The Untold Truth Of The Birdman Of Alcatraz

"Alcatraz," said Thomas E. Gaddis, was the federal prison "with a name like the blare of a trombone ... a black molar in the jawbone of the nation's prison system." And he should know, because he's the author who gave us the 1955 book The Birdman of Alcatraz. That name — Alcatraz — has a much better ring to it than, say, Leavenworth. Or McNeil Island. Both were federal prisons, and both homes of Robert E. Stroud. Biography tells us that Stroud was convicted of manslaughter at 19 and first-degree murder of a prison guard at 26, sentenced to hang but commuted to life imprisonment instead. Stroud was the Birdman in question, a man who ultimately spent 54 of his 73 years in various federal prisons. He shot and killed a man in Alaska for assaulting a woman who may have been Stroud's girlfriend, but quite possibly a prostitute for whom Stroud was pimping. He was sent to McNeil Island in Washington State, but frequent assaults, both combative and sexual, sent Stroud to Leavenworth, Kansas, for some 30 years, and solitary confinement.

Robert Stroud in Alcatraz, without birds

It was at Leavenworth that he found a nest of sparrows in the prison exercise yard and began to study birds. He acquired canaries and became a self-taught expert on diseases affecting the birds. Eventually, Stroud wrote two books on the subject, and developed medicines for the treatment of various bird diseases – remarkable in itself, since his formal education stopped at third grade. His canary "business" grew to take over a second cell, and at one point prison authorities discovered he was using lab equipment to distill alcohol. That led to his transfer to Alcatraz (former home of Al Capone) – without his birds or equipment. He spent his time there writing a history of the federal penal system and his autobiography, neither published during his lifetime. Gaddis wrote Birdman in 1955, and 1962's movie version saw Burt Lancaster playing Stroud as a man struggling to maintain his dignity while incarcerated. Stroud never got to read the book or see the movie; whether he was dignified or not, prison officials considered him violent and a dangerous sexual predator. In 1959, Stroud was transferred yet again, to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died in 1963.

You have to admit, "Alcatraz" just has better ring to it than "Leavenworth."