy message in that he’s not perfect. He knows that and he’s cool with that. He’s happy with himself. If everybody were, there would probably be fewer disorders of all natures. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s the imperfection in all of us underneath. I think that makes him probably easier to identify with than a slim, athletic character in the comics.”

9. DAVIS REALLY ENJOYED SCARING KIDS WITH GARFIELD'S HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE.

"It was such a challenge to try to think of something that could be scary, but fortunately we got to work with animation—we could marry scary sounds with scary music and scary images, and set the stage for a scary experience," Davis says. "Even down to the use of the actor’s voice. C. Lindsay Workman [who voices the old man that tells Garfield and Odie about the vengeful ghost pirates] was just a great character actor. I think we took our time to build to a scary scene where the ghost pirates invaded the house to look for the buried treasure. We tried to throw as many elements together as possible to create a situation where, at least for a few minutes, it could create a scary situation for the young viewers."

10. CREATING THE GHOST PIRATES IN THE HALLOWEEN TV SPECIAL WAS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

“We did it in our own art department (here at Paws, Inc.) because we wanted to make it just right,” the Garfield creator told us. “It was done with a white, chalky pencil on a rough texture so that everything would be really grainy. Back then, we animated on real film, so in order to get that glow we did what’s called a double burn. We exposed the film twice to overexpose the ghosts, and that gave it that eerie glow. We were totally in control of the process and the results turned out very well.”

11. IN 2011, A FULL-LENGTH STAGE MUSICAL CALLED GARFIELD LIVE WAS STAGED IN MUNCIE.

The musical was supposed to start touring the United States in September 2010, but was delayed until January 2011, when it premiered in Muncie. Davis wrote Garfield Live, while Michael Dansicker and Bill Meade handled the music and lyrics.

12. DAVIS LOVED THE CASTING OF BILL MURRAY AS THE VOICE OF GARFIELD IN 2004'S GARFIELD: THE MOVIE.


Muncie Magazine

“It was because of Bill Murray’s attitude [that he was cast],” Davis tells us. “It wasn’t really so much his voice. It was the fact that he embodies the attitude that Garfield has always displayed in the strip. Lorenzo [Music] obviously wasn’t a choice since he passed away years ago, and when the producers said, ‘Bill Murray would like to do the voice,’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool.’ My biggest concern about doing a CGI Garfield with live action was that people wouldn’t buy into the fact that this was our Garfield—the Garfield we’d known all these years. But I thought that as soon as they heard Bill Murray’s voice they’d get it. There will be that emotional tag going with his voice. That will establish the fact that, ‘Yes, this character has attitude.’”

13. THERE'S A GREAT LINK BETWEEN GARFIELD VOICE ACTOR LORENZO MUSIC AND BILL MURRAY.

Lorenzo Music provided the voice of Garfield in all of the cat’s TV specials from 1982 to 1991, as well as during the 1988 to 1994 run of Garfield and Friends. Music also provided the voice of Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters. Murray, of course, played Venkman in the Ghostbusters films and would, in 2004, provide the voice of Garfield in Garfield: The Movie. “I didn’t know about the relationship with Ghostbusters until years later."

14. THE MACY'S PARADE ONCE CITED SHAMU THE WHALE AS THE PARADE'S LARGEST BALLOON, BUT DAVIS SAYS GARFIELD WAS LARGER.

“In the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they had published that their biggest balloon ever, by volume of gas, was Shamu the Whale with over 18,000 cubic feet," Davis says. "The fact is that the Garfield balloon was filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium. So we just confirmed that the Garfield balloon, in fact, was the largest one by volume of gas.”

15. THERE ARE ONLY THREE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD WHERE GARFIELD IS NOT NAMED GARFIELD.

“In Sweden, Garfield is known as Gustav,” the Garfield creator says. “There are only three countries in the whole world where he’s not Garfield and they’re all in the Nordics.” The other two are Norway and Finland.

16. THE STUCK ON YOU GARFIELD PLUSH WITH SUCTION CUPS WAS THE RESULT OF A MISUNDERSTANDING.


Amazon

In the 1990s, it wasn't unusual to see a number of cars with little Garfield plushes stuck to the windows with suction cups. But that wasn't the original design—or the intended use. “I designed the first Stuck on You doll with Velcro on the paws, thinking that people would stick it on curtains,” Davis says. “It came back as a mistake with suction cups. They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars.”

17. THE GARFIELD COMIC STRIP BOOKS HAVE BEEN HUGE HITS.

“The 11 Garfield comic strip books have all been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List,” Davis says. “At one time there were seven on the list simultaneously. At that point, they changed the way the list was done because other publishing houses were complaining that their authors couldn’t get on the list because of Garfield. Garfield at Large (1980) was number one for two solid years. Over 100 weeks.” The title of every compilation book is a reference to either food or Garfield’s weight.

18. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND STEPHEN KING ARE AMONG THE MANY CELEBRITIES WHO OWN ORIGINAL GARFIELD STRIPS.

They both contacted Davis personally for the strips; the cartoonist happily obliged.

19. DESPITE GARFIELD BEING INSANELY POPULAR FOR DECADES, DAVIS IS STILL MOSTLY ANONYMOUS.


Muncie Magazine

“Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity,” he says. “You take a half-dozen of the biggest cartoonists and walk them down any street, nobody would notice them. They only know their characters. So I just hide behind Garfield. The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies. It’s not a big deal. I’m sitting here in the countryside of East Central Indiana, so it’s pretty quiet.”

20. DAVIS'S FATHER'S FAVORITE COMIC STRIP WASN'T GARFIELD.

Davis's father and namesake, who passed away in 2016, liked Garfield but preferred another comic strip: Beetle Bailey. “Nobody else knew that until today,” Davis tells us.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
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History
13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. HE BARTERED BREAD FOR KNOWLEDGE.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. HE CREDITED A SCHOOLBOOK FOR SHAPING HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN RIGHTS.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. HE TAUGHT OTHER SLAVES TO READ.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. HIS FIRST WIFE HELPED HIM ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. HE CALLED OUT HIS FORMER OWNER.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. HE TOOK HIS NAME FROM A POEM.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. HE'S CALLED THE 19TH CENTURY'S MOST PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE THE 4TH OF JULY.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. HE RECRUITED BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CIVIL WAR.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. HE SERVED UNDER FIVE PRESIDENTS.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. AFTER EARLY SUCCESS, HIS NARRATIVE WENT OUT OF PRINT.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

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