Biography of Birdman of Alcatraz Robert F. Stroud Part 1

About the famous Birdman of Alcatraz Robert F. Stroud, history and biography of the famous prisoner.

FOOTNOTE PEOPLE IN U.S. HISTORY

ROBERT F. STROUD (1890-1963). The Birdman of Alcatraz.

A self-taught expert on birds, Robert Stroud became perhaps the best-known example of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the American prison system. It was never enough to set him free. When he died in 1963 at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield. Mo., he had spent 54 of his 73 years in prison, the last 42 in solitary confinement.

He had killed two men, come within eight days of death by hanging, and gained national attention in his battles with the prison bureaucracy over his birds. By the time Burt Lancaster starred in Birdman of Alcatraz, the 1962 film about Stroud's life, his image had changed from that of an unrepentant, uncooperative killer to that of a bookish, stooped bird-lover.

Stroud's biographer, Thomas Gaddis, describes him as a lonely, abstracted child tied to his mother's apron strings. He practiced violence in the name of nonviolence, intervening in neighborhood squabbles to protect younger children from bullies. A third-grade dropout, he was drawn to the rough world of the Seattle waterfront. After his father left home to live with another woman. Stroud hit the road as a self-described "Great American Bum"--at the age of 13.

At 18, he was in Alaska, working on a railroad link from the Kennecott copper mine to the sea. In Cordova, a boom town, he lived with his first--and last--woman, a 36-year-old dance hall girl with a somewhat tarnished reputation. While Kitty O'Brien's affection for the young Stroud was apparently sincere, she was eventually his undoing.

In November, 1908, Stroud and his lady-friend moved to Juneau, where they encountered an old acquaintance, Charlie Dahmer. Stroud knew Dahmer as a friend and bartender; Kitty knew him as an ex-lover. When Dahmer showed an interest in Kitty, Stroud, unaware of the previous liaison, took it at face value. They spent several pleasant evenings together, and Stroud had no qualms about leaving Kitty alone one evening with Dahmer and Dahmer's roommate, while he ran an errand. After Stroud departed, the roommate also excused himself. When Stroud returned, he found the empty room in a shambles.

At home, Kitty was lying on the bed with two black eyes. Dahmer had struck her because she refused to live with him. She exhorted Stroud to kill Dahmer, then protested she didn't mean it.

It was too late, Stroud took her gun, bought a box of cartridges, and went to Dahmer's house to wait for him. When Dahmer arrived, Stroud demanded a locket Dahmer had taken from Kitty. A scuffle ensued and Dahmer was shot twice, fatally. Stroud returned Kitty's locket to her without waking her and turned himself in to the marshal.

Since Alaska was a wild place in the early 20th century, it was reasonable to expect that Stroud would get off with three years or less. But the judge assigned to the case had just arrived in Alaska and was determined to crack down on violence. With Stroud, his first case, he refused to plea-bargain. Stroud pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years--the maximum--in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island.

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