Robert Stroud: The Birdman of Alcatraz
I research these topics in my spare time so I can share what I am passionate about with others. I'm a stay-at-home-Mom who homeschools three children - sometimes I make mistakes in the stories that I share. Please correct me and I will make the appropriate changes. I like to add my own thoughts while I'm writing and keep it conversational throughout each piece. I like to keep things "light and fun", even when discussing dark subjects like true crime. I agree that my writing style is not for everyone and I apologize if you don't like it. All the opinions expressed in the following piece are my own. And yes, sometimes I use Wikipedia as a source but never solely.
Have you heard of Robert Stroud? Stroud was an incredibly brutal individual who violently murdered a man when he was only19 years old. He then spent the next 54 years in prison, 42 of which were spent in complete isolation.
This cruel man was described as “an aggressive homosexual with a bad temper.” He had a genius IQ of 134 and preferred isolation so he could study books on a wide variety of subjects. This psychopath, who hated the company of other people, and was prone to murderous outbursts, was a self-taught ornithologist. A scientist who studies birds. He was especially fond of canaries. Yep, little tiny cute canaries. I guess even murderers need a soft spot for something.
Follow me, as I tell you the story of The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Robert Franklin Stroud was born in 1890 in or around Seattle, Washington. He was close to his mother but feared his violent and abusive father. He was pulled from school in the third grade to help his father on the family farm. Stroud loved school and was heartbroken to be taken out.
By the tender age of 13, he had run away from home to be a hobo. Riding the rails on an epic adventure. But this life was difficult and the people that he rode alongside were often violent, would steal from him, and (I’m speculating based on other research around this time period) some may have sexually assaulted young Stroud.
Around the time that he was 16-years-old, he had made his way back to Washington and was working installing electrical fixtures. Electrical work is fucking tricky! Even my brilliant husband, who can figure out almost anything with his hands has trouble with electrical work. It is really amazing to me that he could figure this out at only 16-years-old. Especially at a time when electricity wasn’t widespread.
Being back with his family was hard on young Stroud. He wanted to escape his father. At 18-years-old he made a plan to move to Juneau, Alaska to start working on a new railroad. However, that plan didn’t last long and soon he was working as a pimp, residing in a dance hall, and living with a woman nearly twice his age.
This woman was Kitty O’Brien (I tried to find a picture of her but was unsuccessful). They met while at a saloon in Cordova, AL. There are a few differing tales of how they met, their relationship, and whatever feelings they may have had for each other.
One story says that they met and it was love at first sight. Like a sappy Hollywood romance movie. Some stories say that she nursed him back to health after a nasty bought with pneumonia that nearly killed him. And finally, the most commonly accepted storyline, is that he met her and quickly became her pimp. He treated her roughly and was a very commanding presence.
Despite whatever their relationship truly was, they moved to Juneau, AL together in 1909.
One night, Stroud invited his friend Charlie Dahmer over for drinks and dinner. I tried to find pictures of this man also but the search kept showing me pictures of Jeffrey Dahmer. Definitely the wrong Dahmer. At some point, he left Dahmer alone with Kitty and went to run an errand. It is speculated that he left them alone so Kitty could “perform her services”. When Stroud returned, he found Kitty bruised, bloody, and beaten. Dahmer had stolen her locket and refused to pay for sex (allegedly). Stroud, in a fit of pure rage, hunted down Dahmer at a local bar and shot him. He then took the man’s wallet and fled the scene.
He later told police that he had shot Dahmer in self-defense. He claimed that he had confronted Dahmer about the beating and the theft and when he became violent, Stroud shot him.
Stroud was quickly arrested. At this point in time, Alaska was not yet a state so he was transferred and charged in Federal Court. His court-appointed attorney urged him to plead guilty, saying that he could get him off with a lighter sentence for manslaughter. He estimated that Stroud would serve 2 or 3 years max. Stroud agreed and entered his guilty plea.
The presiding judge brought down the hammer on Stroud and gave him the maximum – 12 years in a federal penitentiary. He was officially convicted in 1911 when he was only 21 years old.
