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Robert Stroud “The Birdman of Alcatraz” – spent 54 years in prison where he became one of the best ornithologists in the world

Goran Blazeski

Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was born in Seattle in 1890. He spent 54 years in prison, 42 of them in solitary confinement. During this time he became a self-taught ornithologist.

He ran away from home when he was only 13 years old. In 1909 he turned himself in for a murder. He killed a bartender because he didn’t pay a prostitute Stroud was pimping for in Alaska. He was only 19 when he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. He was sent to serve his sentence in Washington since Alaska wasn’t yet a state.

Stroud c.1912 #1854
Stroud c.1912 #1854

While in prison, he got in even more trouble when he stabbed a fellow inmate. Because of this incident, he was sentenced to an additional 6 months in prison. He was moved to a different federal penitentiary in Kansas, where he got his nickname “The Birdman.”

In Kansas, he killed a guard in front of hundreds of other inmates in the mess hall. Since this was his second murder and in front of many witnesses, he was now sentenced to death by hanging. He was supposed to be hanged in 1920, however, his mother’s desperate plea to president Wilson saved him and he was sentenced to life in prison. But because of his history of violence, he was put in permanent solitary confinement.

Robert Stroud, Federal prisoner.
Robert Stroud, Federal prisoner.

At this point, he started raising canaries and other birds as “The Birdman.” He collected laboratory equipment and studied the diseases of birds and their breeding and care. At first, he found an injured bird in the prison yard and managed to save its life. After this, he became more and more interested in birds. The guards in the prison allowed him to breed and study birds in his cell and he was now able to earn money by selling them.

He read every book in the prison library that was on the subject of birds. It didn’t take him long to became an expert on ornithology and he even started writing about birds. He wrote two books titled Diseases of Canaries and Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds. He discovered cures for certain diseases and he communicated with some of the best ornithologists in the world.

Stroud's mug shot #594-AZ taken in 1942 and information in the warden's notebook at Alcatraz
Stroud’s mug shot #594-AZ taken in 1942 and information in the warden’s notebook at Alcatraz

At one point the prison administration wanted to shut his business down but his story made newspaper and magazine headlines. A petition was even signed by 50,000 people requesting Stroud to be allowed to keep the birds.

After several years, the prison administration discovered that Stroud used his equipment to distil alcohol and that was a very good reason for them to transfer him to Alcatraz.

He wasn’t allowed to continue his work in Alcatraz so he started studying law, hoping to find a way to freedom.

He was finally released from solitary confinement after many years because of his bad health condition. He was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Missouri where he died at the age of 73.




Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News