Behind the Name Of ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’

The life of Robert Franklin Stroud, famously known as the Birdman, is an astonishing tale of criminality, transformation, and a deep passion for ornithology. Born in Seattle, Stroud’s journey through the tumultuous waters of the American penal system left an indelible mark on history.

Robert Stroud’s life took a dark turn at the tender age of 13 when he fled his home in Seattle, setting the stage for a series of events that would shape his future. His first brush with the law occurred in 1909 when, at the age of 19, he turned himself in for the murder of F. K. Von Dahmer, a bartender he was reportedly pimping for in Alaska.

The gruesome murder was sparked by Von Dahmer’s failure to pay a prostitute, leading Stroud down a treacherous path. This tragic incident marked Stroud’s first encounter with the criminal justice system, resulting in a 12-year federal prison sentence, even though Alaska had not yet achieved statehood at that time.

Stroud’s initial incarceration brought him to McNeil Island in Washington in 1911, where he began to serve his federal prison term. However, his path to redemption quickly took a dark turn when he assaulted hospital staff and stabbed a fellow inmate. These acts of violence earned him a six-month extension to his sentence and set the stage for his transformation into the Birdman.

Contrary to the demure portrayal of Stroud by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Stroud was infamous for being an incredibly aggressive and irritable man, traits that remained a constant throughout his life.

During his time at Leavenworth, Stroud’s confrontational nature persisted as he regularly threatened fellow prisoners. In 1916, approximately halfway through his original sentence, Stroud’s temper flared when he was denied a visit with his younger brother, whom he hadn’t seen in eight years, due to a minor incident. In a fit of rage, he attacked and killed a guard in the Mess hall in front of more than 1,100 convicts.

As expected, Stroud’s second murder warranted a far harsher sentence, leading to his condemnation to death by hanging. His solitary confinement period began at this point, but his execution was repeatedly delayed due to a series of court battles that twice reached the Supreme Court.

Stroud’s life sentence was eventually commuted after his mother’s desperate plea to President Woodrow Wilson. However, due to his violent reputation, the warden recommended that he remain in solitary confinement, leading to his permanent isolation.

It was during his three decades of incarceration at Leavenworth Penitentiary that Stroud’s transformation into the Birdman took shape. His intense fascination with canaries and other birds found within the prison’s recreation yard earned him the nickname. Surprisingly, prison authorities allowed him to nurture his passion for bird raising and in-cell research, recognizing it as a positive use of his time.

The money Stroud made from selling the birds provided crucial financial assistance to his mother. It enabled him to purchase aviary equipment and supplies, cementing his dedication to the avian world.

Entering the prison library, Stroud eagerly devoured every book available on birds. This marked the beginning of his transition into a true world-class ornithologist. His cell became home to hundreds of birds, primarily canaries, which he studied meticulously, delving into their habits, environment, and physiology. The culmination of his work resulted in two books: “Diseases of Canaries” and “Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds,” where he detailed treatments for various avian illnesses.

But Stroud’s passion went beyond his in-cell research. He maintained consistent communication with eminent ornithologists from around the world. The volume of letters he sent and received was so extensive that the prison had to employ a full-time secretary to manage this correspondence, in line with prison policy meant to ensure inmates were not involved in illegal activities and to track all communication.

However, the prison administration’s concerns over Stroud’s excessively screened letters and the filth from the birds in his cell led to efforts to shut down his avian enterprise. It was an Indiana bird researcher named Della Mae Jones who championed his cause. She garnered over 50,000 signatures in a petition from people across the country, advocating for Stroud’s right to keep his beloved birds. Reluctantly, prison officials provided him with a second cell to house his feathered companions, averting the removal of the birds.

Marriage and a Change of Fortune

Stroud’s saga took an unexpected turn when authorities attempted to transfer him to another prison after he married Della Mae Jones. Their plans initially failed due to a Kansas state law that deemed it illegal to transfer any inmate who had tied the knot.

However, a twist of fate revealed that Stroud had been using some of his equipment to distill alcohol, which ultimately led to his transfer and the confiscation of his birds and equipment. This marked his relocation to Alcatraz, where he became famously known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” even though he could never own birds while incarcerated.

The Scholar Emerges: Legal Pursuits

Stroud’s time in Alcatraz spurred his interest in the law. In a bid to secure his release from the confines of solitary confinement, where he spent 17 years, he delved into the legal world. He argued that his prolonged isolation amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

In addition to his autobiography, “Bobbie,” Stroud authored “Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons” and worked on a second manuscript.

Bonus Facts

  • Before his transformation into the Birdman, Stroud made several escape attempts. During his time at McNeil Island, he tried to escape by carving a bar spreader from a piece of metal. His efforts were unsuccessful, but this early determination hinted at his persistent nature.
  • During his time at Leavenworth, Stroud shared the prison with other infamous inmates, including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Stroud’s interactions with these notorious criminals added another layer of intrigue to his life behind bars.
  • While at Alcatraz, Stroud made an audacious attempt to escape from the notorious island prison. In 1938, he and two fellow inmates constructed a makeshift boat out of raincoats. However, their plan was foiled, and Stroud’s escape attempt resulted in a transfer to a different facility.
  • Throughout his life, Stroud used various aliases and identities, often to obscure his true background and criminal history. This practice added an element of mystery to his persona.
  • Stroud had a keen interest in languages, and he taught himself several languages while in prison, including Spanish and Russian. He used his linguistic skills to correspond with ornithologists worldwide, furthering his knowledge of birds.
  • Besides his passion for birds, Stroud developed other unconventional hobbies during his incarceration. He became skilled at knitting and crocheting and would create intricate pieces of clothing during his leisure time.
  • Stroud conducted groundbreaking research in the field of avian pathology during his time in prison. His studies on diseases in canaries contributed significantly to our understanding of avian health.
  • Throughout his imprisonment, Stroud’s mother tirelessly campaigned for his release. She even wrote a heartfelt letter to President Woodrow Wilson, which played a pivotal role in commuting his death sentence to life in prison.
  • After his transfer to Alcatraz, Stroud spent the final 17 years of his life in solitary confinement. This extended period of isolation took a toll on his mental and physical health, ultimately leading to his death in 1963.

While “The Birdman of Alcatraz” may be the label by which he is most widely recognized, his legacy is not confined to this title alone. Stroud’s transformation from a troubled youth to a world-class ornithologist is a testament to the power of dedication and resilience.

His passion for birds, his linguistic prowess, and his unconventional hobbies all played a role in shaping the man behind the nickname. Stroud’s life is a reminder that even within the confines of a prison cell, one can find purpose, make significant contributions, and leave a lasting mark on history.