The Birdman of Alcatraz was a criminal who became famous for his interest in birds. Although he only served part of his lengthy sentence in Alcatraz, he was intimately associated with the prison, thanks to a 1955 book entitled The Birdman of Alcatraz, which was adapted into a film in 1962.
Today, visitors to Alcatraz can see the cell where he spent 17 years before being moved to a medical facility in 1959.
Born Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz was convicted of a brutal murder committed at age 18 in 1909. He was initially sent to McNeil Island, a prison on Washington State, but he proved to be too unruly for the prison, attacking other inmates and orderlies, so he was moved to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas in 1912. While at Leavenworth, Stroud continued to be extremely aggressive, ultimately killing a guard and receiving the death sentence.
Stroud’s mother appealed to President Wilson for a commutation to life in prison, which was ultimately granted, but the warden at Leavenworth decided that he should be kept in solitary confinement. It was during his time in solitary that Stroud first became interested in birds, ultimately being allowed to keep an assortment of canaries in his cell and an adjoining cell.
The Birdman’s pets ended up being subjects of scientific study for the undoubtedly bored prisoner. Stroud wrote two books about canary husbandry, and peddled a variety of substances which were meant to treat various health problems endemic to canaries. His birds also proved to be a health concern, as Stroud did not clean up after them, and by all accounts, his cells at Leavenworth were shockingly dirty. The warden repeatedly attempted to relocate Stroud, ultimately moving him to Alcatraz in 1942.
Although he is known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud did not actually keep birds in Alcatraz Prison. However, he had become well known, thanks to his books on canaries, and public interest created the demand for a book and later a film about him. Stroud reportedly never saw the film, although petitions requesting his release were circulated in theater lobbies. He died a year after the film came out.
The characterization of the Birdman of Alcatraz in the film is of a gentle, kindly man, portrayed by matinee idol Burt Lancaster. However, contemporary accounts suggest that Stroud was in fact a rather cruel, savage individual who was described by fellow inmates as a “jerk.” Among the writings he left after his death, there were a number of fantasy stories which featured graphic and rather unpleasant material, suggesting that the Birdman of Alcatraz was far from being the friendly man depicted on film.