Birdman of Alcatraz

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Robert Franklin Stroud (January 28, 1890November 21, 1963), known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, was a prisoner in Alcatraz who supposedly found solace from segregation in raising and selling birds.


His Life

Stroud was born in Seattle, Washington, on January 28, 1890, to Elizabeth and Ben Stroud. He was the couple's first child, although Elizabeth had two daughters from a previous marriage. Stroud left home at a young age, and by 1908 was in Cordova, Alaska, where he met and began a relationship with 36-year old Kitty O'Brien, a dance-hall entertainer and prostitute. In November 1908 they moved to Juneau, Alaska.

On January 18, 1909, while Robert was away at work, an acquaintance of theirs, F. K. "Charlie" Von Dahmer, took advantage of and viciously beat Kitty. On his return, Robert confronted Charlie and a struggle ensued resulting in Charlie being shot dead. Although Stroud's mother Elizabeth retained a lawyer for her son, he was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary on Puget Sound's McNeil Island on August 23, 1909.

On September 5, 1912, Stroud was transferred from McNeil Island to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. While at Leavenworth, Stroud was reprimanded by a guard in the cafeteria for a minor rule violation. Although minor, this violation could have annulled his visitation privilege to meet his younger brother, whom he had not seen in 8 years. Stroud stabbed and killed the guard and was sentenced to execution by hanging on May 27, 1916, but the trial was later invalidated. In a later trial he was given a life sentence. This trial was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court and a new trial was ordered and set for May 1918. On June 28, 1918 he was again sentenced to die by hanging. The Supreme Court intervened, but only to uphold the death sentence, which was scheduled to be carried out April 23, 1920.

At this point Stroud's mother appealed to President Wilson, who ordered a halt to the execution, reportedly gaining this privilege with the help of the presidentís wife. His sentence was altered to life imprisonment. Leavenworthís warden did not approve the presidential decision and ruled in retaliation that Stroud was to be held in segregation for the complete duration of his imprisonment.

While at Leavenworth, Stroud found three injured sparrows in the prison yard and kept them. He started to occupy his time raising and caring for his birds, soon switching from sparrows to canaries, which he could sell for supplies and to help support his mother. Soon thereafter, Leavenworthís management changed and the prison was now directed by a new warden. Admiring the possibility to present Leavenworth as a progressive rehabilitation penitentiary, the new warden furnished Stroud with cages, chemicals and stationeries to conduct his avian activities. Visitors were shown Stroud's aviary and many purchased his canaries. Over the years, he raised nearly 300 canaries in his cells and wrote two books, Diseases of Canaries and Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds. He made several important contributions to avian pathology, most notably a cure for the hemorrhagic septicemia family of diseases. He gained respect and also some level of sympathy in the bird-loving field.

Stroud had initially a close relationship with his mother. She helped him with legal proceedings many times, going so far as to have some presidential help or sympathy for her sonís execution punishment. While Stroud kept busy with his bird enterprise, he had numerous bird-loving correspondents whom he exchanged with. He started a regular correspondence with a woman named Della Mae Jones, and in 1931, she moved to Kansas and they started a business to sell Stroud's medicines. Stroudís mother forcedly condemned that relationship and moved away from the Leavenworth area. She also voiced negative arguments toward her sonís desires to be paroled which became a major obstacle in his attempts to be released from the prison system.

Soon, Stroudís activities created problems for the prison management. Under regulation each letter sent or received at the prison had to be read, copied and approved. He was so involved in his business that this alone could required a full-time prison secretary. Also, most of the time, his birds were let free to fly in his cells. With the very high number of birds he kept, his cell was allegedly dirty and Stroudís personal hygiene was reported to be gruesome. In 1931, an attempt to force Stroud to discontinue his business and get rid of his birds failed after Stroud and Jones publicised his efforts and undertook a massive letter- and petition-writing campaign that climaxed in a 50,000-signature petition being mailed to the president. The resultant outcry from the public allowed Stroud to keep his birds and he was even given a second cell to house them, but his letter-writing priviledges were greatly curtailed.

In 1933, however, Stroud took out an advertisement to publicise the fact that he had not received any royalties from the sales of Diseases of Canaries. In retaliation, the publisher complained to the warden, and as a result, proceedings began to transfer Stroud to Alcatraz, where he would not be permitted to keep his birds. Stroud, however, discovered a legal loophole, which would allow him to remain in Kansas if he were married there. He secretly married Della Jones in 1933, though his infuriated both prison officials, who would not allow him to correspond with his wife, and his mother, who cut off all contact with him for the rest of her life (she died in 1937). However, Stroud was able to keep his birds and his canary-selling business.

Stroud was finally transferred to Alcatraz on December 19, 1942. While there, he wrote two manuscripts: Bobbye, an autobiography; and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. The judge ruled that Stroud had the right to write and keep such manuscripts but upheld the wardenís decision of banning publication.

In 1959, with his health failing, Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri in 1959. Over the years, he fought in court the harsh Leavenworth wardenís decision to impose him segregation for the complete duration if his prison sentence. The judge ruled in his favor that the wardenís decision was unfair and illegal. However, his attempts to be released on the grounds that his extremely long sentence was cruel and unusual punishment were unsuccessful. Robert Franklin Stroud died in Springfield on November 21, 1963 after 54 years of incarceration. He had been studying French near the end of his life.

The Book and Film

Stroud became the subject of a 1955 book, Birdman of Alcatraz, by Thomas E. Gaddis.

In 1962 a movie of the same title was made. It starred Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Telly Savalas, Edmond O'Brien, Hugh Marlowe and Whit Bissell.

The movie was adapted by Guy Trosper from Gaddis' book. It was directed by John Frankenheimer.

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Burt Lancaster), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Telly Savalas), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Thelma Ritter) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Stroud was never allowed to see the film.

Alcatraz penitentiary had gained popularity and public exposure over the years. Therefore, when a movie was made about Stroudís incarceration at Alcatraz it generated great public appeal. Burt Lancasterís impersonation of Stroud stirred sympathy and some level mysticism in the general public. The Birdman of Alcatraz was now part of the popular culture. Petitions were being signed in theatre lobbies in favour of Stroudís release or parole.

Truth versus Fiction

According to those who knew Stroud while he was in prison, the characterization of Stroud as mild-mannered as presented in Gaddis's book and the subsequent film were largely fiction. The real Stroud had been described as a vicious, unrepentant killer who, according to all accounts, was disliked by most of his fellow inmates. He was kept in segregation not out of vindictiveness but because he was considered extremely dangerous. One inmate, upon hearing of the "Free Robert Stroud" campaign that accompained the film, reportedly quipped "They don't want to pardon Robert Stroud. They want to pardon Burt Lancaster".

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