15 Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. Virgin Islands

iStock
iStock

There’s a lot more to these Caribbean islands than cruise ships and gorgeous beaches. Read on to learn more about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history, customs, and a thing or two about pirates.

1. THE U.S. PAID $25 MILLION IN GOLD FOR THEM.

The islands of St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix fell under a rotating cast of European rulers in the span of three hundred years, including Holland, Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, Britain, and Denmark. After negotiating for 50 years, in 1917 the United States—seeing the islands’ strategic positioning, and worried that Germany might scoop them up first—officially bought in, purchasing what was then known as the Danish West Indies for $25 million in gold.

2. A FOURTH ISLAND RECENTLY JOINED THE PARTY.

Most visitors know the USVI’s three main islands, but many don’t know there’s a recently added fourth: tiny Water Island, located off the south coast of St. Thomas. Covering just 492 acres, and so named for its collection of fresh water ponds, Water Island fell under private ownership until 1944, when the U.S. bought it for a cool $10,000. In 1996, the U.S. transferred the island to local jurisdiction, making it what locals playfully call “The Last Virgin.” 

3. THE CAPITAL’S ORIGINAL NAME MEANT “TAP HOUSE.”

Settled by the Danish in 1666, the capital city today known as Charlotte Amalie, located on St. Thomas, was home to so many taverns that it was originally given the name Taphus, or “Tap House”. After nearly 30 years and much merriment, the Danes changed the name to honor King Christian V’s wife, Charlotte Amalie.

4. SUGAR AND RUM PRODUCTION MOVED THE CAPITAL.

After the Danish crown took control of the islands in 1754, it moved the capital 40 miles south, from Charlotte Amalie to Christiansted, located on St. Croix. The island was the main economic force in the region, with thriving rum and sugar industries that were driven by slave labor. After slavery was abolished in 1848, production declined steeply, and the crown moved the Danish West Indies capital back to Charlotte Amalie.

5. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS GAVE THE ISLANDS THEIR NAME.

The famed explorer landed at St. Croix on November 14, 1493, and was promptly chased off by the Caribs, an indigenous tribe. Sailing north, Columbus surveyed the islands that today include St. Thomas and St. John. In admiration of their beauty, he named them “Las Once Mil Virgenes,” for the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula—soon shortened to “Las Virgenes.”

6. A SLIPPERY GOVERNOR MADE THEM A PIRATES’ REFUGE.

In the late 17th century the Virgin Islands, and particularly St. Thomas, were known as a haven for pirates. Adolph Esmit, an early governor of St. Thomas, helped establish this reputation by offering safe harbor in exchange for favorable trade. In 1683, he helped the infamous Jean Hamlin escape capture by English forces, and even secured a getaway boat for the French pirate. After word of his misdeeds reached Denmark, Esmit was recalled—then reinstalled just three years later, after he promised authorities he knew the location of a sunken treasure.

7. IT HAS AN OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK.

Quelbe, a style of folk music that originated in the Virgin Islands, developed as a way for islanders to preserve their rich storytelling traditions. Also called “scratch band music,” Quelbe players have been known to turn all kinds of random household objects into instruments—from car mufflers to plywood, anything they can “scratch off” is considered fair game. In 2003, the U.S. Virgin Islands legislature passed a bill making Quelbe the official music of the Islands.

8. A FATEFUL CRUISE LED TO THE FOUNDING OF VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK.

One of America’s first venture capitalists (and the son of John D. Rockefeller) stopped off in St. John while cruising around the Caribbean. Struck by the island’s natural beauty, he began looking for ways to ensure its preservation. He came across an obscure report from the National Park Service concluding that the area was ideal for a national park, and so in 1956 he bought 5000 acres on St. John that became Virgin Islands National Park. Today, the park takes up more than two thirds of the island.

