The Birdman of Alcatraz

Born in Seattle in 1890, Robert Stroud ran away from his abusive father at the age of 13. By the time he was 18 he had become a pimp in Alaska (then a US Territory). In January 1909 he shot and killed a bartender who had attacked one of his prostitutes, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island, in Puget Sound. He gained a reputation as an extremely dangerous inmate, who frequently had confrontations with fellow inmates and staff, and in 1916 he killed a guard. He was convicted and sentenced to hang, but after several trials his sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment.

From 1912 he was incarcerated at Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, and (contrary to the title of the film) this is where he developed his passion for birds. In 1920 he discovered three injured sparrows, in a nest in the prison yard. He began raising them, and within a few years had acquired a collection of some 300 canaries. He began extensive research into them, after being granted equipment by a radical prison–reforming warden. In 1933 he published a 60,000–word book entitled The Diseases of Canaries, which was smuggled out of Leavenworth and sold. A later edition, Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds, followed in 1943. He made important contributions to avian pathology, most notably a cure for the hemorrhagic septicemia family of diseases, gaining much respect and some level of sympathy among ornithologists and farmers.

In 1933, Stroud complained publicly that he hadn't been allowed to receive any royalties from the sale of his book. This infuriated the authorities, but at this stage they could find no legitimate reason to take his birds away from him. Eventually however it came to light that some of the equipment that Stroud had requested for his lab was in fact being used as a home–made still. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, and there he was not allowed to keep pets; he had to leave his birds at Leavenworth. They were sent to his brother; what he did with them doesn't seem to be recorded.

While at Alcatraz, Stroud wrote two more books – an autobiography and a history of the US prison system – but he wasn't allowed to publish them. In 1959, with his health failing, he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he would remain for the last four years of his life.

Stroud was never allowed to see the film that was based on his story, or read the book that inspired it, but in February 1963 he did meet Burt Lancaster, who played him in the film. He died on 21 November 1963 – coincidentally, the day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

© Haydn Thompson 2017