Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Ghost of the "Birdman of Alcatraz”

Robert Stroud’s life story was first told in a book in 1955 and then in a movie starring Burt Lancaster in 1962 both entitled "Birdman of Alcatraz." Both portrayed his life story while he served time for murder first at Leavenworth and then later at Alcatraz. 

Both portrayed him as a ‘kindly’ reformed prisoner who spent years studying bird diseases and how to cure them. But as usual, this Hollywood glossy version reflected only small parts of the real truth.

Robert Stroud was far from a ‘model’ prisoner.

In 1909 Stroud shot and killed a man in Juneau, Alaska. Stroud pimped for a prostitute who was cheated by a “john.” This “john” had paid her $2.00 instead of the expected $10.00. 

Stroud angry, because he didn’t get his usual cut, went to this man’s residence and shot him five times and then took his wallet. He was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to serve twelve years at McNeil Island prison in Washington State.

Two years later at McNeil Island, he stabbed a fellow inmate for being a ‘snitch.’ He was tried for assault and six months were tacked on to his sentence. 

During this time he also viciously attacked a prison hospital orderly. This man had reported him for using intimidation and threats in an attempt to procure narcotics. 

In 1912 he was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas—due partially to his ceaseless threats to other inmates.

Robert Stroud
At Leavenworth, in the spring of 1916 Stroud refused to give a guard his “number’’ which was a minor infraction. The next day a long-awaited visit with his brother was canceled because of this infraction. 

Stroud during the noon meal that same day in the prison mess hall asked this guard if he had reported him. When the guard refused to respond, Stroud pulled out a concealed knife and stabbed and killed him in front of hundreds of other inmates.

For this crime, he was convicted of first-degree murder. He was to be hanged in 1918. But his mother who had moved to Kansas to be close to him desperately pleaded for his life. In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to life in prison. 

The Leavenworth warden because of Stroud’s unpredictable and violent outbursts ordered that he be permanently placed in a segregation unit.

Stroud was an enigma because he had an IQ of 134, but he ate with his fingers, hunched over like an animal. His horrible personal hygiene presented a problem for fellow inmates and prison officials alike. 

It wasn’t until 1934 that he was formally diagnosed as a psychopath. 

While at Leavenworth, he found an injured sparrow in the yard; he took it back to his cell and nursed it back to health. This started his interest in birds. This interest was his one and only redeeming feature.

The warden at Leavenworth used Stroud’s interest in birds to present a model of  “progressive rehabilitation” to the public. Shroud played along because he had found a way to raise some money for his mother who was fighting for his release. 

Over the next years, he raised over 300 canaries, which he sold to visitors at the prison. Stroud’s scientific observations of the canaries he kept did later benefit the research on the canary species. He wrote two books on this subject. He also made a contribution to avian pathology. All of this endeared him to people in the field. 

In contrast to this, he allowed his birds to fly freely in his cell, which resulted in quite a mess, which he never cleaned up. 

The massive correspondence he began to receive also became a burden for the prison for each letter coming in and going out had to be screened. A full-time secretary had to be hired just for this purpose.

Prison officials finally fed up with Stroud’s bird business tried to shut him down. 

He had Delle Mae Jones, a bird researcher in Indiana, which he had corresponded with alert the newspapers and start a petition drive. A 50,000-signature petition was sent to the President. This worked for the prison even gave Stroud an adjourning cell for his birds and his research. 

Jones became so close to Stroud; she moved to Kansas and formed a business in 1931 with him where they sold his bird medicines under the name “Stroud’s Specific." It was widely debated at the time if these remedies were actually useful.

In 1933 Stroud discovered that there were plans to move him to Alcatraz, he knew he would no longer be permitted to keep birds. 

Stroud, however, discovered a Kansas law that forbade the transfer of prisoners if they were married in Kansas. He arranged to marry Delle Mae Jones by proxy, which infuriated the prison officials, who would not let him correspond with his new wife.

The first irony here was Stroud was a violent prisoner —this is one reason that the prison officials kept him from the general prison population. 

The second irony was Stroud lost his business and birds when it was discovered that some of the equipment he had requested for his lab he had used to build a homemade alcohol still.

The third irony is his mother didn’t like Delle—she believed all women were bad for her son. Where once she had been a strong advocate for him, helping with legal battles, etc., she now argued against her son’s application for parole, in fact, she became a significant obstacle in his attempts to be released. She moved away from Leavenworth and had no further contact with him.

Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz in December of 1942. When he was transferred, this note was placed upon the warden’s notebook page with his mug shot. Reason for transfer:

“In view of this man’s homicidal traits and impulsivity dangerous tendencies, he cannot be released in the general population…they feel that it would be possible to confine this man safely at Alcatraz…also wishes to call attention to need for eliminating the unsanitary condition…from this man’s bird breeding activities here…Recommend transfer to Alcatraz.”

At Alcatraz, Stroud spent six years in segregation where he did have some contact with other prisoners, but as things worsened he was placed in solitary confinement in an isolated area of the hospital wing for the last eleven years, he was at Alcatraz. 

This double cell had no toilet, so Stroud used a bedpan. 

One priest who visited the prison stated he went out of his way to avoid being seen as he passed Stroud’s prison door—even going as far as to duck down. He said if Stroud spotted him, he would endlessly babble on and on.

Stroud having access to the prison library began studying law. He petitioned the government stating that his lengthy prison term amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

Another contrast—Stroud was a fan of child pornography. He received many letters from people who were fans of his bird knowledge. Some of these fans were children. Prison officials confiscated a few letters from Stroud in response to these children that contained suggestive remarks. 

In 1959, Stroud in poor health was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. In 1963 he died at the age of 73, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

To this day Alcatraz, a very haunted place has one cell that is more active than all the rest—this is the double cell that Stroud lived in for eleven years in solitary confinement. Full-body apparitions are spotted in this area.

So Robert Stroud was a cold-blooded killer, but the general public because of the book and film "Birdman of Alcatraz” had a totally different view of him. 

I remember seeing this film as a child myself and thinking how cruel it was they never released him. The public, in general, felt the same because, after the release of this film, which Burt Lancaster won an Oscar for best actor, many people protested for the release of Robert Stroud.

One fellow prison inmate who heard about the public outcry for Stroud’s release stated: “They want Burt Lancaster to be set free not Robert Stroud.”

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