He was sent to serve his sentence at McNeil Island, a federal penitentiary in Washington State. Specifically on Puget Sound. Upon entering the prison it was noted that he was “violent and difficult to manage”. It was also noted that he was sullen and moody. Can’t really blame him. I can imagine that entering prison in the early 20th century would make a lot of people moody and sullen.
Not long after arriving at McNeil Island, he viciously assaulted a hospital orderly after the man wouldn’t give him morphine. He also stabbed a man in the shoulder with a paring knife while working in the kitchen. Really? They gave a man described as violent - a knife?!
During his short stint at McNeil Island Prison, Kitty visited him once and regularly wrote letters. At least on a weekly basis. After her visit, he stopped hearing from her. She ghosted him – or so he thought. It was later learned, that Stroud’s mother had requested all contact be stopped between Kitty and her son. She blamed this woman for her precious son’s incarceration.
Not long after these attacks, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. Supposedly for overcrowding. I suspect that they just wanted Stroud to be someone else’s problem. Sometime between 1912 and 1916. I have read and researched multiple men that were sent to Leavenworth – it was literally hell on earth. I think I might do a historical deep dive into the prison in the next few write-ups. What do you think? Is that something that sounds interesting?
While at Leavenworth, Stroud constantly berated the guards and other prisoners with insults and aggressive actions. He would threaten anyone and everyone. Because of his violent tendencies, he was placed in isolation. He preferred this and educated himself with books. He took university extension courses and did excellently. He may have only had a third-grade education but he picked up on new information quickly and with understanding. He was a total genius! It’s rather remarkable. Imagine what he could have been if he were born today. Well, in America it would probably cost him $500,000 for a decent scientific-based degree. A farm boy might struggle to pay that hefty bill. Damnit American university school system – that’s a rant for another day.
He enrolled in a 10-month higher mathematics course and completed it in only four months. He also busied himself with classes in astronomy and structural engineering. Ya know, the light stuff. He earned A’s in every course he ever took. He read every scientific and mathematics-based book that he could get his hands on. He even dabbled in some religious readings but never seemed to take any religion seriously.
He may have been bettering his mind but he was still violent towards the guards and other inmates. His brother was scheduled to visit on March 26, 1916. Unfortunately, the night before Stroud was busted for talking after light outs to a man in the cell next to his. This was one of the rare occasions where he was not in isolation. His visitation privileges were revoked and he was denied a visit from his brother. This enraged Stroud, who took the action as a slight against his character. He vowed that there would be hell to pay.
In the following days, he stabbed the guard in the mess hall in front of eleven inmates. He had fashioned a six-inch shiv. It killed the guard almost instantly. The guard had attempted to defend himself with his club but was quickly beaten back and stabbed to death.
He was convicted of this murder on May 2, 1916. First-degree murder – so he planned the murder. It wasn’t something he did on a whim or in the heat of the moment. For his crime, he was sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting his death, he was placed in a small isolated cell that overlooked the courtyard. In the courtyard, they were constructing the gallows where he would hang. He watched them work every day.
His mother worked diligently to have his retried again and again. He was retried in 1917 and 1918 with the same result – Guilty. Death by hanging. After the third trial was unsuccessful, his mother appealed directly to Woodrow Wilson and his wife. Pleading for her son’s life in a letter. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted Stroud’s sentence to life in prison without parole. He was to remain in solitary for the remainder of his life.
Stroud was pleased with this outcome. He would live and he could be alone.
He spent the next 30-years at Leavenworth. This is where his passion blossomed.
One day, while in the recreation yard, he found a bird that had been blown out of its nest and was injured. He nursed the young bird back to health and raised it well into adulthood. He would remain fascinated with them for the rest of his life.
Stroud took a scientific approach with his birds. He would study them, tend to them, and carefully monitor their habits and physiology. Prisoners were allowed pets at Leavenworth and he was given cages, chemicals, and equipment by the warden. The warden was intrigued by the research that Stroud was conducting and thought the work kept his mind busy during the long, lonesome hours in isolation. Stroud was also allowed to sell the birds so he was bringing in a steady income.
