Born in 1890 in Seattle, Washington, Robert Stroud began his 54-year stay behind bars after killing a man in 1909. He developed an interest in ornithology at Leavenworth Federal Prison, where he breeded canaries and wrote two books on the subject. Following his transfer to Alcatraz Prison, Stroud became known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" with the release of a biography and a feature film of the same name. Part of a manuscript he wrote about the federal prison system was published in 2014, more than 50 years after his death.
Early Years and Incarceration
Robert Franklin Stroud, who earned fame as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," was born on January 28, 1890, in Seattle, Washington. Raised by an abusive father, he stopped attending school after reaching the third grade. At age 13, he ran away from home.
At 18, Stroud made his way to Alaska territory to work on a railroad construction gang. He began a relationship with an older prostitute named Kitty O'Brien, and in early 1909, after O'Brien was beaten by a former lover, Stroud shot and killed the offender. (Some sources say Stroud was her pimp, and killed the man over failure of payment.)
Sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter, Stroud was shipped to the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington, where he proved a difficult inmate. He assaulted a hospital orderly on one occasion and stabbed a fellow inmate on another, earning an additional six months to his sentence.
In 1912, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. He displayed an interest in learning at his new facility, taking university extension courses in mechanical drawing, engineering, music, theology and mathematics. However, the violent tendencies did not subside: After his brother was turned away in an attempted visit in 1916, Stroud stabbed a guard to death in the prison mess hall.
Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. However, President Woodrow Wilson in 1920 commuted the sentence to life imprisonment without parole, and Leavenworth's warden determined that Stroud would serve his sentence in solitary confinement.
The 'Birdman' is Hatched
During a break in the prison yard in 1920, Stroud came upon a fallen nest with baby sparrows. He took the birds back to his cell, sparking his longtime fascination with ornithology. Stroud began reading every book he could acquire on the subject, and recorded his own observations on behavior and illness that the books failed to cover. He was granted permission to raise and breed canaries, and reached a point where he had 300 of them living in cigar boxes in an adjoining cell. He also built a makeshift laboratory to develop homemade medicines for them, which he sold via mail order.
After successfully having a 60,000-word manuscript smuggled out of the prison, Stroud saw his Diseases of Canaries published in 1933. He continued his research, leading to the 1943 publication of his second book, Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds. Filled with pages of his own careful illustrations, the Digest came to be considered one of ornithology’s authoritative works.
Later Prisons and Death
In late 1942, Stroud was transferred – without his beloved birds – to the U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, off the coast of San Francisco, California. Still in isolation, he continued writing, producing manuscripts on the history of the U.S. prison system and an autobiography, though he was denied permission to release them.
In 1955, Stroud was the subject of Thomas E. Gaddis's acclaimed biography Birdman of Alcatraz. While detailing the prisoner’s violent behavior, the book also painted him as a man fighting to maintain his dignity within exceedingly difficult conditions.
In 1959, Stroud was again transferred, to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. There, he finally earned a reprieve from his long stay in solitary confinement, taking a job in the prison print shop. In 1962, the feature film Birdman of Alcatraz was released in theaters, featuring Burt Lancaster in an Academy Award-nominated role as a mild-mannered, reformed version of Stroud.
Despite the increased attention, Stroud was unsuccessful in his attempts to attain parole. He also filed a lawsuit to have his manuscripts released, and a decision was still pending when he was discovered dead in his cell, from natural causes, on November 21, 1963.
From Beyond the Grave
Stroud's manuscripts went into probate, but his lawyer, Dudley Martin, sought to acquire them as administrator of the deceased inmate's will. He finally obtained the manuscripts in 1984 and tried to have them published, but found no takers, as publishing houses were leery of potential lawsuits from Alcatraz officers.
After the statute of limitations passed, Looking Outward, A Voice From the Grave finally appeared in eBook form in February 2014. Among other details, the book reveals Stroud's homosexuality and the corruption rife among prison guards and wardens. With the movie rights sold and the promise of additional volumes on the way, it seemed likely the Birdman's story would remain popular in the public's imagination.
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