Robert Stroud: Who Was the Birdman of Alcatraz?

On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz closed its doors after being in operation for 29 years. We explore one of its most notorious prisoners, convicted murderer Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
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Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz photo, via Getty Images

Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz photo, via Getty Images

The dichotomy of Robert Stroud is a fascinating one. He was a convicted murderer and a diagnosed psychopath, but during his over five-decade tenure in prison, he became a respected ornithologist who authored two books on canaries and their diseases. But Stroud vacillated back and forth from being a seemingly rehabilitated prisoner to diving back into criminal behavior.

Born in Seattle in 1890, Stroud grew up with an abusive and alcoholic father. He ran away at the age of 13, only to emerge as a pimp in Alaska at 18. In 1909 he murdered a bartender for allegedly not paying his prostitute for her services. When he went to jail for his crime, he attacked a hospital orderly and later stabbed an inmate. After receiving an additional six months sentencing for his violent actions, he was transferred to a penitentiary in Kansas, and it's there where he stabbed a guard to death for not being allowed to see his brother during visitation hours. That murder earned him a death sentence by hanging, but after his mother begged for his life to be spared, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence in 1920. Stroud would now live the rest of his life in prison without parole.

The next 30 years would be a transformative time for the notorious criminal. Despite being in solitary confinement at Leavenworth penitentiary, Stroud would take a profound interest in canaries and was eventually allowed to breed hundreds of them in adjoining cells. His observations that he recorded in his book, Diseases of Canaries (1933), were important to the study of the species and would soon gain the respect of ornithologists. However, despite his accomplishments, Stroud's vices still lingered within him. Years into his research, prison officials discovered he was secretly using some of his requested equipment to make alcohol in his cell. When his birds and equipment were taken away from him, Stroud busied himself by writing about the penal system.

In 1942 Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz and spent the next 17 years of his life there, mostly in the prison hospital. In 1959 he made one final move — this time, to a federal prison in Missouri where he died of natural causes on November 21, 1963. In his last years, he was said to have been studying French.

Despite his violent criminal past, Stroud was looked upon favorably in his final years. One judge even described him as a modest man "with a genuine love for birds." Carl Sifakis, author of The Encyclopedia of American Prisons, called him a "brilliant self-taught expert on birds, and possibly the best-known example of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the U.S. prison."