The Birdman and the Bootlegger: Part 1

Conflict: Uncategorized

On 21 March 1963, the doors of the infamous Alcatraz prison closed. Known for its harsh rules and reputation for being inescapable, Alcatraz is also famous for its inmates. Perhaps the best-known of these inmates were Al “Scarface” Capone and the “birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud.

Robert Stroud, more commonly known as “the birdman of Alcatraz” was one of the more famous (or infamous) residents of Alcatraz. In his youth he ran away from home and by age eighteen he had met Kitty O’Brien. They moved to Juneau, Alaska where Stroud acted as her pimp.

In 1909 Kitty was beaten and treated badly by an acquaintance of their’s, F. K. “Charlie” Von Dahmer. Stroud confronted him and the ensuing struggle ended in Von Dahmer’s death by gunshot. Stroud turned himself in to the police. Despite the lawyer that Stroud’s mother Elizabeth had provided for their defense, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment.

Throughout his trials and imprisonment in Leavenworth, Stroud's mother fought for his release. Stroud tried to evade transfer to Alcatraz by marrying a woman by proxy, and his mother disapproved. She never spoke to him again.

Most of his sentence was carried out in Leavenworth Prison, where he was known for being a violent inmate. He was eventually given a death sentence after stabbing a guard to death in the cafeteria. This sentence was changed to life imprisonment, then back to a death penalty again, and then again to life in prison after Stroud’s mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson. However, his life term was to be spent in solitary confinement.

Robert Stroud

Stroud’s hobby in Leavenworth would eventually earn him the nickname, “birdman of Alcatraz.” He found a nest of injured sparrows in the prison yard and brought them back to health. He began buying canaries, which he cared for and studied. He sold the birds to visitors and researchers and even wrote and published two books on the subject of birds. When it was discovered that some of Stroud’s bird lab equipment was being used for a makeshift distillery, the business was no longer permitted to continue.

Record of Stroud's Transfer, from the Alcatraz Warden's notebook

In 1942, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz. He never actually studied birds there, but his reputation came with him and the nickname stuck. He was kept in solitary confinement but was allowed to visit the library, and there he began studying law. He spent his remaining healthy years trying to fight his way free, arguing that his life-long imprisonment amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, but it never worked.

Check out this site for more info on the bird-loving Stroud, and be sure to check Fold3’s spotlight tomorrow to see the story of Al “Scarface” Capone.