Born In: Seattle, Washington, United States
Robert Stroud, or the Birdman of Alcatraz, was an American convicted murderer and self-taught ornithologist. Stroud committed his first murder when he shot dead a bartender who beat up his mistress in January 1909. Sentenced to 12 years at the McNeil Island federal prison, Stroud became known for his anger issues and was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. After killing a guard in 1916, he was sentenced to be hanged till death. Responding to his mother’s pleas, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, but he was kept in solitary confinement. For the next three decades, Stroud conducted a detailed study on canaries and other birds, raising over 300 birds. He published two books, one of them being Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, a valuable resource on the subject. Transferred to Alcatraz later, he was prohibited from maintaining his birds and eventually died in the prison hospital. The 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz narrated his tale.
Also Known As: Robert Franklin Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz
Died At Age: 73
Spouse/Ex-: Della May Spore
father: Benjamin Franklin Stroud
mother: Elizabeth Jane (née McCartney)
siblings: Marcus Stroud
Born Country: United States
Height: 1.91 m
place of death: Springfield, Missouri, United States
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Robert Franklin Stroud was born on January 28, 1890, in Seattle, Washington, US. He was the eldest child of Elizabeth Jane (née McCartney) and Benjamin Franklin Stroud.
He had two step-sisters, daughters from his mother’s previous marriage. He also had a younger brother. Stroud had a difficult childhood, with an alcoholic father, and ran away from home at age 13.
By 18, he was working as a pimp in Alaska. There, he met a prostitute and dance-hall girl in her 30s named Kitty O’Brien. He pimped for her in Juneau, Alaska.
On January 18, 1909, when Stroud was at work, bartender F. K. "Charlie" von Dahmer, who was an associate of his, refused to pay O'Brien for her services and beat her up violently.
When Stroud learned of this incident, he confronted von Dahmer. In the struggle that followed, Dahmer was shot dead. Stroud surrendered at the local police station and even submitted his gun.
On August 23, 1909, Stroud was found guilty of manslaughter. He received a 12-year sentence at the federal prison at McNeil Island in Puget Sound.
At McNeil, Robert Stroud had violent outbursts and was difficult to manage. He once assaulted a hospital staff who had apparently reported him to the prison administration for trying to get drugs by using threats. He later stabbed a fellow inmate.
His violent actions got him another 6 months of sentence on September 5, 1912. Stroud was then transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, as the McNeil authorities received numerous complaints about his threats from fellow inmates. Another reason for his shift was the overcrowding of the McNeil prison.
At Leavenworth, Stroud started taking university extension courses. In 1916, the Leavenworth cafeteria guard Andrew F. Turner marked a minor offense that would have resulted in Stroud’s upcoming visit with his brother being rejected. Soon after this, Stroud stabbed the guard to death in front of his fellow inmates in the prison mess hall.
Following this, he was convicted of first-degree murder. He was to be hanged till death and live out the rest of his life awaiting the sentence in solitary confinement.
Around this time, in response to his mother’s pleas for his life, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life without parole on April 15, 1920. However, the Leavenworth warden T.W. Morgan ordered Robert Stroud be permanently put in the segregation unit, so that he could live in total solitude for the rest of his life.
Over the next 30 years of his solitary confinement at Leavenworth, Robert Stroud started taking an interest in birds, especially canaries. It was believed that his interest in birds was sparked after he found an injured bird in the prison’s recreation yard.
Stroud was allowed to raise canaries and other birds and maintain laboratory equipment inside two adjoining solitary confinement cells. The jail authorities believed this would make him more productive.
Soon, he started studying various facets of birds, such as their diseases, nature of breeding, habits, and physiology. He also made medicines for bird diseases, though their effectiveness is debatable. Over the course of his sentence, he had raised over 300 birds in his two cells.
Stroud’s research on canaries helped in scientific studies on the species years later. Some of his notes on canaries were smuggled out of prison and published as the 1933 volume Diseases of Canaries and the 1943 book Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, both of which remain crucial works in the field.
However, after a few years, prison authorities came to know that some of the equipment he had requested for his research on birds was being used as a distillery to make alcohol. He was thus moved to Alcatraz.
On December 16, 1942, Robert Stroud was transferred to the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, California’s maximum-security prison. Though Stroud was allowed to access the prison library there, he was not allowed to publish any of his works.
His birds and research equipment were sent to his brother, as Alcatraz had strict policies that prohibited any such activity. Nevertheless, the self-taught ornithologist soon earned the nickname The Birdman of Alcatraz.
During this time, he started studying law. He was also allowed to play chess with one of the prison guards at times.
Robert Stroud also petitioned the government against the length of his prison term, which he said was cruel. During his 17-year term at Alcatraz, he was also once assessed by psychiatrist Romney M. Ritchey. Ritchey diagnosed him as a psychopath with a high IQ.
A bird researcher from Indiana named Della Mae Jones prevented Robert Stroud’s research on birds from being stopped by authorities at Leavenworth. She apparently gathered 50,000 signatures on a petition to let Stroud continue his research and his business on bird medicines, and directed the petition to President Herbert Hoover.
In 1931, Della moved to Kansas and launched a business of bird medicines, with Stroud as his partner. Once Stroud came to know that Kansas law did not allow married prisoners to be transferred out of the state, he married Della by proxy. It was later rumored that Stroud was a homosexual.
At Alcatraz, Stroud spent 6 years in segregation and the remaining 11 in the prison hospital, as in 1959, he was sent to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, located in Springfield, Missouri. On November 21, 1963, he was found dead at the prison hospital by fellow inmate Morton Sobell.
Stroud was 73 at the time of his death. He remains buried at the Masonic Cemetery, Metropolis, Illinois, US.
The 1955 book Birdman of Alcatraz by Thomas E. Gaddis told his tale. The book was adapted to the 1962 movie of the same name, which was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including one for the Best Actor for Burt Lancaster, who played Stroud. Stroud was not permitted to watch the movie by prison officials.
In 2014, after a long legal battle by Stroud’s former attorney, Stroud’s manuscripts on the penal system were released as the e-book Looking Outward: A Voice from the Grave.
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