A surprisingly large number of historical figures have had their destinies shaped by their work in the big house. Upon leaving, they made vows to shake the world’s foundations in one way or another. There is, however, a smaller number of inmates who simply couldn’t wait to leave before setting their plans in motion. These people used their time in solitude to achieve feats which would have been incredible even outside of prison. Several of them never tasted freedom again once they were committed, but that didn’t stop them from changing history from within a prison cell.
Before the tooth brush was invented, oral hygiene in England was practiced by rubbing a rough cloth across one’s teeth. Bits of chalk or salt would be sprinkled on as well to work off tougher layers of grit. It wasn’t until William Addis, a rioter who was jailed in 1770, when the first primitive toothbrush was invented. He used a leftover bone for the handle, and bartered with a prison guard to obtain pig bristles for the brush. He made many variants while locked up, and went on to mass produce them until his death. Generations of his family have continued the business, now called Wisdom Toothbrushes, which sells tens of millions per year.
David Marshall Williams
Prior to his first-degree murder charge in 1921, David Marshall Williams had led a sketchy lifestyle that included theft from a military academy and running a moonshine operation. While in prison, he gained a reputation for his Macgyver-esque abilities, earning him access to the workshop. There he fashioned guns for the prison guards to use. He’d stay up days at a time inventing new schemes for self-loading pistols and gas powered semi-automatic rifles. His innovative genius attracted the attention of huge arms companies like Remington Arms and Colt Manufacturing Co., who lawyered Williams up for a commuted sentence. His ideas for gas-powered firearms have been used in modern day weaponry ever since.
Robert Franklin Stroud
His first and last foray into federal prison began in 1909 with a 12-year sentence for murder. His violent nature was feared among other inmates, and he even went as far as to shank a prison guard through the heart. This netted him a life sentence at Leavenworth where his obsession with birds began. He built an aviary with wooden crates and nails which housed over 300 canaries during his time there. He also wrote two books, “Diseases of Canaries” and “Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds,” which greatly contributed to ornithological efforts at the time. He was randomly transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, putting an end to his hands-on studies with birds, and spent the last 21 years of his life studying law.
Ezra Pound was an American poet who pioneered the Modernist movement. His earlier years were spent living abroad where he broadcast support for Hitler, and denounced America’s participation in the “evils of capitalism.” American troops later detained him in Pisa on charges of treason. Locked away in a small steel cage for the first three weeks, Pound began to go insane. It was then when he started writing “The Pisan Cantos,” the most famous part of his monolithic 116 section “The Cantos.” He was later awarded the Bollingen Prize, one of the highest literary honors, which garnered much controversy due to his questionable political leanings.
Miguel de Cervantes
Born September 29, 1547, Cervantes proudly served in the Spanish Navy Marines until his capture and imprisonment by Ottoman Turks in 1575. For five years he lived as a slave in Algiers. There he wrote most of “Don Quixote,” one of the most celebrated pieces of literature in history. It’s heavily influenced literary works since due to its delicately constructed subtexts and the raw portrayal of the characters’ psychology. Cervantes never quite lived to see the legacy he’d sown, because he died a year after the second part was published in 1615.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi first appeared on the political scene as a the General Secretary for Burma’s National League for Democracy. The group had grown out of the 1988 Uprisings, a student movement that protested against the regime of General Ne Win. Shortly before the national elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, resulting in a massive turnout for the NLD. The party had won 81 percent of the vote, but the military voided the election altogether. She remained under house arrest for the next 15 years where she continued her outspoken advocacy of democracy. Her efforts have resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize, and a landslide win for her party in 2015, further loosening the dictatorship’s stranglehold on the country.
Marquis de Sade
As a philosopher from a well-known aristocratic family, Marquis de Sade frequently sullied his parent’s reputation by partaking in incessant acts of sexual deviancy. After sodomizing four prostitutes and his Butler in 1772, Marquis was imprisoned in Italy. There he wrote 15 manuscripts, the most famous of which was “120 Days Of Sodom.” He’d written it on 35 feet of toilet paper which he’d crammed into a crack in his cell wall. Marquis was freed by French Revolutionaries, but later sent to a psychiatric hospital by Napoleon where he passed his remaining days. “120 Days of Sodom” wasn’t discovered and published until the early twentieth century. It’s banned in many countries for an immense amount of explicit sexual content.
Born in 1628 in Bedfordshire, England, John Bunyan was a Baptist preacher who devoted all of his free time to spreading the Word of God, even while in the military. When the Monarchy was restored in 1660, it became illegal for Bunyan to hold religious meetings outside of the Church of England. He continued preaching to crowds in his village and resisted orders to desist, landing him three months of initial imprisonment. Court magistrates promised to release him if he gave up preaching, but Bunyan refused yet again and earned a 12-year sentence. During this time he wrote “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” one of the most famous pieces of English literature ever written.