A Conversation for Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, USA


Post 1


Robert Stroud is the inspiration behind the classic book 'The Birdman of Alcatraz' and the film it inspired of the same name. He was sent to jail when he turned himself in for killing his mother's ex-boyfriend, who he said beat her.

AS AN ALCATRAZ EMPLOYEE, I CAN tell you, this is not true.

Robert Stroud was, at the age of 19, a "pimp" in Alaska, then part of the US -- not as a state, but a territory. Since US law reserves murder laws to the states, it only has such laws that apply to territories under federal control, as well as murders involving federal employees killed in the performance of their duties or for a reason relating to the fact that they are a federal employee, such as killing an FBI agent in the line of duty or simply because one hates law enforcement officers and goes on a rampage and kills agents. (Unlike, for example, killing an FBI secretary in her home in an invasion, which wouldn't necessarily get a federal murder charge, but if you broke in for her being an FBI employee and wanted to steal something related to her work, then killed her, it might well be a federal beef and get you into a federal prison, like Leavenworth, Kansas, for example.)

In the case of Stroud, as a pimp, one of his much older prostitutes came to him one night and said that a local man had hired her for sex, had sex, abused her physically and paid her ony $2, rather than the fee of $10.

Stroud proceeded to a local hardware store and tried to buy just enough shells to fill the gun, but was told he had to buy a whole box, which he did. While the timeline is still confused, he did so that evening and either killed the man that night or within two days, then bragged about having done so. (Perhaps bragged in order to let others know to not mess around with his women.)

Soon after, Stroud was arrested, convicted and sent to Leavenworth Kansas, where he was placed in the federal prison there, as you properly noted, but not after numerous transfers, as you said, other than that one might be held in a local jail or territorial prison during the process of prosecution, until the outcome is known and jurisdiction is determined for imprisonment upon any conviction.

"After this, Stroud did not have much to do, and became a major problem," you wrote, "until he was sent by Warden Swope to a cell in the hospital wing, where he would remain for 11 years."

The fact is, Stroud was a problem in every prison in which he was placed. In fact, between the original murder of the "John" and the murder of the guard at Leavenworth, well before being sent to Alcatraz, Stroud had gotten into numerous fights, stabbings and more. In fact, onto his original 12 year sentence for murdering the John in Alaska, while serving the original term in Washington State, Stroud stabbed a man numerous times. Though the man lived -- perhaps, because the man lived -- Stroud was convicted for assault, but, amazingly, not attempted murder. For that, Stroud got only six months more added to his 12 years.

Then, when he got to Leavenworth for being a major problem and very violent, he was about to finally get to see his brother after nearly nine years of not seeing him. When he got into trouble one night, he learned the next day that he'd lost the visitation privilege. Stroud felt he knew a particular guard had turned him in for that offense, though prison records later said that guard did not do so. In either case, Stroud approached the guard in the dining hall, and began harassing and threatening the guard, who told him to back away. Stroud refused and kept hassling and threatening the guard, then pulled an (obviously illegal) knife from inside his clothes and brutally stabbed the guard to death.

For that, as you note, he was convicted of murder, was given the death penalty and all that you say.

However, in the midst of his confinement at Leavenworth, he'd gained some notoriety for his work with birds, which was mostly selling, collecting and digesting information gleaned from books to treat them and making money from his so-called "cures." There's still much dispute over anything like Stroud being a "bird doctor" and many said his potions and concoctions were what was once called "Snake Oil" back in the golden days of old. In other words, placebos that had bird owners thinking it would help, when it was the equivalent of Sugar water. Also, many experts assert that Stroud was essentially a professional plagiarist who simply compiled all of the work of others, digested it into his book and took credit, being a well known narcissist and psychopath. So, by the time he's convicted of his second murder, of other violent crimes and known to have committed others for which he got no time, particularly since they occurred in prison, an ignorant public who reads his letters out and submissions to bird journals in an era -- the so called "Gangster Era" -- when Americans are fascinated by criminals with some intriguing life story, they simply latched on to "The Canary Doctor of Leavenworth" and his writings about raising birds in prison. With that, we end up with the Gaddis book, which increases Stroud's fame, his ego, his arrogance and violence in prison, and a monster of a man becomes even more of a monster quite full of himself and demanding of special treatment.
Eventually, Stroud becomes so unmanageable that Leavenworth seeks to transfer him to Alcatraz, which was taken over as a civilian prison when the Bureau of Prisons is also formed, but upon the request of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, as well. Thus, on 1 January 1934, it officially transfers to status as a civilian detention facility and is named USP Alcatraz -- as in US Penitentiary (not Prison) Alcatraz!

Notably, Alcatraz was ordered closed during the Administration of President John F Kennedy under direct orders of Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, and closes its doors with the removal of the final inmates and staff on 21 March 1963.

