Robert Stroud was a mean son-of-a-bitch who spent seventeen years as a prisoner in Alcatraz, twelve of which were in isolation. Most people hold a romantic notion of the Bird Man of Alcatraz, as he is more famously known, thanks to the Hollywood movie starring Burt Lancaster. The reality is that Stroud was an egotistic sociopath who was better off behind bars. However, one cannot help but admire him. Here was a guy who, against all odds, persevered under the most hopeless circumstances. He spent his entire adulthood behind bars yet managed to educate himself and become an acclaimed author as well as a Hollywood legend. Robert Stroud’s life is that of a man who refused to conform to the dictates of society. He frequently flaunted the rules and despite being behind bars, he enjoyed a lot more freedom than most of us.
The legend of the Bird Man is what compelled me to visit Alcatraz when I was in San Francisco. I first saw a vision of the old prison in the movie Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood, when I was a child. The daunting image of a remote island flocked by seagulls was burnt in my memory. It looks just as ominous today and those pesky seagulls are still circling round and round! To visit Alcatraz, book your ticket in advance via the official tour company. I booked the Behind the Scenes Tour, which was a hefty $90 but well worth it, as it included a four hour exploration of the island with an experienced guide.
Robert Stroud was originally convicted for manslaughter when he was in his early twenties and sentenced to twelve years in jail. Whilst behind bars, he killed a prison officer and consequently was sentenced to hanging by death. During the appeal process, he managed get his sentenced reduced to life imprisonment. Stroud spent many years in Leavenworth prison, where he took up an interest in birds. That is how he earned the nickname, Bird Man. Through cunning and manipulation, he wrangled special privileges that allowed him to rear, study and sell canaries as well as other fowl from his prison cell. He ran a profitable enterprise and also penned two digests related to the health and diseases of birds. His books were not very accurate by today’s veterinary standards, but they were ahead of their time and contained meticulously hand drawn diagrams, which added to their supposed credibility.
In 1942, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz. Alcatraz had a reputation for being one of the most impenetrable prisons in the United States where only the most hardened criminals were sent. When Stroud arrived, other famous crooks such as Al Capone, ‘Doc’ Barker, John Paul Chase and Roy Gardner were living behind bars here. Robert Stroud was sixty six years old and the others often referred to him as ‘the old man’.
As per protocol, when Stroud arrived he was escorted to the prison via a side entrance, where he was showered and given a new set of clothing. He henceforth became number AZ 594. During my visit, I was able to examine the dressing room, which contained rows of cupboards and prisoner clothing. Most of the items on display now have been donated by Hollywood, from the various movies made about Alcatraz.
Stroud was placed in segregation at Alcatraz from the get-go in cell 42, D-Block. He had a track record for being difficult and the authorities did not want to take their chances. The segregation cells faced the ocean and the Golden Gate bridge, with a total of six cells over three tiers. The connecting walls were solid so prisoners could not see the person in the cell next to them, although they could hear each other and carry on a conversation. Guards could leave the cells doors open, with just the bars locked for security, or shut the solid door completely. During the tour, I stood alone in one of these cells with the door shut. I felt like I was in an impenetrable ice box. It was cold and uncomfortable to be there for more than thirty seconds.
Prisoners living in segregation were not allowed to mix with the rest of the prison community. They took their meals and exercise breaks at a different time and they were not allowed to hold prison jobs. In winter, the D-block was extremely cold and freezing gusts of air would sweep in. Stroud’s file shows that he complained he was so cold, he had to sit with a blanket over his legs in winter. When Warden Swope was promoted to oversee Alcatraz in 1948, he changed the diet for those living in segregation to a congealed mass of food blended together and served in a cup. It wasn’t very pleasant. Visitors today can see the mess hall as well as the kitchen where these culinary delights were concocted. The first thing you will notice are the painted outlines of the kitchen utensils on the wall. This made it easy for staff to notice if any knives went missing, which could be used by prisoners as weapons.
Despite all this, the conditions at Alcatraz were considered to be a lot more civilised compared to other prisons of that era. It was the only prison where each cell had its own toilet, sink, bed and table for personal belongings, and prisoners were not required to share a cell. The bulk of the regular cells faced into a large corridor known as Times Square. The doors opened and closed according to a lever which had a clutch with rolling action, operated according to a special red stripe security feature.
Whilst Robert Stroud was in segregation, one of the most famous attempted escape stories from Alcatraz occurred. In 1946, prisoner Barnard Coy managed to leave his cell and spread open the bars of the gun gallery. A shooting frenzy ensued between the escaped convict and the guards. Bullets flew across block-D and Stroud performed the heroic action of leaving his cell to close the solid doors of all six cells in segregation, thus shielding the men from incoming bullets. He did it at great personal risk and later claimed that many of the bullets shot by the guards were directly aimed at his cell. You can still see the bullet holes in the D-block today.
In 1950, Robert Stroud created a major stir in the D-block, which almost led to a mass dissent. This resulted in him being moved to complete isolation. Afterwards, he spent the next twelve years living in solitary in a medical ward located up two flights of stairs. The ward was spacious but contained no toilet and he used a bed pan to do his business. Once per week, he was allowed to have a supervised bath. It became a routine that he enjoyed very much and during which he would carefully shave all his body hair with a single razor.
During Robert Stroud’s incarceration at Alcatraz, an independent author of the surname Gaddis, published a romanticised biography about his life story. It was followed by a Hollywood movie starring Burt Lancaster. Robert Stroud became an icon and many fans petitioned for his freedom. He used his fame to appeal for release. Ultimately, he was transferred to the Medical Centre for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri where he enjoyed much better conditions and lived out his remaining years.
It was fascinating exploring this scary prison and imaging how life must have been like for Stroud. In some ways, he had it easy. Despite being held in isolation, and the crappy prisoner food, he barely worked a day in his life and he enjoyed the freedom to pursue his own interests. During his years in isolation, he spent nightshifts talking and playing chess with various bored prison guards. A study of sorts was setup on the spare bed in his ward, which included a typewriter along with stacks of books from the Alcatraz library. Stroud taught himself several foreign languages and gained an education in psychology and engineering. In 1959, he underwent several personality and intelligence tests that revealed him to be both a genius as well as a sociopath.
It is uncertain whether Robert Stroud would have fared any better living as a free man. He came from humble origins and had strong, anti-social tendencies. As an individual with an inherent desire for flouting the rules, a life in the free world would have been a continuous battle of ego for him and a threat to others. In prison, he was revered on the outside and enjoyed acting as a martyr on the inside.
Robert Stroud is just one of the many dark stories of Alcatraz. As they say, if only these walls could talk. Alcatraz closed down permanently in 1963 for the simple reason of shit. The island did not have a satisfactory sewage system and it was more cost effective to shut the prison down rather than develop one. If you are in San Francisco, I would recommend a tour of this notorious prison. Read a few of the stories beforehand, and the chilling scenes and sights will really bring them to life.