It is difficult watching Birdman of Alcatraz without thinking, “Why was this guy at Alcatraz?” After all, didn’t he heal sick birds? Sure he killed a couple people, but weren’t they crimes of passion? He punched out windows for suffocating prisoners, and fought for their rights even if it meant “the Hole” for him. In the 1962 film, Burt Lancaster, who rightly deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance, gave us a portrait of Robert Stroud that was humane and sympathetic, complex and moving. He gave us a man who deserved a medal rather than nearly two decades on “The Rock.”
According to Jim Quillen, a former bank robber who shared Alcatraz’s infamous D block with Stroud in the 1940’s, the film was pure fantasy. “He was a jerk,” Quillen states bluntly on the BBC series, “Full Circle with Michael Palin,” “he thrived on chaos, turmoil, and upheaval.” Furthermore, he says, “He liked other people to be involved in these kinds of things, but was never a participant himself.” For many, Stroud was not a kindhearted soul but a cold, if brilliant psychopath, who manipulated others for his own means.
From the Great White North to the High Court
While much about Robert Stroud is subject to debate, where he came from and how he got locked up is not. Born in the timber town of Seattle in 1890, Stroud ran away from home at thirteen and by eighteen was working on a railroad gang in the wilds of Alaska. There, he met Kitty O’Brien, a dancehall dancer and rumored prostitute, and the couple soon moved to the booming city of Juneau. However, it wasn’t long until Stroud was arrested for the murder of an acquaintance that had allegedly attacked O’Brien. Another version of the story argues that the victim was a “John” who didn’t pay O’Brien and was then killed by her pimp, Stroud.
Sentenced to only twelve years for manslaughter, prison life quickly brought out the worst in Stroud. Within a few years he stabbed a fellow prisoner and killed a guard who had reported him for breaching the mandatory code of silence. Navigating the judicial system for a second time, Stroud also discovered the power of persistence and manipulation. Never satisfied with his lawyers, Stroud submitted appeal upon appeal until his case reached the Supreme Court. In the end, the High Court ruled in favor of the death penalty, but Stroud’s heartbroken and devoted mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson, who commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
Birds of San Francisco Bay by Amanda Lease
Fame of a Birdkeeper
Now a lifer, Stroud settled into his time at Leavenworth. Inquisitive and entrepreneurial, he took a variety of correspondence courses and began painting greeting cards, which he sold to help support his aging mother. However, it wasn’t until he spotted a nest of sparrow chicks in the prison yard that his life took its famous turn. After nursing the chicks to adulthood, he graduated to canaries, which he bred for sale. His business became so successful, in fact, that J. Edgar Hoover, bought one of Stroud’s birds as a gift for his own mother.
Stroud also emerged as an authority on canaries when his birds became sick with a deadly form of septic fever. Working diligently, he discovered a treatment and went on to identify several new diseases along with their cures. He eventually published two groundbreaking books, Diseases of Canaries and Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, and became widely renown in bird-loving circles around the country. Because of his success, Stroud was granted an extra cell to keep his birds, plenty of cages and equipment to perform experiments, and even a private secretary to help keep up with his increasing correspondence. Still, Stroud never curried favor with the warden who viewed him as manipulative and troublesome. After discovering that some of his equipment was being used as still to make liquor, the warden decided to transfer him to Alcatraz.
On "The Rock"
When Stroud arrived on “The Rock” on December 19, 1942, he left behind his birds but gained even more notoriety. Shifting to more personal topics, he wrote the autobiography Bobbie and the more academic, Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Time to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. He also began petitioning the government against his long incarceration claiming that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Less than a year after arriving at Alcatraz, the psychiatrist Romney Ritchey diagnosed Stroud as a psychopath with an I.Q. of 134. Rumors also circulated of more heinous crimes.
Birds of San Francisco Bay by CarlyErin Gray
A Monster or "Saint Francis"?
In 1959, Stroud was transferred from Alcatraz to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. He died four years later and was never permitted to see the 1962 movie that made him famous. Today, much of Stroud’s life is interpreted in multiple ways. Was he valiantly defending O’Brien’s honor, or was he a ruthless pimp? Was he a manipulative dilettante trying to get better treatment or was he bravely fighting against the cruel prison system? Was he a kindhearted soul who loved birds or was he just trying to make a buck while gaining better privileges? All that is for certain is that Stroud was considerably more troubled and brilliant than the character portrayed by Burt Lancaster.
For Jim Quillen, his mind was made up along time ago. One evening in the D block, Stroud began complaining of stomach pains. Several medics examined him and stated that there was nothing wrong. Stroud continued to complain and the inmates of the unit took up his cause, protesting his ill treatment. Eventually, a rebellion broke out and the prisoners, including Quillen, began destroying their cells. The morning after, when called to account for his participation, Quillen passed by Stroud’s cell. He noticed that Stroud’s cell was in perfect order and that the “Birdman of Alcatraz” was perfectly fine. Quillen realized that he and his fellow inmates had fallen for a ruse. “He had not been ill,” Quillen writes in his autobiography, Alcatraz from Inside, “but wanted to instigate a disturbance that would harass and annoy the officials.” To him, he was a monster.