For "Trivial Pursuit" buffs -- folks who love the minute details of history -- though Stroud was transferred to the medical wing of Alcatraz after about six years, spending 11 more there in a massive cell, he never raised nor cared for a single bird at Alcatraz, where he remained violent and psychotic, threatening fellow inmates and guards alike. Transferred to a federal medical prison in Missouri in 1959, he was alive there when Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963, which leads to a few tidbits of trivia -- namely, to remember the dates of the closing of USPA and Stroud's death, perhaps remember one or two of the following "mnemonic (memory assisting) devices":

* Alcatraz was ordered closed by RFK under JFK in 1963
* Alcatraz closed by order of RFK on 21 March 1963
* 21 March 1963 is usually rendered in the US as 3/21/63
* To easily recall it's closing date, remember that 3 x 21 = 63
* To remember who ordered it closed, remember that JFK was murdered in 1963
* To remember who ordered it closed, remember that RFK was, thus, Attorney General in 1963
* To remember when Stroud died, remember that JFK was killed at 12:33 on 11/22/63
* To remember when Stroud died, remember his death was eclipsed by the death of JFK on 11/22/63
* To remember when Stroud died, remember that the "eclipse" came one day after Stroud died.
* To remember when Stroud died, remember that he died on 11/21/63
* To remember when Stroud died, remember that USPAZ closed on 3/21/63
* To remember when Stroud died, remember that he died 8 months to the day after USPAZ closed

As you noted, Stroud "was considered a very unusual, very intelligent, homicidal maniac by many on the correctional staff. He was transferred out of Alcatraz in 1959 and died on 21 November, 1963."

The fact is, he was considered all of that by pretty much everyone he met. he was nothing like Burt Lancaster handsome, and Burt was a great looking man.

While the movie "Birdman of Alcatraz" was a fantastic piece of film making, it was not a documentary and didn't come close to giving an accurate portrayal of the true Robert Stroud, since, among other things, it's never known that he's in for the murder of a man who simply underpaid and may have roughed up a prostitute managed by Stroud. Such a character would have gotten little to no sympathy in American popular culture/cinema. (Lest you think I'm criticizing the film, on the whole, I am not. As a child, way back before cable TV, my family loved when the local station or networks brought it back a time or two each year, back when we even had to watch The Ten Commandments in Black & White. so, I loved the movie and still do, but as artful and evocative film making with great skill in dozens of ways, including great performances by Lancaster, Karl Malden and Neville Brand. (In fact, one of the guards who inspired the fictional Brand character is still alive and visits Alcatraz regularly, as do a number of former convicts and the now-grown children of guards who lived on the island with their wives and kids!)

The etymology of the moniker "The Birdman of Alcatraz" as a product of American popular culture is, no doubt, the book by Thomas Gaddis. However, it was also a term that caught hold after the man known as "The Canary Doctor of Leavenworth" (a term you never hear in the movie, even before Stroud is transferred to Alcatraz) was transferred to Alcatraz, when his bird journal and concoction buying fans begin a naive, ignorant and foolish letter writing campaign trying to get him released, either not knowing he's a brutal murderer and constantly in fights and stabbings with fellow convicts or not much caring, as if their birds were more important than him paying a debt for those murders and attempted murders.

Ironically, perhaps, Alcatraz Island is now one of the world's most renowned natural bird sanctuaries, and at a place at which Stroud raised not a single bird, and which, before it became a US Fortress just before the Civil War -- the first time it was inhabited and/or developed in any way -- it was utterly stone faced and barren, except for some Sea Gull guano! (That is, bird crap!)

Interestingly enough, too, when Juan Manuel de Ayala first charted the bay, he did not name the island now known as Alcatraz by that name. Instead, Alcatraz is not only a disambiguation of the word Alcatraces -- Spanish for Pelican -- but it was one of a number of mispronunciations and misspellings given to the island over the years (thought some say Alcatraces did and would never stick permanently, since many Americans were disinclined to like Spanish and/or Mexicans and various linguistic derivations of their written and spoken language). While some assert that de Ayala called it Alcatrazes, that's somewhat disputed as well, since the original charts refer to AN island named Isla de los Alcatraces in the bay. HOWEVER, those charts clearly label what is now Yerba Buena as Isla de los Alcatraces, and those who rendered the subsequent charts inadvertently placed that name on the island now known as Alcatraz! While some wonder whether that conclusion is based on something other than documentary evidence, de Ayala actually described the islands in his journals, and the well known descriptions of what are now known as Alcatraz Island and Yerba Buena, in terms of how de Ayala described them back then and how others described them back then, as well as the names he gave the islands he was describing in his journals as to size, vegetation, location and all, make it clear that what is now Yerba Buena is the island that de Ayala had dubbed Isla de los Alcatraces!

So, truly, thanks for the wonderful page here, and the clear attention to detail and attempt at accurate and insightful information! Because of the quality of your work, I felt you'd appreciate a correction, which you may confirm by following this link to a scan of Stroud's transfer documents:


All best wishes and thanks!

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