John’s Believe It Or Not… August 11th

In 1934 US Federal prisoners land on Alcatraz. In 1988 Al-Qaeda formed at a meeting in Pakistan. In 1973 American Graffiti opens. In 1973 Hip Hop is born at a birthday party in the Bronx. In 1919 Weimar Constitution adopted in Germany.

John Fioravanti standing in fron of his classroom blackboard.

It’s Friday! TGIF! Did you know…

* 1934 US Federal prisoners land on Alcatraz.

A group of federal prisoners classified as “most dangerous” arrives at Alcatraz Island, a 22-acre rocky outcrop situated 1.5 miles offshore in San Francisco Bay. The convicts–the first civilian prisoners to be housed in the new high-security penitentiary–joined a few dozen military prisoners left over from the island’s days as a U.S. military prison.

Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven when it was explored by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces, or “Island of the Pelicans.” Fortified by the Spanish, Alcatraz was sold to the United States in 1849. In 1854, it had the distinction of housing the first lighthouse on the coast of California. Beginning in 1859, a U.S. Army detachment was garrisoned there, and from 1868 Alcatraz was used to house military criminals. In addition to recalcitrant U.S. soldiers, prisoners included rebellious Indian scouts, American soldiers fighting in the Philippines who had deserted to the Filipino cause, and Chinese civilians who resisted the U.S. Army during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1907, Alcatraz was designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

In 1934, Alcatraz was fortified into a high-security federal penitentiary designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners in the U.S. penal system, especially those with a penchant for escape attempts. The first shipment of civilian prisoners arrived on August 11, 1934. Later that month, more shiploads arrived, featuring, among other convicts, infamous mobster Al Capone. In September, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, another luminary of organized crime, landed on Alcatraz.

In the 1940s, a famous Alcatraz prisoner was Richard Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” A convicted murderer, Stroud wrote an important study on birds while being held in solitary confinement in Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. Regarded as extremely dangerous because of his 1916 murder of a guard at Leavenworth, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. Stroud was not allowed to continue his avian research at Alcatraz.

Although some three dozen attempted, no prisoner was known to have successfully escaped “The Rock.” However, the bodies of several escapees believed drowned in the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay were never found. The story of the 1962 escape of three of these men, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, inspired the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz. Another prisoner, John Giles, caught a boat ride to the shore in 1945 dressed in an army uniform he had stolen piece by piece, but he was questioned by a suspicious officer after disembarking and sent back to Alcatraz. Only one man, John Paul Scott, was recorded to have reached the mainland by swimming, but he came ashore exhausted and hypothermic at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police found him lying unconscious and in a state of shock.

In 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz closed, citing the high expense of its maintenance. In its 29-year run, Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 convicts. In March 1964 a group of Sioux Indians briefly occupied the island, citing an 1868 treaty with the Sioux allowing Indians to claim any “unoccupied government land.” In November 1969, a group of nearly 100 Indian students and activists began a more prolonged occupation of the island, remaining there until they were forced off by federal marshals in June 1971.

In 1972, Alcatraz was opened to the public as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is maintained by the National Park Service. More than one million tourists visit Alcatraz Island and the former prison annually.

Aerial photo of Alcatraz Island, former maximum high-security federal prison, San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, California, USA
Alcatraz Island, former maximum high-security federal prison, San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, California, USA (

* 1988 Al-Qaeda formed at a meeting in Pakistan.

A meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan, between Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Dr. Fadl on 11th August 1988, resulted in the formation of the Islamic militant organization Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda, which means ‘the base’, originated in the decade long Muslim resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Starting as a civil war between Afghanistan’s communist government and anti-communist guerrillas in 1978, the Afghan War escalated when the Soviet Union sent its troops into Afghanistan in an attempt to shore up the beleaguered Communist government.

The jihad declared against the Soviet Union became an international rallying call, resulting in thousands of young Muslims from around the world flocking to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda originated as a kind of logistical network tasked with supporting, organizing and funding the resistance against the USSR’s troops.

Osama Bin Laden was one of the young Muslims who headed to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and he played an important organizational role in the fight against the USSR. The son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian construction magnate, Bin Laden had been heavily influenced in his youth by the sermons of Abdullah Azzam and Sayyid Qutb.

Generously funding the fight against the Soviet Union with his personal wealth, Bin Laden slowly developed plans for a more international organization. The “Gold Chain” support network allowed wealthy financiers from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf States to channel money to a “Bureau of Services” which was internationally used to recruit and train new fighters. Clandestine support for the rebels from the Saudi Arabian and United States’ government, which saw them both secretly channel billions of dollars to the cause in an attempt to undermine the Soviet Union, allowed the network overseen by Bin Laden to become an increasingly powerful entity.

In August 1988, with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan seemingly inevitable, Bin Laden met with his associates in a suburb of Peshawar to discuss the future of the organization they had created. Al Qaeda was born from the decision to create a “global jihad”, an organization which could build on the success of the Afghan campaign and became a nexus for jihad campaigns around the world.

