Before she began serving her five-month sentence for illegal insider trading in 2004, Martha Stewart came perilously close to comparing herself to a somewhat more noble former inmate. "There's many other good people who have gone to prison. Look at Nelson Mandela." Oh, we'll look at him, Martha. But we're not so sure you'll stack up. While we wouldn't envy the following folks, they certainly earned respect by spending time in the clink.
1. Nelson Mandela: The Political Prisoner
The son of a Tembu chief, Nelson Mandela [wiki] worked as a lawyer (an honest lawyer!) until becoming a leader of the African National Congress in 1949. Today, Mandela has a reputation for nonviolence, but in reality he embraced armed struggle and sabotage after the appalling 1960 massacre of nonviolent protesters in Sharpeville.
After admitting he helped found Spear of the Nation, the ANC's military wing, Mandela was sent to prison for life. During his 28 years in jail, the charismatic Mandela became even more popular among black South Africans, and his writings from prison, particularly I Am Prepared to Die, galvanized international opposition to apartheid. Released in 1990, Mandela made the most of his freedom. Within four years, he helped negotiate an end to apartheid, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and became South Africa's first black president.
2. 50 Cent: The Platinum Prisoner
In the hip-hop world, nothing sells like street cred. Anyone can rhyme about prison and shootings and drug deals - but it's the precious rapper who can claim nine bullet wounds and several incarcerations that'll move those albums.
For better or for worse, 50 Cent's [wiki] payment of dues in jail certainly played a role in his seven-figure record contract. After all, the rap world was starving for authenticity, and 50 (aka Ben Jackson) was a true gangster in the Tupac mold. His résumé includes growing up selling crack and surviving being shot nine times in 2000 (he's also been stabbed!).
Many critics, and some fellow rappers, have attributed his success more to his life's story than his mediocre rhyming. But it's probably not a trade worth making - most ex-con crack dealers who get repeatedly shot and occasionally stabbed tend not to end up with platinum albums.
3. Adolf Hitler: The Palace-Bound Prisoner
These days, Adolf Hitler [wiki] is perhaps history's least admired individual. But during his reign as Führer, Hitler's time in prison was seen as proof he sacrificed for National Socialism and Germany.
In reality, though, his hard time wasn't particularly hard. Sentenced to five years in prison after failing spectacularly to take over the country in 1923, Hitler served only nine months. Also, he was "jailed" in a castle, and all his friends were either in jail with him or free to visit.
What's a poor inmate to do? At the castle, Hitler decided to write (or dictate, actually) Mein Kampf, his self-aggrandizing autobiography/study in irrational hatred. Hitler originally gave the book the catchy title Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice, which Nazi publishers smartly shortened to the catchier My Struggle. Soon enough, much of Germany admired Hitler's struggle - even if he was the really lying, stupid coward.
4. Leonard Peltier: The Pine Ridge Prisoner
While America was extricating itself from Vietnam in the early 1970s, a minor war was brewing on the home front. The American Indian Movement (AIM), advocating a return to Native traditions, was locked in a fierce battle with those Indians who supported, and were supported by, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some 60 Native Americans died, but the story didn't become big news until June 26, 1975, when two FBI agents were killed during a gunfight on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. AIM activist Leonard Peltier [wiki] was convicted of the murders.
Although quite probably guilty, many (including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Amnesty International) have argued that Peltier is a political prisoner. President Clinton considered pardoning him in 2001 but didn't. Perhaps hoping to pardon himself, Peltier ran for president in 2004 as the candidate for the somewhat ironically named Peace and Freedom Party.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Pacifist Prisoner
The most prominent theologian in Hitler's Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer [wiki] openly and courageously opposed Nazism and condemned the church for "staying silent when it should have cried out." Although a pacifist, Bonhoeffer participated in a lengthy struggle to overthrow the Nazis that culminated in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler.
Already imprisoned for helping Jews escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer's connection to the group resulted in his execution on April 9, 1945. His brilliant Letters and Papers from Prison remains in circulation, however, and is required reading for contemporary theologians.
Among the first thinkers to consider the role of Christianity in an increasingly secular world, the suffering Bonhoeffer lived his theology. "God is weak and powerless in the world," he wrote, "and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which He is with us to help us."
The article above, from mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, is published in Neatorama with permission.
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