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Although portrayed as a mild-mannered and humane individual who cared for birds while in prison, Robert Stroud was in fact a brutally violent two-time killer. What's more, his work with canaries that led to the making of the movie Birdman of Alcatraz was not conducted at Alcatraz.
In 1909, Stroud brutally murdered a bartender who had allegedly failed to pay a prostitute for whom Stroud was pimping in Alaska. Convicted of manslaughter in 1911, he was sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington to serve his sentence. An unsocial and violent inmate, he once assaulted a hospital orderly whom he accused of reporting him to prison officials for attempting to procure narcotics. On another occasion he stabbed a fellow inmate.
After receiving an additional six-month sentence for his actions at McNeil, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. In 1916, after being refused a visit with his brother, Stroud stabbed a guard to death. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for this crime, but pleas from his mother eventually convinced President Woodrow Wilson to commute his sentence to life imprisonment without parole. Because of Stroud's violent tendencies, Leavenworth Warden T.W. Morgan directed that Stroud be permanently placed in the segregation unit, where he would spend the next thirty years.
It was while living in solitary that Stroud first became interested in birds -- supposedly after finding an injured bird in the recreation yard and nursing it back to health. Warden Morgan allowed Stroud to breed birds and maintain a lab inside two adjoining segregation cells because he felt that such activity would provide for a productive use of his time. By raising some 300 birds in his cells and carefully studying their habits and physiology, Stroud was able to author two books on canaries and their diseases -- Diseases of Canaries and Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds. Stroud's privileges were eventually curtailed, however, after prison officials discovered that some of the equipment he had requested for his research was actually being used to construct a still.
In 1942, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, California, where he spent the next seventeen years. For a number of reasons, including Stroud's misappropriation of "research equipment" while at Leavenworth, he was never allowed to keep birds while at Alcatraz. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died of natural causes on November 21, 1963.
Stroud was never permitted to see the movie in which he was portrayed by Burt Lancaster, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
This page was last updated on January 28, 2017.