That Time America Attacked the British Isles

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We usually think of the American Revolutionary War as being fought strictly in North America, but naval battles were also fought in European waters both by American forces and by their French and Spanish allies. The Continental Navy was dwarfed by the size and strength of the Royal Navy, and was primarily tasked with harassing merchant and cargo ships to disrupt British commerce and supply lines.

After some success at this in the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea, though, an American captain named John Paul Jones decided on a bold plan: he would sabotage the English port of Whitehaven, in what would be the only direct attack on the British mainland during the war.

Jones chose Whitehaven not because it was particularly valuable—though it did host a few hundred supply ships—but because he used to sail from it as a child and knew he could find his way into, around, and out of it in the dark. The plan was to burn British ships that would be moored close together and stuck in low tide in Whitehaven’s harbor.

In the early morning of April 23, 1778, Jones split 30 volunteers between two boats and rowed from his ship, the Ranger, to the forts that guarded the north and south ends of the harbor. Each crew—armed with pistols, swords and combustible “candles” made of canvas dipped in brimstone—was to capture a fort and then begin to set the nearby ships ablaze. 

Strong tides and shifting winds slowed their journey in and the boats didn’t reach the harbor until almost dawn, giving them little time to work under the cover of darkness. Jones and his crew scaled the walls of the southern fort by climbing on each other’s shoulders, captured the guards, and spiked the cannons so they couldn’t be used against the raiders during their retreat. 

Meanwhile, the other crew’s lanterns ran out of fuel by the time they reached the north fort and they were unable to light their candles. Instead of securing the fort, they raided a nearby public house to find a light, but reportedly got distracted and “made very loose with the liquor” they found there. Some of the men would later claim they failed to take the fort because they’d been scared off by strange noises. 

As Jones left the south fort and headed toward the docks, he was dismayed to find that none of the ships were on fire yet, and his own crew’s lantern had also gone out. With the sun coming up and the townspeople beginning to stir, the captain decided to concentrate his efforts on the largest ship in the harbor, the Thompson, which was full of coal bound for Ireland. After finding a light at a house, the saboteurs lit their candles and tossed them into the ship’s holds, and set fire to a barrel of tar that had been spilled on its deck. 

The fire began to grow nicely, but the earlier confusion at the north end of the harbor put another kink in Jones's plans. One of the sailors, an Irishman who had only enlisted in the Continental Navy to get back across the Atlantic to home, had snuck away while the crew was occupied at the pub and began going house to house banging on doors to warn people that buildings and boats were going to be burned by “pirates.” 

The townspeople rushed to the harbor, putting out the fire on the Thompson and forcing the Americans to retreat. Jones and his men, minus the traitor, ran toward their boats with three prisoners—including a man they had found doing some early morning fishing from a pier—and headed back to the Ranger

Once aboard the ship, Jones decided to sail to Kirkcudbright, Scotland and kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, hoping he could exchange the earl and his other prisoners for Americans who had been captured by the British. When they arrived, the earl was away in London, so the crew settled for stealing his silver tableware—including a teapot still wet from breakfast—before heading back to sea (Jones eventually returned the stolen items to the earl after the war). 

In the end, the raid did little physical damage. Whitehaven’s citizens were able to extinguish the fire on the Thompson before the flames could spread to the other ships or the harbor buildings, and estimates of the damage ran from 250 to 1250 pounds. But the psychic blow was greater, and the British were rattled by the thought that the American rebels could reach them at home and increased the fortifications along their shores. 

Jones eventually retired to Paris and died there in 1792. In 1906, the U.S. ambassador to France recovered Jones’s body and returned it to America for re-burial at the United States Naval Academy. For his exploits during the Revolution, Jones was celebrated at home as one of the “fathers of the American Navy,” but remembered as a mere pirate in England. Whitehaven did get over his attack, though, and at the inaugural Whitehaven Maritime Festival in 1999, the harbor commissioners proclaimed an official pardon for Jones’s “act of gross aggression” and offered to waive the fees for the use of the harbor for one American Navy vessel once a year. 

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.