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Stroud

About this collection

Robert Franklin Stroud was born in 1890 in Seattle, Washington, and died November 21, 1963, at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.  He grew up in Seattle, Washington, and ran away from home at the age of 13.  At age 18 he was working as a pimp in Juneau, Alaska, where he killed Charles F. Damer, a bartender who had attacked one of his prostitutes, Kitty O’Brien. On August 23, 1909, Stroud was sentenced to 12 years in the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington for manslaughter. While there, he stabbed a prisoner and was subsequently transferred to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas in 1912. On March 26, 1916, Stroud stabbed and killed a guard, Andrew F. Turner, in front of 1,100 witnesses. He was convicted in 1918 and sentenced to hang, but President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on April 15, 1920.

 

At Leavenworth, Stroud found three baby sparrows that had fallen out of a nest while walking in the prison exercise yard and took them back to his cell to care for them. He was then allowed to raise and study other birds, mainly canaries, to learn about their diseases, remedies, breeding, and care. Though he only had a grade school education, he began taking university extension courses, learned to use a microscope and a microteme, and read Spanish and German scientific journals. In the early 1930s he wrote a treatise on canary diseases that was smuggled out of the prison to be published in 1933. He also wrote a book titled Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, which was published in 1943. In 1942, however, the warden decided that Stroud’s instruments could be used to make alcohol and took them away before having him transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary near San Francisco, California, where he was also no longer allowed to have birds.

 

While in solitary confinement at Alcatraz, Stroud wrote instead about other topics. Bobbie chronicles his life before prison, including discovering his homosexuality as a teenager. Looking Outward: An Historical and Analytical Story of the Federal Prison System from the Inside is a history of the prison system from colonial times to the 1930s. The warden at Alcatraz had given him permission to write a history of the penal system, and Stroud tried to have the manuscripts published. But higher officials in Washington, D.C., stopped him, saying the writings were obscene and that they glorified criminals.  They created new rules for prisoner publishing, which did not allow anything obscene, critical of the prison system, or glorifying crime to be published. 

 

In 1959, Stroud was transferred to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. In 1962, he sued for the right to publish his writings, but before a ruling could be issued, he passed away. His attorney, C. Dudley Martin, was named administrator of Stroud’s estate and given the manuscripts.

 

In 1955, Thomas Gaddis, an advocate for prison rehabilitation, published a biography of Stroud titled Birdman of Alcatraz: The Story of Robert Stroud, and in 1962 the movie Birdman of Alcatraz was released, with the part of Stroud played by Burt Lancaster.  Due to Stroud’s portrayal in each of these as a “mild-mannered model prisoner incarcerated long after he should have been paroled” (Niemi 389) many people wrote to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons asking for Stroud to be released. Prison officials and other inmates, however, saw him as an “extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath” (Niemi 389), and he was never granted parole. 

 

Sources:

This collection consists of digital versions of typed manuscripts for Robert F. Stroud’s Looking Outward: An Historical and Analytical Story of the Federal Prison System from the Inside and Bobbie.  They were typed from the original manuscripts by C. Dudley Martin’s secretary.  

 

See the collection's finding aid for more information. 

 

 

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