When Robert Franklin Stroud was 18 years-old, he fell in love with a prostitute twice his age. While Hollywood has convinced us that--after a quick montage full of picnicking and wacky clothes shopping--the two should have lived happily ever after, this was sadly not the case. When she was savagely beaten by an acquaintance of Robert's, he lost his temper and shot the man. One man was killed, a woman seriously beaten and another was sentenced for manslaughter, but perhaps most tragically was that nobody involved learned the heartwarming lesson that love can come from anywhere. They certainly learned that a bullet and a beating can come from anywhere, but that is significantly less heartwarming.
While incarcerated at Leavenworth prison in Kansas, Stroud found a new passion to replace whores and shooting: nursing sick sparrows back to health. Jesus! That's like being imprisoned for your love of heroin and arson and replacing that with Eskimo kisses. Calling it a turnaround would be to spit in the eye of understatement. Eventually Stroud's bird-love grew, and he expanded to raising and studying canaries. From 1920 to 1942, he made many great contributions to the field of avian pathology. He was not only the first person to discover a cure for septicemia, but also published two extremely influential books on his general findings.
Then he stabbed a prison guard.
Twenty-two years of respected ornithological developments, and then he straight up shanks a guard. That is the single longest period of lulling somebody into a false sense of security in recorded history. His birds were taken away, and he spent the rest of his life in Alcatraz, probably telling all the other inmates how they "should have seen that guard's face. He was like "oh hey professor bird-guy" and BAM! Stabby-time. Worth every year of intense study."
Miguel de Cervantes was born in Spain, but soon moved to Italy where he started a prosperous career in nothing. He lived as a drifter for a while and eventually got a job as a tax collector. At that point he promptly wound up in jail over accusations that he was skimming some cash off the top.
Anyway, rather than masturbating into a sock while fantasizing about stabbing his father, as most prisoners would, Cervantes decided it was time to launch his writing career. This was at a time where writing in the Western world was almost entirely fantastical and mostly reserved for the aristocratic class. In short, if it wasn't by a princess and about a unicorn, nobody gave a shit about your stories.
Miguel's book, hopefully to the surprise of nobody unless the education system has completely failed you, was called Don Quixote, and it is largely regarded as the first modern novel. His characters were normal: human, flawed and deep; his story-arc worked on several metaphorical levels; and the entire tale was woven with an emotional complexity unheard of at the time. It is widely regarded to be one of the greatest books in the history of ever, and its influence inspired some of the most revered authors of modern times.
...And while he was giving birth to this deep and ingenious progenitor of modern literature, he had to ask a giant, violent Italian with an authority complex just for permission to take a crap. At which point he was likely beaten for his insolence, and then beaten again for having the nerve to crap himself during beating-time. Chew on that, aspiring writer at Starbucks with your damned Apple notebook.
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To see other odd instances that altered the course of history, check out 5 People You've Never Heard Of Who Saved the World and 5 Accidental Inventions That Changed The World.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 3.3.2010) to see the fecal art Brockway draws every time he's incarcerated.