Osama bin Laden holding a microphone
In this Oct. 7, 2011, file photo, Osama bin Laden is seen at an undisclosed location in this television image. A person familiar with developments said Sunday, May 1, 2011, that bin Laden is dead and the U.S. has the body. (AP Photo/Al Jazeera, File)

* 1973 American Graffiti opens.

On this day in 1973, the nostalgic teenage coming-of-age movie American Graffiti, directed and co-written by George Lucas, opens in theaters across the United States. Set in California in the summer of 1962, American Graffiti was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, and helped launch the big-screen careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford, as well as the former child actor and future Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard. The film’s success enabled Lucas to get his next movie made, the mega-hit Star Wars (1977).

George Lucas was born May 14, 1944, in Modesto, California, and attended film school at the University of Southern California. He made his directorial debut in 1971 with the futuristic feature THX 1138, which was based on an award-winning project he produced in film school. His next movie was American Graffiti, which followed two young men (Howard and Dreyfuss) who spend a final night cruising around town with their buddies before they are both scheduled to leave for college the next morning. One of the producers of the film was Francis Ford Coppola, who a year earlier had emerged from relative obscurity to direct the instant classic The Godfather. In addition to his Best Director nod, Lucas was also nominated for the American Graffiti screenplay, which he co-wrote with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck.

Lucas’ career-making space odyssey, Star Wars, broke box-office records and ushered in a new wave of filmmaking centered around special effects and fast-paced storylines. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and ultimately collected six Oscars, for Best Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Music, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Star Wars made millions in merchandise tie-ins and spawned multiple sequels, becoming one of the most popular franchises in movie history. Lucas struck gold again with the screenplay for 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Ford (whom Lucas also directed in three Star Wars films) as the globe-trotting archaeologist Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark also became a successful multi-film franchise.

In 1975, Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic, a company that has provided cutting-edge visual effects to a long list of films, including the Star Wars series, the Indiana Jones films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Men in Black and the Harry Potter movies.

Mels Drive In American Graffiti
Mels Drive In American Graffiti (The Entertainment Junkie – blogger)

* 1973 Hip Hop is born at a birthday party in the Bronx.

Like any style of music, hip hop has roots in other forms, and its evolution was shaped by many different artists, but there’s a case to be made that it came to life precisely on this day in 1973, at a birthday party in the recreation room of an apartment building in the west Bronx, New York City. The location of that birthplace was 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, and the man who presided over that historic party was the birthday girl’s brother, Clive Campbell—better known to history as DJ Kool Herc, founding father of hip hop.

Born and raised to the age of 10 in Kingston, Jamaica, DJ Kool Herc began spinning records at parties and between sets his father’s band played while he was a teenager in the Bronx in the early 1970s. Herc often emulated the style of Jamaican “selectors” (DJs) by “toasting” (i.e., talking) over the records he spun, but his historical significance has nothing to do with rapping. Kool Herc’s contribution to hip hop was even more fundamental.

DJ Kool Herc’s signature innovation came from observing how the crowds would react to different parts of whatever record he happened to be playing: “I was noticing people used to wait for particular parts of the record to dance, maybe [to] do their specialty move.” Those moments tended to occur at the drum breaks—the moments in a record when the vocals and other instruments would drop out completely for a measure or two of pure rhythm. What Kool Herc decided to do was to use the two turntables in a typical DJ setup not as a way to make a smooth transition between two records, but as a way to switch back and forth repeatedly between two copies of the same record, extending the short drum break that the crowd most wanted to hear. He called his trick the Merry Go-Round. Today, it is known as the “break beat.”

By the summer of 1973, DJ Kool Herc had been using and refining his breakbeat style for the better part of a year. His sister’s party on August 11, however, put him before his biggest crowd ever and with the most powerful sound system he’d ever worked. It was the success of that party that would begin a grassroots musical revolution, fully six years before the term “hip hop” even entered the popular vocabulary.

Kool Herc (on right) "The Godfather of Hip Hop"
Kool Herc (on right) “The Godfather of Hip Hop” (

* 1919 Weimar Constitution adopted in Germany.

On August 11, 1919, Friedrich Ebert, a member of the Social Democratic Party and the provisional president of the German Reichstag (parliament), signs a new constitution, known as the Weimar Constitution, into law, officially creating the first parliamentary democracy in Germany.

Even before Germany acknowledged its defeat at the hands of the Allied powers on the battlefields of the First World War, discontent and disorder ruled on the home front, as the exhausted and hunger-plagued German people expressed their frustration and anger with large-scale strikes among factory workers and mutinies within the armed forces. Beginning in 1916, Germany had basically been operating under a military dictatorship, the Supreme Army Command, led by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. In late October 1918, however, with defeat looming on the horizon, Hindenburg pushed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German government to form a civil government in order to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The Kaiser (King) and Reichstag subsequently amended the latter organization’s constitution of 1871, effectively creating a parliamentary democracy in which the chancellor of Germany, Prince Max von Baden, was responsible not to Wilhelm but to the Reichstag.