Stroud took pages and pages of intricate notes on the nearly 300 birds that he raised through the years. His most notable contribution to the field of ornithology was a medicine that cured hemorrhagic septicemia family of diseases in birds. He was gaining respect and credibility in the field.
All of this fantastic work attracted the attention of Della Mae Jones (there are a TON of Della Mae Jones-Stroud’s out there. I don’t want to share the wrong picture). She was a bird researcher from Indiana. When the prison tried to shut down Stroud’s business because they thought it was filthy work (Stroud would let the birds fly around his cell during the day. They made a disgusting mess of it) she collected 50,000 petition signatures to keep him in business. As a compromise, Stroud was given access to the adjoining cell.
Stroud and Jones married during this time. The marriage infuriated his mother and she moved away. Never talking to her son again for the rest of her life. She had been his strongest supporter then just poof – she was gone. I guess she felt “replaced” after her precious baby boy found another woman.
Jones moved to Kansas in 1931 and started working as Stroud’s business partner. She would help him sell his birds and his medicine. She eventually smuggled enough of his notes out to have a book published. The Diseases of Canaries, 1933.
His business was booming! But it all quickly overwhelmed the prison staff. Every piece of mail addressed to Stroud had be opened and inspected. There was so much mail that they had to hire a full-time secretary just to process his mail. They wanted to shut him down and didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to present itself.
In 1942, it was discovered that Stroud was using some of his scientific equipment to distill alcohol. This was just the thing the prison needed to shut him down. They were elated. He was transferred to Alcatraz (an island prison in the bay of San Fransisco). He was not told of the transfer until moments before being shipped out. Heartbreakingly, Alcatraz did not allow pets. So all of his birds were sent to his brother. I bet the brother sold them or released them. We don’t hear much of anything about him.
He would spend his final 17 years at Alcatraz. Six years in solitary and eleven in the prison hospital. He was assessed by a psychologist or psychiatrist and diagnosed as a psychopath. He was described as “an aggressive homosexual with a bad temper.” Well, he had been in isolation for a major chunk of his life. Being alone is not healthy for the human brain. We are pack creatures – we need human interactions. His brain must have been going stir crazy. He did have some interaction with a guard while at Alcatraz. They would play checkers through the bars during the day. By today’s standards, he would definitely have been classified as a sexual predator.
During the many long years that Stroud was in prison, there was a campaign to have him released so he could continue his ornithology research. They obviously didn’t know how dangerous he actually was. Despite his temper mellowing as he aged.
In his final years, his health declined and he was sent to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. He died of natural causes on November 21, 1963. At the age of 73. All-in-all he had spent 54 years of his life in prison – 42 of which had been in solitary confinement. Even on his deathbed, he was continuing to further his education. He was teaching himself French.
Robert Stroud was called The Birdman of Alcatraz but he was never allowed to have birds as pets while on “the rock.” A more appropriate name would have been The Birdman of Leavenworth. That doesn’t have the same ring to it, though.
Before his death, author Thomas E. Gaddis wrote Stroud’s life story. He was an advocate for prisoner rehabilitation and not just imprisonment. He called his book Birdman of Alcatraz. From that moment on, the nickname stuck. A movie was produced based on the book in 1962. Actor, Burt Lancaster, portrayed Stroud on screen. He depicted Stroud as a somewhat gentle and calm man. A stark difference to the Stroud of reality. People who had known Stroud in real life said that he was much more sinister and unpleasant. Lancaster met briefly with Stroud while in the hospital but Stroud was never allowed to see the movie. Lancaster would go on to receive an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor for his role as Robert Stroud – The Birdman.
SO - what do you think about The Birdman of Alcatraz?? There has been a book released in the last few years, released in 2014 I believe, that Stroud supposedly wrote himself. Talking about his experience in prison, isolation, his passions, and being gay. I think it sounds like it’s worth a read - or at least a glance I guess.
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