9. ST. JOHN WAS THE SITE OF A FAMOUS SLAVE REBELLION.

Slavery was a major industry in the Virgin Islands for more than two hundred years. For a brief period, though, the brutal institution was turned on its head. In 1733, enslaved individuals belonging to the Amina peoples of Ghana’s Ashanti empire, including several tribal leaders, defeated a garrison of Danish soldiers stationed at a fort on Coral Bay. The action sparked an uprising, and for six months St. John’s slaves controlled the island. In May 1734, French troops arrived and regained control. It would be more than a century before slavery was outlawed in the Virgin Islands. 

10. BLACKBEARD NEVER SET FOOT IN BLACKBEARD’S CASTLE.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Charlotte Amalie is a cylindrical stone fort known as Blackbeard’s Castle. Despite its name and local lore, there’s no evidence that Blackbeard, a.k.a. Edward Teach, ever used the structure. Danish soldiers built the fort in 1679 and called it Skytsborg Tower (“Sky Tower”). Name confusion aside, tourists flock to the structure for its 360-degree views of the city, and for access to the nearby swimming pools.

11. TWO WORDS: BIOLUMINESCENT BAY.

At a couple spots throughout the Virgin Islands, the water lights up at night as if electrified. Known as bioluminescence, this rare phenomenon is caused by the blooming of millions of tiny plankton called dinoflagellate. Conditions have to be just right, and one of the best places in the world to find them is Salt River Bay, located on St. Croix. There, outfitters offer night tours, often in glass bottom boats so tourists can get a close look at the light show.

12. CHARLOTTE AMALIE IS HOME TO ONE OF THE OLDEST SYNAGOGUES IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.

Built in 1833, the Synagogue of St. Thomas is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere, and the longest continuously run congregation amongst American states and territories. Perched on a hill in the center of town, it features sand floors and walls made from a mortar comprised of lime, sand, and molasses.

13. ALEXANDER HAMILTON SPENT PART OF HIS YOUTH IN CHRISTIANSTED.

The founding father and Broadway inspiration moved to the island of St. Croix with his family in 1765. In 1768, Alexander and his mother, Rachael, came down with a tropical fever that killed her, and nearly claimed his life, as well. Orphaned, Hamilton began working as a clerk at an import-export firm in Christiansted, where he quickly gained a reputation for being competent and highly literate. After publishing an essay in the Royal Danish-American Gazette about the experience of living through a hurricane, Hamilton gained local funding to further his education in New Jersey.

14. THE CUBAN EMBARGO SPURRED TOURISM TO THE ISLANDS.

After the U.S. instituted its embargo of Cuba in 1960, American tourists flocked to the Virgin Islands as a tropical alternative. Today, tourism is the USVI’s number one industry.

15. THERE’S A NATIONAL HOLIDAY CALLED ‘TRANSFER DAY.’

Every March 31st, the U.S. Virgin Islands commemorate their transfer from Danish to American authority. Transfer Day festivities typically include a ceremonial lowering of the Danish flag and raising of the U.S. flag, along with the serving of Red Grout, a Danish-inspired pudding made from guavas and tapioca. Next year’s centennial will be observed with festivals, concerts and parades throughout the islands.

What better way to explore the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history than in the Islands themselves? Learn more about the upcoming Centennial at VisitUSVI.com.

10 Wireless Chargers Designed to Make Life Easier

La Lucia/Moshi
La Lucia/Moshi

While our smart devices and gadgets are necessary in our everyday life, the worst part is the clumsy collection of cords and chargers that go along with them. Thankfully, there are more streamlined ways to keep your phone, AirPods, Apple Watch, and other electronics powered-up. Check out these 10 wireless chargers that are designed to make your life convenient and connected.

1. Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad; $40

Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad
Moshi

Touted as one of the world's fastest chargers, this wireless model from Moshi is ideal for anyone looking to power-up their phone or AirPods in a hurry. It sports a soft, cushioned design and features a proprietary Q-coil module that allows it to charge through a case as thick as 5mm.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

2. Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station; $57

Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station
Rego Tech

Consolidate your bedside table with this clock, Bluetooth 5.0 speaker, and wireless charger, all in one. It comes with a built-in radio and glossy LED display with three levels of brightness to suit your style.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

3. BentoStack PowerHub 5000; $100 (37 percent off)

BentoStack PowerHub 5000
Function101

This compact Apple accessory organizer will wirelessly charge, port, and store your device accessories in one compact hub. It stacks to look neat and keep you from losing another small piece of equipment.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

4. Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger; $85

Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger
Moshi

This wireless charger doubles as a portable battery, so when your charge dies, the backup battery will double your device’s life. Your friends will love being able to borrow a charge, too, with the easy, non-slip hook-up.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

5. 4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger; $41 (31 percent off)

4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger
La Lucia

Put all of those tangled cords to rest with this single, temperature-controlled charging stand that can work on four devices at once. It even has a built-in safeguard to protect against overcharging.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

6. GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger; $20 (31 percent off)

GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger
Origaudio

If you need to charge your phone while also using it as a GPS, this wireless device hooks right into the car’s air vent for safe visibility. Your device will be fully charged within two to three hours, making it perfect for road trips.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

7. Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad; $35 (30 percent off)

Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad
Bezalel

This incredibly thin, tiny charger is designed for anyone looking to declutter their desk or nightstand. Using a USB-C cord for a power source, this wireless charger features a built-in cooling system and is simple to set up—once plugged in, you just have to rest your phone on top to get it working.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

8. Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain; $20 (59 percent off)

Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain
Go Gadgets

This Apple Watch charger is all about convenience on the go. Simply attach the charger to your keys or backpack and wrap your Apple Watch around its magnetic center ring. The whole thing is small enough to be easily carried with you wherever you're traveling, whether you're commuting or out on a day trip.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

9. Wireless Charger with 30W Power Delivery & 18W Fast Charger Ports; $55 (38 percent off)

Wireless Charger from TechSmarter
TechSmarter

Fuel up to three devices at once, including a laptop, with this single unit. It can wirelessly charge or hook up to USB and USB-C to consolidate your charging station.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

10. FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table; $150 (24 percent off)

FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table
FoneSalesman

This bamboo table is actually a wireless charger—all you have to do is set your device down on the designated charging spot and you're good to go. Easy to construct and completely discreet, this is a novel way to charge your device while entertaining guests or just enjoying your morning coffee.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

10 Hardcore Facts About HBO's Oz

J.K. Simmons stars in HBO's Oz.
J.K. Simmons stars in HBO's Oz.
HBO

When HBO was looking to expand its programming to include hour-long dramas in the late 1990s, the network was intrigued by writer/producer Tom Fontana’s pitch about a maximum security prison and a specific area, dubbed Emerald City, where prisoners could have more leeway in the hopes it would allow for their rehabilitation. Fontana came up with the idea following his work on Homicide: Life on the Street, where murderers were sent away: He wanted to explore what happened next.

Before The Sopranos or The Wire, television’s golden age arguably began on HBO on July 12, 1997, when the premium network premiered Fontana's prison drama Oz. As HBO’s first attempt at an hour-long dramatic series, it laid the groundwork for the dozens of risk-taking, novel, and novelistic shows to follow. On the series' 20th anniversary, check out some facts on the cast, the gore, and the alternate series finale idea that was never filmed.

1. Oz's creator is the person you see getting tattooed in the intro.

A former playwright, Fontana got his big break in television with the 1980s NBC hospital drama St. Elsewhere. In an impressive display of commitment to Oz—especially since he didn’t know if the show would even last beyond a season—Fontana volunteered his arm to get an “Oz” tattoo for the opening credits montage. The tattoo artist kept retracing his needle work so the crew could get the best take. Eventually, the artist stopped, saying that he “can’t let this guy bleed anymore.”

2. Oz's Greek chorus monologues were a necessity.

Viewers who tuned in to Oz were in for a shock—the show featured the kind of graphic violence and casual nudity you’d find in an actual prison. But they were also sometimes puzzled by Fontana’s narrative habit of putting one of the prisoners, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), in front of the camera for fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies. Fontana said he chose this approach because “in prison, guys aren’t that forthcoming about what they think and what they feel because that leaves them open and vulnerable to attack ... so my thought was just to let someone articulate what all this craziness meant.”