This was not enough, however, to satisfy the far leftist forces within Germany, who capitalized on the chaos of the last days of a losing war effort to lead a general workers’ strike that November 7, and call for the establishment of a socialist republic along the lines of the Bolshevik government in Russia. Hoping to pacify the radical socialists, von Baden transferred his powers to Ebert, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), on November 9. Over the next six months, the Reichstag, led by the SPD, worked to write a new constitution that would solidify Germany’s status as a parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, many within Germany blamed the government for what they saw as the humiliating terms imposed on the country by the victorious Allies in the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the treaty’s demands for German war reparations, justified by a clause that placed blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of Germany.

Under vicious attack from both the militarist right and the radical socialist left and identified by both sides with the shame of Versailles, the Weimar government and its constitution—signed into law on August 11, 1919—seemed to have a dim chance of survival. In this atmosphere of confrontation and frustration, exacerbated by poor economic conditions, right wing elements began to take an ever more pervasive hold over the Reichstag. This process, intensified by the worldwide depression that began in 1929, would culminate in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, who exploited the weakness of the Weimar system to lay the foundations for himself and his National Socialist German Workers’ (or Nazi) Party to dissolve the parliamentary government and take absolute control over Germany.

Poster with new constitution election results and the new German coat of arms.
Preparation and adoption of a new constitution (SlideShare)

Today’s Sources: 

* On This Day – History, Film, Music and Sport               

* New Historian                                       

* This Day In History – What Happened Today              

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

18 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… August 11th”

  1. I saw “Star Wars” in 1977 in what was the largest movie theatre in NYC outside of Manhattan (the other 4 boroughs) – Keith’s Triplex in Flushing, Queens.

    That same Summer is when hip-hop really started to become something. Guys used to hang out on sidewalks in the Bronx (and soon after in Brooklyn, Queens and other places) and rhyme over songs played on turntables in windows. They started running extension cords out the window to put turntables on small tables or milk crates, then someone got the idea to open up the lamp posts (on the bottom, just above the sidewalk) and hook up their turntables. It became a contest to see who had the loudest sound. 😀 It was mostly bragging and experiences in every day city life used in the rhymes at first, but Run DMC brought it to the masses. Eventually hip-hop became a form of protest and should be given praise for bringing many important issues into the national discussion. We owe a lot to people like KRS One, Chuck D and others.

    Great post. Sorry if my comment was long and preachy. A lot of people dismiss hip-hop as pretentious and unworthy. I happen to be a musician and most of my favorites are jamming-oriented rock bands like Hendrix, Santana, Robin Trower and Pink Floyd – though I also love Billy Preston and James Brown. Obviously, I like a variety of genres. 🙂

    P.S. I saw “American Graffiti” in a theatre for 75 cents. 😆

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No apology necessary. I didn’t know that Hip Hop helped foster social commentary. Thanks for that. Yes, Star Wars and American Grafitti were great movies. I must admit that I’m a Trekkie! Thanks for your comments, Roy.


        1. I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies and I don’t like them near as much as the Star Trek movies. The problem with Star Wars is that the plots are all just about the same thing – defeating the Empire. I have most of the original Star Trek series on cassette – useless now.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Super episode. Alcatraz is a very scary place to visit. Al-Qaeda is still a threat. I lived American Graffiti in Detroit. Hip Hop is not a favorite. Germany has had a revolution and it was nice getting the background. Thanks, John

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I surely enjoy your history posts, John. The Treaty of Versailles and subsequent Great Depression doomed the Weimar Republic. It never really had a chance of succeeding; but, its demise does provide us with a valuable lesson. Democracies tear themselves apart from within during times of great economic stress, and the outcome is always some form of authoritarianism. Brexit, Trump, Poland, and other similar events, should give warning to today’s western nations that all is not well inside their countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another amazing post…thank you, John. I agree with your comment to Opher – “fanaticism of any kind never serves anyone’s best interest.” Through the centuries, it seems religious fanaticism has been the greatest plague to mankind – though we humans can become fanatical about most anything. Loved the story about the beginnings of hip-hop and the story of George Lucas – fun stuff! Hope you have a fantastic day. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. So good to read these, and so informative too John. Osama Bin Laden seems to already be fading into history – but what a terrible negative impact he’s had on the world. Religious fanaticism is a curse. I remember American Graffiti so well. I’ll have to give it another look.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved American Graffiti too, Opher. I would imagine that bin Ladin is enjoying his reward in paradise. Fanaticism of any kind never serves anyone’s best interest. Thanks for your kind words and your insights, good sir.


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