The Birdman of Alcatraz

The Birdman of Alcatraz

I got home early today from work. When I got there my dad was watching a movie called The Birdman of Alcatraz. This movie was filmed in 1962 by John Frankenheimer. The actors where Burt Lancaster [Robert Stroud], Karl Malden [Harvey Shoemaker] and Telly Savalas [Feto Gomez]. This movie tells the story about a convicted double murderer who turns his half-life into something meaningful by becoming an expert on the diseases of birds. Although this is not a completely accurate tale of Robert Stroud who became known as The Birdman of Alcatraz.

Strouds over protective mother who will do anything for her loving son realizing that where he is is probably the best place for him. The film strangely shows the mental capabilities of a person and how much someone can achieve when one wishes to. The Stroud character has only an elementary school education at the films beginning yet applies himself to obtain knowledge equal to that of a college educated individual.

Although the story takes place in a prison this is not just a prison picture but more of a story of one man conquering his own ignorance by reaching into himself and casting out the demons that put him in the situation that he must live with. There are perhaps many such people in this countries prisons who have done similar as the main character in this movie.

Robert Stroud [the real one]

Robert Franklin Stroud (January 28, 1890 – November 21, 1963)
According to Stroud, on January 18, 1909, while he was away at work, an acquaintance of theirs, F. K. "Charlie" Von Dahmer, viciously beat Kitty. That night, Stroud confronted Von Dahmer and a struggle ensued, resulting in the latter's death from a gunshot wound. However, according to police reports from the time, Kitty had continued to engage in prostitution after arriving in Juneau, with Stroud acting as her pimp. The reports stated that Stroud had knocked Von Dahmer unconscious and then shot him at point blank range.

Stroud was later arrested with Von Dahmer's wallet in his possession. Although Stroud's mother Elizabeth retained a lawyer for her son, on August 23, 1909, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary on Puget Sound's McNeil Island. (Stroud's crime was handled in the federal system, as Alaska was not yet a state with its own judiciary.) While at McNeil Island, Stroud assaulted a hospital orderly who had reported him to the administration for attempting to obtain morphine through threats and intimidation and also reportedly stabbed a fellow inmate who was involved in the attempt to smuggle the narcotics.

On September 5, 1912, Stroud was sentenced to an additional six months for the attacks and transferred from McNeil Island to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. While there, Stroud was reprimanded by a guard in the cafeteria for a minor rule violation. Although the infraction was not a serious one, it could have annulled Stroud's visitation privilege to meet his younger brother, whom he had not seen in eight years. Stroud stabbed and killed a guard, Andrew Turner, on March 26, 1916. He was sentenced to execution by hanging on May 27 and was ordered to await his death sentence in solitary confinement. The trial was later invalidated. In a later trial he was given a life sentence. That trial was also invalidated, after reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial, set for May 1918. On June 28, he was again sentenced to death by hanging. The Supreme Court intervened, but only to uphold the death sentence, which was scheduled to be carried out on April 23, 1920.

At this point, Stroud's mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, who halted the execution. Stroud's sentence was again commuted to life imprisonment. Leavenworth’s warden, T. W. Morgan, did not approve of the decision, and ordered that Stroud was to be held in segregation for the complete duration of his imprisonment.

While at Leavenworth, Stroud found three injured sparrows in the prison yard and kept them. He started to occupy his time raising and caring for his birds, soon switching from sparrows to canaries, which he could sell for supplies and to help support his mother. Soon thereafter, Leavenworth’s administration changed and the prison was now directed by a new warden. Impressed with the possibility of presenting Leavenworth as a progressive rehabilitation penitentiary, the new warden furnished Stroud with cages, chemicals, and stationery to conduct his ornithological activities. Visitors were shown Stroud's aviary and many purchased his canaries. Over the years, he raised nearly 300 canaries in his cells and wrote two books, Diseases of Canaries and Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds. He made several important contributions to avian pathology, most notably a cure for the hemorrhagic septicemia family of diseases. He gained respect and also some level of sympathy in the bird-loving field.

Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz on December 19, 1942. While there, he wrote two manuscripts: Bobbye, an autobiography and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. The judge ruled that Stroud had the right to write and keep such manuscripts but upheld the warden’s decision of banning publication.

Stroud spent six years in segregation and another eleven years confined to the hospital wing. He was allowed access to the prison library and began studying law. With his newfound knowledge, Stroud began petitioning the government that his long prison term amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In 1959, with his health failing, Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners Springfield, Missouri. However, his attempts to be released on the grounds that his extremely long sentence was cruel and unusual punishment were unsuccessful. On November 21, 1963, Robert Franklin Stroud died at the Springfield Center at the age of 73, after 54 years of incarceration, of which 42 were in segregation. He had been studying French near the end of his life. Robert Stroud is buried in Metropolis, Illinois (Massac County).