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.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
MGM

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.

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