3. Oz was filmed in a cracker factory.

Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Harold Perrineau, and Eamonn Walker in 'Oz'
Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Harold Perrineau, and Eamonn Walker in Oz.
Max Aguillera-Hellweg/HBO

To house the sprawling, 60,000-square foot prison set, HBO commandeered an abandoned National Biscuit Company (a.k.a. Nabisco) factory in Manhattan. (The building had been the first to mass-produce Oreo cookies for the company.) The space was obtained after Fontana couldn’t find any empty prisons in which to shoot.

4. Playing a Neo-Nazi in Oz made J.K. Simmons feel depressed.

Oz is probably best remembered for its sprawling ensemble cast, with actors like Chris Meloni, J.K. Simmons, and Perrineau all going on to successful careers; others, like Ernie Hudson and Rita Moreno, were already well-established. At the time, Simmons appeared to be having particular trouble inhabiting the repugnant skin of Vern Schillinger, the head of the prison’s Aryan population. Simmons referred to Schillinger in the third person and told The New York Times in 1999 that he became “depressed” as a result of the role. In an interview with NPR, Simmons also shared that fans would occasionally stop him in the street to let him know they endorsed Schillinger’s viewpoints.

5. Real ex-cons worked on Oz.

For realism’s sake, Fontana instructed his casting director to hire ex-cons as extras whenever he could. Not all of them were relegated to the margins: Chuck Zito, who had a recurring role as Italian mafia heavy Chucky Pancamo, was a then-member of the Hells Angels and had served six years in prison for various offenses. More notably, he received press coverage for allegedly knocking out Jean-Claude Van Damme at a strip club in 1998.

6. Tom Fontana didn't want to kill Simon Adebesi in Oz.

Dean Winters and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in 'Oz'
Dean Winters and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in Oz.
HBO

From the first episode, Fontana made sure viewers didn’t grow too fond of any single character: One of the ostensible leads of the show, Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda), was murdered at the conclusion of the pilot episode, and the series picked prisoners off with regularity from that point on. But Fontana wasn’t trigger-happy when it came to killing off Simon Adebisi, the scheming, toothpick-munching inmate with a tiny hat sitting precipitously on the side of his head, who was played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. “I didn't want to kill that character, but it was a necessity due to the actor's wanting to move on,” Fontana told CNN in 2003, “rather than me saying, 'This is the end of the story.'”

7. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje exposed himself at random on the set of Oz.

Like many of the performers on Oz, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was expected to be comfortable with frontal male nudity—both his own and that of his castmates. According to Fontana, the actor didn’t appear to have many inhibitions about it. “If in a scene it said, ‘Adebisi takes out his penis,’ he would go, ‘I don’t take out my penis in this scene. There’s no reason for me to do that,’” Fontana told The Toast in 2015. “And I’d say ok, Adewale, don’t take out your penis. I don’t care. The next scene he’d take out the penis. It wasn’t scripted for that, but suddenly there was the penis.”

8. Oz predicted special musical episodes.

Remember the musical episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer? Or Scrubs? Oz did it first. With a cast taken in large part from the New York theater scene, the series was able to assemble an impressive all-song-and-dance episode in 2002. The highlight: Nazi Schillinger (Simmons) and nemesis Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) in a duet.

9. There was a different ending planned for Oz.

After six seasons, Oz ended in 2003 with the surviving cast members being—spoiler alert—evacuated from Oswald State following a chemical attack. But Fontana originally wanted to do something else. He recalled reading about a prison town that once flooded, forcing inmates to work side-by-side with citizens to build sandbag barriers to protect the entire community. It was deemed too expensive to shoot.

10. Tom Fontana wouldn't let his mom watch Oz ... which was probably a good idea.

Despite her expressed desire to see her son’s work, Fontana told the press he was adamant that his then-75-year-old mother not watch Oz. “She said, 'I know a lot about what goes on in the world,’” Fontana said in 1997. “I said, 'You don't know about this.' This isn't a place I want my 75-year-old mother to go."